WHAT IS A SERIAL KILLER AND WHY DO THEY KILL?
December 3, 2020
“Dear Bob Ressler, you cannot hope to enjoy the harvest without first laboring in the fields. Best wishes and good luck. Sincerely, John Wayne Gacy, June 1988.”
After FBI’s criminal profiler Bob Ressler read the note on the back of Gacy’s self-portrait of himself as a clown, he questioned what Gacy meant.
“Well, Mr. Ressler,” Gacy replied, “you’re the criminal profiler. You’re the FBI. You figure it out.”
We don’t know what Gacy was referring to, but perhaps it’s possible he was telling Ressler that one must be a serial killer in order to fully understand them. Jump 32 years later to 2020, what constitutes as a serial killer is constantly being disputed by the FBI.
This could also be due to the fact that Ressler claims to be the first person to use the term between 1979 and 1981, however it should be noted that the term was used in 1966 by John Brophy in his book The Meaning of Murder, as true crime author Peter Vronsky pointed out. The terms “mass murderer,” “spree killer” and the German serienmorder (translating to “serial murderer”) have all been used before the late ’70s.
Enough on the history of the term. Let’s get to what it means to be a serial killer.
According to the FBI, a serial killer is someone who has intentionally killed at least two people, at least one offence, and their killings must have taken place at different times, known as a “cooling off” period. It’s important to note this time frame because this separates them from mass murderers, who kills multiple people during one event.
During cooling off periods, it’s possible a criminologist would be called in to study the crimes and predict where and how the killer will strike next, though it should be noted there’s no exact science to this. In fact, what many serial killers share experiences and mental disorders that influenced them to kill, yet just because someone shares similarities doesn’t mean they’ll become a killer.
As we’ve seen in past articles, many experience childhood traumas like abuse (whether it be verbal, physical, religious, sexual, or a combination), overprotective and controlling mothers (as seen in cases like Ed Gein or Jerry Brudos), and exposure to things or ideas that aren’t appropriate for them to be exposed to (like pornography or extreme violence through media or in their household).
Many killers also display signs of psychopathy and sociopathy, along with other mental disorders. Both contribute to their disregard for human life and their inability or difficulty to attach to others. While this is true, this doesn’t mean they’re going to act out in a violent manner. In fact, Aaron Kipnis PhD notes that your everyday psychopath would be one who’s likely climb “their way up the corporate ladder.” They’re also more likely to contemplate violent thoughts and make threats to get their way.
This was a general rundown of the characteristics of serial killers, however I recommend that you do research on your own if this interests you! There’s many resources online to look into like this page from the FBI, or read Peter Vronsky’s book Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers to get a more in-depth look on this topic.
Be sure to be back next week to read about the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination!