Hiding in Plain Sight: The Psyche of Serial Killers

Crime Magazine

June 20, 2010 

Jeffery Dahmer

By Laura Schultz, MFT

You feel the last bit of breath leaving their body.  You’re looking into their eyes. A person in this situation is God. Sometimes I feel like a vampire and I like to kill. I’m the most cold-blooded sonofabitch you will ever meet. We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. AND there will be more of your children dead tomorrow. I wouldn’t trade the person I am or what I’ve done for anything. So I don’t think about it. And at times it’s a rather mellow trip to lay back and remember”.

---Ted Bundy

“I love to kill people. I love watching them die. I’d shoot them in the head and they would wiggle and squirm all over the place and just stop. Or I’d cut them with a knife and watch their faces turn real white.  I love all that blood.”

---Richard Ramirez, aka The Night Stalker

“I am a monster. I am the ‘Son of Sam’. I am programmed to kill. I love to hunt, prowling the streets looking for fair game – tasty meat.  I live for the hunt—my life. Sam is a thirsty lad and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood”.

---excerpt from letters of David Burkowitz, aka “Son of Sam”          

Each of these killers “hunted” by night in the shroud of darkness as a deer hunter might stalk his prey. One can only imagine the horror and agony each of the human victims experienced as they were being bound, beaten, choked, raped, shot and/or tortured. For some, death was a release that ended the unspeakable horror, the utter horror of it all. Others scratched, screamed and fought back with all their strength until the inevitable last gasp. But very few escaped with their lives. Those who did live to testify and talk about what they had endured, constantly replayed the tape of the lurid details in their minds for years to come. Never again could they return to the life they had known before being captured in the clutches of their worst nightmare – a human killing machine.

The FBI estimates that there are anywhere between 100-500 serial killers at large. Every year in America about 20 serial killers claim the lives (on average) of 10 victims each. A totally accurate body count is difficult to assess completely, as no one can estimate the numbers of victims still left undiscovered. For example, Ted Bundy considered one of the most prolific serial killers, confessed to over 30 murders in 12 states. But it is believed by some experts that he may have murdered up to 300 women. As these predators get bored with the methods they use to kill, change locales (though they usually kill within close comfort zones), preference of weapons and even types of victims, it is improbable if not impossible for law enforcement to prove substantial linkages among victims. It has also been an arduous task to prove a direct causal link between a killer’s upbringing, childhood fascinations and fantasies about killing and actual behavior in adulthood. One confusing factor has been that though it is estimated that 99 percent of serial killers suffered some form of childhood abuse, far less than 1 percent of the U.S. population actually pursues this path of mayhem. Furthermore, personal interviews with the actual killers have led us to the conclusion that self-reported abuse and motives to kill are highly suspect. One might wonder why this is so, but the answer is quite clear: The serial killer will tell people what they and only they want others to know and are highly skilled at manipulating their victims, the public at large and even highly skilled mental-health professionals. This manipulative behavior knows no bounds.

A great example of this is found in the antics of the highly publicized trial of Kenneth Bianchi, aka the “Hillside Strangler,” in Los Angeles. He feigned multiple personalities that came out at the perfect dramatic moments during his testimony with the belief that he would win an insanity plea. He had forged degrees and transcripts as a medical doctor and pretended to be a psychologist by impersonating someone he had recently met. Detectives found an extensive collection of books in his house on hypnosis and abnormal psychology along with the movie Three Faces of Eve that depicted a woman with multiple personalities. His magnetism, boyish good looks and ability to slant the truth almost convinced a jury of his innocence and he had several mental-health professionals in his corner. But the ultimate behind the scenes drama was unveiled when a young freelance writer who was writing a screenplay about him fell in love with him.  She was convinced of his innocence and because of her feelings for him complied with his bizarre request to plant his semen at a new crime scene after she was told to strangle another woman for him. He convinced her that this would prove to the jury that he couldn’t be the strangler because of his current incarceration. Her mission was unsuccessful and she was convicted of attempted murder. It is unfathomable the number of marriage proposals and fan letters that serial killers receive while incarcerated, even those on death row. When this phenomenon is fully analyzed, an entire book could be written on the enmeshment of the psychological needs between serial killers and “the groupies” that live vicariously for and through them.


Definition of a Serial Killer

The definition of a serial killer differs among the experts but many agree with the FBI’s definition as follows:  “A series of three or more killings, not less than one committed within the U.S., having common characteristics that suggest the reasonable possibility that the crimes were committed by the same person.” They also believe that “In contrast to the serial killer, the mass murderer kills groups of people at once. More specifically the mass murderer is defined as someone who kills four or more victims during the same incident with no cooling down period and the incident itself usually occurs in a single location.”

There are other common traits of a serial killer that many experts would agree on including:

1) For the most part, the victims are usually strangers to the killer and often appear to be selected at random.

2) The killings reflect a need to dominate the victim.

3) The killers are masters at appearing quite normal, harmless and even helpful. Ted Bundy, for example, served as a rape crisis counselor.

4) Primary motivations for killing include anger (though they don’t consciously feel angry when they are hunting for victims) excitement (the thrill of it all), or attention/ fame.

5) Causality for becoming a serial killer cannot be limited to one factor, but a predisposition to this behavior is a combination of biological, social, and psychological factors. Early on in the study of serial killers a popular theory was explored when it was discovered that several killers possessed an extra “Y” chromosome, however this was quickly dismissed as a potential causal factor. Though some might wish to find a DNA marker to explain this phenomenon, no serial killer gene has been identified

6) Other traits include a lack of remorse, impulsivity, the need for control and predatory behavior which together reflect the common ingredients of what is known as the “psychopathic personality disorder.” Psychopaths have “a grandiose sense of worth and entitlement, have no empathy for others, are pathological liars and never take responsibility for their behavior. They use charm, manipulation and often violence to control others in order to satisfy their own needs.” Unfortunately no treatment has been successful with the psychopath.

7) Not all serial killers are sexually motivated but those who are have linked violence and sexual gratification during their early childhood. Authorities in the field believe that exerting power over their victims is a form of sexual gratification in and of itself. In their minds sexuality may be equated to death,

8) Their victims may have symbolic meaning to the killer and the method of killing may reveal that personal meaning,

9) Serial killers usually choose victims who are vulnerable, usually slight in stature making them easier to attack and dispose of. Others are targeted because they are alone without support systems such as runaways, the elderly or prostitutes,

10) Many killers keep souvenirs of the murders that are cherished as a memory of the event and proof of their success that might be compared to the head of a deer that is mounted for display in a trophy room. The sexual excitement of the aftermath is often more potent than the act itself. Perusing newspaper clippings, an obsession with television coverage and gazing at body parts or belongings of the victims are part and parcel of the arousal for the killer,

11) They rarely have a felony record and many seem to have a fascination with law enforcement. Several of the more famous ones such as Bundy, Gacy and Bianchi have used the ruse of pretending to be members of law enforcement to continue to be close to their victims. Bianchi, for example was a trusted security guard and gained access to potential victims through his job,

12) There is usually a “cooling off” period between murders, thus serial killers are able to go months and even years without killing.

The term “serial killer” was actually coined in the 1970’s by Robert Ressler, a special agent of the FBI and founder of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. In his bestselling books I have Lived in the Monster: Inside the Minds of the World’s Most Notorious Serial Killers and Whoever Fights Monsters, one is left chilled to the bone by both his comprehensive research and up-close and personal interviews with “The Son of Sam,” John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer (that Ressler calls “An interview with a Cannibal”) and many others. Like other experts, he believes that the rising numbers of child abuse, broken homes, increasing poverty, desire for fame, extensive media hype and the glorification of violence linked to sexuality in movies, videos and the like are all contributing factors to a more aberrant strain of modern killers. The media hype surrounding these killers appears inevitable in this country due to our fascination with them.  There are thousands of websites devoted to the killer’s backgrounds, crimes and even products for sale such as comic books and trading cards. Other sites are strictly those of serial killer fan clubs. In 1991, People magazine listed Jeffrey Dahmer in the top 15 “most fascinating people of the year.”  This edition of People was one of the best selling magazines in its history. As strange as it may be to most of us, Dahmer was inundated with requests for his autograph like any other famous celebrity.


There is another theory from experts in the field of psychology and sociology that has some validity in explaining an increase in the number of serial killers. The premise is the fact that Americans have become isolated strangers to one another, particularly in large urban areas, and in such a fragmented society it is easier for some people to see others as anonymous and less valuable, thereby making it easier to view them as objects. Serial killers are able to completely de-humanize their victims, which ultimately explains the ease with which they are able to inflict horrifyingly inhuman treatment on innocent people.

Many recent infamous killers have expressed the goal of racking up the highest number of victims to surpass the records of previous killers thereby achieving notoriety as the “most famous killer of all time.” In a macabre way, it resembles the fame an athlete seeks to achieve by surpassing the all time records of previously famous athletes. The baseball player who breaks the all time high record of stolen bases might achieve “Hall of Fame” status. Similarly, many serial killers who have been unsuccessful men working in low-end jobs coupled with poor relationship skills seek to become famous for what they believe is the skill that makes them unique. They constantly hone their skills so that with each new victim they strive for perfection in both the attack and achievement of total domination.


Serial Sexual Killers

Ressler has developed another interesting twist regarding the psyche and motivations of certain types of serial killers known as “serial sexual killers.”  He is convinced that in cases such as Jack the Ripper where there was no actual intercourse, that the motive was still sexual in nature.  The basis of this was the sexual nature related to a knife being the weapon of choice coupled with the fact that the victim’s genitals and body parts were disfigured. Even before Freud’s theories made phallic symbols significant, the use of knives to incise the genitals was a common characteristic of serial killers. Ressler coined the term “regressive necrophilia” in his book Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives co-written by Burgess and Douglas (also renowned profilers) to describe the thrusting of a knife as a substitute for the thrusting of the penis. He gives great credence to the psychological significance of weapons used in serial murders. In most serial murders the weapon of choice is a knife, followed by strangulation, and lastly through suffocation.  He explains that for the most part the killer does not like to use guns as they have to be used more at a distance. They prefer to be privy to the sights, sounds and smells from the victim that provide the personal satisfaction that can only be achieved by being physically close to the victim.


A Triad of Symptoms

Contrary to popular belief about serial killers solely being white, the truth is that their racial diversity reflects a similar mix as that of the overall U.S. population. Additionally, contrary to media portrayals of serial killers as all being “geniuses” their levels of intelligence range from borderline to the higher levels. Beginning behaviors for these killers in childhood include pyromania (a desire to set fires), torturing animals and bedwetting and are referred to as the “triad of symptoms.” These early “red flags” may escalate to the progressive stages leading to murder, though obviously not everyone who exhibits these behaviors choose to murder humans. These behavioral signs reflect the building blocks of a budding intense fantasy life that dominates the psyche of potential young male serial killers and begins the dangerous cycle of arousal coupled with thoughts of violence. It has long been believed that arson and pyromania in particular, are deeply enmeshed with intense feelings of arousal usually followed by masturbatory behavior


A Short History

Serial murder is almost exclusively an urban American phenomenon (over 75 percent of these modern day killers are American born) partially due to the fact that big cities here provide a great number of potential victims as well as many places for the killer to blend into crowds, hide and become anonymous. Though the rising trend of killers is a modern American one, the thirst for blood sport can be traced back to ancient Rome where the Emperor Caligula quite enjoyed an indulgence in torture.

In the 1500’s the well educated and beautiful Elizabeth Bathory aka “The Bloody Countess” whose cousin was the Prince of Transylvania, murdered upwards of 600 virgins. She lured them to her castle with the promises of a good paying job. With numerous cohorts, she cut off body parts and fed them to her victims, applied fiery pokers to their mouths and eyes and ironed their feet with red hot irons. Her husband, who also participated in the torture, protected her as the massacre went on for years. During her second trial (the first one was for show) a register was recovered that delineated all of her victims in her own handwriting.  Testimony revealed that she also drained the blood of her victims and bathed in the blood to retain her youthful appearance. This behavior earned her the label of being a vampire. She is little known because the records of her crimes were sealed for over 100 years and never spoken about in her native Hungary. In fact, in Bram Stoker’s fifth book that depicted Dracula as a woman, he alludes to the influence of Elizabeth Bathory. This story of such an insatiable serial killer is very unusual by the mere fact that she is a woman, as less than 10 percent of serial killers are female. Female serial killers traditionally use poisons to kill their families or people entrusted in their care such as patients in hospitals. Often termed “black widows,” they typically don’t use the same degree of violence or methods of torture as male killers do.

And who could forget Jack the Ripper, (often referred to as the first “serial sexual killer”) as he terrorized London in the 1800’s?  He murdered and mutilated the bodies of prostitutes and was known for the signature behavior of meticulously removing their genitals and other body parts to save as trophies. The infamous Marquis de Sade, an aristocratic but mediocre French writer of erotic novels and plays became most noted for his pursuit of cruelty and torture. His name became the root of the word “sadism” that is part of our common language today. He was quite fond of stating that “The only way to a woman’s heart is through the path of torment. I know none other as sure.”
Interestingly, During World War II while murder occurred on battlefields on a grand scale, incidences of serial killings were almost nonexistent. However, they became rampant in the 1950’s and in the 1960’s through the handiwork of the Boston Strangler, The Zodiac Killer, and Charles Manson.  By the 1970’s the situation became so critical with the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and the “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, that we finally began an earnest attempt to study and categorize these types of crimes.


Three Kinds of Serial Killers

During this time period, Robert Ressler was again at the forefront along with Ann Burgess and John Douglas in the development of the three major categories of serial killers that continue to be widely accepted. It is through evidence collected at the crime scene, interpreted by the FBI as a “fingerprint” of the killer, that these categories evolved. They are:

1)     The “Organized Serial Killer” is described as “leading an orderly life that is reflected in his crimes. He is believed to be of higher than average intelligence, socially adept and likely to have skilled employment.  He plans his attacks, often uses restraints and takes his weapon with him from the scene. They are initially more likely to kill after some stressful event related to employment or a relationship. Since their actions demonstrate planning and control these are vividly portrayed at the crime scene.

2)     “By contrast,” says Douglas, “the ‘Disorganized Serial Killer’ kills opportunistically with little planning, that is evident in the chaotic state of the crime scene. Due to his lack of social and sexual skills there are often sexual perversions and dysfunction apparent at the scene.”

3)     The third type of killer is labeled as “The Mixed Offender.”  “This type of killing may involve more than one offender.  The victim may resist thereby escalating the attack into a combination of patterns. Though there may be some planning, the crime scene is often chaotic, more violent and there is a lack of concealment of the body. The killer is likely young, and dependent on alcohol or drugs.”

Most serial killers that stay on the loose for any period of time are of the organized type. The disorganized killers are usually caught quickly as they may suffer from an extreme mental disturbance that leaves them unable to plan. They act in a spontaneous manner, don’t take precautions to avoid witnesses or clean up the crime scenes and hide the bodies.

There is tremendous difficulty in our comprehension of a serial killer’s psyche for many reasons.  The primary one is that their deeds are so ghastly and unfathomable. Killing for sport or thrills is incomprehensible to most of us. The horror chambers, mutilated corpses and dismembered body parts that experts must view day after day to both understand them and ultimately capture them, remains a gnawing conundrum for even the most seasoned profiler like Ressler. The detectives and profilers must descend fully into the killer’s mind, become part of his soul to gather all the relevant data and painstakingly place the delicate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together in the exact position that forms the perfect recipe for murder and mayhem. Professionals who are on the front lines in tracking serial killers, pay an enormous price in their personal lives and inner psyches during their descent into the darkness of the macabre world of the killer’s mind. Even therapists, whose profession lends itself to the belief that people can improve their emotional lives with trust, compassion and a desire to do so, are horrified when they encounter a person who is able to kill at will and whose psyche is mesmerized by the hunt for “human victims.” In the book, The Mask of Sanity a keen observation is made that “for the serial killer, beauty, goodness, evil, love and horror have no actual meaning, no power to move him.” It asks the question, “How do we understand the absence of one of the basic human characteristics: a conscience?”


An Empty Hole: No Conscience

Many experts agree that what distinguishes a serial killer from people with neurosis or other emotional disorders is “an utterly empty hole in the psyche where normally there are evolved humanizing functions such as guilt, shame and anxiety.”  Without these feelings and a proclivity toward violence there are no limits to what can be achieved in terms of torturing and killing. And yet, what fascinates us the most is that these killers seem to possess a charm, intelligence and charisma that allow them to appear exciting, seductive and more entertaining than the average person. When the façade of normalcy fades though, we are struck by the shallow nature of the serial killer’s emotions (if you can call them emotions). After being charmed by the charismatic Ted Bundy, a law student involved in national politics, women flocked to him. He often pretended to have a broken arm or other malady that reeled in nice, naïve women who wanted to help him.  After his initial charm worked to get the women alone, his mask came undone and what they saw as he handcuffed them were the “eyes and face of stone.” The moment when the killer knows he’s in full control, strengthens his drive to kill as an ever increasing excitement builds within him. The killer becomes mercilessly efficient in the mission to conquer, excited by the fear in the eyes of the victim, cheerful at their pleas, and filled with glee at his own sense of invincibility.

The Ted Bundy’s of the world are known for having no real attachment to others, (even though some of them are married with children) and a breathtaking callousness, lacking an iota of compassion. John Wayne Gacy was a respected businessman and family man, entertained at children’s parties dressed as a clown, threw lavish parties for famous political candidates, and was a prolific painter. Even though over 33 bodies of young boys were discovered buried underneath his house, when asked about his crimes he glibly replied “I should never have been convicted of anything more than running a cemetery without a license.” When Edmund Kemper, “The co-ed butcher” who beheaded his victims, was asked what he thought about when he saw a pretty girl walking down the street. His reply was “Part of me would like to talk to her and date her and the other side of me wonders how her head would look on a stick.”


Psychological Stages 

Another interesting facet of serial murder is explained by Joel Norris, the renowned psychologist who interviewed and studied over 500 serial killers. He identified and expounded on the various psychological phases that the serial killer experiences. They include:

  1. The Aura Phase: Though he hasn’t actually killed anyone yet, he withdraws from any real social contact other than obligatory interactions. Alcohol or drugs may be used to heighten his fantasy life that intensifies for weeks or even years.
  2. Trolling Phase:  Having made a decision to act on his fantasies, he begins to look for an easy victim usually in his comfort zone area. He plans the method of attack and peruses potential dump sites.
  3. Wooing Phase: Usually reserved for the organized killer who is adept at social skills, he uses them to gain a potential victim’s trust in order to lure them to their fate with him.
  4. Capture Phase: This is the killer’s most treasured moment where he is in total control. The once charming veneer unravels, a door is sealed shut, and the victim is helpless.
  5. Murder Phase:  An organized killer will savor the time with the victim to act out his fantasy almost in slow motion. He usually rapes and tortures her while she’s still alive and will keep her alive to extend his enjoyment of it as long as he can safely do so. A disorganized killer kills the person in haste, raping and disfiguring them after the murder.
  6. Totem Phase:  The excitement of the kill wanes and an invasion of a sense of disappointment may lead to the stealing of body parts, etc. as trophies to help him rekindle the thrill.
  7. Depression Phase:  The realization sets in that the actual killing didn’t live up to the imagined fantasy leading him to feel unfulfilled. With each new kill he tries to re-enact the perfect replica of the fantasy which can never be as powerful as he had imagined.  This pattern leads to an addiction to kill.

These phases explain the progression from fantasy to the compulsive need for re-enactment. Because there is never a satisfactory conclusion for him, he will continue to kill and the cycle usually doesn’t end until he is caught or dies.

On November 2, 2009 a CNN News Bulletin from Cleveland, Ohio flashed across the television screen.  In summary, it told a story of the gruesome discovery of 10 bodies in a house amidst a crowded inner city neighborhood with boarded up homes and dilapidated stores.  Some of the decomposed bodies were found lying on the living room floor and more were buried in shallow graves. The odor of decay was so overwhelming for police that they immediately climbed the stairs only to find more victims in a crawlspace.  All were choked to death. Officers couldn’t understand how the neighbors didn’t sense that something was terribly wrong. But as in typical fashion, these killing were perpetrated where these crimes occur most.  In this economically depressed community where unemployment had soared to over 10 percent long ago, a proliferation of drugs, violence and the sound of gunfire were a daily occurrence.  People had given up on their dreams and were very distrustful of law enforcement.  Later that day a woman told the police she had been raped and choked inside that same house long before this gruesome discovery.  As the story unfolded further, it seemed that the people in the neighborhood went about their daily lives even though they were nauseous from the stench of the house as they walked by. They blamed the smell on garbage cans and bad meat from a local sausage shop.

And once more a stunned community is left confused, asking themselves, “How could this happen, why here and how could this continue for so long?” Sadly, there will probably be many more studies conducted, endless trials, an infinite amount of interviews with a new crop of serial killers and countless more victims before we, as a society, can find ways to stop them before they occur.


What Can Society Do?

More innovative methods need to be developed to intervene effectively in the lives of children who display the early warning signs of a potential serial killer. Although no strategic national plan currently exists to “prevent a budding serial killer from acting out his murderous impulses” (Ressler), various experts in the field have devised some very strong suggestions to lessen the possibility of these dangerous and lethal outcomes.

In Robert Ressler’s own words, “We should be using the triad of symptoms, i.e., the red flag warning signs to identify children, long before they act on their violent intentions. Ressler believes that “we should be giving young children and teens alternatives to violence so that they can feel good about doing the right thing. He recommends closer adult supervision, more athletic and quality after school programs, and summer internships that lead to viable career options. His belief is grounded in evidence that suggests that when young people have access to alternatives to violence as well as supervision and guidance, their self-esteem will dramatically increase. He states further that “a healthy level of self-esteem lessens the need for power and dominance so prevalent in the psyche of the serial killer.”

Part two of Ressler’s two-pronged approach involves an increase in community policing to establish close ties with community residents who are then more likely to report potentially dangerous individuals when the residents feel supported by their local authorities. As in most instances, in the D.C. Sniper case, it was a tip from the public that led to the apprehension of the two killers involved. Ressler also suggests that we institute effective education for communities, parents and even police officers regarding the signs and symptoms that indicate potentially lethal consequences.

According to Pat Brown, a prominent Criminal Profiler and author of Killing for Sport: Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, “Though the controversy about whether serial killers are born or are a product of their environment will probably not be solved if the triad of symptoms appear in very young children, it is crucial to intervene with more than a pill and a shrug.” Once these red flags appear, therapeutic interventions must be in place to help those that can still be helped.

Without a commitment to these changes that become a part of an ongoing discourse and preventive treatment plan, many more victims will die at the hands of predators who are able to “hide in plain sight” among us.

Laura Schultz is a licensed psychotherapist (LMFT), life coach, and freelance writer. As a marriage and family therapist, she has been assisting individuals and families in crisis for 25 years both in the nonprofit arena and in private practice. Her areas of specialization include relationships, sexuality, addiction, and childhood trauma. She has a particular interest in psychopathology, including the antisocial personality disorder and more specifically, serial killers. She has written for national magazines on topics such as mental health, relationships, communication skills, sexuality, and health and wellness. She developed and wrote two advice columns entitled “Counselor on Call” and “Ask Therapist Laura”. She also currently writes book reviews for the New York Journal of Books. Ms. Schultz e-mail is bugsyyy@sbcglobal.net and her website is www.lauraschultznow.com