Since the first records of a serial killer, dated back to the early 1890s, there have been countless questions raised about what causes a person to act in this manner. “What goes on in the mind of a serial killer?” and “What is the cause of the urge to harm others?” There have been many questions asked in accordance with the mind of a killer, nature vs nurture being a common one. Is a killer created through genetics passed down through the generations? (Nature), or through the environment they are brought up in (Nurture)? Through conducting this research, I hope to get a clearer understanding of the mind of a killer and what leads them to commit such heinous crimes. I will be researching the question “To what extent does childhood trauma and experiences influence one to become a serial killer?”. To thoroughly understand and answer this question, certain key areas must be looked into such as the mental health of serial killers, what percentage of them dealt with an unfortunate or traumatic childhood, if genetics do in fact play a part and the well-known characteristics of a killer and how these characteristics are adopted.
The mental health of a person can seriously affect their actions and the way they live life. There are many different types of mental illnesses that affect serial killers and are often a key area into the severity of their actions. One of the most common mental illnesses found in serial killers is Schizophrenia (WebMD, 2020). Schizophrenia is an illness that affects the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system and is characterised by delusions, hallucinations, disorganised speech and behaviour (Hurley, 2018). Whilst the causes of Schizophrenia are not fully understood, it could be inherited from a family member, or due to complications during birth or pregnancy. Although poor mental health and personality disorders do not necessarily create serial killers, there is a heightened risk with people who have certain personality and mental disorders. There are many different mental disorders that are most often found in serial killers, and they affect each person differently. There have been cases where a person has lived with dead bodies and treated them as family. This shows a serious problem of low self-esteem caused by rejection. This sense of rejection can be so profound that serial killers prefer to live with dead bodies to overcome the fear of being rejected. The brain study at the University of Wisconsin, Madison also noticed a drop in connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. When connectivity is low, people have lower levels of empathy and aren’t easily ashamed by their actions. (Yardley, 2015) This is quite often found in serial killers, which enables them to commit heinous crimes and feel no compassion or empathy. In addition to this, researchers theorise that damage to the frontal lobe, the hypothalamus and the limbic system can cause extreme aggression, loss of control, and poor judgment. (Yardley, 2015). Another well recognised disorder in serial killers is Antisocial Personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder affects 47% of male killers and 21% of female killers. (WebMD, 2020) This disorder affects the frontal lobe and causes a person to show no or little regard for the rights or feelings of others. Much like Schizophrenia, the cause of Antisocial Personality disorder is not well known, however it is thought to be linked to genetics, physical abuse in early life or an unstable childhood. Research has shown that many, if not all serial killers have some form of mental disorder, whether it be a personality disorder or psychotic disorder.
A traumatic childhood can be distressing for anyone and can often have lifelong effects. This is especially true for some serial killers. According to a child abuse and serial murder study by Mitchell and Aamodt, 74% of serial killers suffered from psychological abuse as a child and 42% suffered from physical abuse from a young age (Fiona Guy, 2020). This is not saying that every case of abuse as a child leads to the child becoming a criminal, but it has been proven that there is a heightened risk associated with childhood trauma and anti-social behaviours for personality disorders and criminal activity later in life (Fiona Guy, 2020). The serial killer group being tested in this study reported six times more abuse during childhood than the general population (Mitchell, 2005). This shows what disastrous effects a traumatic childhood can really have on a person. Not all the killers in this study necessarily suffered from physical abuse in their early years, this could be anything from psychological abuse, sexual abuse or even witnessing sexual or physical abuse against another. According to the book “Whoever fights monsters” by Robert Ressler, 40% of the serial killers interviewed reported being physically beaten and abused in their childhoods, with 70% reporting they had “witnessed or been part of sexually stressful events” as children. (Robert Ressler, 1992). Other historical factors common in serial killers are abuse, trauma, insecure attachment, loss or abandonment of a parent or caretaker, antisocial behaviour, head injury and low arousal levels. Familial contributions include the physical absence or lack of personal involvement by one or both parents and alcohol or drug dependency by one or both parents (Rebecca Taylor, 2019). There are however some very famous serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer, Richard Storlett and Paul Bernardo. These killers seem to be the nature side of the equation. Each one of these killers recall having a very loving and normal childhood. According to Ted Bundy, he had an “uneventful childhood”. His friends and family often backed up this claim (Kettler, 2019) and although his grandmother suffered from depression and agoraphobia and his grandfather had been described as “the owner of a raging temper”, no physical or psychological abuse was ever recorded or discussed. While there are some well-known serial killers who report having a “normal” and “uneventful” childhood, in most cases some form of abuse has been present.
Although one of the main causes of creating a serial killer is childhood and environment, there is also another element that goes into creating a killer, which is genetics. The majority of well-known killers report some form of abuse in their early life, but for the few that do not deal with a traumatic childhood you have to wonder what causes their violent and psychopathic tendencies. A study led by Minnesota Professor Thomas Joseph Bouchard has shown that psychopathy is 60% inheritable This statistic shows that psychopathic tendencies are due more to DNA than upbringing (Berit Brogaard, 2018). In 1993, Dutch Professor Han Brunner discovered a MAOA gene mutation which is now better known as the “Serial Killer Gene”. MAOA (Monoamine-oxidase-A) is the gene that is responsible for breaking down molecules, specifically the neurotransmitters serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. When someone has a MAOA mutation, these neurotransmitters can build up in the brain, making it harder for someone to control impulses. Having this gene can lead to aggressive or violent outbursts, which is the reason it has been give the nickname “Serial Killer Gene” or “Warrior Gene” (Stieg, 2019). This gene has been associated with various psychiatric disorders. Jeffrey Dahmer is just one of the well-known killers who had a somewhat normal upbringing. He was often described as a very energetic and joyful child until he underwent a surgery to correct a double hernia at the age of 4. Following the surgery, he became increasingly withdrawn and by his early teens he was detached, tense and largely unpopular. He claims that by the age of 14, his compulsions toward necrophilia and murder began. His childhood upbringing was classified as “normal” meaning that his violent and psychopathic tendencies are purely genetic/mental. When looking into male serial killers it was found that majority of male serial killers have much higher levels of testosterone in their body than the average man. It has been found that when testosterone levels are high and serotonin levels are low, it tends to lead to increased aggression and sadistic behaviour (Scott, 2000). Of course, we are all capable of being aggressive, of containing unimaginable aggressive fantasies of torture, sadism and murder, but we are not all serial killers. There is a boundary that exists between fantasy and reality and serial killers have lost that. Serial killers are made, but we all have an innate capacity for destructive aggression (Knight, 2007).
Characteristics of a Serial Killer
While no two killers are the same, there are specific characteristics that can be found in most if not all killers. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, written by JM MacDonald, cruelty to animals, obsession with fire and bed wetting past the age of 5 are three characteristics that are found in most serial killers (MacDonald, 2018). Although many killers will have different motives, they often possess similar traits and are known to possess one, if not more of the following traits. The power junkie: Many killers will often withhold crucial information to maintain some sense of power. The egotistical bragger: Egoistical serial killers often can’t help but brag about the atrocities they’ve committed, whether it’s aimed at their accomplices, the next victim, law enforcement, or just themselves. The average joe: Some will try and hide in plain sight, posing as an active member of their community as to not draw suspicion. The manipulator: Apparent vulnerability and the need to please have been used effectively time and time again by serial killers as a way of hiding a sinister personality. The superficial charmer: Serial killers tend to have a very good grasp of other people’s emotions and are quick to pick up on any vulnerability or weakness in order to convince them into doing things they normally wouldn’t (Elizabeth Yardley, 2015). Not only do they often maintain similar characteristics, depending on the person, they will often go for similar victims. In most cases, the victims of serial killers are physically weaker than them. Serial killers usually target children and women. There have been a few serial killers who targeted old and middle-aged men, but for most part, they concentrate on young women. Psychopathy is a personality disorder manifested in people who use a mixture of charm, manipulation, intimidation, and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their own selfish needs. Contrary to popular belief, not all serial killers are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are serial killers. However, more often than not, there are some characteristics of psychopathy found in serial killers. Another less common characteristic of serial killers is intelligence. Although they often lack formal education, many of the world’s most notorious serial killers actually have very high IQs. Rodney Alcala had an estimated IQ of 170. Some other notorious murderers with genius-level IQs include Ed Kemper (145), Jeffrey Dahmer (144), and Ted Bundy (136) (Young, 2018).
In writing this report, a link between childhood traumas and serial killers was formed and a better understanding of the innerworkings of a serial killer’s mind has been drawn. I have discovered that there are a range of different issues that come into play when creating a serial killer, and whilst not all serial killers may have the same reason for killing or the same childhood, there are often very similar causes for occupying the urge to kill. And whilst this is in no way saying that everyone who experiences trauma during childhood or has poor mental health goes on to become a serial killer, it is clear that there is a very strong link between childhood trauma and the creation of a killer. This written report will help the general public to better understand the consequences of childhood abuse. Any form of abuse as a child can have lifelong effects on a person and in not all but many cases, the affects can be deadly.