Dark Ambitions

Recent research traces the path from aspiring serial killer to the real deal.

Posted Apr 24, 2019

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

Twenty-four-year old Amy Brown knew what she wanted to be when she grew up: a serial killer. After her arrest for attempted first-degree murder, she told police that she had planned to kill a man she met online, eat his heart, and leave a note on his body in case anyone wondered where his missing body part went. She also said she had fantasized about murder since middle school.  

Fortunately, the 29-year-old man whose lung she punctured with a knife managed to fight her off, escape their hotel room, and get help at a nearby drugstore. She is now serving 18 years in prison. 

Serial killer wannabe and filmmaker Mark Twitchell managed to kill someone before he was caught, although his first intended victim also managed to get away. Posing as a gorgeous blonde woman on the Plenty of Fish dating website, he lured Johnny Altinger to his home and killed him. He then described the gory details in a diary on his laptop he called SK Confessions. This document, and testimony from his first victim, helped put him behind bars for the next 25 years. 

However, it may have been his piece, Profile of a Psychopath, that was the most honest. In it, he wrote that he had come to realize that he was different from most people, lacking the honesty and compassion that gives most of us our moral compass. Months before he killed Johnny Altinger, he shared his dark fantasies and admiration of the fictional serial killer from the TV show Dexter with an online friend, who later testified against him. 

Clearly, there is a path that serial killers travel before they commit multiple murders. We know, for example, that predatory (planned) violence is always preceded by violent thoughts, but homicidal ideation is a clinical construct that is almost entirely absent from the criminological literature. But it’s one that, for mental health professionals, has been unclear. Recent research, though, is beginning to shed some light.       

Who Will Kill Again?

In 2016, researchers published a study describing how prevalent homicidal thoughts were in a federal prison inmate population: About 12% of inmates had them. They also wanted to find out if inmates who admitted to regularly thinking about murder were actually more likely to kill once they were released. They found that not only were they more likely to kill again, they were also more likely to kidnap, rob, and assault, had more severe psychopathology, and were more likely to be chronic offenders. Clearly, homicidal ideation isn’t limited to serial killers but it is a risk factor that needs to be taken seriously. 

Given that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, other researchers have explored whether offenders who have committed first-degree murder (premeditated or planned) would be more likely to do it again. This was somewhat tricky to study in the U.S. because, if you are convicted of murdering someone in cold blood once, you are not likely to get the chance again. But this is not true in other countries, where prison sentences are much shorter. This is another understudied topic; researchers found only 11 previous studies.

These researchers studied 682 male offenders who had been convicted of a violent crime as an adult and sentenced to the Florida Department of Corrections. Thirty-eight percent had been convicted of homicide, although not necessarily first-degree; the majority of homicide offenders did not kill again. But what they found was that prior first-degree murder convictions appeared not only to be a marker of an offender who was at higher risk of killing again but also at elevated risk of killing multiple victims. Given the premeditation and goal-oriented nature of first-degree murder, a previous conviction for this offense should be a red flag for practitioners who supervise such inmates, whether in custody or out on the streets. 

What About Serial Killers?

So far, recent research has suggested that homicidal ideation and a prior conviction for first-degree murder may be indicators of an underlying propensity for homicide. So how does this relate to serial killers? Should we, for instance, err on the side of caution and consider all first-degree murder perpetrators as potential serial killers? And what about the killers like Amy Brown or Mark Twitchell who don’t kill enough people (two or three, depending on who you ask) to be called serial killers—but only because they were caught? Should intentions count?

A recent study is trying to shed some light on some of these issues by comparing aspiring serial killers (documented evidence they aspired to be a serial killer but were caught before they murdered anyone), probable serial killers (murdered two or less), and identified serial killers (killed 3 or more people) to see how similar these groups are whether intentions should play as big a role as body count or time between murders. 

Data on 17 aspiring and 46 probable serial killers were collected and compared to 16 successful serial murderers. The study results indicate that aspiring and probable serial killers may share more in common with convicted serial killers than they do with other one-time murderers in terms of their pre-existing homicidal thoughts, likelihood of having a personality disorder, prevalence of mental illness, and history of social alienation and maladjustment. However, there were also differences between these three groups; are these differences a result of distinct psychological transitions along a common path from ambition to action, or are they true discrepancies that lead to the capture of aspiring and probable serial killers and “success” for those who kill again and again? It’s too early to tell.

What the results of this preliminary study do suggest is that aspiring serial killers tend to be younger and do not have the history of childhood abuse or substance use commonly seen among identified serial killers. They also actively searched for lethal role models, studying convicted serial killers, journalling about their aspirations, and often posting or sharing their serial killer ambitions with others. Like many school shooters, the budding serial killers were more likely to leak their lethal intentions ahead of time, suggesting it might be possible to catch the budding serial killer by paying attention to their troubling words ahead of time. Convicted serial killers in this study were less likely to use fantasy to fuel their murders, used journalling to record and relive (as opposed to plan) their crimes, and were better able to switch their deviance on and off so as to better blend in with society.

What was also clear was that the desire and intent to murder were no different among the three groups; they just got caught sooner. Clearly, law enforcement officers are quicker today to make the conceptual leap about a potential serial killer than they have in the past and this has stopped several serial killer wannabes. Given that over half of all serial killers have been caught because of the vigilance of surviving victims, witnesses, and family members of serial killers, it is also important that we, as a community, continue to pay attention and report disturbing threats, fantasies, and plans. Better to be safe than sorry because sometimes sorry means someone is dead.