I Wanna Be a Serial Killer, Part 2

Killer kids in these incidents reveal disturbing ambitions.

Posted Apr 01, 2016

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

In the past few months, several cases of kids with violent ambitions have been in the news. Robert Bever, 18, and his brother Michael, 16, murdered their parents and three of their five siblings. The youngest was five. All were stabbed to death, with 48 wounds to the mother and 28 to the father.

As the brothers were taken to a hearing, Robert laughed over his deeds and expressed a desire to be as notorious as a serial killer. His plan had been to make videos of the gruesome scene before dismembering the bodies and storing the parts in bins in the attic.

But that was not the endgame. He also had planned to randomly attack other locations, where he’d fantasized about killing multiple people in each place. The goal was to outdo other killers they knew about, citing as role models Aurora mass murderer James Holmes and the Columbine High school shooters. They wanted to be famous!

This is not the first time that I’ve compiled a list of people who aspired to become the worst type of offender they could imagine. I'm sure it won't be the last. But I was struck that four had been in the news in two months (actually five, if you count both Bever boys).

Michael Hernandez was just 14 when he commenced his plan to become a serial killer. In the bathroom at school in 2004, he’d cornered a classmate, Jaime Gough, and slit his throat. Recently, he received a new sentencing hearing, due to the Supreme Court’s decision that disallowed automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles, including killers.

Judge John Schlesinger got the case. He listened to evidence that, 12 years later, Hernandez was still obsessed with violence and gore. He liked to watch the TV shows Hannibal and American Horror Story, and he was interested in serial killer Ed Gein. In recorded phone calls, Hernandez had talked enthusiastically about hacking people up and making “skin suits.” The judge believed that Hernandez was the “uncommon case” – the exception that allowed a full life sentence, no matter the age. And that’s what he got once more.

Two cases occurred in Britain. David Parsons developed an obsession with the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, and brutally attacked a prostitute. He’d formed a plan to follow in his hero’s footsteps, including the purchase of a similar claw hammer. With it, he bludgeoned a woman he’d lured to his apartment. Her screams, scaring him, saved her. Parson’s told psychiatrists after his arrest that he wanted to outdo Sutcliffe, who’d been convicted of killing 13 women in 1981.

Liam McAtear, 16, had a different violent hero. In a letter to Ian Brady, the only surviving member of a team known as the “Moors Murderers,” McAtear described how Brady’s child murders fascinated him. McAtear then acted on his obsession. He entered another boy's room and hit him repeatedly with a claw hammer. In a note, he said, “I am planning a murder and it is very interesting and makes me feel good.” The victim, bludgeoned a dozen times, survived.

These young men might be youth at-risk for psychopathy and/or have some kind of neurological disconnect. The oldest of the lot, Parsons, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Certain mental conditions can make someone vulnerable to social forces that glorify violence. The adolescent brain can be highly malleable, and neural pathways can quickly develop to support habitual behaviors. This would include repetitive indulgence in violent fantasies.

But how does a specific and deadly obsession with serial killers begin? I suggest that it’s from arousal at certain themes and images, supported by covert social values embedded in the media on which these young men focused. I call this erotic enthrallment, or intense pleasurable fascination with harm to others.

It begins with exciting associations that stimulate the brain’s reward mechanisms. When what’s dangerous and forbidden seems magical and larger-than-life – especially as a way to make one’s mark – it can become a fantasy scenario. The more pleasurable and intense, the more likely it is to be acted on. Fantasy processes can erase deviant, immoral or illegal aspects as they prioritize self-centered gratification.

With serial killers presented in entertainment as clever, powerful, sexy, and interesting, it’s no wonder that mentally unstable individuals might attach to such images and use them to fuel their fantasy ambitions.