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A serial killing, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone. While there may be variations in the definition of serial killing, one must not forget how serial killers have been referenced in popular culture. Since the 1970s, with the help of law enforcement, media and entertainment agencies, these serial killers have been transformed into so-called ‘celebrity-monsters’. Instead of focusing on the formation of such monsters, the media and entertainment industries attempt to glorify their acts by making blockbuster movies, documentaries and television shows which captivate society and enhance their fascination with these monsters. Due to this, one of the oldest questions in criminology, about whether serial killers are a product of nature or nurture, still remains unanswered to this day. Although there are many studies focusing on the genetics and brain development of serial killers, because most research is inclined towards difficulties during infancy and early childhood being the main factor behind their actions, serial killers are more likely to be bred rather than born.

Exploring the Origins of Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture

Infancy, the period of babyhood, is considered as one of the most significant stages of human development. This is because it is crucial for the development of emotions which are essential for the formation of an adult’s personality. The foundation for the development of emotions such as remorse and affection is laid down during the first 12 months of life. Therefore, a child who does not receive adequate attention and physical touch during this time period is highly likely to develop personality disorders such as the Adopted Child Syndrome in the future. The aforementioned syndrome is used to describe a set of behaviours that have been used to explain complications occurring in bonding, attachment, lying, stealing, defiance of authority and acts of violence (Carlis).

Childhood Trauma and Its Impact on Future Serial Killers

Research shows that only a small percentage of adoptees suffer from this syndrome, particularly striking those adoptees whose families treat adoption as a secret and do not talk openly about it, resulting in the exhibition of rebellious and aggressive behaviour by the adoptees and if left untreated, it may lead to an extreme case of anti-social behaviour. Considering the belief that bonding for infants is necessary for personality development, it is no wonder that a common feature of serial killers is that they have been adopted. “The FBI estimates that of the 500 serial killers in the US, most are American born and adopted” (Carlis). “This is alarming because only 2-3% of the population (5-10 million people) is adopted” (Carlis). Some of the most notorious serial killers of our time such as David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, Joel Rifkin and the Boston Strangler were all adoptees. David Berkowitz, a.k.a. ‘Son of Sam’, was born in 1953 and put up for adoption shortly after birth when his parents separated. As an only child, David made it clear to those around him that he had violent tendencies. He was caught thieving, destroying property, killing animals, and setting fires (“How David Berkowitz became ‘Son of Sam’ and terrorized late 1970s New York City”). As he grew older, he began to lament his lack of social life and his inability to get a girlfriend. From this, it can be concluded that he was a victim of the Adopted Child Syndrome and since he turned out to be one of the most notorious serial killers of our time, it can be said that problems during infancy do contribute to the formation of a serial killer.

Along with infancy, early childhood experiences are one of the keys to the formation of a serial killer. Such experiences range from being bullied in school to being abused physically or suffering trauma from accidents. Many serial killers suffered from problems during their childhood such as being overweight, having dyslexia and stuttering which led to them being bullied and isolated by their fellow peers. This not only created feelings of resentment and aggression but fostered aggressive fantasies which were further developed during the time spent in isolation. Such fantasies which revolve around the themes of domination and control act as a source of comfort for them and later stem into sexual violence.

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The Role of Bullying and Abuse in Serial Killer Psychopathology

Obsessive fantasies which involve torturing, controlling and murdering a victim serves as an outlet for the person’s anger which has been fuelled by their past experiences of being bullied and abused. Murder fantasies, however, stem from interpersonal conflicts and are therefore viewed as a solution to those problems. Due to the power and lasting effects of these fantasies, the individual is forced to act on them. Moving on, a number of studies have reported mental and physical abuse to have lasting effects on the individual. 42% of convicted serial killers suffered from physical abuse as children and 74% suffered from psychological abuse (“The Psychology of a Serial Killer”). The case of Ivan Milat, Australia’s worst serial killer is a good example of this. His father, Stephan, a Croatian immigrant, was known to be very strict in terms of discipline as a result of which he beat his children mercilessly. “Once the Milat family’s neighbours reported the father mercilessly bludgeoning two of his sons who remained prone on the ground with a piece of wood” (Berry-Dee). Such cruelty not only created resentment and hatred for authority but fuelled Ivan’s aggression and love for violence which was later depicted through the brutal murders he carried out. Sexual abuse also seemed to be a prominent characteristic among serial killers as 35% witnessed sexual abuse and 43% were sexually abused themselves (“The Psychology of a Serial Killer”). This can be illustrated through the case of Aileen Wuornos. Aileen was raised by her grandparents as her mother abandoned her and her father was imprisoned. It was reported that from the age of 11 she began engaging in intimate activities in exchange for cigarettes and was regularly assaulted by her grandfather at home (Merryweather). When she turned towards prostitution to support herself financially, she ended up killing seven of her own clients whom she believed assaulted her. The trauma caused by her grandfather had forced her brain to initiate a self-defence mechanism when she was working her clients hence, resulting in the killings. Another form of physical trauma linked to serial killers is head trauma. Alexander Pichuskin, “The Chessboard Killer”, experienced a change in his personality when he fell backwards off a swing which then struck his forehead damaging his frontal cortex. Thus, he suffered from poor impulse regulation and uncontrollable aggression (Dunne).

Apart from infancy and early childhood, one can scrutinize the various serial killer typologies to analyse the reasons behind their formation. Researchers such as special agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Training Academy at Quantico have developed models to classify serial killers into a plethora of etiological typologies in order to gain valuable information on how they are formed and to assist law enforcement agencies in profiling, investigating, and apprehending violent serial murders. One such model has been designed to categorise serial killers into organised and disorganised killers based on the details of the crime scene itself.

Classifying Serial Killers: Organized vs. Disorganized

Organised killers, according to the model, lead methodical lives and replicate this in the murders they carry out. They are known to be socially proficient, possess above-average intelligence and are employed in occupations that require skilled labour. They are likely to kill as a reaction to a stressful event such as the breakdown of an intimate relationship, employment problems and financial hardships. Since these killers are socially skilled and intelligent they are able to handle interpersonal interactions, gain control of the victims and leave little or no evidence at the crime scene which could be traced back to them with ease. One such example of an organised serial killer is Ted Bundy. Bundy was known to exploit his traits of being handsome and charismatic by winning the trust of his victims and society. It was reported that he would approach his victims in public places either feigning injury or disability or impersonating a person of authority before knocking them unconscious and taking them to secluded places where he would proceed to rape and kill them. Disorganised killers, on the other hand, are depicted as being more chaotic from the nature of their crime scenes. The presence of blood, semen and fingerprints at the crime scene illustrates the ‘disorganisation’ of these killers which stems from their social incompetence and their lack of ability to maintain relationships and interactions. This lack of healthy intimate relationships increases the chances of potential sexual and sadistic acts as a part of the murders (“The Development of Serial Killers: A Grounded Theory Study”). Additionally, Borgeson and Kuehnle highlighted that most disorganized offenders live alone, are sexually incompetent, don’t follow their crimes in the media, and are mostly in an anxious mood. To add to the organised/disorganised typology, there are others that have been suggested to make it easier to understand serial killers and the horrific crimes they commit. With the help of their underlying motivations and psychological reinforcers, they have been categorized into two different types: the visionary type, and the mission-oriented type. The visionary type offenders kill as a result of obeying the auditory and visual hallucinations or delusions they experience which are likely to occur from the abuse of hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine and psychedelics, and physical trauma such as head injuries resulting from accidents and physical abuse. The mission-oriented type killers, however, believe that it is their sole duty to eliminate certain populations from the world such as prostitutes, immigrants, people of specific ethnicities, age groups, gender and so on. Such a perspective is likely to be influenced by the nature of the media they consume and the thoughts and experiences they have been exposed to during their early childhood by their parents, teachers and fellow peers.

Biological Underpinnings: Hormonal and Neurological Factors in Serial Killing

Despite the great emphasis placed on difficulties during infancy and early childhood experienced by serial killers, it is necessary to acknowledge the biological perspective on the reasons behind their formation. It is said that genetics, in terms of hormonal imbalances and abnormal activity in the brain, plays an impactful role in the formation of serial killers. Abnormally high levels of testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, have been known to cause aggressive behaviour and uncontrollable sexual urges in men. Studies have shown that a greater percentage of male serial killers have extremely high levels of testosterone in their bodies compared to the average male (“Do All Serial Killers Have The Genetic Predisposition To Kill?”). Due to the intensity of these sexual urges, serial killers tend to seek sexual gratification in abnormal ways as depicted in their brutal and gruesome acts of murder. Dopamine, the hormone responsible for pleasure and motivation, is known to have abnormally low levels in the brains of many serial killers. This coupled with the lack of dopamine receptors in the brain results in serial killers needing a greater rush of the drug in their brain to feel the same level of satisfaction as a normal person would from doing ordinary acts. As a result, they may be motivated to carry out extreme acts such as murder, in order to get a dopamine “fix”, which they are otherwise deprived of. Killing indeed serves as a sport for them. The act of planning, stalking and capturing their victims provides them with a thrill and an adrenaline rush like no other while some are excited by the domination and control they exert on their victims (Brogaart). Besides hormonal imbalances, abnormal metabolic activity in the brain is also to blame for the formation of serial killers. A number of Positron Emission Topography (PET) scans conducted by researchers have shown that reduced metabolic activity was found especially in the orbital frontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex. “The reduced activity in these particular areas suggests a lack of control over the limbic system which leads to the generation of primal emotions such as anger and rage, an addiction to risk, a reduction in self-control, and poor problem-solving skills, all traits which predispose a person to violence” (Adams). Since the under-development of these areas of the brain are a result of genetics, one can definitely agree that serial killers are in some cases born. However, while it may be true that serial killers are subject to hormonal imbalances and under-developed brains which affects their neurological activity, it must be noted that correlation does not equal to causation. Just because they have hormonal imbalances it does not mean that these abnormalities directly translate into murderous intent. A child is never born with the innate desire to murder. Moreover, even if these abnormalities do exist and are strong enough to influence the nature of the energy in the individual, he or she still has the ability to choose a different path to channel this energy. The decision the individual then makes will be heavily influenced by the external environment he or she has been living in. Furthermore, there is a lack of research to draw a link between murders which were not sexually motivated and abnormal testosterone levels. Testosterone being a hormone experiences great fluctuations in its blood concentration levels. Thus, the only way to draw a correlation between the two would be to measure these levels at the time of the killing to have direct applicability to the serial killing or murder and such conclusive research would be impossible to conduct (Dimitropolous).

Concluding Thoughts on the Nature and Nurture of Serial Killers

To conclude, as most of the research is inclined towards serial killers being influenced heavily by the external environment they live in, serial killers are bred not born. The great emphasis on difficulties in the form of abandonment, bullying, abuse and accidents during infancy and early childhood shows how they are very significant in the formation of a serial killer. While hormonal imbalances, in terms of testosterone and dopamine levels, and abnormalities in different areas of the brain do have an impact on the individual, they are not significant enough to directly translate into the formation of a serial killer. Indeed, not everyone with these problems turns into a serial killer. It is said that genetics load the gun and that personal experiences pull the trigger.

References

  1. “Adopted Child Syndrome.” Dr. Tracy L. Carlis, https://drtracylcarlis.com/adopted-children-syndrome/.
  2. All That’s Interesting. “The ‘Son Of Sam’ Said A 6,000-Year-Old Demon Inside A Dog Forced Him To Kill, But The Truth Is Worse.” All That’s Interesting, All That’s Interesting, 16 Oct. 2019, https://allthatsinteresting.com/son-of-sam-david-berkowitz.
  3. Berry-Dee. “Born Killers: Childhood secrets of the world’s deadliest serial killers”. King’s Road Publishing, 2009, Chapter 2.
  4. Adams, Tim. “How to Spot a Murderer’s Brain.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 May 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/may/12/how-to-spot-a-murderers-brain.
  5. “Do All Serial Killers Have a Genetic Predisposition to Kill?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201803/do-all-serial-killers-have-genetic-predisposition-kill.
  6. Dimitropoulos, Stav. “Why Do Some Serial Killers Stop Killing?” A&E, 21 Aug. 2018, https://www.aetv.com/real-crime/old-serial-killers-hormones-testosterone.
  7. Merryweather, Cheish. “15 Serial Killers Who Had The Childhood From Hell.” TheTalko, TheTalko, 20 June 2017, https://www.thetalko.com/15-serial-killers-who-had-the-childhood-from-hell/.
  8. The Term, http://web.lemoyne.edu/~Freemams/index_files/psych_serial.htm.
  9. “Serial Killers / Murderers and Their Head Injuries as a Child.” Murder Mile Walks and True-Crime Podcast – One of the Best ‘Quirky, Curious and Unusual Things to Do in London’ This Weekend, https://www.murdermiletours.com/blog/serial-killers-murderers-and-their-head-injuries-as-a-child.
  10. Barcella, Laura. “Is There a Connection Between Adoptees and Serial Killers?” A&E, 30 Oct. 2017, https://www.aetv.com/real-crime/is-there-a-connection-between-adoptees-and-serial-killers.
  11. Sharma, Meher, ‘The Development of Serial Killers: A Grounded Theory Study’ (2018). Masters Theses. 3720. https://thekeep.eiu.edu/theses/3720

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