Special Agent Robert Ressler was one of the first FBI agents to specialize in chasing serial killers. He and John Douglas are considered the “founding fathers” of the “Psych Squad” aka the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI, where profilers work. He studied the cases of 72 lust killers and created a list of 14 traits of a serial killer, which is still in use today. This list is somewhat flawed and it’s why not every serial killer seems to meet what we expect from a serial killer. Here’s the list and my thoughts on each trait.
- Over 90% of serial killers are male. – This is true, but the percentage has been shrinking slowly over the last couple of decades as we learn more about female serial killers and learn how to identify them better.
- They tend to be intelligent (with IQs in the bright/average range). – So bright average as of 2000 was an IQ of 125 or higher. Average in the US is 110. MENSA requires an IQ of 155 or higher to be considered for acceptance to their “genius secret club” but they have done some serious restructuring of their IQ tests, as we learn more about intelligence and how people learn and understand. Someone who scored a 120 as a kid on an old test, might score in the 140s or higher with a new, revised IQ test. Also, the average for IQ is increasing and not just because of the restructuring of the tests. This means eventually the majority of people will fall in this “bright/average range” of 125 to 140, as the average for IQ increases.
- They do poorly in school, have trouble holding down jobs, and often work as laborers. – So, this is true of most low functioning sociopaths and psychopaths. It’s also true of non-sociopaths and non-psychopaths. This is one of those things that is influenced by your environment as a child, regardless of whether you are or are not a sociopath/psychopath. This is important because while not all sociopaths/psychopaths are serial killers, all serial killers are either sociopaths or psychopaths. Race, economic status, neighborhood, and general well being, all influence our ability to do well in school, hold down a job, and enter the workforce as more than a laborer. There are also lots of people who fall into this that enjoy jobs that are manual labor jobs.
- They tend to come from markedly unstable families. – Tons of people come from dysfunctional families and don’t grow up to kill people. And there are plenty of people that come from “stable families” that do go on to kill people (a surprising number of mass murderers come from “good families,” and while serial killers and mass murderers aren’t the same, I consider them two sides of the same coin). Dennis Rader came from a stable family. Bundy didn’t. Gacy came from a (mostly) stable family – Gacy’s father was a raging alcoholic and this would put him in an early grave, but he wasn’t raping his daughters and beating his son half to death, although he may have been violent it was the 1950s and lots of fathers were violent with their children, and not all of them became serial killers). Ridgway didn’t.
- As children, they are often abandoned by their fathers, and raised by domineering mothers. – Sometimes, I think this trait only exists because of Ed Gein. No serial killer ever had a more domineering mother than poor ed Gein. She was so domineering, his father did indeed abandon him. To make matters worse, Gein was developmentally challenged. And let’s consider the term “abandoned”. Gacy’s father died and this could be seen as abandonment, but it’s not the same as Ridgway’s father or Ramirez’s father. Both Ridgway and Ramirez were born to prostitutes and the identity of their fathers is unknown. And none of those are the same as Gein, whose father ran the hell away from Gein’s psychotic mother.
- Their families often have histories of criminal, psychiatric, and/or alcoholic problems. – For the record, my family checks 2 of these boxes and if I’m being really honest, it probably checks all three. My grandfather’s generation and the generation behind them were not known for being terribly law abiding. And that’s both sides. Now, I could probably pick out a cousin or two that it wouldn’t surprise me if they were serial killers (at least one is female, just FYI), but so far, none are. So I feel this might be too broad of a statement to be considered an “identifying trait” for a serial killer. Also, my parents’ generation (and your parents’ generation) grew up in much different circumstances than I and probably you did. I’ve already mentioned something along these lines with Gacy. Even in the 1980s, when I grew up, telling your child to go cut a switch, wasn’t considered abusive, even if the parent giving the order was a serious alcoholic with a mental illness who was also maybe a little less than law abiding. And the majority of us who grew up in these kinds of houses did not become serial killers.
- They hate their fathers and mothers. – All teens hate their parents at some point. I spent about 5 years hating my father for no other reason than he was my father. Like the last two, this is a very broad “trait” to apply to a very select type of personal history. Most psychologists and psychiatrists agree that the majority of teens go through a very intense period of teen angst and hating your parents is usually part of it or hating one parent at least. And it’s normal. However, I do get this one better than the last two. I may have hated my father for about 5 years as a result of teen angst, but I didn’t hate him enough to want him dead. These aren’t the kids that scream at their parents “I hate you and wish you were dead!” in the heat of an argument about a punishment. These are the kids that hate their parents enough to fantasize about murdering them. But, it’s still a very broad term that most people don’t understand (like the two before it).
- They are commonly abused as children (in one form or another): psychologically, physically and sexually. Often the abuse is by a family member. – Kids who are abused are more likely to become abusers themselves as adults. In a study of pedophiles in the 1990s, nearly 75% of all pedophiles had been sexually when they were children. Interestingly, boys who are sexually abused by a woman as a children are even more likely to grow up and kill women than a female child abused by either sex, or a boy abused by a man and no one understands why, but theorizes it has something to do with an internalization of traditional gender roles. Boys abused by women feel more betrayed than boys abused by men, because women are supposed to be their protectors or something like that.
- Many serial killers spend time in psychiatric care (especially hospitals) as children. – This one was new to me. I’d never heard it until I went looking for the list to do this post. Off the top of my head, I know Bundy and Ramirez were both hospitalized for psychiatric conditions as children. Oh and so was DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler). I can think of several off the top of my head that were juveniles criminals, but trying to remember ones that were treated for psychiatric disorders as children is much harder and I’m not sure why… It could just be that it isn’t discussed with the general public. However, it should be noted, that most serial killers are not mentally ill beyond having antisocial personality disorder (with sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies). And I feel like if the psychiatric care was any good, they might have stopped them from becoming serial killers. So, I’m not sure what I think of this or how I feel about it.
- They have high rates of suicide attempts. – I find this surprising. Narcissism, at its core, is antipathetic to suicide. And narcissism is one of the big uncontrollable symptoms of ASPD (sociopathic or psychopathic).
- From an early age, they are intensely interested in voyeurism, fetishism, and sado-masochism. – This isn’t surprising. Sexually abused children are often hyper-sexed at a young age. But all children, even at the tender ages of three and four, have some interest in sex, even though they don’t understand it. This means a sexually abused child, who grows up to be a serial killer is even more likely to be hyper-sexed from an early age and equate sex with pain and shame. When you equate pain and shame with sex, you’re already more likely to be interested in what the general public considers “deviant sexual practices”. Furthermore, considering this list was compiled only using “lust killers” as the basis, skews the results to a more sexual overtone from the get go. If the list had included non-lust killers such as “angel of mercy” killers and “black widows” this may be quite different.
- Twelve through 14 are the “serial killer trifecta” that I HATE with all my being. 12 is bedwetting beyond age 12. 13. Pyromania (fire starting). 13. Abusing/killing animals as a kid. So why do I feel so strongly against these three? Because they’ve been disproven. Yes, some serial killers do it, but not all. Not even half. We’ve learned about 30% experience all three. We’ve also discovered that about 90% of all children/teens go through a pyromania phase (I definitely did). Abuse victims often have nightmares and night terrors that result in bedwetting beyond the age of 12. Peer bullying can also lead to bedwetting. And there are many physical conditions that also cause it. And again, I went through a bedwetting phase beyond the age of 12. It didn’t last long and at the time, I was being bullied severely by a boy and his friends at my junior high school. Finally, the third might be the best “trait” from this list for a serial killer. Torturing animals is bad and so is killing them. However, MOST kids, who are all basically sociopaths/psychopaths from birth until adulthood, occasionally get mad at a pet and kick it, hit it, bite it, or do something else to it that’s cruel. I would say if your fourteen year old is wetting the bed, without a physical or emotional problem that’s causing it and you catch them disemboweling your neighbors dog, while a fire burns in a pit beside them, you should definitely be concerned. But if your kid is being bullied and it causes them to wet the bed, and on a bad day, they kick the neighbors annoying dog, and then later you catch them burning a book, there’s probably still hope that they aren’t going to be a serial killer.
While this list can be useful, it can also be misleading. A person can have every one of these 14 traits and not be a serial killer. The only real trait all serial killers have in common is that they are either sociopathic or psychopathic. Furthermore, many of these traits are also found in mass murderers. And as a mentioned when I talked about their increased interest in fetishism, voyeurism, and sado-masochism – this list was made by studying lust killers only. And not all serial killers are killing for the sexual thrill of it. There are only a dozen or so female lust killers and all but one worked with a male partner (Aileen Wuornos is the exception there). About 80% of all male serial killers are lust killers. And all those names that just flew threw your head, are probably lust killers (Bundy, Kraft, LISK, Dahmer, Gacy, Gein, etc.). Zodiac and Son of Sam are not lust killers, but you can’t study Zodiac because he wasn’t caught and the more I study Berkowitz the more I think he is seriously mentally ill.