Hooked on Homicide

Are serial killers addicted to murder?

Posted Jul 20, 2017

In general, serial killers and substance abusers don’t have much in common.  People are addicted to drugs or alcohol do themselves more harm than anyone else; when friends and family get hurt, they are collateral damage on a personal road to self-destruction. Serial killers, on the other hand, are often extremely invested in self-preservation, while having deadly intentions towards others.

However, more than one professional has noticed that, while the psyches and predilections of these two groups are worlds apart, the urges and compulsions that drive these choices can be surprisingly similar. Just as drinking or shopping or gambling can temporarily relieve stress and feel good, some serial killers report similar results from killing:

  • Serial killer Ted Bundy reportedly “craved” killing in order to concentrate. 
  • Israel Keyes, definitively linked to three murders but suspected of killing several more, stated he was addicted to the thrill of the hunt as he planned and prepared for his next victim. 
  • Healthcare serial murderer Elizabeth Wettlaufer, who pled guilty to killing eight nursing home residents, described a pressure that would build up before each murder and stated she started killing people to relieve her anxieties.   

So, is it possible that, once the murder ball gets rolling, it can be habit-forming? As it turns out, this idea is not as crazy as it might seem, and some of the evidence that supports it comes from some surprising places.

The Compulsive Criminal?

We all know that addiction can lead to crime. As a forensic psychologist, I’ve evaluated a mom who was so hooked on online gambling that she stole money from her husband’s company and her kids’ piggy banks. I once treated a young woman who had gone from being a bank manager to a prostitute in less than a year after meeting cocaine at a bachelorette party. I’ve interviewed a prison inmate who killed her husband for the insurance money so she could support her shopping habit.    

There is also supporting evidence that criminal actions, in and of themselves, can be addictive. Research has shown that urge-driven disorders, such as pyromania (fire-setting) and kleptomania (compulsive shoplifting), trigger the release of extra dopamine, which causes feelings of pleasure. While the factors that contribute to the onset of a behavioral addiction are complex and unique to each person, once s/he continues to engage in these maladaptive behaviors, his or her brain receives a jolt of dopamine each time, making the addiction increasingly more difficult to overcome. Over time, this person can become as addicted to their particular form of criminal activity as is a heroin addict to smack or an alcoholic to alcohol, having the same difficulty resisting a crime as a substance abuser does resisting his or her cravings.   

Viewed this way, it isn’t too much of a stretch to see how a serial murderer might fantasize about killing for years, commit the first kill during a period of stress, feel an emotional release or “high” during the crime, experience a gradual build-up of tension again, and the cycle repeat itself. The escalation in frequency of killing, or violence committed during it, can be similar to the tolerance seen in physical addiction; over time the killer needs more and more stimulation to get the same psychological payoff.

The Mythical Link Between Military Service and Serial Murder

 “Killing is a drug to me and has been ever since the first time I killed someone. At first, it was weird and felt wrong.  But by the time of the third or fourth killing, it feels so natural, it feels like I can do this for the rest of my life . . .” This is a quote from a combat vet’s community college essay by former infantryman Charles D. Whittington’s Jr., who was writing about his participation in nighttime raids against insurgent leaders in Mosul. This essay about his addiction to killing is certainly not every soldier’s view; in fact, it was alarming enough to college officials that he was expelled until he received a psychological exam. However, neither is he a lone wolf. In a 2016 British documentary, former SAS soldiers described killing in action as “addictive,” likening the extreme violence to playing a video game. 

Anecdotal accounts such as these, in combination with social learning theory, have been the basis for a longstanding speculation about a link between serial murder and military service. After all, for some soldiers, war not only removes the normal restraints by which they live their daily lives, it allows them to enjoy it. There are soldiers who finds killing so much to his liking that he takes unnecessary risks, volunteers for dangerous assignments or, on rarer occasions, commits war time atrocities. However, there is virtually no evidence that a zealous warrior will, upon discharge, transform into a serial murderer.      

An analysis of over 2,000 serial murderers found virtually no link between serial murder and military service. First of all, the number of serial murderers who were veterans (20 percent) was slightly less than the percentage of adult male veterans (24 percent) in the U.S. population. Serial killers who were veterans were neither more proficient or malicious than their civilian counterparts. There was no significant difference is the number of victims or how long they were active.  They were no more or less likely to torture their victims than those without a military background. Serial murderers don’t need an extreme situation to lift their moral restraints; they do it themselves. 

The Bottom Line

Addiction to a behavior, rather than a substance, happens. Just as one person craves the high from a drug, another may crave the excitement of gambling or shoplifting, suffering stress and tension when unable to engage in this behavior, building up a tolerance where they need to do more to get the same feeling, and relapsing when trying to quit. Some repeated crimes are likely fueled by the psychological payoff from their behavior addictive and, as a result, repeatedly returning to this pattern.  

Clearly, an addiction approach to serial murder does not explain how, or why, a person first kills. The making of a serial murderer is complex; it is likely a unique combination of nature, nurture and a triggering life event. In addition, serial killers know the potential consequences of their actions and take active—often calculated—steps to avoid them. However, just as a substance abuser’s addiction may escalate as it progresses, serial murderers often become more violent, take more risks and shorten their kill cycle. Fortunately, this is when they are most likely to make mistakes.