Serial killers are becoming a growing menace to American society. In order to help prevent these types of murderers from continuing to increase, there needs to be a better understanding of the causes and mental workings of this type of violent personality. In order for local law officials to use psychological profiles to aid in the killers capture, first it is important to understand what a serial killer is. The most popular conception held by the public is that of a psychopathic butcher of multiple victims. True, but to the experts, a serial killer is defined as any murderer who commits more than one random slaying with a "cooling off period and involving sadistic, sexual violence" (Schechter, Everitt 69). FBI agent and instructor Robert Ressler coined the term serial killer in the early 1980's, and in doing so, he made a distinction between mass murderers and serial killers. Since Ressler, anyone who kills repeatedly out of calculation is a mass murderer, while anyone who kills out of some compulsion is a serial killer. The serial murder syndrome is not a new idea, it has been occurring throughout history. Probably the first example of a serial killer is the infamous "Jack the Ripper", who began his gruesome killing spree in August of 1888 (Lane and Gregg 210). In all he killed five prostitutes, and his identity has never been known.
The problem is that the incidence of serial killers was once rare, but in the last two decades, the number of serial killings has significantly increased in American society (Wilson and Wilson 12). The FBI has reported that there are an estimated thirty to fifty active serial killers in the U.S. at any one time (Methvin 38). Scientists have conflicting ideas about the cause for this increase. Some think that it is due to weaknesses in society, that society has become too free, or that not as many people suffer from poverty. Wilson and Wilson address the view of the reduction of poverty rates as a cause when they say, "murder for sex was almost unheard of because when you are hungry and tired, sex takes second place. It is therefore inevitable that, as society becomes more affluent, sex crimes will increase" (Wilson and Wilson 2). This increase has led to the development of numerous theories that attempt to explain what the driving forces are behind the making of a serial killer. Different factors such as childhood abuse, and the role of society and the media can be attributed to the development of the serial killer's mind. The most popular belief is that childhood physical, sexual, and psychological abuse plays a major role in the development of a serial killer, so this is the belief that needs to be addressed first.
Most serial killers do not have memories of playing with friends on the playground or having slumber parties, but of enduring severe and routine beatings, molestation and rape. In addition to physical trauma, they are subjected to psychological abuse that cripples their emotional growth. According to FBI findings, "42 percent of serial killers have suffered severe physical abuse as children, 43 percent were sexually molested, and a full 74 percent were subjected to ongoing psychological torture" (Schechter, Everitt 293). According to a Chicago psychiatrist named Dr. Helen Morrison, who conducts interviews with serial killers, the psychological development of serial killers has stopped during infancy. "As an infant", she says, "the future serial murderer cannot develop the ability to differentiate himself into a separate, distinct personality. He cannot distinguish himself from others; he cannot distinguish a human being from say, a chair, or any other inanimate object" (Methvin 41). It is a fair comparison when a serial killer is compared to a two year old playing with a toy. The two-year-old will break or take the toy apart in order to see what is on the inside and also because it is fun. Serial killers act in the same way, they love to take things apart. To them a human being is nothing more than, "a breakable object-something to be taken apart for their pleasure" (Schechter, Everitt 48). Serial killers do realize and understand that they are inflicting pain on their victims, but instead of this realization hindering their actions, it only adds to the killer's pleasure.
Being subjected to vicious upbringings contributes to their violent tendencies and emotional confusion. Because of the appalling upbringings of most serial killers, they become adults full of hate and self-loathing which leads to murderous emotions. This type of childhood can also cause sadistic thoughts, chaotic sexual behavior, and even gender confusion (Methvin 40). As a child, Henry Lee Lucas, one of America's most infamous serial killers, was forced to watch his prostitute mother have sex with her tricks while dressed up in little girl's clothing (Schechter, Everitt 293). Lucas has said, "I hated all my life. I hated everybody. When I first grew up and can remember, I was dressed as a girl by mother. And I stayed that way for two or three years. And after that I was treated like what I call the dog of the family. I was beaten. I was made to do things that no human bein' would want to do" (Schechter, Everitt 294). Henry grew up to murder his mother and countless others. He was picked up on a weapons charge that ended his murder spree, but not before at least 81 people had to die.
Coupled with their brutal childhoods, there are also societal influences that contribute to a serial killer's behavior. The impact that society has on a serial killer's life goes hand in hand with the role that the media plays. Even though society is disgusted by the actions of serial killers, we find ourselves intrigued by them at the same time. Serial killers thrive and are excited by the attention given to them by television, newspapers, and other forms of media. Serial killers have a lust for notoriety and fame. This lust doesn't necessarily cause them to murder but it motivates them to kill in larger numbers. There have been serial killers that when they are caught they are angered that the actual number of people they have murdered is thought to be lower than the number really is.
Take for instance David Berkowitz, better known to the public as Son of Sam. He was excited and motivated by the attention given to him by the media. He was known to write letters to the local newspapers saying that he was too clever to be caught and propagating his own fame and glory. We gave him the attention that he needed and people continued to die. He probably wouldn't have stopped on his own, "but our interest drove him to kill more than he may have" (Fuell). Anthropologist Elliot Leyton points out yearning for success as a factor that perpetuates serial killers. As Leyton describes them, serial killers are often people whose lives are mostly unsuccessful, so they seek to become famous by killing viciously (Rohr 204). One of the main ways the public has knowledge of the actions of serial killers is through the media.
In today's society, we have become unhappily familiar with the names and actions of serial killers. The publicity of serial murderers has contributed to the rise of serial murderers by encouraging imitation. Shervert Frazier, who has served as president of the American Psychiatric Association, has noted that when the murder of 27 youths in a homosexual murder series was made public in 1974, there was an outbreak of homosexual assaults nationwide (Methvin 37). Frazier has been quoted as saying, while addressing this phenomenon, "That means there are a lot of people abroad with the same ideas who generally keep control; but the person who has inhibitions against acting out his urges finds it easier to break through his controls when he sees somebody has gotten away with 27 murders" (Methvin 37).
The movie industry is a very influential medium and has been making money off the exploits of serial killers for years. "People have always been intrigued by the kind of homicidal maniacs we now call serial killers, and every time a new mass medium has been invented, it's been used to gratify this primal fascination" (Schechter, Everitt 185). There have been movies depicting serial murder since the 1920's. The number of movies in 1920 was just two and the number has been rising ever since. There has been a dramatic increase in the last ten years, from the 1980's to the 1990's, the number has more than doubled from 23 to 54and is climbing. The industry will only push what the public will accept and buy. So obviously, the public is interested in what serial killers are capable of; but at the same time, they are calling these products of our society monstrous or evil. Most people have heard of Silence of the Lambs, Seven, or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but not everyone knows that the characters in these movies are based on past killers and actual events. Loosely based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas, Henry: