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Why Some Individuals Kill For Their Own Sadistic Pleasure

Fulfilling a need for power, domination and control.

There are number of theories regarding the diverse motivations of serial killers. Perhaps the most widely accepted and most comprehensive involves a four-fold typology of serial homicide developed by criminologists Ronald Holmes, Stephen Holmes and James De Burger (1).

Based on in-depth interviews with a number of incarcerated serial killers, these criminologists concluded that serial killers are generally either act-focused or process-focused.

In the case of act-focused killers, who typically kill quickly, the motive for murder is the act itself. Within the act-focused group, there are two different types: visionary killers and mission-oriented killers.

Process-focused serial killers, on the other hand, derive satisfaction from the torture and prolonged suffering of their victims, so they typically kill slowly. Within the process-focused group, there are two types: hedonists and power/control killers. Hedonistic serial killers are thrill seekers who derive immense pleasure from their murderous exploits.

Additionally, there are three sub-types of hedonists: lust, thrill and comfort/gain killers. The second type of process-focused serial killer—that is, power/control killers—are highly organized and primarily motivated by dominating and controlling their victims.

Let’s take a closer look at power/control killers. They are perhaps the most common of all serial killers and classic examples of this type include Gary Ridgway, John Wayne Gacy (The Killer Clown) and Dennis Rader (Bind, Torture, Kill or BTK). Such predators often use pain as a method of control and torture as a ritualistic token of it.

The primary motivation of these serial killers is to control and dominate their victims. They enjoy torturing their prey and find it sexually arousing but the act of murder is normally the most satisfying and final expression of their power and control over their victims.

They are patient and they kill their victims slowly in order to prolong their own sadistic pleasure. Such behavior is empowering because the killer gets to decide when, how and under what circumstances his victims will die.

Dennis Rader is a leading example of this type of serial killer. In a twisted mind such as that of BTK, prolonged torture and killing can become the only means to quench his otherwise insatiable thirst for power and control.

Power/control killers are frequently stone-cold psychopaths and they fall into the FBI’s organized category of predators because they are meticulous planners, unflappable and patient. Such serial killers are frequently charming, charismatic and intelligent.

Many power/control killers sexually assault their victims but, unlike hedonist lust killers, for them rape is not motivated by lust. Instead, rape is another means of dominating and controlling their victims.

Also, power/control killers do not necessarily lose interest in their victims after they are dead, as thrill killers do. Sometimes, a power/control killer will return to have sex with the decomposing corpse of a victim long after the murder in order to perpetuate his domination and control of the deceased.

Because necrophilia totally eliminates the possibility of unwanted rejection, the power/control killer can return to violate the victim whenever he pleases. This affords a psychopathic serial killer with a tremendous sense of empowerment while avoiding the disturbing prospect of rejection and disappointment by a living person.

Voracious postmortem sexual behavior was manifested by Ted Bundy and Ed Kemper (The Co-ed Killer), for example, who were both power/control killers.

I examine the public’s intense fascination with notorious, psychopathic and deadly serial killers in my book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor, author and TV analyst. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website


1) Holmes, R.M. and Holmes, S.T. 1998. Serial Murder, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

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