Serial and Mass Murderers Research Paper

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With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, there arose an increased incidence of urban violence, especially in the home and work place. Capturing the attention of analysts for more than 130 years, among these violent events are serial killing and mass murder. As more instances of both events were officially recorded and analyzed throughout the first half of the twentieth century, our understanding of the complex dynamics involved have become somewhat crystallized. By the 1960s and 1970s, more informed explanations of serial killing and mass murder were under development by government analysts and others interested in understanding the nature of multicide. By the 1980s, the scholarly literature that stands as a benchmark for comparison had been developed. Some of this information is derived from scholarly research efforts conducted, for example, in Australia, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. In addition, the FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR) provide an incidence-based compilation of homicide victim and offender age, race, sex, weapon, victim/offender relationship, and circumstance that is useful to create profiles and typologies of serial and mass killings. These data establish new, important insights into the modus operandi of each type.

According to the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual, there are six kinds of murders, namely single, double, triple, mass, spree, and serial. The multiple homicide concept includes two of these six classifications: Mass murder and serial murder. Because of their import, these phenomena are addressed in the research efforts of many analysts, including the classic article authored by James Alan Fox and Jack Levin (1998). These analysts provide an important operational distinction, stating

…we define (multiple homicide) narrowly as the murder of at least four victims. More than just arbitrary, this minimum body count, – as opposed to a two-or three-victim threshold (because it) … helps to distinguish multiple killing from homicide generally… . Multiple homicide includes cases in which victims are slain at once (mass), over a short period of time (spree), or over an extended period of time (serial) (Fox and Levin, 1998: 408)

Although a great deal of attention has been directed toward multiple-homicide events that occurred during the latter portion of the twentieth century, data pertaining to mass murder and serial killing for the years prior to the mid-1960s are also known to exist. In a recently published research report, it is clearly demonstrated that data for at least 909 mass murders (using the four fatal victims within a 24-h period requirement) took place during the period 1900–99 within the United States alone. Many of these events (n ¼ 260) occurred between 1900 and 1975. The analyst’s discovery of important historical data challenge the common wisdom (Duwe, 2004), and he calls attention to the socially constructed myth of the dramatic increase in the number of mass murders since 1965. This may not be a valid claim, according to Duwe, who wrote:

Despite the widespread belief in this claim .. . hard data have not been presented to substantiate the alleged mass murder increase. In fact, existing research has not even examined mass murder before 1965. Instead it has focused on cases that have occurred during the last several decades (Duwe, 2004: 730)

The geographic distribution of serial killers is worldwide, although countries such as Australia, Germany, and Great Britain rarely record serial and mass killing events on a consistent basis. It is estimated that 80% of all known serial murderers identified during the twentieth century resided on the North American continent. Most of these were from the United States. Canada documents less than two and a half mass murder events annually; the United State records almost 26 mass murder events per year.

It has also been reported that during this same 100-year period, 1900–99, there were 1246 serial killers officially documented worldwide, of whom 236 were in the United States. Of the estimated 18 361 victims worldwide, a total of 3313 were thought to have been murdered in the United States. In Australia, 5% of all homicide events involve multiple victims but, on average, only one multiple homicide is recorded annually. In the 9-year period that includes 1989–97, there were 13 such massmurder incidents reported in Australia, resulting in 94 deaths. None were recorded during the subsequent 2 years that the Australian report covers.

During the period 1920–40, Germany reported a dozen cases of serial killing in which over 20 victims were claimed for each case. Given that this kind of high serial murderer activity was not documented prior to or since that extended time period leads to some speculation as to whether the cause of this high number of deaths may be attributed to political reactionaries in that country. From 1970 to the mid-1980s, 39 such cases were documented.

Historically, in England and Wales few such cases of homicide are documented; even fewer cases of serial killing occur. For the period 1940–85, only 12 cases were recorded in England, with a victim count that ranges from four to 26. For the 46-year period, these 12 cases accounted for a known total of 107 murders with prostitutes accounting for the largest group of victims (n ¼ 24).

The conventional wisdom regarding the dramatic increase in social violence, such as mass murder and serial killing, is perpetrated by media attention that is focused on violence-prone psychopaths and sociopaths. Portrayed as representing an historically new crime wave that began in the 1960s, this view is currently being challenged. Placing these data within an appropriate social and historical context provides some important new insights, indicating that within the United States, at least, the incidence of multiple killings was at least as prevalent during the 1920s and 1930s as they have been since 1965. On the other hand, at least a portion of the rather large number of missing persons, including children, who cannot be accounted for on a yearly basis, may also be represented among those who have fallen victim to an unknown serial killer.

The need to continue inquiry of such phenomena is also important, extending well beyond the public interest and fascination and the health-care professionals’ need to know. The knowledge is currently being extended, for example, on the stationary serial killer category, a killer who is far removed from the violence and death of the streets and private residences perpetrated by the nomadic or territorial serial killers. The rarest of serial murderers, the stationary killer, works in arenas of public trust, such as hospitals and nursing homes. As important insights of serial murder committed by medical personnel are uncovered, new institutional policies are put into practice as safeguard measures. Medical murders, committed by physicians, nurses and their aids, hospital orderlies, and dentists, have been characterized as based on the underlying motives, mercy killings, and, in some instances, the perpetrator is known as the hero type. Having created a life-threatening situation, the hero then attempts to save the patient. But these kinds of multiple homicides also include the motive of profit (such as life insurance claims) and the sexual motive (such as overdosing a patient in a dental chair and then engaging in sexual molestation). Still other workplace killings perpetrated by employees take place in motels and apartments.

Violent forms of behavior that lead to serial killing and mass murder receive an appropriate recognition as constituting a major social problem. Witness the April 16, 2007, rampage on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University located in Blacksburg, Virginia. This event resulted in the shooting deaths of 33 individuals, 32 of whom were students and professors; the perpetrator was victim number 33. Despite its tragic nature, the Virginia Tech carnage no longer represents an unusual event. Indeed, there are many such violent events noted worldwide, including the Columbine High School shootings; Jonestown, Guyana; Waco, Texas and the Branch Davidian religious sect; the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building; the 1982 South Korean Uireyeong massacre of 57 victims; the August 1991 Strathfield Plaza shopping centre shooting deaths of seven people; the April 1996, Port Arthur, Tasmania (Australia), shooting death of 35 victims; a suspected intentional Egypt Air crash in which 200 individuals lost their lives; and the events of September 11, 2001, which led to the demise of thousands at the World Trade Center and many more victims who died in the plane crashes at the U.S. Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania farm field. Despite the significance of each particular occurrence, however, perhaps only the events of September 11, 2001, will stand out in history because of the subsequent course of action taken by the U.S. government in national and international affairs.

Questions that are posed in the immediate aftermath of such tragedy tend to be directed not only toward the characteristics of the perpetrator, the sociocultural environment that surrounds the event, and those officials who are in positions of authority, but also discovery of what can be done to prevent the occurrence of such events in the future. Since the 1960s, there has been earnest, albeit less than coordinated, scholarly and public health-oriented efforts to do so.

The conceptualization of mass murder varies considerably in terms of numbers as well as the more elusive psychological intention (intent) of the killer. Katherine Ramsland, in Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers: Why They Kill, suggests that the definitions of mass murder range considerably among analysts of this problem, explaining that mass murder is used by some to include:

… all multicides, such as serial killings and any other occasion in which someone kills more than a single person. Some sources indicate that there must be at least three victims to classify an incident as mass murder. A few set the number at three plus at least two wounded, and others settle on a minimum of four victims (Ramsland, 2006: xi)

However, it may be best to conceptualize the mass murderer differently from both the serial killer and the spree killer (who engages in prolonged killing over time and space), who may or may not hold similar motives and intentions as the mass murderer. According to the Crime Classification Manual (Douglas et al., 1992) provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one who kills four or more individuals in close succession in a single location or in closely related locations is designated a mass murderer.

Serial killings, on the other hand, may not be recognized for what they are, and this may be true for a variety of reasons that we explore below. In the following sections, we attempt to offer a summary of the important academic and government research findings and insights that have been reported over the past 50 years. In so doing, we attempt to describe why serial killings and mass murder represent important areas of inquiry both historically and within the contemporary social and biological sciences. We do so while also acknowledging that because of the horrible nature of the acts committed by serial and mass murderers and the low probability that such acts may be predictable, the individuals who perpetrate such violent acts may also defy exact classification. Still, the sociopsychological and psychiatric exploration of the minds of serial killers and mass murderers provides an opportunity to recognize the unique character of each individual. Although each instance of mass murder may differ from serial killing and spree killing, mass murder shares some common characteristics with each of the others.

Serial Murderers

We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow (Bundy, n.d.)

Over the course of the past several hundred years, serial killers have been labeled as angel makers, angels of death, black widows, baby farming (of the Victorian era), bad seeds, and blue beards. It is now well known that serial killers are different from those individuals who are responsible for most homicides. Serial killers are generally young and engage in a childhood pattern of violence that is directed toward animals and other humans, including the young sibling or playmate as well as the older adult parent, teacher, relative, and authority figure. Although there exists only a modicum of documented evidence that some serial killers actually begin to kill for the first time while still under the age of 10 years, there is overwhelming evidence that most serial killers begin to kill when they are quite young. Approximately 26% commit their first murder while still in their teens; 44% began to kill when in their twenties; another 24% are in their thirties; and approximately 4% are in their forties. In light of these data, the following also is germane to this assessment. Common characteristics of serial killers identified in a highly regarded work by Holmes and DeBurger (1988) indicate:

The serial murderer is between the ages of 25 and 35, usually white male who kill white females, the serial murder occurs in areas of high transience and population change, involves people of similar status, and usually involves the killing of a total stranger (Holmes and DeBurger, 1988: 23–24)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, serial murders frequently involve more than one killer. Thus, another noteworthy datum is that approximately 13% of serial killings committed within the United States involve multiple killers. Of this total, fully 56% involve two killers, especially two females, with the remaining 44% involving groups that vary in size from three killers to cults with many members involved in the killing. A variety of pairings are involved among multiple killers, but the most usual grouping involves all females ranging in size from two to a large number of females, as characterized by the socalled angel makers of Nagyrev, Hungary, during and for several years after WWI, and the angels of death medical murders committed during the 1980s by female personnel employed in the Lainz General Hospital in Vienna, Austria.

Serial murder is a type of multiple homicide, and the contemporary notion related to serial murder is that this event involves stranger-to-stranger crime.

Many victims killed by strangers, including serial killers, exist on the fringe of society. These include prostitutes, drug addicts, homeless people, and teenage runaways. This is consistent with other findings. As reported in a case study of John Wayne Gacy, one of the most prolific serial killers of young males during the 1970s, the characteristics targeted by the serial killer include strangers, prostitutes, runaways, elderly people, and homosexuals, in sum, people who hold little community status or attachment.

Serial Killers, Historical Perspective

Although many people perceive the serial killer to be a relatively new contemporary form of deviant behavior, the history of serial murder can be traced to ancient Rome where the first recorded case of serial murder is attributed, not to the male with whom this phenomenon is generally associated, but to Locusta, a female who poisoned her victims. Locusta was executed for her crimes in Rome in 69 AD. Throughout the Middle Ages, examples of both male and female serial killers are noted, including cases involving the bizarre, perverted sex and magic rituals and other sadistic behavior in which the lives of perhaps 100 children were taken by the wealthy French baron Giulles de Rais (the original bluebeard killer). The baron, who was identified as exhibiting an unhealthy appetite for young children, was executed in 1440, as were several servants who were dispatched to procure the unwitting young for the baron’s sadistic pleasure.

During the Middle Ages and up to the latter portion of the past millennium, poison appears to have been the killers’ method of choice. Other similar infamous examples are found over a several-hundred-year period, of which a number of female serial killers are known to have poisoned more than 600 people. Some children were murdered and then fed to the killers’ starving family members.

Torture and killing for pleasure seems to have been the forte of one Erzebet Bathory born in 1560 in Hungary. Of noble heritage, her family members included the King of Poland, a prime minister, governor of a providence, judges, and church bishops and cardinals. Although married early in life, this serial killer began her method of torture and inflicted pain during her late teenage years, casting upon the even younger servants and later village peasants. Tried in court in the year 1611 for an alleged 80 murders, it is estimated that Erzebet may have tortured to death 300–650 victims.

The examples are more bountiful as the Industrial Revolution took effect. The time dimension appears to be important in that over an extended period of time the profile if not the motives of serial killers seems to have changed. While during the Middle Ages aristocrats preyed upon the peasant class to satisfy what is now described as depravity, during the period of the Industrial Revolution members of an expanding middle class killed street prostitutes and homeless children as well as household employees. In contemporary society, this group of individuals appears to be from the blue collar working and lower middle classes.

Serial Murder: An Emerging Concept

The concept serial murder/killing had a less than distinguished history until multiple homicide was defined to stand in contrast to homicide in general. It seems apparent that many deaths that could be attributed to serial murderers were not officially documented as such. Outside of the Church recording of births, marriages, and deaths, the recording procedures of the Middle Ages were not well orchestrated. Such organization was to remain undeveloped for many more years until the direction of the so-called moral statisticians was established in the early 1800s. One general area of interest for these moralistic but scientifically oriented individuals was crime, of which murder serves as one important example. As the process of recording important events such as murder became an official government act, more specific information regarding episodes involving suspected serial killings began to emerge.

Although there is a paucity of official data pertaining to historical serial killing, in the contemporary experience the opposite effect is found. That is, once identified either by modus operandi or by name, serial killers gain considerable public attention. In the United States alone, more than 50 individuals are known to have taken the lives of five to more than 100 victims between the early 1900s to the end of the century. In contrast, in the period 1960 to the late 1990s Australia recorded only nine serial killers. In England, during the 1940–85 period, a total of 12 such cases were recorded. Whether based on fact or myth, another interesting datum is based on the belief that each year 5000 or more individuals become victims of serial killers. Others estimate the number of the victims in the United States alone is between 3500 and 6000 victims annually.

Many serial killers are eventually identified and convicted of their crimes; in other instances infamous serial killers have not been identified and their legacy has grown to hold the status of urban legend. Classic examples include the Jack the Ripper killings in several districts of London, England, that occurred during the year 1888 and the Axeman of New Orleans who is thought to have been operating in that city during the 1918–19 period, as well as the self-proclaimed Zodiac killer who stalked victims in the northern California area during the 1970s and 1980s.

The historical list of serial murderers includes the familiar and not so familiar. The first known American serial murderer can be traced to the 1880s when Herman Webster Mudgett killed 27 women. At that time and for the next 100 years, the phenomenon of multiple murders attributed to one individual was referred to as lust murder and, although the term serial murder was first coined either in the mid-1960s or in 1982, the media confused serial murder with mass murder, using the latter term until the end of the 1980s.

Many of the most famous serial killers in the United States (e.g., William Bonner, aka Billy the Kid and Doc Holiday) have also been the most prolific, but the scope of their criminality became lost in time as their names and actions merged to become part of the legend of settling the U.S. western frontier. The history of many of these so-called western and urban legend killers is chronicled by Newton (2000) in The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. It is also noteworthy that contrary to popular belief, the majority of serial killers were or are not homosexual but, of those who were, many can be counted among the most prolific serial killers. And these serial killers receive much attention primarily because of the sexual nature of the homicide.

The early portion of the modern era produced few documented instances of serial killing, but these became highly profile events given the notoriety accorded by the media, especially in the United States. Terms such as blue beards, black widows, strangle psycho, viciously depraved, mad butcher, backpacker serial killer, lonely hearts killer, torso killer, cannibalistic pedophile, the gorilla killer, and homicidal burglar were used to describe both the known and unknown serial killer of this period.

During the 1920s, two serial killers of note emerged, namely Earle Leonard Nelson and Carl Panzram, while the decades of the 1930s and 1940s produced Albert Fish, Jack Bird (who confessed to a dozen murders), and William Heirens. But this was to change beginning with the 1950s and lasting through the final half of the twentieth century. During this period, many more serial killers were identified, including Austria’s international murderer Jack Underberger. This change also appears to cast focus on the United States where the largest proportion of serial killers is located.

For the period 1800 to 1986, it is reported that of the serial killers identified, approximately 14% were female. Recent analysis of the sudden infant death syndrome phenomenon also reveals that many cases of SIDS may serve as a cover for serial murder of infants committed by the mother either because of the insurance profit motive or because of some unusual urge or compulsion.

Defining Serial Murder

The FBI’s Crime Classification Manual (Douglas et al., 1992) provides a concise albeit controversial definition of serial murder as ‘‘Three or more separate events in three or more separate locations with an emotional cooling-off period between homicides.’’ However, the history of the evolving definition of this phenomenon is itself interesting. Indeed, several definitions of serial murder have been advanced. Among these are the fact that the events we now refer to as serial murders were once identified as stranger murders; this phenomenon was also referred to as chain murder, mass murder and, later, multicide. Introduced into the literature in 1972, the term multicide characterized an individual with a psychopathological personality who committed a number of murders over a period of time.

It is not without reason that the conceptual under- standing of serial murder is less than unanimous. Some analysts even debate whether serial murder and spree killings should be subsumed under the mass murder concept given that all of these terms are examples of multiple homicide. Establishing the four victim minimum for the multiple homicide category can contribute an important distinction for murder. What is useful to this assessment is that once the concept came under scrutiny there was enough interest to initiate a rapid change in definition or meaning. Today most analysts agree that three victims killed in rapid succession and linked to a single killer or killers constitute serial murder. Others also argue that the time lapse between the first and last murder must be more than 30 days to qualify as serial murder.

The aforementioned refinement in definition continued until 1985, at which time Steven Egger offered what may be the most comprehensive definition of serial murder:

A serial murder occurs when one or more individuals (males in most known cases) commit a second and or subsequent murder; is relationshipless (no prior relationship between victim and attacker); is at a different time and has no apparent connection to the initial murder; and is usually committed in a different geographical location. Further, the motive is not for material gain and is believed to be for the murderer’s desire to have power over his victims. Victims may have symbolic value and are perceived to be prestigeless and in most instances unable to defend themselves or alert others to their plight, or are perceived as powerless given their situation in time, place or status within their immediate surrounding (such as vagrants, prostitutes, migrant workers, homosexuals, missing children, and single and often elderly women) (Egger, 1990: 4)

To this list of potential victims we can add single women who are out alone, college students, and hospital patients.

Finally, Michael Newton suggests that the best description of serial murder may be that promoted by the U.S. National Institute of Justice which, in 1988, defined the term 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 offender’s behavior and the physical evidence observed at the crime scenes will reflect sadistic overtones  (Newton, 2000: 205)

In an interesting psychological assessment of what was fast becoming known as a growing social menace, Norris wrote:

The serial murderer murders in an episodic frenzy that can strike without warning. He often preys on the most vulnerable victims in his area and then moves on, leaving the police to find the missing persons and search for traces of the scant clues left behind. Because his killing is not a passion of the moment but a compelling urge that has been growing within him sometimes for years, he has completely amalgamated this practice into his lifestyle. It is as though he lives to kill, surviving from one murder event to the next, stringing out his existence by connecting the deaths of the victims. Without this string of murders, he feels he will fall apart, that he will disintegrate psychologically. The remainder of his life is devoted to maintaining the mask of normalcy and sanity (Norris, 1988: 19)

Sexual Predation

Of the limited number of research case studies that have been conducted, it is generally the sexual homicide type that receives the most attention. Most serial killers become sexually involved with their victims; two-thirds of the serial killers are sexually motivated. The essence of this characterization is captured, for example, in Australia’s classic type of serial murder:

There are one or more separate homicide events which occur over a period of time (hours, days, weeks, or even years). There is a cooling-off period between episodes. These crimes are predatory. The offender frequently stalks his victims. The motive is clearly psychological. The offender’s behaviour and the crime scene evidence typically indicate sexual and sadistic features, and may involve torture and mutilation of the victim (Mouzos, 2000: 93)

Analysts of multiple murder pose that while the motivation and patterns of serial killers differ a great deal, the most prominent form of serial killing is the power-hungry sadist (see the section titled ‘Of types and motives’ below), who seeks strangers to gratify their sexual fantasies. But the victims of serial murderers also represent more than objects of sexual attraction. Serial killers view their dead victims as aesthetically pleasing and a source of companionship. The perpetrator may also engage in one or more of the following: animal torture, anthropophagy (eating the victim’s flesh or slicing portions of the body), coprophilia (the offender receives sexual gratification from touching or eating urine or excrement), fetishism (sexual gratification by substituting objects for a partner), gerontophilia (seeking out elderly people of the opposite sex for sexual gratification), mixoscophia (achieving sexual pleasure through observing others engage in sex acts), necrofetishism (viewing of dead bodies), necrophilia (sexual intercourse with a corpse), pedophilia (sexual intercourse with children), and pederasty (anal intercourse with children). In addition, serial murderers are known to use photographs or recordings, use pornography, and engage in acts involving rape, torture, sadomasochism, voyeurism, and lust murder or sadistic brutality, including the mutilation of body parts, especially the genitalia.

Of Types And Motives

Three types of serial killers are the nomadic, territorial, and stationary. Nomadic killers frequently move from city to city and state to state, thereby making it difficult for officials to identify them. The most common are the territorial killers who stalk most if not all their victims within certain areas. The rarest form of serial killing is related to employees who operate within the professional workplace settings such as hospitals or rest homes as well as residential locations such as apartments and motels.

Public exposure of serial killings is cause for officials to generate numerous explanations, many of which may hold little relevance to reality. But serious efforts to classify types of serial killers led to an early development of four distinctive types: (1) the visionary (responds to voices or visions of God or others that demand certain people be destroyed); (2) the mission-oriented (engages in a mission to destroy evil people (such as prostitutes) because they debase society); (3) the power/control-oriented (killer derives satisfaction from having the power to determine the fate of the victim, including sexual arousal); and (4) the hedonistic. The hedonistic serial killer category is a composite of two subtypes. Subtype one, the hedonist, is oriented toward pleasure and/or thrill seeking and is rewarded with the sense of pleasure or well-being achieved through committing criminal acts. Subtype two, the lust killer, is sexually aroused, achieving emotional gratification during commission of the homicidal act. Described as a sociopath whose ultimate goals include power and sexual satisfaction, the lust killer seeks to sexually ravage the victim and may even derive more pleasure through symbolic or actual postmortem mating.

The lust murderer subtype is a useful tool for further understanding the personalities of serial killers, many of whom can be further categorized into two types, namely the organized serial killer and the disorganized serial killer. Each is essentially asocial, but the organized subtype is socially competent. The organized killer is completely indifferent to social interests and the welfare of society in general. Violence-prone, this emotion is thought to be caused by marital stress, loss of employment, and heavy use of alcohol. With an irresponsible attitude and self-centered in nature, the organized serial killer dislikes people but does not avoid them. Rather, the lust murderer manipulates people to achieve his goals.

The disorganized lust murderer avoids social contact, experiences difficulty in establishing interpersonal relationships, and, as a consequence, feels rejected. Typically a loner, the disorganized serial killer is more likely to grow up in an environment devoid of love and affection, and is more likely to have been abused and/or rejected by a parent.

Such typologies offer important insights essential to establishing a foundation upon which to build theory. However, the serial killer almost defies definitive classification. To illustrate, a particularly interesting quote attributed to a former London police officer Dennis Andrew Nilsen follows:

I did it all for me. Purely selfish. I worshipped the art and the act of death, over and over. It’s as simple as that. Afterwards it was all sexual confusion, symbolism, honoring the ‘fallen.’ I was honoring myself. I hated the decay and the dissection. There was no sadistic pleasure in the killing. I killed them as I would like to be killed myself, enjoying the extremity of the death act itself. If I did it to myself I could only experience it once. If I did it to others, I could experience the death act over and over again (Newton, 2000: iv)

On Theory And Speculation

We know that serial murderers are different from the conventional murderer. At the end of the twentieth century, it also became clear that serial killers do not differ so much with respect to psychiatric disorders than that found among the general population. What appears to be a contradiction is not. Rather, the issue is that there appear to be many types of serial murderers. Thus, given the current status of knowledge, it may not be possible at this time to create the definitive profile of the serial murderer.

Analysis of some cases has shown that physiological problems may need to be addressed, but, in general, what little evidence or information pertaining to serial killers was available prior to the latter portion of the twentieth century was drawn from clinical single-case studies. Such studies consisted of courtroom testimony and clinical interviews. Although informative, this kind of knowledge claim tends to skew our understanding of the multiple/serial murderer in that the information is intended to represent a typology of what can be considered the most atypical cases. In general, then, psychological theories pertaining to serial killers do not rest on evidence that psychiatric disorders are more prevalent among these individuals than among the normal population; at least this seems to be the case in the United States. For European nations such as Great Britain, serial murderers are found to be mentally disturbed. It may be useful to understand the hypothesis that whatever differences exist among serial killers and mass murderers, most normal people are capable most of the time of controlling or channeling their aggressive impulses outward toward objects other than humans and animals.

Although initially based on a sample size of one, psychological modeling of the warning signs of future violence include the identification of what is commonly referred to as the triad of warning signs. These warning signs, including arson, cruelty to animals, and persistent adolescent bed-wetting (unueresis), have been demonstrated to be valid indicators of severe mental and emotional problems.

Consistent with these findings, an even more limited study conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation involving 36 sexually motivated killers reported that 43% had been sexually abused during childhood, and an even larger proportion (73%) experienced sexually stressful events in their lives, and 72% engaged in childhood fetishisms. More than two-thirds of this same group experienced the homicidal triad of classic warning signs including childhood bed-wetting, slightly more than one-half (56%) set fires during their childhood, and one-third tortured animals, while more than one-half expressed cruelty toward other children. Other behavioral commonalities identified include 71% engaging in chronic lying, and 38% admitting to assaulting adults.

Many of these actions first occurred during childhood, with a large proportion of the individuals continuing to engage in these behaviors well into adolescence.

Still more common characteristics identified in the international research literature include growing up in a dysfunctional household, a history of poverty and unemployment, a pattern of heavy drinking, a preoccupation with fantasy and murder, and learning to associate violence with pleasure. Whether or not these common characteristics eventually result in a serial killer emerging depends on whether these individuals are influenced by higher than normal instigation to aggression and lower than normal inhibitions against aggression characteristic of the psychopath and sociopath.

During the final decades of the century, quantitative research provided the opportunity to develop profiles and typologies of the perpetrators of multiple homicides, especially serial killers. As theoretical explanations of the 1960s first began to lay a foundation for the work of the 1980 and 1990s, general sociocultural theories have been applied to explain serial murder, including the subcultural theory and the more recent application of the routine activity theory.

Given the popularity of research on serial murder, especially in the United States, perhaps it is not surprising that many events and individuals have been described, in retrospect, as representative of the serial killing phenomenon. These efforts include depiction of soldiers killing during wartime, organized criminal hit-men, Nazi Germany prison camp guards, terrorists, satanic cult killers, and common hoodlums. Attempts to apply many models and theories to serial killers result in a growing psychological literature that depicts these predators as primary psychopaths, secondary psychopaths, over controlled and under controlled, paranoid schizophrenic, and pathologic sexual sadists with histories of childhood physical and mental abuse. Recent findings indicate that perhaps 10% of male serial killers may be paranoid schizophrenic, while biological findings suggest brain damage to the prefrontal cortex region may be useful to explain some cases. Serial murderers also have been portrayed as experiencing emotions such as frustration and anger, much of which is thought to have accumulated from childhood on. Even application of the classic frustration–aggression hypothesis suggests what the needs of the killer may be. In extreme cases, to show that serial murderers are indeed different, tentative diagnoses such as delusional psychotic, paranoid schizophrenic, and multiple personality disorder are made.

In general, however, there does not appear to be much evidence that serial murderers are more disturbed or defective, nor have they experienced more traumatic childhood life events than the general population. Where such differences are detected, these appear to be unique to the individual. Under such circumstances, it is difficult if not impossible to create a general theory at this time.

Therefore, it may be necessary to begin to construct more abstract models that include multifactor cultural and social structural elements. Some sociological research has been undertaken, but, similar to the efforts in psychology, these have relied on application of extant theories such as the subcultural, subculture of violence, routine activity, and social control theories. None of these projects provides results indicative of strong explanatory power. Thus, we may have to accept the premise made within the context of recent research conducted by James DeFronzo et al.:

The findings suggest that as the scientific study of serial homicide progresses, cultural and social-structural variables should be incorporated along with psychiatric and biomedical factors in efforts to account for and reduce this form of homicide (DeFronzo et al., 2007: 12)

Mass Murder

Mass Murder Defined

Mass murder is defined to occur when at least three or four murders are committed at approximately the same time and within the same spatial area. The central idea is that a mass murder takes place within a brief period of time, often within a few hours. Additionally, mass murder is confined to a singular location such as a school or place of employment, thus differentiating mass murder from single and multiple murders that occur across time and space.

Although the exact number of mass murders may never become known, our understanding of this problem should be placed within an historical and social context. During most of the twentieth century, mass murder involved the reporting of death under a number of different categories, including shootings, murder, attempted murder, bombs and bombing, fires, plots, the use of aircraft, and arson (even this category is suspect because of the problem of differentiating mass murder from the notion of arson for profit). In a ground-breaking study, from 1900 to 1975 a total of 260 mass murders involving at least four victims were reported in the New York Times. From 1976 to 1999, using a U.S. government SHR data base as well as the New York Times, a total of 649 mass murders committed in the United States were identified by this same analyst.

The term mass murder was apparently used for the first time in 1982 by the New York Times to classify the killing of three to four (depending on the definition employed) or more individuals and the wounding of others in one location at approximately the same time. Although events in which large numbers of individuals are killed capture the attention of the news media, the modal form of mass murder involves familicide in which the head of household, usually the male, kills the wife and children within their residence. Aside from familicide, another important statistic is that the mass murderer targets individuals who are known such as current or ex-in-laws and workplace coworkers and supervisors.

Media reports illustrate the passionate community reactions to mass killings in eliciting a call for new legislation and enhanced police protection as well as a dearth of editorials in which various forms of community action are suggested. Fox and Levin (1998) discuss the effect of such social constructions of reality as these relate to public concern over the killings. Mass killings tend not to generate high levels of public fear and anxiety in the aftermath of the event because once the killing event is over no further threat from the offender exists. That is, the mass killing event produces a reaction that is focused on a past event.

Types Of Mass Murder

In general, one or two individuals are involved in committing mass murder, but a group, corporation, or state government also can be involved in this type of activity. Such instances of mass murder may be motivated by ideological and/or political concerns (terrorism) or anger such as in workplace shootings. In addition, religion-based killings are common as are school shootings; the categories are not mutually exclusive. A mass murder event may have political and religious overtones, yet result in the death of students at school, as exemplified by the 2004 school shooting deaths recorded in Beslan, Russia.


The terrorist acts on September 11, 2001, were responsible for the loss of more than 3000 lives at several locations within a few hours of each other. In this example, a terrorist group is alleged to be linked to a state (or states) that foster the use of threat and intimidation for establishing the ideological foundation upon which agents of mass murder function. Similarly, the mass murder of 191 people on a train in Madrid, Spain, in 2004 and 52 people in the underground/subway and a bus in London, England, in 2005 are linked to a group with expressed ideological goals.


Group actions that result in mass murder include the involvement of cults such as the 1969 Tate-Labianca killings in California perpetrated by followers of Charles Manson. Similarly, the combined 1978 mass suicide and mass murder of the members of the Peoples Temple led by Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana, serve as another example.

One particularly interesting example of religio-political mass murder is the 1995 Tokyo, Japan, subway poison gas attack that killed 12 people. The group accused of committing the offense sought religious freedom within the political structure. When this status was denied, the group retaliation was in the form of a mass murder event. Akin to the Japanese attack is the mass murder of 100

Christians in Ambon, Indonesia, in 1999. The Indonesian example was religious in orientation, yet was also an act of revenge for the arson of Muslim homes perpetrated by Christians.

Workplace And School

Perhaps the best-known form of mass murder is workplace and school killings, which is sometimes known as going postal, referring to mass murder committed within the context of a U.S. postal service facility. The six deaths that occurred in Goleta, California, in 2006, the 14 deaths in Edmond, Oklahoma, in 1986, and the 2003 attack that resulted in the murder of office workers in Meridian, Mississippi, involved a disgruntled employee, who, upon returning to the job site, murdered workplace colleagues.

School shootings draw the greatest amount of attention from the public and the media. As a result, school shootings as a category of mass murder are perhaps the most recognized form of mass murder. School shootings do result in death even though these are rare events. Examples of this event include the 1996 Dunblane, Scotland, mass murder of school children ages 5–6, the school girls (the male students were dismissed) in attendance at an Amish schoolhouse located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that occurred in 2006, and the Erfurt, Germany, teenagers who died during a 2002 attack.

Family Killings

Another form of mass murder is familicide or the murder of one’s family. Available data indicate an adult male household member is most likely to be the perpetrator of familicide, taking the lives of the female spouse and those of the children. It is also common for the killer to die upon the conclusion of the mass murder, either at his/her own hand or through the intervention of the police. Two examples of this form of mass murder are the 2006 killing familicide that occurred in Indianapolis, Indiana, and the murder of six family members in Salzgitter, Germany, in 2000. Also, in 2001 a member of the Nepalese Royal Family killed several members of his family. In all three cases, the murderer was an adult male family member.

Typically mass murder victims are known to the perpetrator. Although random victims die during the event, most mass murders involve fathers killing members of their family, disgruntled or fired employees killing their coworkers, students killing fellow students, and cult leaders ordering the killing of cult members. Major exceptions that stand outside the norm are mass murder committed as symbolic statements. Examples include the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, the Manson cult family killings, and indiscriminate shootings in McDonald’s restaurants. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were targets because they symbolically represented what Al Qaeda believed were wrong with the world. Similarly, in the Manson family’s system of beliefs, members of the establishment were considered pigs, and their deaths were needed to initiate the group’s apocalyptic goal of helter-skelter. Last, McDonald’s restaurants are often considered symbolic of American culture, including ideals of the normality of American life. A killing event in a McDonald’s can be seen as an attack on some or all aspects of the perceived ideals of American culture.

Most mass murderers do not survive; few leave behind any testimony such as notes or diaries to shed light on their motives. What is known about the motivations of mass murderers suggests that they hold clear conceptions of power, revenge, hatred, anger, terror, fear, loyalty, and greed. Some mass murders are committed to covering up another crime such as robbery.

The targets of mass murder tend to be planned. Moreover, the more planning involved and the more revenge-motivated the mass murder tends to be, the less likely that mental illness can be considered a causal factor. In the latter instance, those deemed to be lacking in motive are designated penamoks or those who run amok (i.e., a crazed killer).

Noted analysts Fox and Levin (1998: 438–441) developed three clusters of social psychological conditions thought to influence mass murderers:

  1. Predisposers: Long-term and stable preconditions that become incorporated into the personality of the killer such as frustration and externalization of blame;
  2. Precipitants: Short-term and acute trigger catalysts such as sudden loss or threat of loss of employment and unwanted separation from loved ones;
  3. Facilitators: Or conditions that increase the likelihood of a violent outburst but are not necessary to produce that response such as isolation from sources of emotional support.

These social psychological conditions are not mutually exclusive and thus would have a synergistic affect. If the general motive is revenge; the accumulation of predisposers, precipitants, and facilitators enhance the likelihood a mass murder event will occur. For example, if an individual has an existing predisposition to externalize blame for the loss of a job, he or she would not act on that unless they were fired or laid off. Being laid off would be a precipitant potentially opening the door to an act of mass killing. If that person lacked the support structures to aid in the control of the predisposition, the potential of a mass killing event is heightened.

Theoretical Explanations

Perhaps the most common motive attributed to mass murderers is that of problems that emerge within the home and work setting. In such cases, the application of strain theory suggests that as the perpetrator perceives his or her stress level increasing, they engage in rebellious or innovative actions as adaptations to cope with the real or perceived strain. Closely aligned with the strain argument for mass murder is anomie, a condition that reflects an individual’s world view regarding his or her social stability and social solidarity with others. Anomie is relevant to the current discussion because it refers to the real and/or perceived sense of normlessness an individual experiences. Mass murderers who endure such feelings may transgress normative behavior given the belief they no longer are bound to the parameters of expected behavior.

Related to an actor’s real or perceived relationship with others is the notion of control theory. One such theoretical statement, developed by Travis Hirschi, poses that the strength of one’s bonds with family and others is critical to understanding why individuals chose not to engage in devious acts. The elements of such bonds to which one has greater or lesser strength are attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. The greater the strength of the bonds one has to conforming groups the less likely he or she will act to disrupt those bonds. However, as the strength of the bonds lessens, the relationship one has to conforming others also diminishes, resulting in the loss of control over the individual’s behavior.

Yet another attempt that holds some explanatory power is the integration of multiple theoretical themes. Drawing from features of anomie and integrating these with social control theory, one explanation tendered is that feelings of normlessness associated with anomie lead to the lessening of the established bonds an actor experiences within the context of conforming community groups. As the bonds continue to dissolve, the perception of normlessness intensifies, leading in turn to actions that reflect the absence of commitment to the prevailing community norms.


Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, a slow but steady increase in the number of serial killer cases was officially recorded each year in the United States and a noted worldwide increase was documented as well. Beginning in the 1960s and then throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, a dramatic worldwide increase in the number of serial killers and mass killing was officially recorded; this increase was again especially noteworthy in the United States. Similarly, it has been noted that the rate of mass murder has grown exponentially throughout the final half of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first century.

As an example of a major public health problem, public knowledge of multiple murder in the form of serial killing and mass murder has been enhanced during the past several decades because of the increasing interest of scholars and public health practitioners. And as this public health issue gained increasing notoriety, the public health focus on the survivors of the event demonstrates the political ramifications that arise from such events. The need to assist the living and the need for a rapid community response is cause for some analysts to quickly categorize the perpetrator as having run amok, thereby suggesting there may not be a way to prepare for a similar future circumstance.

In another social policy-related area, law enforcement may eventually identify and apprehend serial killers, but many are thought to operate undetected for several years. Some analysts attribute this problem to the lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies. In addressing this issue, it is again noteworthy that either an inability or unwillingness of law enforcement agencies to share information may explain in part why some serial killers move about freely unencumbered by the intense scrutiny this serious social problem requires.

The availability of handguns offers a partial explanation for why 68% of all murders, including conventional murders, are committed with firearms. Because this represents a social policy issue, however, it is important to critically evaluate any proposal to increase community efforts to monitor the purchase of guns. It is the firearm and more specifically the handgun that is used in more than two-thirds of recorded homicides, but the methods of choice used by serial killers vary. Few serial killers use firearms to kill; most opt instead for strangulation and stabbing.

Nevertheless, in terms of prevention, the public’s perception is important. Many decades ago, a method of choice among suicide victims was a particularly lethal form of oven gas that was, at the time, readily available to the English public. However, once the government intervened to ban the sale of this type of gas, the rate of suicide decreased by a considerable measure. The significance of this historical lesson is clear. Although the effort of governments worldwide to enact more stringent guncontrol strategies may cause considerable political strain, the interdiction role of world governments in controlling the sale of firearms may hold some appeal on behalf of the public good.


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