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Law and Crime

Visionary Serial Killers Are Driven by Inner Demons

Son of Sam: “The devil made me do it.”

Not all serial killers have the same motivation(s). So-called visionary killers commit murder at the command of imagined internal or external voices which they experience and perceive to be real. Such individuals are often suffering from either psychoses or some other form of mental illness. Visionary killers typically experience a psychotic break from reality that leads them to murder.

While most serial killers have an ideal victim they seek out, e.g., white, female prostitutes, visionary killers select their victims seemingly at random based on logic that is indiscernible to either investigators or forensic psychologists. Their murderous agenda is entirely synchronized to their internal madness.

Consequently, visionary killers almost always fall into the FBI’s “disorganized” category of serial killers because of the mental illness and impulsivity that drives their criminal offenses. They are not thoughtful planners like their “organized” counterparts who would be exemplified by the cool and meticulous Ted Bundy. Moreover, visionary killers are said to be “act focused” because the act of killing itself is their immediate goal.

Some visionary killers come to believe that they are someone else while others feel compelled to murder at the behest of entities such as the Devil or God. Both "God mandated” and "demon mandated" serial killers are fairly common and well documented.

Herbert Mullin, a visionary serial killer who murdered thirteen people in the early 1970s believed that American casualties in the Vietnam War were somehow preventing a catastrophic earthquake in California. As the war wound down and U.S. casualties decreased, Mullin claimed that a supreme voice told him to raise the number of "human sacrifices” in order to delay an earthquake that would plunge California into the ocean.

Following his eventual capture, Mullin confessed to his crimes and claimed that the reason there had not been a catastrophic earthquake in California was due to his murderous handiwork. After interviewing him in prison, the late FBI profiler Robert Ressler asserted that Mullin was a paranoid schizophrenic and his mental illness may have been accelerated by the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD in his youth.

David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam," is frequently cited as a classic example of the visionary serial killer. Berkowitz, also known as the .44 caliber killer, shot thirteen people during his reign of terror in New York City during 1976 and 1977. In handwritten letters he sent to the police and press prior to his arrest, Berkowitz claimed that Satan was ordering him to kill.

There has been a persistent claim by certain law enforcement officials and journalists over the years that Berkowitz killed at the behest of Harvey, a black Labrador retriever owned by his neighbor Sam Carr, believing that the dog was a demon sending him murderous messages in its incessant nocturnal barking. I debunk this popular myth in my book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers based on my personal correspondence and in-depth interview with David Berkowitz.

Berkowitz allegedly recanted his story of demonic possession during a prison interview with the FBI in 1979. He reportedly said that he had invented the Son of Sam stories so that if ever caught he could plead insanity in court. The FBI claims that Berkowitz told them the real reason he killed was because he felt resentment toward his mother and other women who had rejected him.

However, David Berkowitz told me that the FBI’s version of their 1979 encounter is inaccurate. Berkowitz maintains that at the time of his murders he believed he was being ordered to kill by Satan. After ten years of guilt, shame, and anguish following his capture and incarceration, Berkowitz had a self-described “spiritual awakening” in prison and became a born-again Christian.

Today Berkowitz expresses deep remorse for his crimes and professes a devotion to helping others and serving God from prison. See a separate article on David Berkowitz.

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor, media analyst, and author.

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