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Serial murder is one of the serial crimes. It is undertaken by a person who becomes known as a A serial killer is a person who murders three or more people[1][2] over a period of more than thirty days, with a "cooling off" period between each murder, and whose motivation for killing is largely based on psychological gratification.[3][4] Often, a sexual element is involved with the killings. The murders may have been attempted or completed in a similar fashion and the victims may have had something in common; for example, occupation, race, appearance, sex, or age group.

Serial killers are often confused with being mass murderers, which are defined by multiple murders that are committed at one time. Coinage of the English term serial killer is commonly attributed to former FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s.[5][6] The concept had been described earlier, e.g. by German police inspector Ernst Gennat coining the same term in 1930.[7] Author Ann Rule postulates in her 2004 book Kiss Me, Kill Me that the English-language credit for coining the term "serial killer" goes to LAPD detective Pierce Brooks, mastermind of the ViCAP system.


Serial killers in the United States tend to share the following general characteristics:[8][9]

  1. The majority are single, white males. - From 1900 to 2010, 52.4% of serial killers were white, 40.7% were black, 5.3% were Hispanic, 0.7% were Asian, and 0.9% were Native American.[10] According to the US 2010 census, whites and Hispanics make up 72.4% of the population, African Americans make up 12.6% of the population, Native Americans make up 0.9% of the population and Asians make up 4.8% of the population. With this data, you can conclude that African Americans are 5.2 times more likely to be serial killers compared to whites.
  2. They are often of average in intelligence, with IQs in the average range.[11]
  3. They often have trouble holding down jobs, and often work menial jobs.
  4. They tend to come from unstable families.
  5. As children, they are typically abandoned by their fathers and raised by domineering mothers.
  6. Their families often have criminal, psychiatric and alcoholic histories.
  7. They were often abused — emotionally, physically and/or sexually — by a family member.
  8. They have high rates of suicide attempts.
  9. From an early age, many are intensely interested in voyeurism, fetishism, and sadomasochistic pornography.
  10. Many are fascinated with fire starting.
  11. They are involved in sadistic activity or torturing small animals.

Psychosis is rarely noted among serial killers. The predominant psychiatric diagnosis noted in the group tends toward the psychopathic, meaning they suffer from traits within a specific cluster of dysfunctional personality characteristics, those most commonly associated with Antisocial Personality Disorder or Dissocial personality disorder.[12][13] Psychopaths lack empathy and guilt, are egocentric and impulsive, and do not conform to social, moral and legal norms. Instead, psychopaths often follow a distinct set of rules which they have created for themselves. They may appear to be normal and often quite charming, a state of adaptation that psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley named the "mask of sanity".[14]

The Macdonald triadanimal cruelty, pyromania, and persistent bedwetting past the age of five — is often exhibited by serial killers during their childhood.[15]

Types of serial killers[]

The FBI's Crime Classification Manual places serial killers into three categories: "organized", "disorganized" and "mixed"—offenders who exhibit organized and disorganized characteristics.[16] Some killers descend from being organized into disorganized behavior as their killings continue.

Organized/nonsocial offenders[]

Organized nonsocial offenders usually have above average intelligence, with a mean IQ of 123.[17] They often plan their crimes quite methodically, usually abducting victims, killing them in one place and disposing of them in another. They will often lure the victims with ploys appealing to their sense of sympathy. For example, Ted Bundy would put his arm in a fake plaster cast and ask women to help him carry something to his car, where he would beat them unconscious with a metal bar (e.g. a crowbar), and carry them away. Others specifically target prostitutes, who are likely to go voluntarily with a stranger. They maintain a high degree of control over the crime scene, and usually have a solid knowledge of forensic science that enables them to cover their tracks, such as burying the body or weighing it down and sinking it in a river. They follow their crimes in the media carefully and often take pride in their actions, as if it were all a grand project. The organized killer is usually socially adequate, has friends and lovers, and sometimes even a spouse and children. They are the type who, when/if captured, are most likely to be described by acquaintances as kind and unlikely to hurt anyone. Some serial killers go to lengths to make their crimes difficult to discover, such as falsifying suicide notes, setting up others to take the blame for their crimes, faking gang warfare, or disguising the murder to look like a natural death.[citation needed] Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy are examples of organized serial killers.[18]

Disorganized/asocial offenders[]

Disorganized asocial offenders are often of low intelligence, have a below average IQ (<90), and commit their crimes impulsively. Whereas the organized killer will specifically set out to hunt a victim, the disorganized will murder someone when the opportunity arises, rarely bothering to dispose of the body but instead just leaving it at the same place where they found the victim. They usually carry out blitz-style attacks, leaping out and attacking their victims without warning, and will typically perform whatever rituals they feel compelled to carry out (e.g., necrophilia, mutilation, cannibalism, etc.) once the victim is dead. They rarely bother to cover their tracks but may still evade capture for extended periods of time due to the anonymous nature of the crime. They are often introverted, socially inadequate with few friends, and they may have a history of mental problems. Richard Chase is an example of a disorganized serial killer.


The motives of serial killers are generally placed into four categories: "visionary", "mission-oriented", "hedonistic" and "power or control"; however, the motives of any given killer may display considerable overlap among these categories.[19][20]


Visionary serial killers suffer from psychotic breaks with reality, sometimes believing they are another person or are compelled to murder by entities such as the devil or God.[21] The two most common subgroups are "demon mandated" and "God mandated."[22]

Herbert Mullin believed the American casualties in the Vietnam War were preventing California from experiencing an earthquake. As the war wound down, Mullin claimed his father instructed him via telepathy to raise the amount of "human sacrifices to nature" in order to delay a catastrophic earthquake that would plunge California into the ocean.[23]

David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam") is an example of a demon-mandated visionary killer. He claimed a demon transmitted orders through his neighbor's dog, instructing him to murder.[24]


Mission-oriented killers typically justify their acts as "ridding the world" of a certain type of "undesirable" person, such as homosexuals, prostitutes, blacks or Catholics; however, they are generally not psychotic.[25] Some see themselves as attempting to change the nature of human society, often to cure a societal ill. [26]

Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber", targeted universities and the airline industry.[27] He wrote a manifesto that he distributed to the media, in which he claimed he wanted society to return to a time when technology was not a threat to its future, asserting that "the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race."[28][29]


This type of serial killer seeks thrills and derives pleasure from killing, seeing people as expendable means to this goal. Forensic psychologists have identified three subtypes of the hedonistic killer: "lust", "thrill" and "comfort".[22]


Sex is the primary motive of lust killers, whether or not the victims are dead, and fantasy plays a large role in their killings. Their sexual gratification depends on the amount of torture and mutilation they perform on their victims. They usually use weapons that require close contact with the victims, such as knives or hands. As lust killers continue with their murders, the time between killings decreases or the required level of stimulation increases, sometimes both.[22][30][31]

Kenneth Bianchi, one of the "Hillside Stranglers", murdered women and girls of different ages, races and appearance because his sexual urges required different types of stimulation and increasing intensity.[31]

Jeffrey Dahmer searched for his perfect fantasy lover — beautiful, submissive and eternal. As his desire increased, he experimented with drugs, alcohol and exotic sex. His increasing need for stimulation was demonstrated by the dismemberment of victims, whose heads and genitals he preserved. He experimented with cannibalism to "ensure his victims would always be a part of him".[32]


The primary motive of a thrill killer is to induce pain or create terror in their victims, which provides stimulation and excitement for the killer. They seek the adrenaline rush provided by hunting and killing victims. Thrill killers murder only for the kill; usually the attack is not prolonged, and there is no sexual aspect. Usually the victims are strangers, although the killer may have followed them for a period of time. Thrill killers can abstain from killing for long periods of time and become more successful at killing as they refine their murder methods. Many attempt to commit the perfect crime and believe they will not be caught.[22][33]

Robert Hansen took his victims to a secluded area, where he would let them loose and then hunt and kill them.[33] Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, the DC Snipers, killed random victims, often at gas stations, shooting them and leaving the scenes unnoticed.[34] In one of his letters to San Francisco Bay Area newspapers, the Zodiac Killer wrote "[killing] gives me the most thrilling experience it is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl".[35] Coral Watts was described by a surviving victim as "excited and hyper and clappin’ and just making noises like he was excited, that this was gonna be fun" during the 1982 attack.[36] Slashing, stabbing, hanging, drowning, asphyxiating, and strangling were among the ways Watts killed.[37]

Comfort (profit)[]

Material gain and a comfortable lifestyle are the primary motives of comfort killers. Usually, the victims are family members and close acquaintances. After a murder, a comfort killer will usually wait for a period of time before killing again to allow any suspicions by family or authorities to subside. They often use poison, most notably arsenic, to kill their victims. Female serial killers are often comfort killers, although not all comfort killers are female.[22][38][39] Dorothea Puente killed her tenants for their Social Security checks and buried them in the backyard of her home.[40] H. H. Holmes killed for insurance and business profits.[41] Professional killers ("hit men") may also be considered serial killers.[42]

Some, like Puente and Holmes, may be involved in and/or have previous convictions for theft, fraud, dishonesty, non payment of debts, embezzlement and other crimes of a similar nature. Dorothea Puente was finally arrested on a parole violation, having been on parole for a previous fraud conviction.


Their main objective for killing is to gain and exert power over their victim. Such killers are sometimes abused as children[citation needed], leaving them with feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy as adults. Many power or control-motivated killers sexually abuse their victims, but they differ from hedonistic killers in that rape is not motivated by lust but as simply another form of dominating the victim.[43] Ted Bundy traveled around the United States seeking women to control.[44]

Medical professionals[]

Some people with a pathological interest in the power of life and death tend to be attracted to medical professions.[45][46][47][48] These kinds of killers are sometimes referred to as "angels of death"[49] or angels of mercy. One example is Harold Shipman, an English family doctor, who made it appear that his victims died of natural causes (disease). Between 1975 and 1998, he murdered at least 215 patients; he is suspected of having murdered 250 people.[50] Dr John Bodkin Adams, meanwhile, though acquitted in 1957 of the murder of one patient, is believed to have killed around 163 patients in Eastbourne, England.[51]

A number of medical murderers were involved in fraud. For example, H. H. Holmes was often involved in insurance scams and confidence tricks. Harold Shipman had a previous conviction for prescription fraud and forgery, for which he was fined £600.


Criminologists have long recognized that there are links between most serial killers and their chosen victims. Demographically, serial murderers tend to target more women than men, and kill strangers more often than family or acquaintances, as opposed to single-homicide offenders, who tend to kill men and women equally, while killing friends and family more often.[52]

Serial murderers’ killings are often sexually motivated, although there are exceptions. The sexual motivation supports the theory that serial murderers tend to have specific criteria and specific sexual interests that motivate their selection of certain victims. This victim selection process sets serial murderers apart from other types of killers.[52] Gay serial killers, such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Dennis Nilsen, often killed other gay men.

In the United States, serial killers prefer to target victims ages 18–50. The majority of victims are white, supporting researchers' claims that serial murder is intra-racial.[53]

Female serial killers tend to kill those with whom they are already intimately familiar, as opposed to men who usually target strangers. "For female serial killers, historically husbands and their children are first choice as victims. When comparing males who kill children versus women, women kill children at a much higher percentage. The percentage of offenders killing at least one type of victim who is a child, males are at 21% whereas women are at 39%."[54]

Female serial killers[]

Female serial killers are rare.[55][56][57][58] They tend to murder men for personal gain, are usually emotionally close to their victims,[55][56][57][58] and generally need to have a relationship with a person before killing them.[56] "An analysis of 86 female serial killers from the U.S. found that the victims tended to be spouses, children or the elderly."[55][56] The methods they use for murder are covert or low-profile, such as murder by poison.[55][56][57][59] They commit killings in specific places, such as their home or a health-care facility (where they then become known as "Angels of Mercy" by the media), or at different locations within the same city or state.[60][61] Each killer will have her own proclivities, needs and triggers, as specific reasons can only be obtained from the killer herself.[55][56][57][59] On rare occasions, women may be involved with a male serial killer as a part of a serial killing "team".[55][56][57][59]

"In a review of published literature on female serial murder, the most common motive identified was material gain."[55][56] Sexual or sadistic motives are believed to be extremely rare in female serial murderers, and psychopathic traits and histories of childhood abuse have been consistently reported in these women.[55][56] In a study of 105 female serial killers, the preferred method of killing was poisoning.[55][56]

A notable exception to the typical characteristics of female serial killers is Aileen Wuornos,[61][62] who killed outdoors instead of at home, used a gun instead of poison, killed strangers instead of friends or family, and killed for personal gratification.[63][64] Another atypical female serial murderer was nurse Jane Toppan, who admitted during her murder trial that she was sexually aroused by death.[65] She would administer a drug mixture to patients she chose as her victims, lie in bed with them and hold them close to her body as they died.[65]

Serial killers in history[]

Further information: List of serial killers before 1900

Historical criminologists have suggested that there may have been serial murders throughout history, but specific cases were not adequately recorded.

Liu Pengli of China, cousin of the Han Emperor Jing, was made king of Jidong in the sixth year of the middle period of Jing's reign (144 BC). According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian, he would "go out on marauding expeditions with 20 or 30 slaves or young men who were in hiding from the law, murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport". Although many of his subjects knew about these murders, it was not until the 29th year of his reign that the son of one of his victims finally sent a report to the Emperor. Eventually, it was discovered that he had murdered at least 100 people. The officials of the court requested that Liu Pengli be executed; however, the emperor could not bear to have his own cousin killed, and Liu Pengli was made a commoner and banished.[66]

In the 15th century, one of the wealthiest men in Europe, Gilles de Rais, sexually assaulted and killed peasant children, mainly boys, whom he had abducted from the surrounding villages and taken to his castle.[67] It is estimated that his victims numbered between 140 and 800.[68] The Hungarian aristocrat Elizabeth Báthory tortured and killed as many as 650 girls and young women before her arrest in 1610.[69]

Thug Behram, a gang leader of the Indian Thuggee cult of assassins, has frequently been said to be the world's most prolific serial killer. According to numerous sources, he was believed to have murdered 931 victims by means of strangulation with a ceremonial cloth between 1790 and 1830.[70] Recent scholarship has cast doubt on the Thuggee cult and suggested that the British in India were confused by the vernacular use of the term by Indians, and may also have used fear of such a cult to justify their colonial rule.[70]

The first serial killers to get media attention were Burke and Hare. They killed 16 victims in Edinburgh, Scotland between 1827 and 1828 and sold their cadavers to an anatomy lecturer.[71]

In his 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing noted a case of a serial murderer in the 1870s, a Frenchman named Eusebius Pieydagnelle who had a sexual obsession with blood and confessed to murdering six people.[citation needed]

The unidentified killer Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes (the exact number of victims is not known) in London in 1888. Those crimes gained enormous press attention because London was the world's greatest centre of power at the time, so having such dramatic murders of financially destitute women in the midst of such wealth focused the news media's attention on the plight of the urban poor and gained coverage worldwide. He has also been called the most famous serial killer of all time.[72]

American serial killer H. H. Holmes was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896 after confessing to 27 murders. Joseph Vacher was executed in France in 1898 after confessing to killing and mutilating 11 women and children.[73][74]

See also[]


  1. Reavill, Gil (2007). Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home, Gotham. "With only two confirmed kills, Ed did not technically qualify as a serial killer (the traditional minimum requirement was three), but that did not deny him immediate entry into the pantheon of folk mythology."
  2. Holmes and Holmes, Contemporary, p. 9. "One of the most famous [geographically stable] serial killers is Wayne Williams. He was convicted of only two killings. However, his probable involvement in more than 30 killings of young black males in Atlanta qualifies him for classification as a geographically stable serial killer."
  3. Holmes and Holmes, Contemporary, p. 1
  4. Burkhalter Chmelir, Sandra (2003). "Serial Killers". Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying 2. Ed. Robert Kastenbaum. New York, New York: Macmillan Reference USA/Thomson/Gale. 1. 
  5. Ressler and Schachtman, p. 29
  6. Schechter, Harold (2003). The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers, Ballantine Books.
  7. Gennat, Ernst (1930). Die Düsseldrofer Sexualmorde. Kriminalistische Monatshefte (4): S. 2 - 7, 27 - 32, 49 - 54, 79 - 82..
  8. Schechter and Everitt, pp. 53-54
  9. Parenting: Fourteen Characteristics of a Serial Killer. Dr. URL accessed on 2008-10-05.
  12. Holmes and Holmes (2002), p. 111
  13. Yudofsky, p. 193
  14. Morse, Stephen J. "Psychopathy - What Is Psychopathy?". Law Library - American Law and Legal Information Crime and Justice Vol 3. Retrieved on 2008-09-25. 
  15. Singer, S.D., & Hensley, C. (2004). Learning theory to childhood and adolescent firesetting: Can it lead to serial murder. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 48, 461-476.
  16. Vronsky (2004), pp. 99–100
  17. Aamodt, Dr. Mike Serial Killer IQ. Radford University Department of Psychology. URL accessed on May 21, 2009.
  18. Ressler and Schachtman, p. 131
  19. Holmes and Holmes (1998), pp. 43-44
  20. Bartol and Bartol, p. 284
  21. Holmes and Holmes (1998), p. 62
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 Bartol and Bartol, p. 145 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Bartol" defined multiple times with different content
  23. Ressler and Schachtman, p. 146
  24. Schechter and Everitt, p. 291
  25. Holmes and Holmes (1998), p. 43
  26. Holmes, 2002, p. 112
  27. Douglas et al., p. 25
  28. Kaczynski, Ted Industrial Society and Its Future. Wikisource. URL accessed on 2008-10-04.
  29. Holmes and Holmes (1998), p. 80
  30. Holmes and Holmes (2001), p. 163
  31. 31.0 31.1 Dobbert, pp. 10-11
  32. Dobbert, p. 11
  33. 33.0 33.1 Howard and Smith, p.4
  34. Howard and Smith, p. 5
  35. Graysmith, Robert (2007). Zodiac, Reissue, 54–55, Berkley.
  36. A Deal With the Devil?. 60 Minutes. URL accessed on June 28, 2008.
  37. Mitchell, Corey (2006). Evil Eyes, 207–208, Pinnacle. URL accessed 2009-08-02.
  38. Schlesinger, p. 276
  39. Holmes and Holmes (2000), pp. 41, 43
  40. Holmes and Holmes (2000), p. 44
  41. Holmes and Holmes (2000), p. 43
  42. Holmes and Holmes (1998), p. 7
  43. Egger, Steven A. (2000). Why Serial Murderers Kill: An Overview. Contemporary Issues Companion: Serial Killers.
  44. Peck and Dolch, p. 255
  45. Sitpond
  46. Whittle and Ritchie
  47. Linedecker
  48. Hickey (1997), p. 142
  49. Angels of Death. Crime Library. URL accessed on 30 December 2008.
  50. includeonly>"Shipman's 215 victims", BBC News, 2004-01-13. Retrieved on 2008-09-24.
  51. Cullen, Pamela V., A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams, London, Elliott & Thompson, 2006, ISBN 1-904027-19-9
  52. 52.0 52.1 Hickey (2005)
  53. Godwin, pp. 61-68
  54. Vronsky (2007), p. 35
  55. 55.0 55.1 55.2 55.3 55.4 55.5 55.6 55.7 55.8 includeonly>"Your Questions Answered About Black Widow Case. Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. James Knoll Answers Viewers' Questions About Stacey Castor", ABC News, April 27, 2009. Retrieved on April 27, 2009.
  56. 56.0 56.1 56.2 56.3 56.4 56.5 56.6 56.7 56.8 56.9 Frei, A., Völlm, B.; Graf, M.; Dittmann, V. (2006). Female serial killing: Review and case report. Criminal Behavior and Mental Health 16 (33): 167–176.
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  66. Qian, p. 387
  67. Vronsky (2004), pp. 45-48
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  69. Vronsky (2007), p. 79
  70. 70.0 70.1 Rushby Template:Pn
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  72. Bardsley, Marilyn Jack the Ripper -- the most famous serial killer of all time. URL accessed on 2009-08-03.
  73. Ramsland, Katherine The Werewolf Syndrome: Compulsive Bestial Slaughterers. Vacher the Ripper. URL accessed on 2009-08-03.
  74. FRENCH "RIPPER" GUILLOTINED; Joseph Vacher, Who Murdered More Than a Score of Persons, Executed at Bourg-en-Bresse.. The New York Times. URL accessed on 2009-08-03.


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External links[]

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