I am proud to welcome Dr. Katherine Ramsland as a guest on my blog. Dr. Ramsland has published 33 books and teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University, where she chairs the Social Sciences Department. Among her books are Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, The Human Predator (a history of serial murder), The Criminal Mind, and The Unknown Darkness, with former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary. In April, she will published The Devil’s Dozen: How Cutting Edge Forensics Took Down 12 Notorious Serial Killers. She has also written a series of books to clarify facts about investigations, notably The Forensic Science of CSI, the Science of Cold Case Files, The CSI Effect, and True Stories of CSI. Later this year, she offers The Life of a Forensic Scientist, with Dr. Henry Lee and The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds. Dr. Ramsland writes:
We have many myths attached to serial killers in our culture, most of them from outdated studies or from fiction and film. While those early studies had their merits, they’re not, and never were, representative of serial killers as a whole. In fact, the early conclusions about serial killers were derived from studying articulate, imprisoned, white, male American serial killers – and in limited numbers at that – about 25. Even my undergraduate Psychological Sleuthing class knows better than to accept this as sound.
Former FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler told Sue Russell when she was writing a biography of killer Aileen Wuornos that there were no hard and fast rules. Too many people, he said, try to oversimplify the psychology of these killers, but for every attempt to state a “truth,” one can find counterexamples that undermine it. Some killers have a victim preference, for example, but many do not. While a lot of killers grew up in abusive homes, some enjoyed plenty of privilege and experienced no abuse whatsoever. Generalizations, Ressler indicated, do a disservice to the subject.
I have examined more than 1,300 cases of serial murder, looking at several hundred in detail via court transcripts, correspondences, newspaper archives and true crime biographies. In the process I have found that there are many motives that drive these offenders, they come from diverse backgrounds, and for almost every definitive claim that has been made about them there are exceptions that undermine it.
Even the definition of serial murder can be confusing, so let me address it. While it was once the case that any type of incident that involved a number of murders was called “multiple murder” or “mass murder,” eventually it became clear that distinctions were needed. We believe the phrase, “serial killer,” was first used in The Complete Detective in 1950, but it’s generally accepted that in 1976, with the “Son of Sam” case in New York, FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler initiated its use for cases on which he and his colleagues were consulting in the Behavioral Science Unit (now the Behavioral Analysis Unit). Thus, it became common parlance for a specific type of multiple murder incident, as opposed to being a spree or mass murder. (He apparently based it on how the British had been using “serial burglary” or “series burglary” for repeat burglars.)
I usually begin my course on serial murder with the following list, and then explain why they’re not true. If you’re a fan of movies, novels, and television shows that feature serial killers, you may believe some of these are true:
THERE AREN’T AS MANY NOW AS THERE WERE IN THE 1970S AND 80S
THE FBI ALWAYS GETS INVOLVED IN A SERIAL KILLER INVESTIGATION
IT TAKES AN UNIQUE INVESTIGATOR TO TRACK DOWN A SERIAL KILLER
SERIAL KILLERS ARE SMARTER THAN MOST PEOPLE
JACK THE RIPPER WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST SERIAL KILLER
AILEEN WUORNOS WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST FEMALE SERIAL KILLER
THEY’RE INVARIABLY GOOD-LOOKING, REFINED AND CHARMING
99% ARE WHITE, MIDDLECLASS MALES BETWEEN 18 AND 35
THOSE KILLERS WITH THE MOST VICTIMS ARE FROM THE U.S.
AMERICA HAS 75% OF THE WORLD’S SERIAL KILLERS
THEY ALWAYS WORK ALONE
THEY’RE LONERS, WITHOUT RELATIONSHIPS OR FAMILIES
THEY ALWAYS LEAVE A SIGNATURE
THEY ALWAYS CHOOSE THE SAME TYPE OF VICTIM
THEY ALWAYS USE THE SAME TYPE OF KILLING METHOD/SAME WEAPON
THEY’RE ALWAYS AWARE OF THE INVESTIGATION
THEY LIKE TO PLAY CAT-AND-MOUSE WITH INVESTIGATORS
THEY USUALLY TRY TO INSERT THEMSELVES INTO THE INVESTIGATION
THEY USUALLY TARGET THE LEAD INVESTIGATORS
THEY ALWAYS RETURN TO THE CRIME SCENE
THEIR MURDERS ARE SEXUALLY MOTIVATED
THEY’RE ALL PSYCHOPATHS
THEY PREFER TO KILL UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
FROM 30-50 SERIAL KILLERS ARE ON THE LOOSE IN THE U.S. AT ANY TIME
5,000+ AMERICAN CITIZENS PER YEAR ARE THE VICTIMS OF SERIAL KILLERS
THEY WANT TO BE CAUGHT, SO THEY ALWAYS MAKE A MISTAKE
The truth is, serial killers are not all alike. They’re not all male. Some have been as young as eight or older than fifty. They’re not all driven by sexual compulsion. They’re not all intelligent, nor even clever – often, they’re just lucky. They’re not all charming. A single killer may choose different weapons or methods of operation, although they will tend to stay with whatever works best. Even with rituals, the basis of a “signature,” they often experiment and change things. They might be profit-driven, in search of thrill or self-gratification, or compelled by some other deep-seated desire, fear or need. Occasionally, serial murder is about revenge or it’s inspired by a delusion. In most cases, the killer does not wish to be stopped or caught. Yet a few do intentionally undermine themselves or stop of their own accord. Some rare killers have even professed remorse or killed themselves.
Many more serial killers are emerging in other countries, both historically and now. Just this month, I’ve seen reports from Jamaica, India, South Korea, China, Germany, Russia, England, and Indonesia. There are as many now as there ever were, and there were plenty of killers in past history. Among the earliest documented killers, as far back as Ancient Rome, was a female poisoner, and females have been among those with the highest victim toll (American serial killers don’t even come close, with Gary Ridgway holding the documented record here at 48.)
The notion that 30-50 killers are operating in the U.S. at any given time came from FBI agents during the 1980s who were seeking funds for more resources, and the same goes for 5,000-plus victims. Although one researcher has recently revived this claim, based on how many people have gone missing in the U.S., it’s a great leap in logic to say that most must be victims of serial murder.
We have plenty of serial killers from different races, too. The reason we think that most are white is because the U. S. media has focused most often on white male serial killers. Try Japan, South Africa, Mexico, or South America. A most intriguing one right now is a woman in Germany who has been killing and committing robberies for about 15 years, leaving DNA behind but not getting caught.
Quite a few killers have had families or been in relationships. Their IQs range from borderline mentally retarded to genius, with most about average. Some have been psychotic, while about 90% are psychopaths. About 15% work in teams, and teams have range from two or three to more than a dozen.
The FBI gets involved if they’re invited or if the killer has crossed state or international boundaries. Often, they’re not the super-sleuths who solve the case, but consultants assisting with their computerized database. It’s usually a local detective or task force that breaks the case, just using good police work or catching a killer making a mistake (like driving around with a body in the car.)
Obviously, writers don’t have the time to collect and read all the cases, but accessible sources are available from criminology to allay some of these myths and provide details interesting enough for developing a fictional villain. If a criminological text or article is from the 1990s, chances are that it subsumed the FBI’s unrepresentative prison study of 25 white guys and extrapolated from there. More recent publications – including the FBI’s new report from its international symposium – provide better facts. Mostly the FBI would like writers and reporters to know, “there is no profile of a serial killer.” There is no single set of parameters or traits or behaviors that blueprint that clever, white, male, lone-wolf, game player who stands out because he’s been abused or has a head injury and is driven to sexually assault and kill white females.
See also: Deception Detection: The Truth About Lie Detecters by Dr. Katherine Ramsland