It’s a sad state of affairs when the concept of a serial killer almost seems quaint.
Mass shootings in America are becoming increasingly common. Last week, James Holmes was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a particularly notorious 2012 shooting that took place in an Aurora, Colorado theater, in which 12 people lost their lives and another 70 were injured. And over the weekend, a terrible story about a man who killed eight people in their own home emerged out of Houston, Texas.
As the horror of these crimes dominates the headlines, we seem to hear fewer stories of serial killers. But as a recent incident in West Virginia makes clear, they are still out there.
A “serial killer” by definition
The seemingly endless parade of shootings in America is deeply troubling, but the motivations that drive serial killers are arguably more complex and disturbing. By definition, both kill multiple people. But, according to the FBI, a mass murderer kills several people at one time with no “cooling off” period between murders, while serial killers do have a cooling off period between victims. Also, many mass murder sprees end with the capture or suicide of the murderer, while serial killers can kill undetected for years and rarely commit suicide.
There’s a tendency to think of the terms sociopath, psychopath, and serial killer as interchangeable, which is incorrect. Many people may be diagnosable under the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-5’s, definition of antisocial personality disorder, the disorder encompassing both sociopathy and psychopathy, but very few of these people are serial killers.
True or false?
See if you can tell which of the following statements are true and which are false.
- Serial killers are mostly male.
TRUE. Statistics gathered on 3,873 serial killers in the Radford University/Florida Gulf Coast University Serial Killer Database show that since 1900, 90.8 percent of serial killers have been male. A recent study at Pennsylvania State University looked at the differences between the way male and female serial killers kill.
- Serial killers tortured animals as children.
TRUE. There is a strong link between serial killers and torturing animals, though that doesn’t mean that every child who tortures animals will grow up to be a serial killer. Torturing animals is 1 of 3 behaviors, along with bedwetting and fire starting, cited in the now discredited “Macdonald triad” as a hypothetical predictor of serial violence.
- Serial killers have genius-level IQs.
FALSE. Sure, there are certainly some very smart serial killers. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski is the poster child for this myth, and for good reason, since he got a PhD from the University of Michigan, became an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley at age 25, and supposedly had an IQ of 167. But the Radford University/FGCU database shows that the average IQ of the 3,873 serial killers it had studied was a less impressive 94.7.
- Serial killers kill for the “fun” of it.
TRUE. According to the Radford University/FGCU database, most serial killers—or 46.11 percent—kill for enjoyment, for the thrill of power. The second most common reason, at 31.68 percent, is for financial gain.
- Serial killers are weird loners.
FALSE. Although some serial kills are loners, the FBI stresses that many have jobs and families and blend in with their community, making them easy to overlook. For example, Dennis Rader served in the Air Force, was married with two kids, went to church regularly, and was a Boy Scout troop leader. No one suspected he was the self-titled “BTK Killer” for a long time; by the time he was caught, he had murdered 10 people.
- Serial killers had bad childhoods.
TRUE. The FBI says that neglect and abuse contribute to the likelihood of violent behavior in the future. One study of 50 serial killers found that 68 percent had experienced some type of maltreatment, whether physical, sexual, or psychological. Albert DeSalvo, for example, was beaten by his father and was reportedly sold into slavery as a child. He grew up to become the Boston Strangler and confessed to the murder of 13 women.
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