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There are multiple definitions of serial murder that have been used in various environments. While these definitions do have commonalities, they do tend to differ on specific requirements such as number of murders, motivation and temporal aspects.
Previous definitions required a certain number of murders, varying between numbers 2 - 10. This requirement distinguished serial murder from other categories of murder. They also required a cooling-down period. This break in time was important to distinguish between mass murder and serial murder.
In general mass murder is described to be a number of murders that happen in a single incident, usually with no distinctive time period between murders.
In 1998 a law had been passed by the United States Congress, titled: Protection of children from Sexual Predator Act of 1998 (Title 18, United States Code, Chapter 51, and Section 1111)
This law includes a definition of serial killing/serial murder:
"The term 'serial killings' means a series of three or more killings, not less than one of which was committed within the United States, having common characteristics such as to suggest the reasonable possibility that the crimes were committed by the same actor or actors" (fbi.gov)
Even though this definition is provided, it is a limited one. The purpose of the definition was to set some form of criteria, it was not intended for a generic use or meant to be a generic definition of serial murder.
It was agreed that there were to be a number of similar factors to be included in the definition. These include:
One or more offenders
Two or more murder victims
Incidents occur in separate events, at different times
Time period between murders separate this murder from mass murder
A combination of these ideas allowed them to come up with the following definition:
"Serial Murder: The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s) in separate events." (fbi.gov)
In Serial murderers and their Victims author Eric. W Hickey places focus on the various myths surrounding serial killers as to whom they are:
They are all white
One in 5 serial killers is black
Nearly 17% are female
Insanity is a legal term and very few offenders are legally insane
All of them are lust killers
Many cases have the theme of sexual violence, however there have been a number of cases that have no relation to sexual assault, torture or sexual mutilation
Have committed dozens of murders
There have been cases of high body counts but most kill under 10 victims
They kill alone
One in four cases have shown signs of having an accomplice
They are all very intelligent
Most are of average intelligence
Have been sexually abused as a child
Many kill as a result of abandonment and rejection since their childhood years.
Types of Serial Murder
Holmes and DeBurger (1988,pp 55-60) have distinguished between four characteristic types of serial murderers and examined the possible motives behind the crime. The formation of their ideas is based on the assumption that the crimes are almost always psychogenic. The second would be that the motives are something that only the murderer can appreciate because the idea seems right to their own minds. The final assumption is that committing the crimes are psychologically rewarding to the killer even though they may benefit materially.
The visionary type - These murderers kill according to the voices that command them to do so. They are often believed to be suffering from some form of psychosis.
Mission-Oriented type - These offenders deeply believe that it is their life purpose to extinguish a certain group of people.
Hedonistic type - more commonly known as the thrill seekers. A sub category of this would be the "Lust Murderers"
Power or Control Oriented type - the source of pleasure is derived from being in control and dominating the victims
(Holmes, R. M., and J. DeBurger (1988). Serial Murder. Newbury Park, CA:Sage.)
Creation of a serial killer
There is always the question of how the serial killer came to be. It is almost like any other person's development, their personalities are moulded from :
Experiences in childhood
These factors are only a few examples as to what drives a person's personality to become deviant in nature.
There is also a focus on stereotyping and how it will affect the psyche of a person. It was found that stereotypical labelling of a person makes them feel as if though they are an outsider and rejected. Thus the need for acceptance and attention.
"Resentment brought about as a result of such rejection is frequently repressed by those who later commit murder. Repression often becomes a pattern of behaviour leaving little need for release of anger. Upon reaching adulthood, the individual who thus far has adequately repressed rage since childhood may find himself in situations where he is unable to suppress hostile feelings. "(Serial murderers and their victims)
Serial killers differ in several ways. Their motivations for killing do have commonalities however the ways in which they kill differ from each other. With every victim they are revealing a piece of their personalities which allows investigators to profile them. These traits point to major personality disorders, more specifically these traits tend to be consistent with that of psychopathic personality disorder.
The traits found to be present are as follows:
Ability to be a pathological liar
Lack of remorse or guilt towards their actions
Even though these traits are present it was found that not all violent offenders are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are violent offenders.(fbi.gov)
Just the idea of a psychopathic personality does not make the offender a serial killer.
It was found that serial killers have a need for attention and enjoy recognition for their abilities and tend to bask in praise.
In Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1991, Vol. 100, No 3,391-398 article compiled by Robert D. Hare, Stephen D. Hart, and Timothy J. Harpur they focused on the many symptoms of anti-social personality disorder.
They had found similarities in the backgrounds of serial killers such as their early behavioural problems and juvenile delinquency.
Another commonality found in serial killers is their inability to keep long lasting marital or intimate relationships. It is because of their deviant sexual fantasies that become more demanding as time goes on that they remain dissatisfied with their current life and seek entertainment in their victims.
Recent studies have found cases of Identity Dissociative Disorders. In the case of Kenneth Bianchi (the Hillside Strangler), while under hypnosis revealed that he had another personality that he had named Steve Walker. There was Ken, a loving father and overall responsible citizen and on the other hand there was Steve, the cold and vicious murderer. It was then Dr. Martin Orne from Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School was brought in to examine Bianchi, to check that he was not faking his other personalities. Before placing Bianchi under hypnosis Orne had mentioned that it was rare for people with dissociative disorders to have only two personalities. Moments after he had been placed under hypnosis was the birth of another personality named Billy.
There was questioning of this behaviour by many. Further investigation had proven that he was in fact using a name from an academic script that Bianchi had stolen and then altered.(Serial Murderers and their Victims, pg 65)
There is a constant concern about what motivates a serial killer to murder individuals and many have found only theories. These include:
The offender displays a rage towards a subgroup or the population as a whole.
Need for power
The offender has a need for a thrilling experience and feels a sense of empowerment when controlling the victim. The need to have the upper hand becomes an addictive feeling and the need for domination over others grows with each victim.
The offender may be suffering from a severe mental illness that includes hallucinations and various types of delusions
Violence and lust tend to be interwoven with each other.
Some believe that what they are doing is a helping hand to society. There are many examples of serial killers targeting prostitutes and stating that they were nothing more than "scum of the earth"
Even though there are motivations for the crime, it is still too complex a crime to pin onto a single motivation. There are chances that motivations change with each victim or there could be more than a single motivation that leads to their victimisation.
Just because investigators have a motivation for the crime it does not necessarily mean that it will help them identify the offender.
Victims of serial murder are selected by :
The lifestyle that the victim is involved in and how accessible the victim is for the crime.
Refers to how easily the victim can be taken advantage of. The more isolated the person is the more likely they are to become a target of a serial killer. This is one of the reasons why women are attacked so frequently and are attacked when they are alone rather than when they are in a group of people.
Ted Bundy lured his victims by portraying a man in need of assistance and faked injuries by wearing casts either on his arm or leg.
This is related to traits that make the individual attractive to the offender e.g. physical traits.
In the case of Ted Bundy, during the spring and summer of 1974, it was found that all his victims were Caucasian, slender, single; wearing slacks at the time of their disappearance and had long hair that was parted in the centre.
In 2004 a study done by Kraemer, Lord and Heilbrun. In their study was a comparison of 157 serial-homicide offenses to a control group of single homicide offenses. It was found that serial-homicide offenses were targeted towards more women than men and kill more strangers than family and friends.
It was found that serial murderers are more likely to be sexually motivated when they killed.
Their findings have proven that each serial murderer has a distinct criteria, motivations and sexual interests that set them apart from other types of murderers.(Serial murderers and their victims page 280)
There is now a new and disturbing trend that is being found with serial murderers between 1975 and 2004. This new trend refers to the targeting of the elderly. With the increasing number of the elderly in nursing homes and the rising demand for home care may attract individuals that have "an angel of mercy/death" fantasy.
This fantasy motivates killers to have a nurtured hatred for the elderly or have a need to be recognized as someone important. (serial murderers and their victims pg 287)
Serial murder refers to the murder of two or more people in separate occasions. There are different reasons that they turn to murder, ranging from childhood trauma such as sexual abuse to rejection by fellow peers and being made to feel like an outsider. Their need to restore balance to their world as a confident person who is part of society, drives them to make the decision to take the life of another. The heady feeling of power over another human becoming addictive like a drug, the killer needing another fix as soon as the feeling wore off. Their victims have no set criteria regarding race, religion or gender, their motivations are not set in stone. Each murderer has a different view as to why they committed the crime.