The psychology of a serial killer will be the subject of discussion in this paper. Emphasis would be placed on the events which occurred in their childhood (child neglect), their psychopathic behavior and the influence of brain disorders in pushing them towards violence.
Besides their callous brutality, serial killers are also renowned for their deception. Most of them operate for years before authorities stumble upon a clue which uncovers their violent behavior. A majority of serial killers that have been uncovered were found in America. This is quite troubling and one wonders whether the unrivalled freedoms in this country have led to the creation of psychopaths. FBI criminologists beg to differ. When compared to other countries, America is simply more aware of killings which are linked to serial killers and psychopaths (FBI, 2011). Its criminal justice system is quite rigorous and a lot of attention is paid to collecting and storing all form of criminal evidence.
Take the example of Jack the Ripper. He is believed to have operated for a number of years before authorities got wind of his disdain and killing of prostitutes. The same can be said about serial killers across the globe. Some of them have been carrying out their sadistic and ritualistic killings for a long time without raising an eyebrow from the authorities. In America however, a lot of research has gone into understanding the mind of a serial killer and which external factors shape or influence their personality.
Neglected as Children
Findings by psychologist have shown that serial killers suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder. This was evident in Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Kenneth Bianchi. These serial killers were also neglected when they were children. Antisocial Personality Disorder is developed when children are young. It’s often caused by neglect or severe abuse. “As a result of family disruption or brutality, the infant never learns to bond or trust his or her caregivers” (Magid & McKelvey, 1987, p.196). Some of these unbounded children later become serial killers who kill without remorse.
Ted Bundy epitomized the character of a serial killer. He was quite ingenious in outwitting law enforcement officials, yet sadistic in killing his victims. Bundy started life as an unattached child and this could be the reason why he did not have a conscience. Besides neglect, his lack of attachment was also linked to a genetic predisposition. Studies on serial killers like Ted Bundy have shown that the first two years of a child life are very critical in shaping his character as an adult. “A complex set of events must occur in infancy to assure a future of trust and love” (Magid & McKelvey, 1987, p.198). If proper bonding and attachment fails to occur, then the child will develop mistrust and a deep-seated rage (Magid & McKelvey, 1987). Like Ted Bundy, he will become a child without a conscience.
Another serial killer who was an expert at deceiving everyone was Kenneth Bianchi. He was a clever psychopath. He even fooled his own wife who never believed that he could hurt anyone. “He just wasn’t the kind of person who could have killed anyone” Magid & McKelvey, 1987, p.200). Kenneth Bianchi’s psychopathic character was linked to his childhood. His mother was ‘far from saintly’ and psychologists believe he suffered from neglect as a child. He also suffered from Antisocial Personality Disorder and claimed to have a vivid recollection of some of the events in his childhood.
According to Dr Ralph Allison, Bianchi had difficulties in his family and was considered to be a disturbed child (Magid & McKelvey, 1987). As a child, he was constantly moved from one medical doctor to another as they tried and failed to diagnose his symptoms. Bianchi had rolling eyes, tics and kept falling down after petit mal-type seizures (Magid & McKelvey, 1987). He late turned into a deeply hostile boy, according to doctors’ records, and he had severe dependent needs which were fulfilled by his mother. “He depends upon his mother for his very survival and expends a great deal of energy keeping his hostility under control and undercover” (Magid & McKelvey, 1987, p. 201).
Charles Manson was once labeled as the most dangerous and feared man alive. He earned this title when he embarked on a 2 day killing spree which left 7 people dead and mutilated. Manson’s early life was spent in a succession of different homes (adoption homes) and it can be assumed that he also suffered from neglect. He did live in a reform school from the age of 12-19 years. However, he did escape once but was later returned.
He wrote in his book that jails, courtrooms and prisons were part if his life from the age of 12. He stated that throughout his life, he was more accustomed to rejection than love and acceptance. Manson’s violence was linked to his horrible childhood. His neglect as a child fueled his deep-seated rage which was unleashed on his innocent victims. My feeling is, I’ve been raped and ravaged by society, by attorneys and friends (Magid & McKelvey, p. 203). The rage which is evident in all these serial killers comes from unfulfilled needs as infants.
In a scale of gauging humanity at its best and worst, serial killers like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy would be at one extreme end with Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa being classified at the other end. The people in the middle of the scale represent the majority of the population who may have problems but are otherwise mentally balanced and functional members of society. Those on the extreme end of the scale like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder and they are the most dangerous. These are psychopaths. Some of them inevitably end up as serial killers.
Psychopaths are known to possess varied character traits which range from blunt arrogance to a peculiar charm. Psychopaths are not only found in jails and mental institutions; they also work in respectable professions which do not arouse suspicion. Psychopaths tend to have a ‘clingy’ or dependent behavior in early childhood (like Kenneth Bianchi).This is later replaced by attention seeking traits like indiscriminate friendliness. Finally the individual will display a lack of guilt and an inability to follow rules.
These symptoms tend to manifest themselves during school going age. Typically, most of them have school problems in their backgrounds. Their school records may have incidences of truancy, fighting, suspensions or expulsions (Magid & McKelvey, 1987). Walter Sickert was a serial killer who had problems despite being exceptionally intelligent. Like the serial killers looked at earlier, Walter Sickert also had a troubled childhood and was bounced from school to school. “He was later expelled from University College School in his early teens” (Grande, 2011, 44). Teachers had difficulties coping with his mood swings. He was characterized as being arrogant, manipulative and having no fear of consequences; these traits are common in a fully-fledged psychopath.
Many serial killers report hearing voices which urge them to kill. Psychologist Joel Norris attributes their insanity to damaged brains. “They often confuse the victim with someone from their past; to silence the voice, they kill the victim” (Norris, 1988, p. 212). Their brain damage has been attributed to physical trauma or chemical imbalances brought about by chronic malnutrition, and substance abuse. The brain is remarkable organ and when damage occurs it tries to compensate itself. “Paradoxically, it is the brain’s gyroscopic capacity to right itself and compensate for damage and error that constructs the matrix out of which serial killers are produced” (Norris, 1988, p. 219).
When a normal person is pushed to the edge and they fight back, their violent outbursts will always be accompanied by queries like “don’t you know what you are doing?”Such queries exemplify the defense mechanisms which exist in all brains. The most basic of all defense mechanisms in humans is the desire to survive. Reproduction is also a manifestation of a need to survive. Sexual arousal which accompanies manifestation of reproduction is a primal chemical reaction which is as innate as the desire to survive. Self defense is also manifestation of the desire to survive. “Therefore, fear, rage, violence, flight, terror, and panic are all chemically induced reactions that exist in almost all living creatures in one form or another” (Norris, 1988, p. 220).
The behaviors exhibited by serial killers are simply the behaviors of their brains which are compensating for physiological and emotional damage they have incurred. Vital components of their brain are either missing or weren’t fully developed because of neglect. The way their brain compensates against primal emotions like survival and reproduction is largely influenced by the nature of childhood. If the childhood environment was nurturing, then the child learns to control his primal urges. However if the child suffers from neglect and is unattached to the parent, he has an abstract view of life. He only sees himself and nothing else; he recognizes no physical limitations to himself. He has no remorse for his actions or fear of consequences. The violent outbursts which are exhibited by serial killers are actually a form of defense mechanism. Their defense mechanism is unfortunately labeled as criminal behavior by society. They choose to become violent inorder to survive. Referring to Charles Manson, he stated that he had to embrace the creature he had become inorder to survive (Norris, 1988).
Serial killers tend to have a troubled childhood which is characterized by neglect. Research studies have also shown that serial killers have Antisocial Personality Disorder which enables them to kill without remorse. This affectionless personality which causes them to act without having consequences can actually be linked to brain damage. The damage suffered to their brains affects the way they process and act on primal emotions like survival and reproduction. Serial killers like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson were simply responding to their defense mechanisms and they killed their victims because they believed they were under threat.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Serial Murder: Multidisciplinary perspectives for
investigators. Retrieved from: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder
Grande L. (February/March 2011). Walter Sickert: Capturing the darker side of life. History
Magid K. & McKelvey A. (1987). High Risk. New York: Dell Publishing Group
Norris J. (1988). Serial killers. New York: Dell Publishing Group