The entertainment industry has provided many inaccurate depictions of psychopathic killers in film, television, theater, and books. Psychopaths are often incorrectly presented as ghoulish predators or monsters that readily stand out in a crowd.
In reality, a psychopathic killer like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy (the “Killer Clown”) or Gary Ridgway (the “Green River Killer”), can be anyone—a neighbor, co-worker, lover or homeless person on the street.
Any one of these seemingly harmless people may in reality be a stone-cold killer that preys on others. Psychopaths are social chameleons that rarely stand out in a crowd. This characteristic makes them unobtrusive and, therefore, very difficult to apprehend (1).
Many of the most infamous and prolific serial killers in U.S. history have exhibited the key traits of psychopathy and many of them have been diagnosed as psychopaths by forensic psychologists following their capture. A cool and unemotional demeanor combined with keen intellect and charming personality makes the psychopath a very effective predator.
A lack of interpersonal empathy and an inability to feel pity or remorse characterize psychopathic serial killers. They do not value human life and they do not care about the consequences of their crimes. They are callous, indifferent, and extremely brutal in their interactions with their victims.
This is particularly evident in so-called power/control serial killers such as Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) and Ted Bundy who may kidnap, torture and/or rape, and murder their prey without any outward signs of remorse.
Increased attention has been given to the connection between psychopathy and serial murder in recent years by both scientists and criminal justice practitioners. The attendees of a 2005 symposium on serial murder conducted by the FBI concluded that psychopathy is manifested in a specific cluster of interpersonal, affective, lifestyle and antisocial traits and behaviors that are frequently found among serial killers (2).
As reported by the FBI, these traits and behaviors involve deception, manipulation, irresponsibility, impulsivity, stimulation seeking, poor behavioral controls, shallow affect, lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse, callous disregard for the rights of others, and unethical and antisocial behaviors. It is these traits that define adult psychopathy and they begin to manifest themselves in early childhood.
It is important to recognize that psychopathic serial killers know right from wrong and they are able to comprehend the criminal law. In particular, they know that murder violates the laws and mores of society. Psychopathic killers further understand that they are subject to society’s rules but they disregard them to satisfy their own selfish interests and desires (3).
Psychopathic serial killers rarely are found not guilty by reason of insanity in court simply because psychopathy does not qualify as insanity in the criminal justice system.
Contrary to popular mythology, psychopathic serial killers are not out of touch with reality and, as such, are not mentally ill in either a clinical or a legal sense (4). They rarely suffer from delusions unless they also have a separate mental illness such as psychosis or use powerful drugs such as amphetamines or cocaine.
In the criminal courts, psychotic delusions are occasionally presented as a defense by the attorney of a psychopathic serial killer. Normally, such defense claims are easily challenged by prosecutors because psychotic delusions are not a characteristic of psychopathy.
A lack of interpersonal empathy and disregard for the suffering of their victims are key characteristics of psychopathic serial killers (5). They generally do not feel anger toward their victims. Instead, they are more likely to feel cool indifference toward them. Many serial killers seem to go into a trance when they are stalking and killing their victims. The violence they commit often has a dissociative effect on them emotionally.
As explained Dr. J. Reid Meloy, author of “The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment,” psychopathic serial killers are emotionally disconnected from their actions and, therefore, are indifferent to the suffering of their victims. Their ability to dissociate themselves emotionally from their actions and their denial of responsibility effectively neutralizes any guilt or remorse that a normal person would feel in similar circumstances (6).
Do you think you would recognize a psychopathic predator if one crossed your path?
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(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.
(4) Babiak, P., et al. 2012. “Psychopathy: An important forensic concept for the 21st century.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July.
(5) Vronsky, Peter. 2004. “Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters.” New York: Berkley Books.
(6) Meloy, R.J. 1992. “The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment.” New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
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 October 2014. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website DocBonn.Com