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Serial Homicide for Power and Control

Power/control killers are motivated by the process of murder.

Des Plaines Police Department, Tim Boyle
John Wayne Gacy
Source: Des Plaines Police Department, Tim Boyle

All serial killers have a compulsion to kill but their individual motivations vary. Some killers are driven by hedonistic lust. Others are motivated by greed or thrill-seeking needs. Perhaps the most common type of serial killer is the power/control killer. Classic examples of this type include Gary Ridgway, John Wayne Gacy, and Dennis Rader.

The primary motivation of these serial killers is to control and dominate their victims. They enjoy the process of murder. That is, they enjoy stalking, capturing and torturing their prey. They find it sexually arousing but the act of murder is normally the most satisfying and final expression of their power and control over their victims. They are patient and they kill their victims slowly in order to prolong their own sadistic pleasure.

Such behavior is empowering because the killer gets to decide when, how and under what circumstances his victims will die. Dennis Rader (aka “Bind, Torture, Kill” or BTK) is a leading example of this type of serial killer. In a twisted mind such as that of BTK, prolonged torture and killing can become the only means to quench his otherwise insatiable thirst for power and control.

The story of BTK is incredible. He murdered at least 10 people in Wichita, Kansas, over a twenty-year period prior to his capture in 2005. He pled guilty and received ten consecutive life sentences. Prior to his arrest, Rader was married for 34 years with two children, a Boy Scout leader, employed as a local government official and was the president of his church congregation.

His alter ego, BTK, on the other hand, was a stone-cold killer who sought power, control, and domination of his victims. The torture of his victims gratified BTK and strangling the life out of them made him feel like God. Throughout the years that he was committing his murders, Rader lived a remarkably normal-looking outward life and he was perceived to be a pillar of his community.

Inwardly, however, BTK was secretly satisfying his sexual needs and delaying his compulsion to kill for months and even years at a time through autoerotic fantasies combined with masturbation in which he relived his murders with the aid of trophies taken from his victims.

Power/control killers are frequently stone-cold psychopaths and they fall into the FBI’s "organized" category of predators because they are meticulous planners, unflappable and patient. Such serial killers are frequently charming, charismatic and intelligent.

Many power/control killers sexually assault their victims but, unlike hedonist lust killers, for them, rape is not motivated by lust. Instead, rape is another means of dominating and controlling their victims. Power/control killers do not necessarily lose interest in their victims after they are dead, as thrill killers such as the Zodiac do. Sometimes, a power/control killer will return to have sex with the decomposing corpse of a victim long after the murder in order to perpetuate his domination and control of the deceased.

Because necrophilia totally eliminates the possibility of unwanted rejection, the power/control killer can return to violate the victim whenever he pleases. This affords a psychopathic serial killer with a tremendous sense of empowerment while avoiding the disturbing prospect of rejection and disappointment by a living person. Voracious postmortem sexual behavior was manifested by Ted Bundy and Ed Kemper, for example, who were both power/control killers.

Many power/control serial killers also keep souvenirs or trophies from their crimes which serve to sustain and refuel their violent and sexual fantasies. When Ted Bundy was asked why he took Polaroid photos of his victims he said, “When you work hard to do something right, you don’t want to forget it.”

The former FBI profiler John Douglas has said that keeping mementos from a victim such as a lock of hair, jewelry, ID card or a newspaper clipping of the crime helps to prolong and even nourish the serial killer’s secret fantasy. In between their murders and while targeting future victims, serial killers often take out their trophies to help them relive past murders through fantasy.

Trophies help a prolific killer such as Bundy to recall each one of his many victims. Similarly, Dennis Rader kept a locked treasure chest of trophies in the basement of his home which helped him to prolong and heighten his autoerotic fantasy life as he recalled each one of his victims.

Some serial killers such as Bundy and Gary Ridgway give their trophies such as items of jewelry to a family member or intimate partner. The recipient might be the wife or a girlfriend who was causing the killer psychological pain at the time the trophy was acquired. Like a cat that catches a mouse and gives the special item to its owner, a serial killer may take a trophy home and present it to his significant other.

For example, Ted Bundy would give an item of jewelry to a woman in his life and say, “Look at what I found on the street. I want you to have it.” When the killer later sees the trophy being worn by his wife, girlfriend or mother, it becomes part of his secret game. He will look at her wearing it and fantasize about the victim he raped and murdered in order to acquire it. Bundy said that in such moments he would think to himself with much delight, “If she only knew that the necklace she is wearing came from someone I murdered.”

If you are interested in serial killers, you are not alone. I explore our curious fascination with serial killers in both fact and fiction in my best-selling book, Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murders.