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Making A Murderer: What Drives Someone to Commit Serial Murder

Brianna E. Lane

Glen Allen High School



This paper analyzes the definition of serial murder, the common characteristics of serial

killers and the motivating factors that cause one to commit such wicked crimes. Although serial

murder has been a severe crime for centuries, recent interest in the fields of criminal profiling

and behavioral analysis has made evident the various factors that contribute to such actions. The

first part of the paper discusses the definition of serial murder in comparison to mass murder and

the various elements that comprise serial murder. Second, common traits are discussed that can

be found in these perpetrators, possessing them to repetitively engage in the act of killing. Along

with these characteristics, the primary motives are analyzed as well as classifications based on

behavioral patterns. Following is an exploration into the differences between male and female

serial killers including motives, methods, and victims that set them apart. Research is discussed

regarding the rarity of female serial killers, yet their behaviors suggest they are just as deadly as

men. Last, profiling techniques are examined as well as the validity of such methods despite

public concern. After compiling research and investigating the aspects of serial murder, this

paper offers an answer to the essential question: what are the primary motives behind serial



From Ted Bundy to John Wayne Gacy, individuals throughout history have been driven to

commit serial murder out of jealousy, revenge, the desire for power, and personal satisfaction.

But what is the real source of motivation behind this malicious, violent act? What goes through

one's mind that prompts such cruel, vicious behavior? Recently, new light has been shed on what

makes a serial killer and what causes their uncontrollable outbursts as well as investigative

methods such as criminal profiling. Television shows and other media sources satisfy common

misconceptions of serial killers, portraying them as psychopaths who suffer from mental

disorders and extreme aggression. However, these sources do not allude to the wide range of

influences that could contribute to murderous behavior, thus making the process of profiling

more difficult for investigators. Although research suggests many motivating factors behind the

act of serial killing, the primary motives for such heinous crimes are sexual desires, power or

control, personal satisfaction, and financial gain.

Defining Serial Murder

According to Miller (2013), Andes (2015) and Kaplan (2015), a serial killer is someone

who kills at least three victims over a period of time with a distinguished cooling-off period

between murders. For the sake of the publics general knowledge, it is important to differentiate

between mass murderers and serial murderers. Miller deciphers serial murder from mass murder,

claiming that a mass murderer kills as many victims as possible at one time (2013). The two

differ specifically in the number of victims killed and the time between each death. A blog by the

name of TwistedMinds presents the three main elements of serial murder: quantity (there have to

be at least three murders), place (the murders have to occur at different locations) and time (there

has to be a cooling-off period or an interval between the murders that can last anywhere from

several hours to several years). Given the complex elements that comprise serial murder, it is

evident that the definition has evolved over time from a broad perspective to a narrowly detailed


Since the early 1900s, researchers and citizens alike have questioned the accuracy of the

serial murder definition. Taken from the 1992 FBI Crime Classification Manual, the Federal

Bureau of Investigations defined serial murder as three or more separate events in three or more

separate locations with an emotional cooling-off period between homicides (TwistedMinds).

However, many believed this definition was too elusive and broad to use as an identification tool.

Instead, the National Institute of Justice offered a more flexible yet accurate definition, defining

serial murder as

A series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not
always, by one offender acting alone. The crimes may occur over a period of time
ranging from hours to years. Quite often the motive is psychological, and the
offenders behavior and the physical evidence observed at the crime scenes with
reflect sadistic, sexual overtones (TwistedMinds).
The latter offers insight into the behaviors and motives of the killer himself rather than strictly

limiting the definition to the number of murders and the time between each murder. It points the

finger (in most cases) at one killer who is responsible for three or more victims, while the first

definition fails to clarify the number of killers involved. The first definition references a broad

emotional cooling-off period that allows the killer to bounce back from each murder, while the

more recent definition explains the duration of this period, lasting anywhere from hours to years

depending on the killer. While both are generalizations of all serial murders, the second offers a

more accurate and therefore, useful definition when attempting to identify a serial killer and the

components that contribute to their actions.


Characteristics of A Serial Killer

Characteristics serve as a key indicator of ones personality or behavioral tendencies.

Despite diverse ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, educational, and familial backgrounds, serial

killers possess common characteristics that contribute to their malicious acts. Trends in

personality traits hint at extreme aggression and provide insight into the mind of a murderer.

While not all serial killers are the exact same, there are several common denominators that can

be investigated to further draw connections between the perpetrator and his or her criminal

behavior. The most common indicator of behavior can be found within their childhood family

dynamic. Serial killers tend to come from troubled families in which they were perhaps

abandoned by a parent or forced to grow up in homes dominated by their mothers. As children,

they most likely suffered from significant emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, instilling

profound feelings of humiliation and helplessness, which may lead to acts of revenge


Often times serial murderers have a long history of psychiatric problems or alcoholism

that tend to run in the family, making them vulnerable to the same behavioral patterns. Because

of their resentment toward distant, abusive parental figures, they have a great deal of trouble with

authority. Many serial killers suffer from suicidal thoughts, attempting to take their own life due

to extreme social isolation and a general hatred of the world (TwistedMinds). Along with

signs of mental illness and childhood abuse, some serial killers may display a fascination with

fire setting, fetishism, and sadistic activity such as torturing animals that may also contribute to

violence later in life (TwistedMinds). These characteristics help establish tell-tale signs of a

serial killer and offer a viable explanation behind their killing sprees.

Classifications and Motives

Over the years, researchers have attempted to classify serial killers based on their motives

for killing, some of which include power, sexual desires, thrill, fulfillment of a mission, and

financial gain. In his article Serial Killers: I. Subtypes, Patterns, and Motives, Laurence Miller

attempts to identify the various behavioral trends of serial killers and what possesses them to

commit such atrocious crimes. Miller analyzes five specific populations of serial killers sadist-

masochist, female, couple, homosexual, and professional killers. Sadist-masochist serial killers

are motivated by the fulfillment of sexual desires and the pleasures of pain (Miller, 2013, pg. 7).

Female serial killers, who possess many of the same characteristics as males, tend to fall within

several categories. They could express signs of a visionary killer who experiences delusions and

hallucinations, compelling them to murder. Hedonistic female serial killers murder for comfort,

power, or thrill, deriving pleasure and a sense of peace from the suffering of their victims (Ioana,


Miller examines professional killers based on their years of experience, the thoroughness

of their crimes, and their ability to avoid capture. Homosexual serial killers tend to kill for some

sort of profit or gratification. Lastly, couple serial killers are composed of dominant-submissive

pairs (man and woman) or equally dominant teams of closely related individuals (Miller,

2013, pg. 8). Murders that are carried out for religious purposes or cult activity fall within this

population. However, a majority of the couple serial killers feature a male as the primary

perpetrator with a female accomplice who work together, with the hope of achieving a sense of

empowerment. Furthermore, Miller suggests that that there is a lifelong pattern of increasingly

antisocial and criminal behavior, although serial killers do not usually have previous

convictions; therefore, a criminal history exists but no criminal record (Miller, 2013, pg. 4). A

frequent association appears between serial homicide and other crimes such as burglary and rape,

all of which involve a violation of another persons intimate self, ultimately satisfying the

killers desire for control (Miller, 2013, pg. 4).

Serial murderers can be classified based on their motives as well as their signature

patterns when committing the crime. A study by Hazelwood and Douglas (1980) attempts to

characterize the lust murderer through organized nonsocial and disorganized asocial patterns.

An organized nonsocial killer tends to have an irresponsible and self-centered attitude while

being completely cognizant of their actions. They typically commit crimes for their impact on

society, thus fulfilling some type of mission. The crime tends to be in a secluded or isolated

location, making it easier to transport the body of the victim. Signs of dissection indicate an

attempt to hinder the identification of the body. For organized nonsocial killers, there is much

less physical evidence left at the crime scene compared to their disorganized counterparts. On the

other hand, disorganized asocial serial killers feel rejected and lonely because of difficulty in

interpersonal relationships and therefore, seek acceptance. They are more prone to using a

weapon to torture or mutilate a victim prior to death. Often times they insert foreign objects in a

curiosity-motivated, yet brutal manner (Hazelwood & Douglas, 1980, pg. 20). Anthropophagic

acts of cannibalism indicate disorganized behavior. These two classifications help investigators

profile based on characteristic patterns or factors of uniqueness that distinguish certain

individuals from the general population. (Hazelwood & Douglas, 1980, pg. 22).

Differences Between Male and Female Serial Killers

Research suggests that gender can be a distinct indicator of behavioral patterns including

methods of killing, characteristics, intended motives, and targeted victims. A study by Myers,

Gooch, and Meloy (2005) analyzes the role of sexuality in a female serial killer and identifies

key differences between their male counterparts. To begin, serial murders account for about 0.5-

1.0% of all murders and only a small percentage of these offenders are thought to be female,

perhaps 5-10% (Myers et al., 2005, pg. 3). Unlike male serial killers who usually kill for sexual

reasons, most female serial murderers kill for either money or for excitement and power in

institutional settings like hospitals or nursing homes (Myers et al., 2005, pg. 3). Ironically,

female serial killers pursue stereotypical feminine professions such as nurses, care-givers, or

Sunday School teachers that gave them greater access to vulnerable victims (Kaplan, 2015).

While most victims are unknown to a male murderer, female serial killers murder people they

know, often their own family members (Kaplan, 2015). Their primary weapon of choice is

poison, strategically using their attractiveness to lure in victims. Female serial killers tend to

have longer killing careers than men, presumably because their crimes are more methodically

planned out (Myers, et al., 2005). The gender differences identified in Myers et al.s study

consistently matches those mentioned in Sarah Kaplans article (2015), suggesting that although

female serial killers are rare, they are equally as malicious and deadly as their male counterparts.

Profiling Techniques and Validity

Recently, public concern has heightened regarding the validity of profiling techniques in

the identification process. A study conducted by Donald Promish and David Lester in 1999

successfully matched the appearance and demeanor of 27 serial killers according to the unique

signatures found on their victims bodies. They identified killers based on two appearance-

demeanor types Type 1: BOTH clean-cut in appearance AND usually very polite, almost meek

or Type 2: NEITHER clean-cut in appearance NOR usually very polite, almost meek (Promish &

Lester, 1999, pg.156). They defined the postmortem signatures of the subjects as rape,

dismemberment, burning, torture, biting, masturbation, insertion of a foreign object in the


vagina, insertion of a foreign object in the mouth, striking with a blunt instrument, and

administration of drugs and/or alcohol (Promish & Lester, 1999, pg. 156). The researchers

compiled their results in a chart, indicating the killers type and marking their signatures with an

X if they were present on the bodies of their victims. After analyzing the data, Promish and

Lester identified a general link that exists between postmortem signature and type because while

four out of eight Type 1 subjects were seriously misclassified, only two out of nineteen Type 2

subjects were seriously misclassified (Promish & Lester, 1999, pg. 157). Therefore, the

researchers suggest that a connection can be drawn between signatures of the serial killers and

appearance-demeanor types as they are defined in the study. However, analysis of signatures is

not the only method of identification used by investigators. There is a strong belief that

chromosomal abnormalities can indicate possible criminal behavior.

Some criminologists suggest that abnormalities in an individuals DNA can indicate

violent behavior and even give rise to serial murder. These genetic differences can be seen in a

criminals DNA in comparison to that of an average person. In her article No One is Born a

Serial Killer!, Ilie Magdalena Ioana discusses a theory of physiological constitutional decisive

differences (Ioana, 2013, pg. 325) in which frequent abnormalities are present in sexual

chromosomes of criminals. According to Ioana, Klinefelters Syndrome is the presence of an

extra X chromosome resulting in a 47 XXY formula which is five times higher in criminals than

among the general population. Crime Chromosome is the presence of an extra Y chromosome

resulting in a 47 XYY formula which is ten times higher in criminals than the general population

(Ioana, 2013, pg. 325). Consistent with the ideas expressed by Ioana, Abby Rogers touches on

the theory of chromosomal abnormalities, suggesting that these genetic differences expressed

particularly by males during puberty can potentially give rise to aggressive criminal behavior

later in life (Rogers, 2012). However, in regards to effectiveness, chromosomal abnormalities are

not the preferred method of profiling, considering that not all criminals express the same genetic

differences. Given the limited research on DNA analysis, it is inferred that other profiling

techniques are perhaps more accurate.

Studies show that there are various methods of identification that investigators use to

correctly profile a killer. For example, a study conducted by White, Lester, Gentile, and

Rosenbleeth (2011) examines the variables that led to police focusing their attention on specific

suspects. They looked at 200 serial killers and developed twelve categories that describe how

these individuals come to the attention of the police based on their results: victim released (1%),

murderer killed during the crime (1.5%), voluntary went to police and confessed (2%), identified

by witness as being with victim(s) just prior to murder (2%), sent communication to

media/police (2.5%), caught in the act (5.5%), victim survived after being left for dead (7.5%),

victim escaped (8%), linked to crime scene (16.5%), linked to victims other than by eyewitnesses

(16.5%), arrested for a different offense (16.5%), or turned in by someone who knew the

offender (20.5%) (White, et al., 2011, pg. 162). These statistics suggest that a majority of serial

killers were captured as a result of citizens and surviving/escaped victims contributing

information. The researchers concluded that forensic science proved to be helpful in convicting

the perpetrator but not in identifying them. They suggested that a relationship exists between

psychological and physical evidence that contributes to identification, making it easy to convict

offenders. The research provided by White, Lester, Gentile, and Rosenbleeth (2011) proves how

valuable profiling really is and how everyday citizens can play a role in convicting serial killers,

thus reducing the possibility for such malicious acts and making the community a safer place.

Ties between appearance and criminality have existed for a long time. Today, the science

of psychology features one fundamental idea that human behavior is in some capacity a

reflection of personality. In his article, Profiling the criminal mind: does it actually work?,

Richard Kocsis attempts to prove the validity of profiling techniques by discussing the

relationship between appearance and criminality. He discusses one of the first applications of this

theory in investigating the criminal behavior of serial killer Jack the Ripper. In 1888, law

enforcement asked a physician to give a description of him based on his behaviors in the

murders. In 1956, psychiatrist James Brussel gave an extremely detailed and accurate description

of the New York City mad-bomber. These applications inspired the beginnings of the

Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI which was initiated in the 1970s. However, Kocsis

acknowledges that failures in profiling, such as the 1996 Olympic Games bombing and the 1992

murder of Rachel Nickell, have led many people to question the validity and overall value of

profiling, wondering whether it should be used during criminal investigations or as evidence in

trials (Kocsis, 2004).

Contrary to popular belief, studies have found that profiling is generally accurate and the

group with the highest proficiency was professional profilers. Although, the skills required for

proficiency werent necessarily experience in law enforcement but the capacity for logical and

objective reasoning (Kocsis, 2004, pg. 15). Kocsis suggests that there needs to be a level of trust

established between the community and law enforcement in order to ease public concerns. There

needs to be an accurate, effective system put in place that matches killers up with their victims

while also ensuring that innocent people do not face a false accusation. Consistent with Kocsis

opinion and other supporting research, it is safe to conclude that profiling techniques do more

good than harm considering a majority of methods successfully point investigators in the right

direction toward identification.


Research into serial murder and the topics surrounding the behavior unveil the

complexity of the criminology field itself. While some research suggests that all serial killers are

essentially the same, other sources allude to the vast psychological, physical, and social

differences that uniquely set them apart. However, the agreement that serial murder is carried out

in hopes of some sort of gratification or fulfillment is consistent throughout history as specific

cases are studied in depth. After compiling information and analyzing various theories, it is

evident that the majority of serial murders are linked to either sex, power, personal satisfaction,

or financial profit. Learning the tell-tale signs of a serial killer and what contributes to their

behavioral habits will aid in the profiling process and make society more knowledgeable about

what happens behind closed doors.

Serial murder is not a new phenomenon. Over the years there has been increasing interest

in the topic that far exceeds its scope and has generated countless articles, books, movies, and

television shows. While serial murder may be rare, it is deserving of more attention than what it

receives given the number of individuals that have fallen victim to such malicious, grotesque

acts. Ongoing research continues, as forensic psychologists attempt to uncover more information

specifically about the criminal brain that may serve as an indication of murderous behavior

(Rogers, 2013). Criminal investigators continue to improve upon their profiling methods, making

it easier and faster to pinpoint a killer based on their tendencies. While there is no infallible

equation for what makes a serial killer, it is important for the public to be informed of common

characteristics and tell-tale signs because believe it or not, serial murder is a worldwide problem

that occurs every day. A serial killer could be anyone someone you bumped into on the street,

maybe a neighbor, a coworker, or even a distant family member. It is essential to not only

acknowledge that this problem exists but, as active members of the community, be aware of

similar traits and behaviors in order to avoid becoming the next victim.

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