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To understand the connection between psychopathy and serial killers, it will first be necessary to define the term psychopathy. Psychopaths exist in our everyday life. They are driving on our roads, working next to us, and even living within our families. There is; however, a misrepresentation of the nature of the psychopath in mainstream media. Most people lump all psychopaths in with the likes of John Wayne Gacy and Jack the Ripper. One must first understand the disease, and then analyze the serial killer to understand what makes a person exist on one end of this spectrum or the other.
In his book, Psychopathy Across the Ages, Hugues Herve attempts to narrow down a specific definition of the psychopathic illness. Prior to the 18th century, most psychopathic tendencies were attributed to some evil force or moral inequity that was instilled in a person socially (Herve, 2007, p. 31-32). He goes on to elaborate as to the evolvement of the psychopathic disorder as an actual diagnosis: "By the late eighteenth century, however, psychiatric descriptions began to include problems regulating affects and feeling as well as the mind. These descriptions [â€¦] laid the foundation for the development of the psychopathic construct as a real clinical entity" (Herve, 2007, p. 32). From this point, many psychological experts would go on to try pin down a specific definition of the psychopathic condition, but it wasn't until the work of Hervey Cleckley, that a clear, concise set of characteristics would be established to describe psychopaths.
Cleckley set out to define a core set of symptoms of the typical psychopath. Herve (2007) lays out Cleckley's symptoms as:
superficial charm and good intelligence; absence of delusions or other signs of irrational thinking; absence of "nervousness" or psychoneurotic manifestations; unreliability; untruthfulness and insincerity; lack of remorse or shame; inadequately motivated antisocial behavior; poor judgment and failure to learn by experience; pathological egocentricity and incapacity for love; general poverty in major affective reactions; specific loss of insight; unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations; fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink and sometimes without; suicide rarely carried out; sex life impersonal; trivial, and poorly integrated; and failure to follow any life plan. (p. 43)
It would seem, from this definition, that psychopaths are largely incapable of any emotions. However, Herve (2007) goes on to summarize Cleckley's findings by stating that while psychopaths are unable to experience long term emotion, they are able to experience, or at least facilitate the appearance of, short term emotions (p. 44). From this definition, one is able to more clearly identify the characteristics of a psychopathic individual. However; with this lengthy set of symptoms, one might draw the conclusion that many people, not just serial killers, are psychopaths, and that conclusion would actually be correct.
The next step in connecting the psychopath to the serial killer is to differentiate between the everyday psychopath living among the general population and the sadistic psychopath that historically makes headlines by killing people. In his book, The Psychopathy of Everyday Life, Dr. Martin Kantor discusses the issues inherent in labeling all psychopaths as dangerous criminals. In his chapter, labeled 'Successful Psychopaths,' Kantor divides psychopaths into two groups, nonantisocial aggressives and antisocial aggressives, the difference lying in their ability to deal with their antisocial characteristics. Kantor (2006) states that "[nonantisocial aggressives] fit into the mainstream of society, displaying their characteristic traits through socially acceptable avenues not coming into conflict with the law and instead finding themselves commended and reinforced in our competitive society and finding a socially valued niche as they participate in the ordinary affairs of everyday life" (p. 133).
So why then, if these people are able to control themselves and participate normally within society, is the term 'psychopath' so synonymous with evil? Kantor also addresses this in his book. He explains that while most psychopaths live their lives unnoticed by the general public, it is the select few who do not that gain the most attention. He states that these few individuals are also the source for most clinical study on the disorder of psychopathy, so the public view is slanted negatively (Kantor, 2006, p. 133).
Now that the definition of psychopathy is clear and a distinction has been made between the everyday psychopath and the criminal psychopath, it is necessary to define what a serial killer is. It is pertinent to understand the crime of serial murder first, so that one can ultimately link psychopathic behavior to the crime itself.
In his book, Criminology Today, Frank Schmalleger (2009) defines serial murder as "a criminal homicide that 'involves the killing of several victims in three or more separate events'" (p. 392). This definition alone is not sufficient to fully understand the crime of serial murder or to get a good picture of the individuals who commit this crime. To do so, one must read a more in-depth analysis of the crime of serial murder itself.
The book Extreme Killing, by James Alan Fox and Jack Levin, is an intensive look at the crime of serial murder and provides insight into the lives of those who commit it. Throughout their book, Fox and Levin briefly cover the stories of many of the most famous serial killers, such as Theodore Robert Bundy who was convicted in the killing dozens of girls in four different states, or Andrei Chikatilo, from Russia, who "killed, dismembered, and occasionally devoured 21 boys, 14 girls, and 18 women", or even a female serial killer, such as Aileen Wuornos, a middle-aged prostitute who shot seven men (Fox & Levin, 2005, p. 42-52). Many of these terrible serial killers have been immortalized by mass media, fueled by public curiosity. People are sucked in by these horrific and gruesome crimes. When presented with these atrocities, most people ask themselves, "Why would someone commit such a heinous crime?"
To answer this question, and ultimately establish a connection to psychopathy, it is prudent to look more closely at a specific incident of serial murder. In an article written for www.crimemagazine.com, David Lohr (2002) summarizes the exploits of one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, Theodore Robert Bundy. Bundy, originally born Theodore Robert Cowell, was an attractive, charming man. He was said to have a political future and was even accepted to law school. In his younger years, was romantically involved with a woman named Stephanie Brooks. Due to the tumultuous nature of their relationship, Bundy developed an obsession with females of her body type, and his killing began. At his conviction, Bundy confessed to killings of over 40 women over a 5 year period. Many psychologists have drawn a connection from Bundy's victims to his first love, Stephanie Brooks, and his desire to have control over her (Lohr, 2002).
Fox and Levin (2005) elaborate on this desire for control among serial killers; "â€¦serial killers [are] motivated by the thrill of power or sexual sadism. [â€¦] they enjoy the excitement, the sexual satisfaction, and the dominance and power that they achieve over the lives of their victims. Not only do they savor the act of murder itself, but they also rejoice as their victims scream and beg for mercy" (p. 44). This fits in with the definition of psychopathy and its lack of feeling and emotion, or ability to empathize with the pain of others.
Herve (2007) expands on the many facets of psychopathy as it is connected to violent crime. He states that "Recent evidence suggests that thrill-seeking and sadistic interests may drive some of the violent acts by psychopaths" (Herve, 2007, p. 291). So, in looking at the description of Fox and Levin of a serial killer, and then at the description of a psychopath by Herve, both being motivated by sadism and thrill-seeking, the connection becomes somewhat clearer. Herve (2007) goes on to write of a study of 125 sexual murders, and provides a link to the cruel nature of the psychopath; "The crime scenes also were coded for evidence of gratuitous violence, defined as violence that exceeded the level necessary to kill the victim (e.g., torture, beating, mutilation, and the use of multiple weapons from the crime scene). Results indicated that psychopaths were more likely to have engaged in such violence" (Herve, 2007, p. 292-293). The fact that this study was done on several murders, and then attached to a study of psychopathy, makes the link between the two all the more apparent.
Another interesting connection between the psychopath and the serial killer can be made when looking at their ability to discern from good from bad, or positive from negative. Herve states that "psychopaths perpetrate instrumental and sadistic violence because of an inability to correctly interpret the emotional distress cues of others and because they do not view violence in a negative way" (p. 293). The infamous Ted Bundy claimed his innocence until the day of his execution and always acted with an air of confidence as if he had done nothing
wrong (Lohr, 2002).
As psychopathic tendencies seem to feed perfectly into the mantra of the typical serial killer, it would seem pertinent to try to address the cause of this disorder and develop possible treatment options. The problem there is that psychopathy cannot be nailed down to one physical or even mental condition that can be treated. Kantor (2006) summarized the situation effectively when he wrote, "I view psychopathy as a disorder that has biological, psychological, and social roots, with each individual's psychopathy a unique blend of innate and acquired characteristics" (p. 139). The root of the problem lies in a mixture of a person's genetic wiring, their upbringing, and their mental capabilities. The fact that the cause of this psychopathic illness is so hard to define also makes it difficult to treat. In discussing possible treatment options for psychopaths, Kantor focuses mainly on therapy, although he makes a distinction between the prognoses for a mild versus severe psychopaths. He writes that "while severe psychopathy can be very difficult at best to treat with any form of therapy, mild psychopathy can be effectively treated using traditional approaches specifically adapted for dealing with the special problems these patients present" (Kantor, 2006, p. 158). While this bodes well for these 'mild psychopaths,' most would agree that serial killers to not fit into the mild category, and are thus, untreatable, not to mention the difficulty in diagnosing the severe psychopath in the first place.
Psychopathy is an illness of the mind that exists within our culture more prevalently than most people realize. In fact, there are most likely some psychopathic tendencies within us all. The serial killer exists on the extreme edge of the psychopath continuum, the worst of the worst. However; in light of the fact that these people compose a minority within the group of psychopaths at large, it becomes evident that while psychopathy facilitates the actions of these murderers, it is not the sole cause.