During the last decade the world has witnessed a staggering elevation in serial killings.
To give some insight into the scale of the problem posed by the serial killer, in the United States can be gained from examining the statistics for just one year. In 1989 (the last year for which detailed figures are available) there were 21,500 recorded homicides, of which some 5,000 are unsolved. Unofficial sources believe that as many as a hundred serial killers may be at large at any given time. Add to this the number of known victims of serial killers, then between 3,500 and 5,000 people are killed by serial murderers every year. (Lane and Gregg 3)
These numerous multiple murders, often without consequence and justice, have shocked civilized society with incomprehensible acts of inhumanity. Horrific amounts of body counts and volumes of spilt blood accompany the discovery of each new serial killer. The indescribable events associated with each murder leave such unanswered questions as: what deviations lurk in the mind of a serial killer, what provokes an individual to commit such hideous acts, and what can be done to reduce these inconceivable murders?
There are a set of variable elements, which distinguish the “serial” murder from the single-incident (“normal”) murder, the “mass” murder, and the “spree” murder. The “mass” murder can be defined as an act in which a single assailant kills a number of people during a short period of time in roughly the same geographical location. The “spree” murder can be defined as a multiple number of killings, which take place during a short period of time, hours or days. The “serial” murder exhibits five distinct sets of characteristics, which help distinguish it from the “mass” murder and “spree” murder. First, the killings are repetitive (“serial”) and often escalate over a period of time, sometimes years, which will continue until the killer is taken into custody, dies, or himself is killed. Second, the killings, like “normal” homicides, tend to be one-on-one. Third, there is no, or very little, connection between the perpetrator and the victim. Fourth, although there may be a “pattern,” or “victim trait,” individual murders within a series rarely display a clearly defined or rational motive. Fifth, there is usually a high degree of redundant violence, or “overkill,” where the victim is subjected to an excessive level of brutality.
Characteristics of a serial killer are imperative in demarcating the type of person capable of committing a serial murder. “Most known serial killers are 25-35 years old” (Falk 85). “It is also significant that the victims of serial murderers are not concentrated in any age range” (Falk 85). “Serial killings are almost always committed by white males instead of blacks because class resentment is far more likely to occur to a person with a good education than someone without an appreciation of how society works” (Falk 85).
To truly understand the phenomenon of serial murder one must know what motivates a person to commit such a horrendous crime. Patterns of serial killing fall broadly into two categories of motivation: “Extrinsic, where the impulse to kill is located outside the killer’s psyche-that is, he perceives a rational reason for murder in outside situations and events” (Fox and Levin 12). “More frequently the motivation is intrinsic to the psyche of the killer, whether or not that motivation is apparent to an independent observer” (Fox and Levin 12). Closer psychological analysis of known cases indicates that serial murders fit into one of four main types according to the predominate homicidal motivation: Visionaries, Missionaries, Hedonists, and Power Seekers.
Visionaries include killers who act in response to “voices” and alter egos, where “instructions” received serve to justify and legitimize the act of murder. David Berkowitz better known as the “Son Of Sam” is an example of a visionary who claimed that his delusional persecutions by demons were responsible for the shootings and killings of his 17 victims. “I am the demon from the bottomless pit here on earth to create havoc and terror. I am War, I am death. I am destruction” (Elliot and Leyton 151)!
Missionaries are comprised of killers with a self-imposed nature, which feel responsible for purifying society by expelling its undesirable components. Peter Sutcliffe better known as the “Yorkshire Ripper” justified his slaying of 20 women with a warped perception that any woman out after dark must be a prostitute and should be eliminated in order to “clean-up” the world.
A hedonist, a complex category where pleasure is the reward for murder, contains three sub-types. The first sub-type, lust killers, is probably the largest sub-section of serial killers for whom sexual gratification is the primary motivation and whose crimes most frequently exhibit a considerable element of sadism. Two examples of lust killers are Jerry Brudos and Douglas Clark. Jerry Brudos kept the foot of one of his victims in the deep-freeze to periodically take out and dress up with his collection of black stiletto-heeled women’s shoes. Douglas Clark kept a victim’s head, which he cleaned and made-up with cosmetics in order to use it in sex acts. The second sub-type, thrill killers, achieve pleasure in the act of killing, although sexual abuse may take place, the motivation is not sexual gratification but the desire for an “experience” or a “thrill.” The third sub-type, gain killers, exhibit the comparatively rare motive among serial killers of personal, usually financial, acquisitions. Two examples John George Haigh, the “Acid Bath Killer,” and George Joseph Smith of “Brides in the Bath” both saw murder as a profitable business.
Power Seekers desire to have control over the life and death of others to such a degree that it serves as an intrinsic motive to murder. A good example of a power seeker is Jeffrey Dahmer, who practiced cannibalism to have the ultimate control over his victims by bringing them alive in him. “My consuming lust was to experience their bodies. I viewed them as objects, as strangers… It’s hard for me to believe that a human being could have done what I’ve done” (Lane and Gregg 129).
“America has a pantheon of ghouls, where the bloodiest of villainies earns an insurance of immortality” (Toufexis 64). The effects of serial murders are a devastating reality of life, yet are often unemotionally glamorized. These killers are incorporated into heroes and “celebrated” members of society for reaching the pinnacle of success in their fields. “Recently, though, we have extended our celebration to what some consider our new antiheroes, those who have distinguished themselves in the worst possible ways” (Fox and Levin 6). Such movies as Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and Copycat seem to fascinate the public instead of repulse and horrify it. Even children are subjected to these unethical murders through television, movies, magazines, and other media which display these killers as “idols”. Serial killer trading cards, which highlight such infamous criminals as Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson, have been published and sell for ten dollars a pack. Comic books are read and T-shirts are worn with an insensitive sense of pride, which mock and trivialize the memory of each slain victim. “The glorification of mass murderers has created a market for almost anything that they say or do” (Fox and Levin 8).
There have been two successful contributions, which assist investigators in the apprehension of serial killers. The first contribution was the formation of the National Academy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Quantico, Virginia. The profiling team distinguishes between organized and disorganized killers based on general personality traits and are separated by clusters of personal and social characteristics. According to the FBI analysis, the personality of the killer is reflected in his behavior at the crime scene. The task of profiling involves drawing inferences from the crime scene to the behavioral characteristics of the killer. Psychological profiles are designed as an investigative tool to identify a range of suspects, rather than to point precisely to a particular suspect, however, the profiles are not completely successful. The second apprehension device is the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, VICAP, “This program is a centralized data information center and crime analysis system” (Levin 183). Once operational it is planned that any police agency, having an unsolved murder, will submit to the FBI Academy a thorough description of the case using a twenty-seven-page questionnaire. VICAP will then alert the crime analyst to similar cases nationwide.
During my interview with Dr. James R. Metts, Sheriff of Lexington County S.C., he informed me of the procedures involved in the Shari Faye Smith and Debra May Helmick case. He noted that “the Behavioral Unit in the FBI was extremely helpful in solving this case by giving us a psychological profile of the perpetrator and advising us on how to handle the media throughout the case” (Metts).
“America’s fascination with serial killers is reaching an all time high-and may be fueling their deadly deeds” (Toufexis 64-65). Serial killings graphic details in incomprehensible madness almost seem fictional, but the statistics reveal an alarming rise in these murders. Ignoring this terrifying fact will not make it disappear, only increase. The thought “It will not happen to me” is no longer logical due to the constant elevation of serial killings. These callous and meticulous killers are without prejudice or motive, leaving everyone susceptible.
During the last decade the world has witnessed a staggering elevation in serial killings.