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Serial Killers: Modus Operandi, Signature, Staging & Posing

Understanding and classifying serial killer crime scenes.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The breakthrough idea of classifying serial homicide crime scenes according to an organized/disorganized dichotomy is credited to the former FRI agent and profiler Roy Hazelwood.

This concept was based primarily on a study of 36 serial predators conducted by acclaimed FBI agents John Douglas and the late Robert Ressler.

Profilers use a list of factors such as whether the victim’s body was positioned or posed by the killer, whether sexual acts were performed before or after death and whether cannibalism or mutilation was practiced on the body.

These factors are used to predict whether an unknown offender is an organized or disorganized killer. The organized/disorganized classification of offenders is the centerpiece of the FBI profiling approach and it is explained below (1).

Organized Offenders

According to the offender and crime scene dichotomy, organized crimes are premeditated and carefully planned, so little evidence is normally found at the scene. Organized criminals, according to the classification scheme, are antisocial (often psychopathic) but know right from wrong, are not insane, and show no remorse.

Based on historical patterns, organized killers are likely to be above-average intelligent, attractive, married or living with a domestic partner, employed, educated, skilled, orderly, cunning and controlled. They have some degree of social grace, may even be charming, and often talk and seduce their victims into being captured.

With organized offenders, there are typically three separate crime scenes: where the victim was approached by the killer, where the victim was killed, and where the victim’s body was disposed of. Organized killers are very difficult to apprehend because they go to inordinate lengths to cover their tracks and often are forensically savvy, meaning they are familiar with police investigation methods.

They are likely to follow the news media reports of their crimes and may even correspond with the news media. Ted Bundy, Joel Rifkin, and Dennis Rader are prime examples of organized killers.

Disorganized Offenders

Disorganized crimes, in contrast, are not planned and the criminals typically leave evidence such as fingerprints or blood at the scene of the murder. There is often no attempt to move or otherwise conceal the corpse after the murder. Disorganized criminals may be young, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or mentally ill. They often have deficient communication and social skills and may be below average in intelligence.

The disorganized offender is likely to come from an unstable or dysfunctional family. Disorganized offenders often have been abused physically or sexually by relatives. They are often sexually inhibited, sexually uninformed, and may have sexual aversions or other pathologies. They are more likely than organized criminals to be compulsive masturbators.

They are often isolated from others, live alone and are frightened or confused during the commission of their murders. They often do not have reliable transportation, so they kill their victims closer to home than organized offenders.

Significantly, disorganized killers will often “blitz” their victims—that is, use sudden and overwhelming force to assault them. The victim’s body is usually left where the attack took place and the killer makes no attempt to hide it. Jack the Ripper is a classic example of the disorganized serial killer.

It is also important to note that a serial murder case can also be a mix of organized and disorganized. This occasionally occurs, for example, when there are multiple offenders of different personality types involved in the killings. It can also occur when a lone offender is undergoing a psychological transformation throughout his killing career.

Modus Operandi and Signature

In addition to the organized/disorganized dichotomy, a serial killer may leave traces of one or both of the following behavioral characteristics: MO (modus operandi or method of operation) and signature—the personal mark or imprint of the offender. While every crime has an MO, not all crimes have a signature.

The MO is what the offender must do in order to commit the crime. For example, the killer must have a means to control his victims at the crime scene such as tying them up. Significantly, the MO is a learned behavior that is subject to change.

A serial killer will alter and refine his MO to accommodate new circumstances or to incorporate new skills and information. For example, instead of using rope to tie up a victim, the offender may learn that it is easier and more effective to bring handcuffs to the crime scene. The MO of Jack the Ripper, for example, was that he attacked prostitutes at night on the street with a knife.

The signature, on the other hand, is not required in order to commit the crime. Rather, it serves the emotional or psychological needs of the offender. The signature comes from within the psyche of the offender and it reflects a deep fantasy need that the killer has about his victims. Fantasies develop slowly, increase over time and may begin with the torture of animals during childhood, for example, as they did with Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”).

The essential core of the signature, when present, is that it is always the same because it emerges out of an offender’s fantasies that evolved long before killing his first victim. The signature may involve mutilation or dismemberment of the victim’s body. The signature of Jack the Ripper was the extensive hacking and mutilation of his victims’ bodies that characterized all of his murders.

Staging and Posing

The FBI profiler may also encounter deliberate alterations of the crime scene or the victim’s body position at the scene of the murder. If these alterations are made for the purpose of confusing or otherwise misleading criminal investigators, then they are called staging and they are considered to be part of the killer’s MO.

On the other hand, if the crime scene alterations only serve the fantasy needs of the offender, then they are considered part of the signature and they are referred to as posing. Sometimes, a victim’s body is posed to send a message to the police or public. For example, Jack the Ripper sometimes posed his victims’ nude bodies with their legs spread apart to shock onlookers and the police in Victorian England.

In my latest book, I examine the fantasies and habits of notorious serial killers, including the “Son of Sam” and “Bind, Torture, Kill” based on my personal correspondence with them in Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.


1. Vronsky, P. 2004. Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. New York: Berkley Books.