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A study on mental disorder in serial killers

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Iranian Journal of Medical Law | 2012 | Vol 1 | Issue 1
A study on mental disorder in serial killers
N. Mehra 1, A.Samavati Pirouz 2
Serial killers pose a special problem for crime investigators because their motives are often far less
obvious than those of the person who commits a single homicide. In most homicides, the victim
somehow knew the killer, and that makes it easier to narrow down the list of possible suspects.
This is not the case with serial killers; there is usually no easily determined relationship and so
tracking down the killer is that much harder. The investigators need to know what it was about that
particular person that attracted the killer. As such, officers must focus on the motivation of the
serial killer and track him/her down that way. Mentally disordered offenders are overrepresented
among homicide recidivists: those who go on killing again. For example, profiles of many serial
killers show that many of them had suffered sever head injuries to the frontal lobe of their brain
when they were children. If there is frontal lobe damage or abnormal activity in this region of the
brain, there is an inability to make rational decisions. Neuroscientists have known that lesions to
this part of the brain lead to severe deficits in violent behaviors. The authors of the present article
deal with every factor which plays a role in shaping the mental state of a serial killer with focus on
mental disorder. Psychological and biological causes, personality disorders which are responsible
for shaping criminal motives, history of childhood development, senses of dominance and fantasy,
and typology of serial killers are discussed in the present article.
KEY WORDS: Serial killer; mental disorder; brain; homicide; psychological profile.
Authors' Notes:
1- PhD in Law, assistant professor, Department of
Criminal Law and Criminology, Shahid Beheshti
University, Tehran, Iran.
2- PhD in Law, Assistant Professor Member of
Medical Ethics and Law Research Center, Shahid
Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, Tehran,
Address for Correspondence: Samavati Pirouz
A, PhD in Law, University of Shahid Beheshti,
Tehran, Iran
Date of reception: Jan 10, 2011
Date of acceppt: March 20, 2011
" killed Tanya Bennett...I beat her to
death, raped her and loved it. Yes
I'm sick, but I enjoy myself too.
People took the blame and I'm
free..... Look over your shoulder. I may be
closer than you think."
[Keith Hunter Jesperson, the Happy Face Killer,
quoted from Olsen, 2003]
Can you imagine living in a house with a
dead body while you have already dissected it?
How hard is it to think of death and fun
together? When we normal people cannot even
imagine all this, think what goes in the mind of
a serial killer who has done all this and, as the
above quote indicates, actually finds pleasure in
it. Keith Hunter Jesperson was a long haul
truck driver and the murderer of eight women,
including Taunja (Tanya) Bennet. At the end
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Mehra, Samavati: mental disorder in serial killers
Iranian Journal of Medical Law | 2012 | Vol 1 | Issue 1
of each confession, Jesperson drew a happy
face, earning for himself the grisly sobriquet
'the Happy Face Killer'. The way in which the
term ‘serial killer’ came into existence is
interesting. During the mid-1970s, the FBI
agent Robert K. Ressler coined this phrase
after serial movies. As Lippit argues, “like each
episode of a serial movie, the completion of
each serial murder lays the foundation for the
next act which in turn precipitates future acts,
leaving the serial subject always wanting more,
always hungry, addicted” [Lippit, 1996, p. 114].
Serial killers' ‘addiction’ to killing does not
cease after the first time but instead increases.
The definition of serial killings is not simple
for it takes on many different forms, and is
brought on by many different states of mind.
Holmes and De Burger [1988, p. 138] have
attempted to define serial murder as
“consisting of repetitive killings which are one-
on-one with rare exceptions, where the
relationship between the victim and the
offender is that of a stranger or slight
acquaintance, and the motivation to kill and
apparent motives are lacking”. Serial murder
usually refers to the separate killings of at least
three people by an individual over a certain
length of time [Bartol & Bartol, 2004]. Whilst
there is an increase in literature on serial
murder, it has been suggested that much of the
scholarly work plays into the creation of
essentialist stereotypes, which presuppose
certain notions about the serial killer’s
‘character’ [Dietz, 1996]. For example, that he is
male and that his victims are powerless
strangers [Hinch & Hepburn, 1998], that the
killing is motivated by internal, psychogenic
factors and that it is psychologically rewarding
[Hickey, 1991].
Rarely do any of these killers act for money
instead they do it for the thrill, sexual
satisfaction and/or dominance they achieve in
their own world. Just as it is different to
pinpoint the causes of why someone becomes a
serial killer, it is just as hard to figure out what
motivates them to kill and keep killing. In
most homicides, the victim somehow knew the
killer, and that makes it easier to narrow down
the list of possible suspects. This is not the
case with serial killers there is usually no easily
determined relationship and so tracking down
the killer is that much harder. As a result,
officers must focus on the motivation of the
serial killer and track him/her down that way.
Serial killers are motivated by reasons that are
unique to them; the tendency of becoming a
serial killer is influenced by biological, social,
and psychological factors and no one single
trait is the cause; most of the sexually
motivated serial killers violence during
In one hand, serial killers pose a special
problem for crime investigators because their
motives are often far less obvious than those of
the person who commits a single homicide. On
the other, the development of safe and ethical
services for mentally disordered offenders,
particularly for those who have committed a
homicide offence poses an important public
health challenge. In recognition of the
contribution of mental disorder to the
commission of a serious crime, the law has
long recognized that mentally disordered
offenders may lack criminal responsibility for
their violent actions, and hence require a
therapeutic rather than criminal disposition
[Waller, 1977]. Also, mental disorder may
render a defendant permanently unfit to stand
trial for an alleged offence. There are
numerous factors that can influence a serial
killer's behavior. In many cases of serial
killings, the behavior is influenced either by the
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pastexperiences/backgrounds or the
psychological processes of the serial killers.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Behavioral Science Unit developed the concept
of psychological profiling in the 1960s to aid
in the pursuit of serial killers and to let police
know what kind of man (serial killers are
nearly always men) is instigating the crimes
[Mullen, 2006]. Various studies have shown that
mentally disordered offenders are
overrepresented among homicide recidivists:
those who go on killing again [Tiihonen &
Hakola, 1994; Eronen, Hakola & Tiihonen, 1996].
There are increased rates of offending in
sufferers of schizophrenia and major affective
disorders [Penrose, 1939; Fazel & Danesh, 2002;
Wallace, Mullen & Burgess, 2004; Wallace, Mullen,
Burgess, Palmer et al., 1998] and that, especially in
the perpetrators of the most serious of crimes
such as homicide, there are elevated rates of
psychiatric disorders [Vielma et al., 1993;
Petursson, & Gudjonsson, 1981; Fazel, & Grann, 2004;
Shaw et al., 1991].
Victimology, the study of the victims, can
be crucial in tracking down a serial killer. The
investigators need to know what it was about
that particular person that attracted the killer.
Was the victim truly chosen at random or had
the person been stalked previously? The killer
may have been searching for the one person
who fit his fantasy and, if a common link can
be found between the victims, this may be very
revealing. For instance, nearly all of the victims
of serial killer Ted Bundy had dark hair parted
in the center. The confessed murderer, Gary
Leon Ridgway, claimed that strangling young
women was his ‘career’. The so-called ‘Monster
of the Andes’, Pedro Lopez has been convicted
of 57 murders in 1980 [Carroll, Lyall, & Forrester,
2004]. He may have killed many more; his
victims were young girls in Colombia. In
another case, despite his notoriety, Shipman
was, in many ways, an unusual type of serial
killer. His victims, many of whom were elderly
women, met their end through morphine
injections, one of the main methods of assisted
suicide, which some believe to be a
compassionate act. Some psychiatrists have
suggested Shipman disliked older women, or
that he was trying to re-enact the death of his
mother. Others believed he gained pleasure
from the power of life and death that he could
exercise as a doctor. Shipman may have begun
to kill patients very early on in his medical
career, before he had even finished training to
be a doctor. David Berkowitz, known as ‘The
son of Sam’, is a typical example of an average
serial killer, and quiet normal in comparison to
his other counterparts who have been known
to eat their victims. Edward Cole killed little
boys that reminded him of a schoolyard bully
that taunted him for having a girl's name. He
later expanded his modus operandi (method of
operation) to include young brown haired
females that looked like his abusive mother.
Authors of this article intend to study mental
disorder in serial killers. There are various
factors which shape a serial killer's mind
mostly psychological ones. Accordingly, the
authors have to deal with every factor which
plays a role in shaping the mental state of a
serial killer with focus on mental disorder.
Psychological and biological causes, personality
disorders which are responsible for shaping
criminal motives, history of childhood
development, senses of dominance and fantasy,
and typology of serial killers are discussed in
the present article.
A) Mind and mental disorder in a serial killer
A recent study has demonstrated that 20 out
of 31 confessed serial killers are diagnosed as
mentally ill. Out of that 20, 64% have frontal
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lobe abnormalities [DeLisi, & Walters, 2011]. A
thorough study of the profiles of many serial
killers shows that many of them had suffered
sever head injuries (to the frontal lobe) when
they were children. To discover why damage to
the frontal lobe could be a cause of serial
killing, we must look at the function of the
frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe is
located in the most anterior part of the brain
hemispheres. It is considered responsible for
much of the behavior that makes possible
stable and adequate social relations. Self-
control, planning, judgment, the balance of
individual versus social needs, and many other
essential functions underlying effective social
intercourse are mediated by the frontal
structures of the brain. Individuals who had
undergone damage to the ventromedial frontal
cortex (and who had normal personalities
before the damage) developed abnormal social
conduct, leading to negative personal
consequences. Among other things, these
individuals present inadequate decision-making
and planning abilities, which are known to be
processed by the frontal lobe of the brain. For
a long time now, neuroscientists have known
that lesions to this part of the brain lead to
severe deficits in all these behaviors.
Even though the brain could be
instrumental in determining the mind of a
serial killer, it is important to point out that
most serial killers have not lost their grip on
reality and thus have some control over their
decisions. The ability to make the 'normal' and
'sinister' life two separate entities shows that
the serial killers have control of their decisions
to a certain extent. In fact, this ability furthers
the yearning to kill more people until the
authorities catch them. Simon argues,
suspension of empathy is necessary for
someone to intentionally harm other people,
and it is usually accompanied by the
psychological mechanism of devaluation and
projection [Reckdenwald, & Parker, 2010]. Brain
damage cannot be the motivator for all serial
killing. 46% of all confessed serial killers have
no frontal or general brain damage. The
majority admits that they were perfectly aware
of what they were doing before, during, and
after the crime. Some even confess that they
know that what they were doing was wrong,
and contemplated ‘giving up’ after the first
time. The thrill derived from murder is a
temporary fix. Like any other powerful
narcotic, homicidal violence satisfies the senses
for a time, but the effect soon fades. And when
it does, a predator goes hunting.
In the US, the FBI estimated that at any
given time between 200 and 500 serial killers
are at large, and that they kill 3,500 people a
year [Stone, 2006]. This high average among the
serial killers shows that killing becomes a
pattern that is difficult to break. The inability
to break such a pattern can be attributed to the
brain function of the person. Since the frontal
lobe deals with the decision-making, this could
possibly be an explanation as to what is going
on in the mind of a serial killer. If there is
frontal lobe damage or abnormal activity in
this region of the brain, there is an inability to
make rational decisions. This is in no way
serves as a justification for such behavior.
Although character has a genetic component,
much of it is shaped by the nature and quality
of our early relationships and experiences
[Stone, 2001]. Therefore both good and bad
experiences become embedded in the child’s
developing personality and also have an
influence on adult character, as in the case of
many serial killers. Instead, it serves as a
possible distinction between the mind of a
serial killer and the mind of a ‘normal’ brain.
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A) Personality and psychological disorders
Most serial killers, while different, do share
some similar traits. They usually exhibit a lack
of remorse or guilt, being impulsive, the need
for control; they are in search of sensation, and
show behavior that is predatory in nature.
Essentially, these traits are indicative of a
psychopath. It’s important to keep in mind
though, that not all violent offenders are
psychopaths and of course that not all
psychopaths will turn into violent offenders.
Those offenders that are psychopathic are able
to commit crimes without any regard for any
sort of consequences. This relationship is
especially interesting with serial killers because
while not all psychopaths will of course
become serial killers, most serial killers do
show some or many traits of psychopathy.
Those killers usually have no regard for human
life and the serial killers that are driven by sex,
are able to kill and assault with absolutely no
remorse. Of course psychopathy alone does
not explain serial killers, but it does provide an
interesting look into their personalities.
A serial killer is often confirmed of
suffering from at least one psychological
disorder. But a person can always suffer from
more than one, which is mostly the case.
Psychologically, the thrill-motivated killer
tends to be a sociopath, someone with a
disorder of character rather than the mind. He
lacks a conscience, feels no remorse, and cares
exclusively for his own pleasures in life. It has
been estimated that 3% of all males in our
society could be considered sociopathic [Fox &
Levin, 1994, p.18]. Society generally is quick to
place tags on serial killers. Many believe that
they are psychotics who hear voices or see
visual hallucinations, but this is a
misconception as explained by John Douglas
[1996]. Most are not at all psychotics who have
lost touch with reality, but instead psychopaths
who are suffering from chronic mental
disorders with violent or abnormal social
behaviors. Only a small handful, like Richard
Trenton who believed he needed to drink
other people’s blood to stay alive, are actually
psychotics. And this group is so disorganized
in its crimes that it is generally apprehended
quite quickly. A few observed serial killer
psychological disorders are: schizophrenia;
multiple personality disorder; antisocial
personality disorder; anxiety disorder; bipolar
disorder; borderline personality disorder;
childhood antisocial disorder; delusional
disorder; depression; obsessive compulsive
disorder (OCD); obsessive compulsive
personality disorder (OCPD); physical abuse;
panic attack; pedophilia; personality disorder;
psychotic disorder; sexual sadism.
A psychopath is a person who doesn't
believe in social norms, and ethical principles
and is generally antisocial. These people seem
to have strange set of morals and logics in life.
It has been ascertained that their characteristics
are very shallow, are charming, very impulsive,
have criminal ways of thinking, are violent and
abusive and show all of these traits from a very
early age. Serial killers are known to gain
satisfaction through their behavior. Despite all
the work that has been done on the psychology
of the serial killer, forensic psychologists and
psychiatrists are still far from understanding
such people. Although it may be easier to
comprehend someone who kills out of greed or
revenge, the work of a serial killer is so far
removed from normal behavior that most
people have little understanding of his motives.
Many serial killers are psychopaths.
Psychopathy or anti-social personality disorder
is not considered completely curable. There is
even debate by some scientists as to whether it
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is a mental illness at all. The hallmark of the
psychopath is an extreme lack of guilt or
empathy for others, which means the serial
killer, can carry out terrible crimes without
emotional distress. Studies of serial killers in
prison and evidence gathered from those who
know them suggest that many of these
murderers were the targets of physical,
psychological, or sexual abuse in early
childhood [Vaughn, Newhill, DeLisi, Beaver, &
Howard, 2008]. This may lead them to build a
world based on fantasy as a protective measure.
These fantasies are then acted out in the course
of a violent crime, often with a sexual context.
The killer feels satisfied after the crime and
then relaxes for a while. However, it is only a
matter of time before the fantasies push them
toward the next killing.
According to Eysenck and Gudjonsson
[1989], who formulated the General Arousal
Theory of Criminality, there is a common
biological condition underlying the behavioral
predispositions of psychopaths. These
individuals are likely to be extroverted,
impulsive thrill seekers, presenting a nervous
system that is insensitive to low levels of
stimulation (they are hard to please and are
hyperactive in childhood). Therefore, in order
to increase their level of stimulation, they
participate in high-risk activities, such as crime.
Although not exactly diseases, personality
disorders are anomalies of the psychic
development. In forensic psychiatry, they are
considered mental health disturbances. These
disorders involve the disharmony of affectivity
and excitability, together with impaired
integration of impulses, attitudes, and conduct,
which manifests in the interpersonal relations
of the individual. Individuals with personality
disorders have behaviors which are usually
turbulent, their attitudes are incoherent, and
their actions are ruled by a need for immediate
gratification. Personality disorder is
characterized by insensitivity to the feelings of
others. When this degree of insensitivity is
high, leading marked affective indifference, the
individual is apt to adopt a recurrent pattern of
criminal behavior, and the clinical profile of
the personality disorder takes the form of
psychopathy. To date, it has not been possible
to find specific genes for the various mental
disorders [Knowlton, 2005]. In personality
disorders genes can be held responsible for the
predisposition rather than for the disorder.
Consequently, it is essential to consider the
environment in which the individual lives, as
well as the interaction established with this
A) Disorders of childhood development:
Causes of crimes
In a chart of serial killer - childhood
development characteristics - created by
Ressler, Burgers and Douglas [1990] the three
most frequently reported behaviors included
day dreaming, compulsive masturbation, and
isolation. The daydreaming, which is brought
on by an over productive imagination, tends to
lead the way into the general fantasy world that
the serial killer begins to live in to protect
himself from any isolation he is faced with.
The records of hundreds of serial killers
indicate child abuse. Most of the serial killers
are known to have suffered both mental and
physical (sexual) abuse in their childhood and
many a times the culprits being their own
parents. Absence of family morals, sometimes,
even the absence of a proper functioning
family, has lead to severely low esteemed
children, who grew up to be mentally sick. Of
all the abuses that a serial killer at some point
of time suffered himself, rejection tops the
chart. A few of them were born to prostitutes
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or teen-aged unmarried mothers and had to
face situations pathetic enough to make them
hate whole of the human race. All in all, serial
killers have a background of abusive parents,
ignored childhood on account of a
dysfunctional family, and totally displaced
moral values, extremely low self esteem and a
seriously wrong concept of life and the
working of the society [Woolard, Odgers, Lanza-
Kaduce, & Daglis, 2005].
At an early age, if a child is left alone, or
forced to live in isolation whereby little
attention is given to them for long periods of
time, their minds become the object of their
company, and thus begin the daydreams and
the fantasy world [Ressler, Douglas, & Burgess,
1990]. Some of these fantasies may include
such deviant and bizarre sexual practices as
fetishes, pedophilia, bondage, and rape.
Because of their strong sense of conscience or
concern over their public image, most will
resist translating their desires into action
[Ressler, Douglas, & Burgess, 1990]. Detailed,
ongoing research by the FBI shows that many
convicted serial killers enact their crimes
because of the incredibly rich, detailed and
elaborate violent fantasies (including the act of
murder) that have developed in their minds as
early as the age of seven and eight. What
distinguishes killers from ‘normal’ civilians is
that the aggressive day dreams that have been
developed as children continue to develop and
expand through their adolescence right into
manhood, where they are finally released into
the real world [Wilson & Seamen, 1992]. Through
the use of murder and mayhen, the serial killer
literally chases his dream. With each successive
victim, he attempts to fine tune the act, striving
to make his real life experiences as perfect as
his fantasy [Apsche, 1993].
In a case, Berkowitz came from an adopted
home, and upon discovering his real mother,
was told by her that he wasn’t wanted.
Originally being shy, insecure, and angry, he
blossomed into a potential killer. He procured
a large and powerful weapon, which in turn
made him feel bigger and more powerful, and
set about unknowingly to obtain revenge for
what his mother had done to him. In most
cases, there is an event known as the ‘pre-crime
stressor’, as discussed by Ressler, Burgess, and
Douglas [1990]. The pre-crime stressor can be
looked at as the reason for why the person
turns to killing as a form of release, even if the
criminal does not realize the full extent of his
motivations or fails to see the reasons behind
the stress he feels. A clear example of this can
be seen upon the questioning of Berkowitz
who denied he neither had anything against
women, nor did he have reason as to why he
killed so many. In actually fact, his mother’s
rejection was the stressor that ultimately turned
him violent. He did not attack his mother
directly (few serial killers ever attack the source
of their resentment), but the majority of his
killings where based on women who had a
likeness to his mother.
Traits that should be looked at when trying
to decide if a person is a potential killer
include: social withdrawal, abnormal
dependence on ones mother or ulcerated
relations with ones parents, hypochondria or
other attention seeking behavior including
forms of clothing, delusional mind as to
grandeur, severe depression, a general feeling of
emptiness as to the future, inability to take
criticisms, a general feeling of being mistreated,
inability to assert ones self, parental taunts as
to ones inability to be sufficient (or the
Hitchcock ‘Psycho’ syndrome), mood
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disorders, and a general failing in attempts to
A) Sense of dominance
Power has always been the center of a serial
killer's thinking. These people are seriously
obsessed with being in a position of power, be
it sexually or in general life. They somehow
like the feeling of being in charge and they will
go to any extent, to make sure they are. This
psychology branches from the background of
child abuse, neglect and low self esteem. The
children, who grow up with a feeling of being
unwanted and unloved, tend to become very
violent and assertive in their adult life. And
sometimes, this low self esteem and rejection
finds a wrong vent in brutally murdering
innocent people. These people being shy as
kids have vivid imaginations, mostly violent
and when in a position, they get obsessed with
living their imaginations. It is really hard to
imagine what goes on in a sick mind and is
totally shocking when this sick mind goes
ahead and makes it all come true, no matter
what. The history of all known serial killers is
filled with failed marriages and love affairs.
They even fail at pursuing a career. Their
minds are just not made to work hard and
make a career. They can't work under someone
because they want power; they are known to
generally misbehave at their workplace, leading
to being fired. Their short temper follows
them everywhere, leading to general
misbehavior and violence with coworkers.
These people also get bored very easily. They
need thrill in their life, which they find in all
the wrong places.
As Jack Apsche [1993] makes clear, serial
murderers see themselves as dominant,
controlling and powerful figures. They hold
the power of life and death, and in their own
eyes, they perceive themselves as God. In their
fantasies and their enactment of the murder,
they become God. This is actually probably
the only power they have ever had, and for this
reason they savor and continue to persist. Once
a killer has tasted the success of a kill, and is
not apprehended, it will ultimately mean he
will strike again. He put it simply, that once
something good has happened, something that
made the killer feel good, and powerful, and
then they will not hesitate to try it again. The
first attempt may leave them with a feeling of
fear but at the same time, it is like an addictive
drug. Some killers revisit the crime scene or
take trophies, such as jewelry or body parts, or
video tape the scenario so as to be able to re-
live the actual feeling of power at a latter date.
Many of serial killers have been reported as
saying that they had fallen into the power of
the devil after several kills, which is
contradictory to their initial beliefs that they
were God. It is almost as though initially they
believed that they would be powerful in that
they had the choice in taking or sparing life,
but as time progresses, and the kills mount up,
they find they are driven to kill as though they
have no choice. Apsche [1993] has noted that
many killers have attempted to get help when
they discovered they had little control. They
appear to want to stop their actions, but regain
control to avoid their discovery. This is
possibly an example of a bipolar personality
clash. A few killers killed for financial gains
also and lot many lives have been sacrificed in
the name of God and Devil equally. There
have been serial killers, who in their confession
said that God/Devil guided them to kill a
person and sometimes even to eat their
particular organs or drink their blood, etc.
There have been cases where a person lived
with dead bodies and treated them as his
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family. This case shows serious problem of low
self esteem, caused due to rejection. That
person was so scared of rejection that he
thought of keeping dead people around him,
who can be controlled easily or say, who need
not be controlled at all, who didn't have their
opinions and took the killer as their master,
without resistance.
A) Sex and fantasy
One of the most hideous serial killers would
undoubtedly have to be the sexual killer. Many
specialists, including Douglas [1996] have
agreed that the most crucial factor in the
development of the serial rapist or killer is the
role of fantasy. It has been suggested that the
escalation from fantasy to reality in these
instances, can be attributed to pornography.
The reason may be for pornography tends to
build on the natural inner desires that exist
within us all. The desire to have sexual
intercourse is dominant in all males. The
action of penetration brings on a sense of
triumph and conquest. The only difference
here is that these killers have not had the
opportunity to learn intimacy due to
childhood restraints, and they substitute
intimacy with control (which they obtain by
inflicting bodily harm to the other (the
equivalent to the penetrating conquest) to
counteract their inner desires for a mate. It has
been believed that the mode of death is one
where factors indicate that the victim has
meaning to the killer and that the intimacy of
the murderous act is part of a close bond
between himself and the victim formed in the
killers fantasy and delusions. A study by
Yochelson and Samenow [1988] pointed out
that a high proportion of serial killers are
‘highly sexed’ in childhood, and have been
known to look into bathrooms through
keyholes on females undressing, or initiated
sexual games - sometimes amounting to rape -
with girls at school.
A) Typology of a serial killer classification
Holmes and Holmes [1998] indicate that they
developed their classification from the
consideration of case material from 110 serial
murders and interviews with selected offenders.
Briefly, the following are descriptions of this
1. Visionary
Suffering from a break with reality, the
visionary serial killer murders because he has
seen visions or heard voices from demons,
angels, the devil or God telling him to kill a
particular individual or particular types of
people. His quick, act-focused killings are seen
as a job to be done. The crime scenes of
visionary killers are described as being chaotic
with much disorder and forensic evidence.
Consequently, ransacking of property,
belongings scattered, clothing scattered, and
trail of clothing leading to/from crime scene
have been selected. This is described as an ‘act-
focused’ type of crime in which the offender
desires a quick kill with no extensive acts of
torture or interaction with the body.
Consequently, bludgeon, has been selected as a
method for a quick kill. This being described
as a spontaneous and disorganized offence, the
offender is expected to use whatever weapon is
available then leaving it at the scene. Therefore
weapon of opportunity and weapon left in
victim have been selected as appropriate
characteristics for this type of offender.
2. Mission
The mission killer is focused on the act of
murder itself. He is compelled to murder in
order to rid the world of a group of people he
has judged to be unworthy or undesirable. The
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Mehra, Samavati: mental disorder in serial killers
Iranian Journal of Medical Law | 2012 | Vol 1 | Issue 1
mission killer operates in an act focused and
planned manner; he does not engage in
activities such as torture or post-mortem
activity such as necrophilia or dismemberment.
Bludgeoned, throat cut and firearm used are
indicative of an act-focused murder in which
the killing is swift. The mission killer will take
the murder weapon away with him after he has
committed the crime; murder weapon missing
is indicative of this action.
3. Hedonistic
This type of serial killer is subdivided into the
following two groups:
3.1. Lust
The lust killer kills for sexual gratification; sex
is the focal point of the murder, even after he
has killed the victim. This type of murderer
derives pleasure from the process of the
murderous event. Various acts such as
cannibalism, necrophilia, and dismemberment
are prevalent in this type of murder. The lust
murderer combines sexual gratification, sadistic
acts, and murder. This offender is organized
and plans the offence so as to avoid detection;
murder weapon missing, body covered post-
mortem, body in isolated spot, and body
concealed reflect these characteristics. Sexual
activity is a central part of this type of murder
therefore vaginal rape, alive during sex acts,
and multiple sex acts reflect this offence. The
body is likely to have been moved after the
killing, indicating there will be multiple crime
scenes. Skin-to-skin contact or killing at close
range is the preferred methods of killing,
therefore beaten and manual strangulation have
been selected. Torture, overkill, and object
penetration into the victim’s body cavities as
indicative of this offence, therefore these
behaviors have been included. Sadistic acts and
body mutilation after death feature in this type
as well. Variables chosen as representative of
this feature are the following: genital
mutilation, thoracic mutilation, abdominal
mutilation, burns on victim, violence at
genitalia and facial disfigurement.
3.2. Thrill
The thrill killer murders for the pleasure and
excitement of killing. Once the victim is dead,
this murderer loses interest. This type of
killing often involves a long process involving
extended acts of torture. Also a sexual-type
killer, the thrill killer engages in a 'process' kill
and derives pleasure from administering pain
and suffering to the victim. The use of
restraints, torture, bitemarks, and burns on
victim are included in this type. Manual
strangulation and ligature strangulation are
also taken as indicative of this category with
the rationale that strangulation such as this
could be used to cause the victim a slow death
(referring to the process kill). The method of
murder will reflect this offender’s desire for
control over his victim. Contributing to this,
gagging has been included because gagging is a
means of controlling the victim and taking
away his/her ability to speak or yell. Penile
penetration and object penetration are parts of
the crime; vaginal rape, alive during sex acts
and object penetrations have therefore been
selected. Once the victim is dead the offender
loses interest in the murder and concentrates
on disposal of the body. The thrill killer gives
careful thought to disposal of the body as well
as taking precautions because he is aware of the
dangers of being detected; therefore, the
variables multiple crime scenes, murder weapon
missing, body covered post-mortem, body in
isolated spot, and body concealed have been
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4. Power/Control
This killer derives pleasure and gratification
from having control over the victim, and
considered to be a ‘master’ at what he does.
His motives are driven by the need for power
and dominance over another human being.
The longer he can extend the process of
murder, the greater his gratification. The
motives for the power/control killer center on
the need for dominance, power, and control
over the victim and over the offence as a
whole. Consequently, the victim’s body is
likely to yield signs of torture, having been
beaten, and possibly tease cuts and burns on
victim. The offender’s need for control over
the victim may also be achieved by using
methods such as gagging and restraints.
Strangulation and penile penetration are also
observed, consequently, ligature strangulation,
vaginal rape and alive during sex acts have been
selected. This offender is likely to move the
victim’s body, therefore multiple crime scenes
has been included. This offender’s desire for
power and control over the victim continues
after death. Dismemberment with the offender
taking particular body parts away with him and
decapitation has been reported. Therefore,
body parts missing and decapitation are
included. Considered to be a professional at
his crimes, the variables body covered post-
mortem, body in isolated spot, body concealed,
and murder weapon missing have been used,
on the assumption that this killer has thought
through ways to avoid detection. Tampering
with the evidence would be seen as part of this
‘professional’ process too.
Conclusions and discussion
To discover what makes a serial killer function,
it is necessary to look back into their past,
particularly their adolescent life. By looking at
many and varied cases, it is evident that
virtually all serial killers come from
dysfunctional backgrounds involving sexual or
physical abuse, drugs or alcoholism and their
related problems. Many traits that seem to be
universal in all these serial killers, though in
varied amounts, include disorganized thinking,
bipolar mode disorders, a feeling of resentment
towards society brought on by their own
failings, sexual frustrations, an inability to be
social or socially accepted, over bearing parents
and a wild imagination that tends to drag them
into a fantasy world. What gives the serial
killers their name is the symmetricity of their
modus operandi. There is always something
common in the murders like, the use of a
particular weapon, the race of the people
killed, their age, gender, their profession and
sometimes even the graffiti on the body of the
victim. The basis of the motives has mostly
been some psychological disorder, which
wasn't identified until it was too late. More or
less the motive has always been considered an
element of hatred and fear, which have their
roots in the killer's childhood. It is hard to
believe that a person can kill for sexual favors,
and can have unbelievable intentions like
necrophilia and cannibalism.
The authors of the present article intend to
give clues to investigators and law enforcement
officers to detect serial killers based on them.
The forensic psychiatrist uses evidence from
the crime scene to build a psychological profile
of the serial killer. One categorization that has
been found useful is to decide whether the
investigators are dealing with an organized or a
disorganized killer. For example, one
categorization that has been found useful is to
decide whether the investigators are dealing
with an organized or a disorganized killer. A
number of other factors can be added to the
profile. Many serial killers are young adults in
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Iranian Journal of Medical Law | 2012 | Vol 1 | Issue 1
their twenties or thirties. They tend not to
cross racial lines. White killers tend to kill
white victims; black killers tend to kill blacks.
Many kill close to home the first few times,
but then start to move farther away. Serial
killers are eventually often highly mobile,
which can make the logistics of catching them
Disorganized offender leaves a mess at the
crime scene. He may use any weapon that is
available to strike out and makes little effort to
cover his tracks. This lack of planning and
control often suggests low intelligence. He is
likely to be unemployed and may be a bit of a
loner with few friends. The attack may be
marked by excessive violence and could also
include sexual contact with the victim after
death. The disorganized serial killer often
turns out to have a history of mental illness. If
the crime scene suggests the murder was
carefully planned and executed, then the killer
may be a man of average to high intelligence
who has a stable social network. He may be
married with a family. He may also be
employed. Living a 'normal' life on the surface
requires a degree of self-control, which
manifests itself in the way the crime is carried
out. Sometimes, though, the organized
offender does lose control in the actual attack
when the fantasy motivation takes over. In
such cases, a violent or frenzied attack may
occur, yet there may also be careful attempts to
conceal or destroy evidence.
Trophies and souvenirs are an important
part of the killer's modus operandi (method of
operation), the name given to the particular
tools and strategies that distinguish the killer's
work. The modus operandi includes factors
such as the location of the crimes, the tools
used, the time of day, the alibi, and any
accomplices involved. The modus operandi
may, of course, evolve over time as the killer
becomes more experienced. The investigators
will be particularly interested in any details
that are unique to that killer, such as leaving a
note behind. They will also look for the
signature of the crime. Trophies and souvenirs
can be part of the signature, as can mutilating
or having sex with the corpse, or placing the
body in a certain position. Of particular
interest to those investigating serial killers is
what is taken from the scene or from the
victim. In most crimes, the perpetrator will
take items of monetary value, like cash or
jewelry. They may also take evidence, such as a
weapon. The serial killer often takes something
known as a trophy or souvenir, of no obvious
value except to him in his fantasy world. The
item is known as a trophy if it is seen as a
symbol of achievement and a souvenir if it is to
remind the killer of the crime.
The location of the serial killer's crimes is
also of significance. Geographical profiling is
based on the premise that the killer will
operate in a zone where he feels comfortable.
This may be near home or, alternatively, far
away from it, depending on his psychological
make-up. Location is not just where the crime
was committed, but is also where the victim
was abducted and where the body was taken
and left after the crime. Establishing a
geographical profile can be challenging if the
victim was a prostitute, for instance, or
someone who might not be missed by relatives
or co-workers for a while. Sometimes bodies
are dumped in remote places and may not be
found for some time. In such cases, a forensic
anthropologist may be called in to judge the
times of death so the order in which victims
were killed can be determined.
The motives of serial killers have been many
till date. If we compile a list of all the motives
discovered till now, it will look something like
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Mehra, Samavati: mental disorder in serial killers
Iranian Journal of Medical Law | 2012 | Vol 1 | Issue 1
this: sexual favors; sexual sadism; pedophilia;
financial gains; racism; fun; pleasure; thrill.
The last three motives are real, and they truly
define the mental condition of a serial killer.
For a normal person it is hard to even think of
death and fun together but for a serial killer it
is easy to accomplish. Motive or no motive,
killing a person for any reason other than self
defense, is a criminal offense and killing a
number of people serially, is a serial crime and
is most often punished serially, with a series of
life terms or direct death penalty. The authors
of this writing believe that hanging a serial
killer is not a solution because hanging one has
never stopped the next one. The solution to
this probably lies in providing a healthy
childhood to every kid, no matter which family
or society he is born in, because most of the
problems of a serial killer have their roots in
his childhood and some in his genetics. Finally,
let’s build a society where people respect each
other, irrespective of their colors, a society
where parents provide their children with a
childhood full of love and care and where
every person is aware that life is precious.
Acknowledgment: The authors would like to
thank Mohammad Reza Mirzaii for having
edited the manuscript.
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... They are often loners and lack social relationships, and may be prone to violence, including necrophilia or sexual violence. The motives of serial killers may be further divided into four classes: mission-oriented, visionary, hedonistic (including lust and thrill), and power or control (Holmes & Holmes, 1998;Sharma, 2018;Pirouz, 2012). Abe (2015a-b) investigated the childhood backgrounds of mass and serial murderers and discovered that abusive conditions usually have a tendency to create serial murderers, while neglectful conditions create mass murderers. ...
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1. Introduction.- 2. The Constitutional Theory of Criminality.- 3. Crime and Personality.- 4. Criminality, Heredity, and Environment.- 5. A Biological Theory of Criminality.- 6. The Function and Effectiveness of Sentencing.- 7. The Prevention and Treatment of Illegal Behavior.- 8. Sexual Deviations.- 9. Summary and Conclusions.- References.
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