When one hears about a new serial killer in the neighborhood, the usual stereotype depicts a raging maniac who rapes and tortures young girls. Such a description can characterize a serial killer but only a small percentage. On the average, many murderers are no more insane than any other person. In fact, the serial killer can appear in any form. A well-groomed nurse who poisons her infirm patients to “play God,” an exhausted mother who smothers her children to stop them from crying, a disturbed man who murders prostitutes to punish them for their sins, a high-maintained prostitute who kills her clients to avenge herself for all the insults and abuses she experienced, a respectable father and a member of the community who slaughters strangers to exert power at least in some sphere of his life (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 410). All these cases can fit into a serial killer profile.
It is true that in many cases serial killing is predetermined by sexual lust that is aggravated by a sadistic component (Purcell, 2006). However, it is not always the case. Apart from killing for any kind of pleasure and cases of schizophrenia or “voices form God”, there are other factors that contribute to the necessity to kill people (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 442). Gaining profit may seem a motif not strong enough for engaging into the frenzy of serial murder. However, there are cases when women killed their husbands to provide themselves with their insurance (Ramsland, 2006, p. 4).
The main factor for serial killing is still the desire to dominate. The overwhelming majority of researches prove that serial killers come from dysfunctional households or from families where children were not connected to their primary caretakers. It led to alienation and emotional closeness (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 179).
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Despite the fact that white males in their late twenties take leading places in Serial Killer Top 100, females also found their way of escaping depression and ennui of their lives in putting other human beings to death. Even young children picked on the trend for serial murder. Schurman-Kauflin wrote about the three cases of school students committing serial killings, all in the late 1990s (2000, p. 22). The fact that in one case an 11-year-old female is the lead suspect in the serial murders of 4 children cannot help but frighten.
We come across the horrifying examples of people’s cruelty every day. It is impossible to always screen them off with “I cannot believe it.” We have to believe it and do something. The society has to address the issue of serial murder. The first step is to learn about the factors that contribute to the development of sadistic and perverse personalities. When we know who can commit it and in what circumstances, then we can resist and combat it. If we do not do it now, they can come and get us later.
Our perception is often distorted by fiction and mass media. We are left with a wrong impression about the serial killers’ preys and that it will never involve us and our families. However, not knowing, or not understanding, how the serial killers operate and thinks will make us walk right into their hands. At the moment, there is a wealth of information on the subject. We just need to tap into it and make conclusions. Warned means armed.
What Makes a Serial Killer?
It is a general knowledge that serial killing involves individual psychopathology. After watching movies about exceptionally weird serial killers people begin to think that only sociopaths or mentally insane people may kill other human beings premeditatevely and repeatedly. However, it is not always the case. Scholars say that antisocial behavior “reflects a disorder of character or personality rather than of the mind” (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 420). On the whole, serial killers can tell right from wrong and are aware of what they do. They are even capable to control their wild fantasies, however they choose not to (p. 419).
Until recently the majority of psychiatrists considered mental insanity to be the primarily cause for multiple murders (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 419). Apart from the movies on extravagant serial killers (Silence of the Lambs, for example) that fed off such an opinion, there were cases when murderers suffered from schizophrenia or imaginary voices that ordered to kill. However, according to Fox and Levin, “only one in twenty sexually sadistic serial killers studied by Warren, Hazelwood, and Dietz was psychotic” (p. 419).
If not mental illness thrn what makes a serial killer? Do they hate people? It is true that sociopaths fit the mold to commit multiple murders. They lack remorse, do not sympathize, and care exclusively for their own pleasures in life. Simply put, they have no conscience (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 420). At the same time, sociopathy in its pure form can rarely be met, even in serial killers. However, serial killers may suffer from “borderline personality disorder” when a person has fits of bad mood, “impulsivity, intense anger, chronic feelings of boredom … a profound sense of abandonment and rejection” (p. 420-421). In such a case, people are capable of qualms of conscience and remorse. In order to overcome it, murderers may compartmentalize their victims by applying some criteria to them (Ramsland, 2006, p. 179). For example, they do not feel pangs of guilt towards the strangers and can murder them easily. Another loophole for their conscience can be an explanation to themselves that their victims “deserve” the punishment. For instance, prostitutes are filthy and it is their own fault that they fall a prey to sex criminals; vagabond alcoholics became subhuman and therefore, it is not a sin to kill such beingd; gays are seen as AIDS carriers and by eliminating them they make the world a better place (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 423).
The myth of the victims “deserving the punishment” makes serial murderers unable to feel remorse. The fantasy world screens off from them the startling reality. Therefore, it may happen that while on trial the serial killers are subjected to the numerous evidence against their world view. Seeing what the victim’s relatives and friends suffer may prompt the murderer to perceive what he or she had done and repent. That was the case of Milwaukee’s Jeffrey Dahmer who apologized to the families right in the courtroom for murdering, abusing, and cannibalizing his seventeen victims (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 424).
Criminologists, psychologists and other related experts continue to look for reasons for such inhuman behavior. Both health issues and environment can influence a person to develop into a maniac (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 448). Among biological factors, Fox and Levin mention the presence of head trauma or frontal lobe epilepsy and the chemical imbalances in the brain (p. 448). Environmental premises may include unsuccessful adoption cases, child abuse, and humiliation or rejection (p. 448). In fact, serial killers, when caught, tend to play the abusive childhood card. Sociopaths are especially good liars because they have enough cold-blooded boldness to lie convincingly. There were cases when serial murderers managed to fool psychiatrists with their tales of child abuse such as the cases of the Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi and the Genesee River Killer Arthur Shawcross (p. 449).
The problem with a psychotic serial killer is the following. In order to be named a serial killer, a person should murder no less than four people (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 408). Most psychotic killers are very sloppy, act impulsively and do not pay enough attention to cover the traces. That is the reason they get caught before they kill enough victims to be classified as a serial killer (Brown, 2003, p. 36). The FBI offered the organized/disorganized distinction between multiple murderers. There are serial killers who are well-organized, intelligent, have romantic partners and children, good workers, curious about their crime in mass media, from a fine family; and another type of serial killers who are disorganized, less intelligent, lonely, jobless or an unskilled worker, and do not follow the investigation of their crimes (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 428).
Definitely such descriptions are very polarized, and in real life it is difficult to find a killer who ideally fits the profile. Rather the profiles are used “as a tool to focus on a range of suspects” (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 428). They give clues and provide a direction to search for a suspect. Therefore, it is difficult to foresee whether a person can develop into a serial killer or not. A range of biological and behavioral peculiarities influence it. However, in general it would be wise not to think all serial murderers are insane or they all are evil. Rather they are extremely self-centered, are not thoughtful of consequences, and experienced violent treatment before.
Time to Take into Account Startling Rates of Female Serial Killing
Edna was a single African American female who was known for a jobless status and her promiscuous sexual relations to pay her rent. Having babies almost every two years for 10 years, Edna miraculously lost them to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when they were in her care with no other witnesses. With no relatives and no steady job, Edna managed to work on sympathies of the general public and jurors when her case was brought to court even after she admitted to suffocating the fifth child. Edna served 10 years for killing five children (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 184).
A typical serial killer profile is a white male in his late twenties or early thirties (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 413). However, there already exists statistical and scholarly information on female multicide (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 3). Despite making only a small percentage of total multiple murders (one eighth of the general number), female serial killing is on the rise. In the last thirty years, there were recorded 26 female serial killers in the United Stated, which is a huge increase from previous years (p. 12). It should not be ignored. Women are rarely thought of as murderers so female serial killers may go unpunished for years making more and more harm. Their seeming innocence is what makes them more dangerous than men.
Indeed, there is a difference between male and female killers. If not in the commonalities of the background, which are often similar, such as violence and abuse in childhood, than in methods of committing a crime (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 4). Male perpetrators rarely use firearms preferring to “take an active part in producing [their victims’] suffering and misery” by stabbing or strangling (Fox & Levin, 1998, p. 416). Meanwhile female serial killers typically suffocate or poison because due to average physical abilities they choose their prey among elderly and young who are weaker than them (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 10).
Both male and female serial killers choose the weakest as their victims but they look for them in different surroundings. Female multiple murder usually involves elders or children in care, while male serial killing sees easy prey in prostitutes, young women, and homeless alcoholics (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 18). According to recent studies, female serial killers tend to be care-givers (p. 17). They come from traditional families with sex roles defined conventionally so they choose female dominated professions of nurses, teachers, cooks or other types of caketaking (p. 17).
However, the idea that women can be premeditate and murder people in their care is still unacceptable to many people. In fact, so strong is people’s disbelief in female serial killers that they often simply refuse to believe that a frail woman can conceive and execute a cold blooded murder, especially a series of them. Deborah Schurman-Kauflin tells the case of the nurse’s aides Gwen Graham and Cathy Wood of Michigan who played the game of spelling “murder” with the initials of their victims who they smothered to death at a nursing home (p. 13). Even after the women vividly described their crimes to police, “to this day, many refuse to believe that [they] could commit such atrocious acts” (p. 13).
In any case, both male and female serialists share a common characteristic – they come from an abusing household (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 179). Violence breeds violence. Therefore, multiple murderers see the same hostility and unloving attitude as they have experienced in their families in their childhood. “With this expectation of abuse and distrust comes emotional isolation, which manifests itself in the forms of being emotionally flat and failing to feel empathy for others” (p. 179). As a result, being very lonely and isolated, the serial killers believe that they can restore their psychological balance through exerting power. In their case, it can be done through serial killing.
The researchers ruled out the tornado effect that begins as a feeling of powerlessness in the face of humiliation and abuse experienced in their childhood. It accumulates into rage and anger which breed violent thoughts and fantasies. When another act of humiliation and powerlessness happens a next bout of more violent fantasies follows. After that usually the female multiple murderers begin to take it on small animals and later on children. The next step can be murder (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 192).
In addition, the feeling of inadequacy and anger is intensified by their inability to express themselves. There is evidence that the female offenders often suffer from verbal difficulties. “Much like male offenders, this leads to increased levels of isolation and anger, which in turn becomes suppressed aggression” (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 124). When being children they had troubles in recognizing and describing their emotions, both written and verbal. Apart from a lack of education, the reason for it may be the detachment from other people. Not having close relationship with parents or siblings and being isolated from their peers, due to difficulties in communication and feeling different, such children shut down emotionally (p. 125). It can contribute to all other factors that constitute a profile of a serial killer.
Primarily, it is up to the society to turn their gaze to the problem of the female multiple murders. Very often public opinion is not ready to accept and, therefore, to punish the female offender. So strong is the belief in caring capacities of women and their inability to act so atrociously. If it concerns a one-time murder we can believe that a woman could be driven to despair by an abusive father or a partner but to assume that a woman could kill her children, one a year, it is beyond our comprehension and, hence, impossible. Schurman-Kauflin mentions the case of the 72-year-old Maria Noe from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who received probation after confessing the murder of her eight children (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 13). Her advanced age and her gender influenced the jurors not to put her to prison. However, it is nothing else than a serial killer and it deserves to be judged with all severity.
The method of choosing a victim among people in direct care and the geographical proximity of murder cases in close vicinity make the female serial killer extremely dangerous. You never know who will be her next prey: your neighbor, your child, or even you.
The detectives, criminologists, and other related experts polish their profiling skills. Even if through profiling a criminal cannot be indicated at once, the results of the research demonstrate commonalities in the backgrounds and behavioral patterns of assailants (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 213). Therefore, it narrows a search.
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Those who want to help in apprehending serial killers and, for example, to become a profiler, first of all, need to extensively study the multiple murders and its motivation. Without understanding the psychology of a serial killer and his or her background it would be impossible to track them. With proper academic training (Ph.D. or a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice, Psychology, or Sociology) and homicide investigative experience, a good profiler should have first-hand experience with serial killers; otherwise, there can be blank spaces in the understanding of their motivation (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 218). Not all multiple murderers are eager to allow to dig into their heads and research the subject of their crimes. Especially female convicts are rather reticent concerning their background and what their reasons for killing were (p. 95).
Some may think that so many efforts are excessive in the era of computers. However, in the case of studying human psyche, no machine can outdo an intelligent individual. Until today, computer profiling served as to point in the right direction rather than as a reliable source of exact information (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000, p. 219). Apart from difficulties to systemize all relevant information, computers simply do not have intuition which is very helpful when working with people. “A good profiler gives direction, elucidates difficult subjects, predicts behavior, aids in investigative techniques, provides interview suggestions, and helps in court situations” (p. 218).
Besides the work of professional experts, each of us can armor oneself against becoming a potential victim. It is obligatory for everyone to educate oneself what we can do to protect ourselves.
Questions to check the understanding of the material provided
1. Are the serial killers mentally insane?
2. What is an average portrait of a serial killer?
3. How female serial killers chose their victims?
4. What is the tornado effect?
5. What was the most startling information you learned from reading the magazine?