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Murder. A word describing an act that the vast majority of people find to be heinously unthinkable, and yet still occurs almost daily. Take a few steps beyond the almost run-of-the-mill crime and one arrives at the entertainment business' favorite subject: large-scale human destruction. We, as a species, are fascinated by the horrors that few people will inflict upon another human being and are revolted by the fact that those few even derive real joy from taking a life. Or lives.
The psychology behind mass murder is murky, at best. "There has never been a neuro-anatomical localization of mass killing behavior," states associate professor of psychiatry at New York University, Michael Welner. There have been dozens of books written and brain scans performed, MRIs, talk of high dopamine and low serotonin levels, and research into the limbic system of the human brain. Still, nobody really understands the driving forces behind it.
"In mass shootings, the killer is often killed themselves, so we don't really have the ability to interview and analyze them -- all you can really do is work off their behavior," says an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Neil S. Kaye. "The problem with that is that mass killers do this for multiple reasons, and even when you develop a profile of people at risk, 99 percent of them never go out and do anything bad."
Some mass killers have a tendency to be depressed, angry and humiliated. Their destruction can be seen as a revenge on the world that has treated them so hellishly, exacted on any unlucky persons who happen to be around. They plan out everything about the crime, fantasize and then have the "snap" that everyone hears about. There's only one thing they don't plan, and that's how they will escape. Welner chalks this up to a desire to commit suicide, equating masculinity and destruction.
One such murderer was Dylan Klebold, half of the two-man team that ravaged Columbine High School with semi-automatic guns and shotguns. Klebold, a student, had been a victim of bullying for many years, leading to an enormous buildup of anger, suppressed aggression and debilitating depression. His partner, Eric Harris, also suffered serious bullying and was on anti-depressive medication. The two boys had put a great deal of care and planning into their attack and even chose a specific date for it. Without a doubt, these boys suffered mightily, and yet were highly intelligent. One can almost sympathize with these young murderers, who killed 12 students, one teacher and injured 21 others; and can raise the debate that we are a product of our environments.
Another example of a revenge-based attack was the Oklahoma City bombing, executed by Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. Army veteran who detonated a truck bomb and destroyed a federal building. 168 people were killed, including children and pregnant women, and an additional 450 people were injured. McVeigh's motivation was retribution for the fiasco of the Waco Siege, as he felt deeply that the government handled it wrongly. He had also hoped to inspire the people to revolt against what he considered to be a "tyrannical" federal government, restricting Constitutional rights and defying the Declaration of Independence. McVeigh apparently took his enlistment oath seriously, and wrote "I have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I will. And I will because not only did I swear to, but I believe in what it stands for in every bit of my heart, soul and being."
Other mass killers shoot up dozens of people for what seems to be the fun of it. There is no apparent motive, other than "because they want to".
Then again, there are also those that are truly psychotic; unable to distinguish between reality and delusion. Russell Weston Jr. shot up the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. because aliens told him to. However, the legitimately psychotic mass killer is atypical and rare enough to be mostly discounted in case studies.
Regardless of the type of mass murderer a person may be - angry or amoral - in the end; the scene is all about the spectacle.
Serial murder, on the other hand, is less clearly denoted and more understood. It is generally accepted as two or more murders in separate events, spaced with a "cooling off" period, committed by the same offender or offenders. These types of killings characteristically share at least one common element, signifying the link to other murders committed by any individual serial killer. Serial killings are relatively rare in the United States, and are estimated to comprise less than 1% of all murders committed in a given year. However, there is a broad-based public interest, almost enthrallment, with the idea, which is believed to have begun after the Whitechapel district of London was rampaged by an unknown killer, known as Jack the Ripper. With this obsession came a number of myths about the demographic of killers, their mental states and methods of operation. While some of the myths are based in some sort of truth, they are largely incorrect.
Some of these misconceptions include the idea that all serial murderers are white males. While some of America's most prolific killers are, in fact, Caucasian males, murders of all types are committed by people of all colors, genders and races.
Another myth is that these killers are dysfunctional, psychotic loners. Again, while some killers are, in fact, mentally afflicted and socially inept, many are not. A great portion of murders is committed by men and women who appear perfectly normal, friendly and helpful. People who fit in. After all, the best place to hide a book is in a stack of books and so the best place for a serial killer to hide is in a crowd.
That sort of audacity leads the general population to believe yet another paradigm about these people, in that serial killers actually want to be caught. Oftentimes, after the criminal avoids detection and capture, he or she begins to feel empowered and cavalier, believing that they cannot be caught; that the law does not apply and that law enforcement is not capable of finding them. This mental state is consistent with that of a psychopath.
Psychopathic killers are much more common than psychotic killers, and the two must not be confused. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly known as DSM-IV) defines psychopathy as a personality disorder, rather than a mental illness. Those affected by psychopathic personality disorder are still very much in touch with reality and aware of the truth of their surroundings. The disorder is characterized by "a lack of regard for moral or legal standards in the local culture. There is a marked inability to get along with others or abide by societal rules and norms in these individuals." Additionally, no generic profile exists for psychopaths, but one finds a number of shared traits, including sensation seeking, a complete lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, a need for control, and predatory behavior. A psychopath often utilizes superficial charm, manipulation, intimidation and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their own selfish needs. In some instances, that need is the psychological gratification that is delivered by targeting and murdering.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, it is estimated that 3% of the male population consists of people who suffer from psychopathic personality disorder, which means that over 4 million psychopaths walk American soil.
Fortunately, most people afflicted with the disorder cope well enough to lead non-violent lives. Not all psychopaths are serial murderers, and not all serial murderers are psychopaths. Unfortunately, those that cannot cope may turn to stalking, raping, murdering and disfiguring strangers for the thrill of the kill.
One of these psychopaths was Ted Bundy, one of America's most famous serial killers. He was highly intelligent, detached, attractive and charming, deceptive, calculating, arrogant, conniving, cold and plagued by a hunger for power that could not be sated by any socially accepted means. Kidnapping and killing attractive college-age girls reminiscent of his college girlfriend who left him gave him a sense of control. Bundy would gain the trust of his victims by feigning disability or injuries, and occasionally impersonated police officers. After being arrested for kidnapping, he escaped from prison and had become animalistic and blood-thirsty, breaking into homes and brutally slaughtering women. After extensive psychiatric evaluation, Bundy was diagnosed with the psychopathic personality disorder, as well has possible schizophrenia. He was once quoted as saying "Guilt doesn't solve anything, really. It hurts you...I guess I am in the enviable position of not having to deal with guilt. There's just no reason for it."
Another psychopathic serial killer America now knows well is John Wayne Gacy, also known as the "Killer Clown". Rather than targeting young women that resembled someone he knew, Gacy's preferred victims were male, usually between the ages of 15 and 20 years old. Nobody is quite sure as to why he attacked this demographic, but it is known that he raped and tortured many of the boys, suggesting homoerotic tendencies. During the 14 years Gacy was incarcerated on death row, he began to paint, and many of his paintings were later sold at auction for upward of $10,000. He never showed any remorse for his crimes, and indeed, did not feel any remorse. Gacy's last words to his lawyer were that killing him (Gacy) would not bring anyone back. His final spoken words, relayed to his executioner, were "Kiss my ass."
Men are certainly not the only ones to commit serial and mass murder, though they are certainly more noted and tend toward torture and choose strangers as their victims. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to kill those that are close to them, such as friends, children and other family members. Female mass murderers also almost always have a history of mental illness, particularly depression, and almost never display the anger management issues of male mass murderers who simply aim to take as many lives as possible.
A 24-year-old mother of six (all between the ages of 5 and 11) called 911 after strangling all of her children. She claims to have killed them due to depression and being overwhelmed, and attempted suicide after making the emergency call. The despairing mother had suffered a great deal from childhood, bearing her first child in a refugee camp at the age of 13.
Andrea Yates, a mother of five, drowned all of her children in the bathtub while her husband was at work. She had considered herself a bad mother for having "led her children astray" and felt that their souls were in danger of going to hell. Yates believed that the state would execute her for the murders of her children and her death would remove the devil that inhabited her from the world. She had previously attempted suicide twice and had a history of delusional depression. While in prison, she came to realize what she had done and subsequently attempted to starve herself to death.
Despite the overwhelming prevalence of mental illness governing female mass murderers, not all of them are afflicted. In the case of Patricia Kirby, she was completely sane, but had discovered that her husband of 22 years had a mistress. Kirby's husband and mistress had gone to dinner at friends', and Kirby set the house on fire, resulting in the deaths of all four people inside. Very rarely do women kill out of lucid anger, but in this situation, it was proved that hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned.
On occasion, women actually consciously attempt to become mass murderers, but failed to meet the fatality count to be considered as such. 17-year-old Brenda Spencer, fired her semi-automatic .22 rifle into a schoolyard. Having fired on strangers, Spencer comes much closer to the classical definition of mass murderer than the women who kill their families. The janitor and principal both took deadly hits as they shielded the children, and a police officer and eight children were hurt. Allegedly, she began shooting due to boredom and the reasoning that "Mondays always get me down."
Female serial killers are an altogether different story.
Over the course of one year, a prostitute, Aileen Wuornos, killed seven men. She claimed that they had raped or had attempted to rape her while she was working. Growing up in the hands of a child molester until the age of four, Wuornos eventually began having sexual relations with multiple men, including her own brother, and allegedly was forced into similar relations with her grandfather. At the age of 13, she became pregnant after being raped by an unknown man, and gave the baby up for adoption. Shortly thereafter, she began supporting herself working as a prostitute. One could say that she had a reasonable paranoia of men, given her history, and that, at least in her mind, her murders were justifiable. While on death row, Wuornos said "I'm competent, sane, and I'm trying to tell the truth. I'm one who seriously hates human life and would kill again." In her final interview, she claimed that her brain was being controlled by sonic pressure to make her appear crazy. Whether or not she was psychotic is difficult to say, but she was deemed mentally competent for execution and her final statement was "Yes, I would just like to say I'm sailing with the rock, and I'll be back, like Independence Day with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mother ship and all, I'll be back, I'll be back."
There is an instance of a female serial killer who murdered for financial gain. Dorothea Puente ran a boarding house for the elderly and disabled, and got into the habit of drugging her boarders and stealing their Social Security checks. On one hand, Puente was a cold-blooded and money-hungry killer. On the other, she was a caring, generous matronly type who guided her daughter and other young adults to successful careers.
At a glance, it seems reasonable to say that on average, male mass murderers are psychopathic, whereas female mass murderers are psychotic. This is a gross oversimplification of the matter, but serves to illustrate that while there are infinite variables in the field of murder, common and shared elements can be found.
On the subject of male versus female serial killers, the distinctions are quite clear. Men, for the most part, take more lives, more directly and derive pleasure from doing so. Women seem to have more pragmatic rationale for killing, as in the cases of Wuornos and Puente, who killed in self-defense and for monetary gain, respectively.