Attendees at a national symposium on serial homicide conducted by the FBI in 2005 concluded that there is no definitive cause and no generic profile of a serial killer (1). Experts at the symposium concluded that serial killers vary greatly in their motivations and behavior.
However, the attendees did identify certain traits that are common among serial murderers such as sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control and predatory behavior. These common traits of serial killers have been linked to certain antisocial personality disorders, including sociopathy.
Sociopathy is an antisocial personality disorder that is characterized by the following traits:
• A disregard for laws and social mores
• A disregard for the rights of others
• A failure to feel remorse or guilt
• A tendency to display violent behavior
In addition, sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated or angered. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage.
Sociopaths are likely to be uneducated and typically live on the fringes of society. They are often unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. They are frequently transients and drifters.
It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. They are capable of bonding emotionally and demonstrating empathy with certain people in certain situations but not others. Many sociopaths are able to form an attachment to a particular individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general or its rules.
Significantly, in the eyes of others, sociopaths will appear to be very disturbed.
Sociopathy is thought to result from one’s environment. That is, sociopathy is believed to be a product of childhood trauma and abuse rather than being an in-born characteristic.
Because sociopathy appears to be learned rather than innate, sociopaths are capable of empathy or forming an emotional connection with others but only to certain individuals such as a family member or friend and only in certain circumstances.
Any crimes committed by a sociopath will tend to be haphazard or spontaneous. A sociopath who becomes a serial killer will most likely conform to the FBI’s disorganized category of serial predator. Jack the Ripper offers a classic example of the volatile, spontaneous, and disorganized serial killer.
According to the FBI, disorganized crimes are not planned, and the offenders typically leave evidence such as fingerprints or blood at the scene of the murder. There is often no attempt to move or otherwise conceal the corpse after the murder (2).
As explained by Peter Vronsky in "Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters," disorganized criminals have a number of common characteristics. They may be young, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or mentally ill. They often have deficient communication and social skills and may be below average in intelligence.
In addition, the disorganized offender is likely to come from an unstable or dysfunctional family. Disorganized offenders often have been abused physically or sexually by relatives. They are often sexually inhibited, sexually uninformed, and may have sexual aversions or other pathologies. They are more likely to be compulsive masturbators.
They are often isolated from others, live alone, and are frightened or confused during the commission of their murders. They often do not have reliable transportation, so they kill their victims close to home. .
Significantly, disorganized killers will often “blitz” their victims—that is, use sudden and overwhelming force to assault them. The victim’s body is usually left where the attack took place, and the killer makes no attempt to hide it. Jack the Ripper, for example, left his victims’ mangled corpses on the open street, exactly where he confronted them.
The serial killer known as “Charlie Chop-Off ” because of his penchant for genital dismemberment, is a more recent example of the disturbed disorganized killer. Charlie randomly killed young boys in blitz attacks in New York City in the early 1970s (3).
I present much more about the motivations, fantasies and habits of serial killers, including “Bind, Torture, Kill” or BTK, gained from my extensive correspondence with him, in my new book “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers.” Click to order it now: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1629144320/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_dp_B-2Stb0D57SDB
(1) Morton, R.J. 2005. Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
(2) Vronsky, Peter. 2004. Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. New York: Berkley Books.
Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com