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Applied Criminology Natalia Herrera

How can we best explain the phenomenon of serial killing?


The phenomenon of serial killing may be best explained through the use of examining the profiles of the serial killers and the nature of the murders themselves. Wilson (1995. p.IX) states that FBI agent Robert Ressler invented the term 'serial killer' to describe obsessive repeat killers, formerly known as 'mass murderers.' The problem with the latter term is that it included all types of what may be considered 'normal' or identifiable motivations for committing several acts of homicide, such as killing for gain. Holmes and Holmes (1998, p.9) provides that the main difference between mass murder and serial murder lies in the time scale over which the victims are killed: 'Mass murderers kill at one place at one time.. the serial killer murders a number of people over a longer period of time.' The increase in the number of sex killers in America such as Ted Bundy and Lee Lucas led to the adoption of the new phrase 'serial murder' to describe murders linked to more sinister, and in most cases psychopathic motives to kill. As cited in the work of Tamara Cohen (Serial Killing, a forgotten phenomenon) there is much debate over how many murder victims are needed to constitute serial murder, however there seems to be some agreement that it should be three or more separate incidents: 'The FBI, Hickey (1991), Holmes and Holmes (1998), and Egger (1997) all define serial murder as the killing of three or more people over a period of time.' Many difficulties have arisen during the investigation of such murder, due to the compulsive nature of the crimes. One aspect or serial murder giving rise to such difficulties, can be found in the victim selection. Polk (1994, p.27) may provide that: 'Homicide is most likely to occur between people who not only know each other, but in fact share some form of close relationship,' however Tamara Cohen states that in most cases of serial murder, the killer does not have a relationship of any kind with the victim, which makes it far more difficult to establish motive and therefore solve the case: 'One of the most brutal acts of serial murder is that it usually involves the killing of one person by another who is a stranger.' The absence of any relationship however, does not mean that the killer will choose his victims at random, rather they will be consistent in targeting certain groups within society, such as homosexuals as in the case of Colin Ireland in 1993 (Fido, 2001) or preying on those most vulnerable/accessible, such as female prostitutes in the famous unsolved 19th century case of Jack the Ripper (Wilson, 1995). HER08427565

Applied Criminology Natalia Herrera Another factor for this type of homicide being more difficult to solve than others, is the way in which murders may not always happen in the same location. Holmes and Holmes (1998) classifies killers into the geographically stable (i.e. The ones which kill within their region such as the Chicago killer John Wayne Gacy) and the geographically transient. The latter category being killers that travel throughout their killing careers. Holmes and Holmes (1998) provides the example of Ted Bundy, who killed his female victims in the states of Washington, Colorado, Utah, Chicago, East Lansing, Louisville and Tallahassee. Cases such as Ted Bundy are more difficult to solve due to the inability to pinpoint an exact location of where the killer may be from. Adding to these problems within the course of investigation, can also be the inability to devise a list of possible suspects based on characteristics/lifestyles. Serial killers are typically portrayed in the media as easily identifiable and instantly recognisable monsters, such as the masked killer Michael Myers in the film Halloween. The problem with this stereotypical image is the false sense of security that it provides. Tamara Cohen states that: 'the typical serial killer is quite charming and attractive, and some of above intelligence.' She goes on to again give the example of Ted Bundy who was considered to be very handsome and popular among his peers, and went on to run his own lawn mowing company; someone who the police would be least likely to suspect of committing over 300 murders. Wilson (2007, p.33) states that: 'the most advanced systematic profiling technique in use today is the Criminal Investigative Analysis Programme,' which is underpinned by the most fundamental principles of psychology behaviour reflects personality. Serial killers like Ted Bundy may do things to maintain their reputation as 'a good lad' in order to remove themselves from suspicion, which then reflects their true personality. The way in which most serial killers similar to Bundy will do things to avoid attracting any negative attention to themselves make it more difficult for police to compile a list of suspects based on external /personality attributes. With all the above factors of the nature of serial murder considered, these cases are far more difficult to solve when compared with regular homicide ( for instance where they are likely to be crimes of passion) and therefore requires a different approach by the police within the investigation: 'The nature of serial killings, involving at times long time intervals between homicides, and different geographic locations (and therefore a record in a different place)... all combine to make it difficult to assess the size of the problem,' - (Polk, 1994 p. 138). Though victims tend to be female due to their vulnerability, they may also be the offenders. A quote from Cameron and Frazer (1987) reads: 'all the perpetrators without exception have been men.' We now know this to be untrue due to the many cases where the serial killer has been female, such as in the case of Carol Bundy and the 'Wests' Wilson (1995). Holmes and Holmes (1998, pp. 11-14) classifies the different types of serial killer into the visionary, the mission oriented, the hedonistic and the power/control oriented. Of the first, the killer suffers from hallucinations or hears voices telling them to kill. Harvey Carignan killed six women, claiming that God had instructed him to do so. Here, the serial killer is clearly suffering from a psychological illness, and may be regarded as HER08427565

Applied Criminology Natalia Herrera psychotic. Holmes and Holmes (1998, p. 12) states that the mission oriented are those killers that will take it upon themselves: 'to rid the world of a group of people who are undesirable or unworthy to live with other human beings.' In these cases the killer is not described as psychotic unlike those of the visionary type, due to the fact that they have a clear grasp on reality. Victims are chosen based upon the individual killer's personal prejudice. The attempt of Nazi Germany to eradicate the Jewish community during the holocaust in the early 1940's, was born not only out of political ideology, but the belief that racial purity could then be achieved. Staub (1989, p.94) states that Hitler believed that race was the foundation of all culture, and that: Jews lacked culture... their very being threatened to destroy the high Aryan culture. The hedonistic type are those killers who kill because it brings them enjoyment, or 'thrills.' Holmes and Holmes (1998 p. 67) offers the example of Carol Bundy who assisted Douglas Clark in the abduction and decapitation of the victims: 'The motivation for the killings appears to be intrinsic to her personality; personal and sexual pleasure.' The pleasure derived from killing is not necessarily sexual, more that it gives a rush or thrilling sensation to the offender, however Holmes and Holmes (1998, p. 13) states that: 'The lust murder can be viewed as a subcategory of the hedonistic type because of the sexual enjoyment experienced in the homicidal act.' The power/control oriented are those who kill for the gratification of having complete control over their victim: 'Holding the power of life or death over a victim is symbolically the ultimate control that one person can exert over another.' - Holmes and Holmes (1998, p. 13). The case of Harold Shipman describes the nature of this very motive. In 1998, Shipman was said to have been responsible for over a hundred murders, and was described by Fido (2001, p. 196) as 'Britain's worst multiple murderer in terms of shear numbers. He explains how Shipman and other serial killers with the 'power syndrome' kill to satisfy their own ego. Shipman felt he did not receive enough praise for his work within the medical profession, and felt that the only way to make himself feel adequate was to have power/control of life itself over his patients. Robert Ressler in the work of Fido (2001, p.196) supports this view: 'It's a fact, again, of power and control... authority over another human being, which is in fact what psychopaths get their kicks from.' Another type of serial killer will kill purely for the 'fun' and attention it will bring them, often sending messages and details of their next murder to the police. Fido (2001, p.194) states that: 'Colin Ireland proved that the characteristic narcissism of the serial killer may now become a conscious component of the motive for murder, since serial killers attract so much public attention.' He often taunted the police over the phone and boasted when he hit the record five murders for him to be considered a serial killer. Jack the Ripper, (though there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the author was indeed the killer) was also said to have been taunting the police through letters. Evans and Skinner (2001 p.214) provides one of the aforementioned letters: 'I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled... I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games...' In some cases, serial killers may be categorised as one or more of the above types. An HER08427565

Applied Criminology Natalia Herrera example of this is the Yorkshire ripper Peter Sutcliffe, who was described by police as a lust murderer for the prostitutes that he preyed upon, may also be classed as a visionary since he told police he was instructed by God to kill the women. Cross (1981, p.248) states that: 'Sutcliffe recalled without faltering the voice in the cemetery, the divine mission, the protection of God.' It seems clear from these motives of each type of serial killer, that the perpetrators are either psychotic, or psychopathic. The latter being described in the work of Holmes and Holmes (1998, p.87) as: 'a term which refers to a person who has a clear perception of reality, but one who seems to lack feelings of guilt, and commits criminal acts for his own immediate gratification.' Psychotic on the other hand refers to those who don't have a grasp on reality, i.e. Killers of the visionary type. Narcissistic Personality disorder is attributed to those serial killers who kill for power/control of for attention/reputation. Fracture Identity syndrome could explain he motive behind some visionary killers. These mental conditions have been found through the use of psychological profiling, may come about due to environmental/external factors such as a traumatic event. Fido (2001, p.197) provides that psychological profiling offers an explanation as to why some serial killers do, particularly those suffering from the 'power syndrome.' They may have been neglected as children,and felt inadequate their whole lives, such as in the case of Neill Cream. Ultimately what distinguishes a serial killer from an ordinary killer is that their motives seem to be born out of a psychological or mental illness affecting their perceptions of reality and their consciences. There is however, an argument to be made about the general mental states of the offenders across all types of homicide. Whether or not a man kills his wife's lover in a moment of passion for reasons of jealousy and betrayal, or he kills because he believes God is instructing him to do so, can it really be said that anyone who is driven to kill another human being is at the time of the crime, completely sane or void of mental illness? With this view it seems incorrect to explain the phenomenon of serial killing in terms of psychological disorders alone. Though the distinguishing feature of a serial killer seems to be that the desire to kill is present in them all the time, and not just at the moment of the murder, it can be argued that no person is in their right mind when it comes to taking the life of another. The way in which the psychological disorders or illnesses that are responsible for inducing the motives of the serial killer are said to develop after a traumatic event or childhood neglect/abuse. Yet there are many instances where a person can grow up having gone through the same experiences and not develop a mental disorder as a result, and therefore not feel the need to kill. It can be said then, that certain types of people are more prone to developing these mental illnesses, which may only be explained through genetics. In conclusion, the phenomenon of serial killing cannot be explained by merely saying that the killers suffer from psychological illnesses, due to the fact that in all types of homicide the offender cannot be said to be in their right minds at the time of the offence. Nor can it HER08427565

Applied Criminology Natalia Herrera be explained purely through the number of murders, as we have seen with the term 'mass murder.' Serial killing may be explained by saying that the perpetrator may have been born with a proneness or vulnerability to developing a serious psychological disorder, which may have been triggered by environmental factors such as abuse or neglect. The development of these mental conditions then lead to some sufferers to feel the need to kill and to go on killing until they reach the end of their career.

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