Incredibly, there are people who kill simply for excitement. Killing others gives them an adrenaline rush similar to what you or I might receive from a roller coaster ride or a haunted house. Such individuals are usually psychopaths so they rarely, if ever, suffer remorse for their murders.
Serial killers of this variety are defined as hedonist thrill killers (1). Israel Keyes, the disturbed army veteran, who stalked and killed eight people across several states prior to his capture and suicide in Alaska in December 2012, is the most recent example of this type of serial predator.
The victims of a thrill killer are generally strangers, although the killer may stalk them for a period of time before the attack in order to fuel the excitement of the hunt. As explained by Peter Vronsky in his book Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters, thrill killers derive intense satisfaction from the process of murder—that is, the acts leading up to it—rather than the killing itself. They come to crave the euphoric adrenaline rush provided by stalking and capturing their victims. The primary motive of thrill killers is to induce pain or terror in their victims prior to killing them which provides intense stimulation and excitement (2). Stalking and hunting their prey becomes an addiction for them much like a narcotic drug.
Normally, the attack of a thrill killer is swift and there is generally no sexual aspect to the murder. Once the victim is dead, a thrill killer typically loses interest in him/her almost immediately. Therefore, postmortem mutilation or necrophilia is rarely engaged in by this type of serial killer. This pattern represents a stark contrast to hedonist lust killers such as the infamous Jeffrey Dahmer who love to engage in postmortem sexual activities (3).
Perhaps the ultimate hedonist thrill killer was the unidentified predator who called himself “Zodiac” and operated in Northern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Zodiac terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area and aggressively tormented his pursuers throughout his crime spree. He targeted four men and three women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-nine in the San Francisco area from December 1968 until October 1969. Five of his victims died and two were injured in the attacks. He finally stopped killing for unknown reasons and his identity remains a mystery.
The killer gave himself the name Zodiac in a series of taunting letters that he sent to local newspapers in the Bay Area. The tremendous excitement that the Zodiac Killer derived from his murders is evident in the words contained in one of his letters. He wrote, "[Killing people] is so much fun. It's even better than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal. To kill gives me the most thrilling experience. It is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl." For the Zodiac Killer and other psychopathic thrill killers like him, the process leading up to the act of murder affords them the greatest satisfaction of their lives.
(1)Holmes, R.M. and Holmes, S.T. 1998. Serial Murder, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
(2)Vronsky, P. 2004. Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. New York:Berkley Books
(3)Holmes and Holmes, Serial Murder.
Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. His new book Why We Love Serial Killers will be released by Skyhorse Press later this year. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com