The concept of serial murder dates back to over a century, however, became a recognized phenomena in the twentieth century due to the rise of notorious serial killers including Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and Paul Bernardo. A serial killer is defined as an individual who commits three or more murders in separate time periods and events (). For years there has been a contentious debate on whether serial killing is intrinsic and can be biologically explained through the development of the brain, heredity and psychological disorders, a result of a multitude of environmental factors including childhood abuse, loneliness, violent pornography and fantasy, and poor socialization, or a mixture of both. With a deeper analysis of a serial killer’s background, it is evident that several environmental and social factors contribute to the construction of a serial killer. Therefore, the most influential and lasting characteristic in the shaping of a serial killer begins with the nurture and socialization of individuals. In particular, these factors include traumatic childhood experiences, the role of violent and sexual fantasies as a result of destabilizing events and insufficient socialization.
Humans are socialized at the beginning of life and it is often attributed to one’s relationship with a primary caregiver; the presence of an abusive and neglectful upbringing marks the creation of psychopathic behaviour. The parallel between an abusive childhood of a serial killer and their murderous and sadistic inclinations is inevitable as substantiated through many case studies and research. For instance, a study was constructed with fifty serial killers where they were questioned about their childhood, criminal past and destabilizing events in their lives. The study showed that sixty eight percent of the sample usually spent their childhood in an abusive and uncaring environment where their fundamental needs were not met. As a coping mechanism, they developed violent and reclusive behaviours in which slowly escalated to the killing of other human beings ().
The commonality of a deterring and violent upbringing among many serial killers highlights that the lack of a nurturing and social childhood has an adverse effect into their adult life. It is evident that traumatic childhood experiences of a serial murderers aid in their inability to socialize and identify with other humans, integrated with other environmental factors can lead to their ease with killing. Serial killers who have grown up in an atmosphere filled with violence and rejection are likely unable to identify violence as a negative action. This constructs a subculture where violence is not morally wrong but a socially acceptable response. Furthermore, serial killers frequently share an irregular relationship with their mothers from a young age and they often inherit their mother’s beliefs throughout their lives.
An example of this relationship is shown through the Canadian serial killer, Paul Bernado. When Bernado was sixteen, his mother revealed to him that Kenneth, who he believed was his father throughout his childhood, was not his biological father. Bernado then tormented his mother, as he called her a “slob” and “whore” for her act of adultery (). This traumatic event worsened Bernardo’s attitude, specifically towards women. His underlying objectification of women after his mother’s actions were found to be notably pivotal to his criminal behaviour as a serial rapist and murderer (). Women became the main victims of his sexual and sadistic crimes which indicates the power of a primary caregiver, or mother in this instance as Bernardo translated his disgust from his mother’s infidelity and developed dark, forceful and sadistic tendencies. Likewise, many serial killers had a destabilizing and dysfunctional relationship with their father due to physical and psychological abuse.
For instance, Shirley Lynn Scott in her article, “What Makes Serial Killers Tick?” identifies, “It’s usually the sadistically disciplinarian father that pops up in the serial killer’s family tree” (). She examines the father-son relationship with John Wayne Gacy. Gacy was subjected to his father’s frequent verbal abuse calling him demeaning names such as sissy, queer and a failure. After that, Gacy victimized young boys and men and he would instruct them to be brave before facing death (). It is evident that Gacy felt that he must reaffirm a sense of masculinity during his killings as a result of his father’s constant pejorative comments. In essence, the absence of a loving and nurturing childhood is the main determinant in the behaviour of serial killers and ultimately causes emotional deprivation, such as resentment and lack of empathy for other human beings.
In addition to the early traumatization in a serial killer’s childhood, the secluded social conditions of a serial killer acts as an accomplice to their violent and sadistic fantasies that inevitably direct them to kill. Many serial killers face isolation in their youth which oftentimes they turn to fantasies involving violence and sex. As many serial killers are isolated or abused as children, a study by Ressler, Burgess, Prentky, et al in 1988 suggest that serial killers used fantasies of sex, violence and power to cope with unresolved conflict and childhood trauma. For instance, research has found that fantasy related to violence existed in eighty six percent of serial killers. They believe this suggests, “a functional relationship between fantasy and repetitive assaultive behaviour” ().
More research proposes that serial murderers actualize these fantasies as a means to reassert their power over individuals and gain a level of satisfaction. Also, the violent and sexual nature of fantasies, that originate from the aftermath of a traumatic childhood, may also develop into paraphilias. Ressler and Burgess suggest that extreme sexual behaviour stems from the childhood of a serial killer and can develop into paraphilias such as necrophilia, voyeurism, frotteurism and compulsive masturbation (). A common example of a paraphilia that a serial killer exhibits is sadomasochism, which is defined as the infliction of pain or humiliation for one’s sexual gratification. A case study of the serial murderer, Carroll Edward Cole, examines Cole’s early childhood experiences and twisted relationship with his mother. As a child, he was forced to dress up as a girl for his mother and her friends, and witnessed his mother repeatedly engage in affairs with other men as his father was stationed aboard. His humiliation rooted from his mother’s actions later triggered his paraphilia as he would inflict similar acts of humiliation and violence to his victims. He victimized women who were representative of his mother.
These women willingly cheated on their partner with Cole as Cole’s mother did with his father. In his first killing, Cole forced the woman to remove her clothes but then did not proceed to have sex with her. He only did so to humiliate her, which parallels with his relationship with his mother (). It is evident that his paraphilia and fantasies developed through his destabilizing relationship with his mother, and ultimately shaped the framework of his crimes. The representation of pornography and violence in the media is also a contributing factor to a serial killer’s fantasies and behaviour. For instance, Ted Bundy, a notorious serial killer during the 1970s, proposed that his fantasies were stimulated by the portrayal of pornography in the media and True Detective magazines (). Thus, the senseless portrayal of violence in the media is partly responsible for violent and extremist behaviour seen in serial killers and their murders. Often the media glorifies serial killers in such movies as Silence of the Lambs and researchers suggest that the killers extract the premise of their fantasies from pornographic and violent media. The primary and secondary socialization of individuals is a major indicator in shaping of violent fantasies and paraphilias that lead to the execution of criminal behaviour.