The phrase serial killer was first used in a book in 1950 called, The Complete Detective, by Rupert Hughes. However, it’s generally believed that it was the “Son of Sam” case in New York City in 1976 that initiated its use for law enforcement. The FBI’s definition for a serial killing is “a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone”. So how do you know if you’re in the presence of a potential killer and do you share any of the tell tail behaviors that serial killers have? That’s what we’ll find out, in this episode of The Infographics Show: Do You Have the Traits of A Serial Killer?
The FBI estimates that there are between twenty-five and fifty serial killers operating throughout the U.S. at any given time. That sounds like quite a lot, but actual serial killings account for less than 1 percent of all murders committed in the U.S. So they’re quite rare, but then people have always been fascinated by what causes serial killers to carry out these gruesome acts of murder. Names such as Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer are perpetually etched in the dark pages of our history books. For this episode we’ve researched what the psychology and science journals are saying, to bring you a list of the 10 traits you’ll most likely find in the character of a serial killer.
10. Lack of remorse
Serial killers are psychopaths, and psychopaths don’t tend to feel any emotion that is related to guilt, even if they are completely guilty for a wrongdoing as big as murdering someone. Joel Rifkin is an American serial killer who was sentenced in 1994 to 200 years in prison for the murders of nine women. Rifkin was filled with self-pity after he was convicted of killing and dismembering his victims. He called his conviction a tragedy, and in prison he got into an argument with another mass murderer, Colin Ferguson, over whose killing spree was bigger and better, and when Ferguson taunted Rifkin for only killing women, Rifkin responded “Yeah, but I had more victims.”
9. Abuse when growing up
According to the interviews that have been held with known serial killers, emotional abuse and neglect are commonplace. Even when a child is merely neglected, huge developmental failures can occur and the child can become desensitized and start to relate to the world in a different way. Emotional abuse damages a child’s self-esteem, which makes it difficult to function adequately in society, and form healthy, intimate relationships, later in life. Of course not everyone who has experienced emotional or physical abuse as an adolescent goes on to be a killer, but it’s certainly a theme that many serial killers have been abused at some point in early life.
Convicted British serial killer Trevor Hardy, dubbed the Beast of Manchester for his murders of teenage girls in the 1970s, was known for showing off his antics. It was what eventually led to his arrest when he bragged about one murder to his younger brother. Dr. Elizabeth Yardley, the director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University explains, ‘Egoistical serial killers often can’t help but brag about the atrocities they’ve committed, whether it’s aimed at their accomplices, the next victim, law enforcement, or just themselves.
Being charming is not a quality you would think to label a serial killer with, but it was Ted Bundy’s greatest asset. Shortly before his execution in 1989, this serial killer confessed to 30 murders in seven states between 1974 and 1978, although it is thought he killed many more. He was often described as handsome, charismatic and charming, which is what helped him to lure his female victims. He raped and kidnapped women after winning their trust, either by pretending to be disabled or injured by using fake slings or casts, or dressing as a policeman or person of authority.
6. Predatory behavior
In his book Real-Life Monsters, criminal investigator Stephen J. Giannangelo tells us that the predatory aggression of a serial killer is a common trait, comparing it to the aggressive behavior of carnivores. Predatory animals kill to satisfy a need. A serial killer kills because he thinks he needs to, in the same way predatory animals kill to satisfy a need to eat. A person who has a predatory aggressive personality believes other people are inferior, which is how they justify hurting other people.
5. Growing up lonely and isolated
Family members of future serial killers are often at odds with each other and have a dysfunctional family unit. These families also have a tendency to move around a lot, with the children removed into shelters before they can turn 18. When a child has this early life disruption with no meaningful relationships to learn from, they often end up as loners. Serial killers are frequently bullied by other kids for their anti-social tendencies, which drives them further into isolation and eventually into hostility and aggression, and a complete disregard for others.
4. Acting out fantasies with animals
Almost all serial killers admitted that they started by acting out their violent fantasies on animals before moving on to human beings. Due to the dysfunctional families most serial killers come from, such pathological and abnormal behavior may be ignored or completely missed. Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal or the Milwaukee Monster, was an American serial killer and sex offender, who committed the rape, murder, and dismemberment of 17 men and boys from 1978 to 1991. As a young boy he dismembered and dissected animals, yet his father overlooked these acts of cruelty without blinking an eye.
3. Shallow emotions
While serial killers do feel emotions, especially ones that motivate them to kill, such as hatred or sexual pleasure, they also lack the ability to feel a sense of regret, or remorse for their victims, which allows them to continue committing crimes without feeling guilty. They often tend not to feel nervous or embarrassed over their actions, which again allows them to continue murdering victims with no negative feelings. German serial killer Rudolph Pliel, convicted of killing 10 people, compared his murder spree to playing a card game. He told police “What I did is not such a great harm, with all these surplus women nowadays. Anyway, I had a good time.
2. Lack of empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what another person is experiencing from that person’s point of view. A serial killer, on the other hand is someone who derives some sort of gratification from inflicting pain, torture and suffering on another person. Psychopaths and serial killers are frequently described as individuals who lack empathy as they do what they desire without a thought of compassion for their victim. Criminologist Adam Lynes says all serial killers are psychopaths, but most psychopaths are not serial killers and one of the key traits of a serial killer is a lack of empathy.
1. Being vain and narcissistic
One of the FBI’s favorite techniques for interviewing serial killers is flattery. Serial killers tend to be self-absorbed and have an over inflated view of themselves, and so praise can get them talking. Forensic psychologist Stephen A. Diamond calls this quality psychopathic narcissism and he describes it as an “immature, selfish, self-centered, resentful, and raging child inside a powerful adult body.” Children are naturally narcissistic but they learn rules of social behavior, however when a child grows up physically with an immature childlike personality, they can become extremely dangerous.
So, these are our ten traits. Do you see any of these characteristics when you look in the mirror? Or perhaps you know someone who shares these characteristics? Let us know in the comments! Also, check out our other video, Why don’t stupid people know they are stupid. Thanks for watching and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time!