The first documented serial killer had the name of Herman Webster Mudgett or the more common name of H. H. Holmes. Holmes killed an estimated 200 people in his “murder castle” over the span of 1878-1894. But the question at hand is why was Holmes compelled to kill so many people? Was he simply born with this urge to hurt others and was predetermined to violence? Or was circumstance to blame for the deaths? The answer to why serial killers kill lies in between the extremes (“A Serial Killer is Hanged”).
There are two sides to the debate of why serial killers kill, that they are destined from birth to grow up as a killer, or that some trauma caused psychopathy to develop in them. Each serial killer has something that makes them kill but both past trauma and biological factors are the factors that make them psychopaths.
Serial killers have been around since the beginning of time but were not accurately recorded until recently.
In the beginning of written history, serial killers murdered for power or revenge. In present day, these murders kill for personal gain or sexual gratification. From afar, a serial killer may look like a normal person but they are actually very deadly people. A serial killer is someone who kills multiple people over a large period of time (“Serial Killer Law & Legal Definition”).
Many people may ask how one might identify a murderer. There is no one specific characteristic that all serial killers have. Each serial killer is different in their own way but all of them have similar characteristics.
In adolescence, most killers killed small animals, had a high intelligence, had a poor family life, abused mentally, physically or sexually, and abused substances such as drugs and alcohol (“9 Early Warning Signs”). These signs are not all presented in every killer but they are some warning signs.
Around 70% of serial killers have been diagnosed with at least one brain abnormality or have had some type of surgical or physical injury to the frontal part of the head. The brain abnormality is usually in the frontal lobe of the brain, the part in the frontal lobe is called the “orbital frontal cortex, which is involved with moral decision-making and ethical behavior” (Morse and Hagerty). The frontal cortex is also involved with motivation and hormones.
The frontal cortex is also connected to the amygdala, which controls memory, emotional reactions and fear. Since there is damage to this part of the brain in many of the serial killer, these slaughters have a tendency to be violent and have no remorse about killing innocent people. Simply, they cannot determine what is right and wrong from situations, such as victims modeling as their motive to kill. These abnormalities to the brain can also cause amnesia and seizures.
There are genes that have been related to triggering violence in humans. One in particular is called the MAO-A gene. This gene sends out an enzyme to break down the amount of serotonin in the body, which then affects your mood (Powledge). When this gene is highly active it makes the enzyme break down lots of serotonin therefore leaving little serotonin. Most serial killer’s MAO-A gene is highly active which can cause violent mood swings or no emotion.
Many serial killers have had an abusive childhood. The abuse can be verbal, mental or physical. Verbal abuse could be a parents telling a child they are not good enough or just by putting the child down in a verbal way. Mental abuse could be humiliation. Physical abuse is the act of hurting someone purposely. Around 40% of serial have cited that they have entailed some type of physical abuse during adolescence (Vronsky 35). Physical or any kind of abuse can make a child feel unwanted and unloved. Children often look to acts of hurting small animals as a way to get back at their abusers because they are defenseless. These children often grow up to be serial killers because they get adrenaline from killing/ hurting animals.
Jeffrey Dahmer was born in Wisconsin in May of 1960. According to multiple sources, Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the few with a “normal” childhood. The definition of normal childhood is that his parents were never abusive or harmful to him. Dahmer did not have a normal childhood as many people think. When he was 4 years old, he subjected to a surgery to remove a double hernia. He was scarred from the event but still remained a happy kid. He was a semi-normal kid until his family moved when he was around the age of 13 and he began to act abnormal. His parent began to fight and ignore Dahmer so to rebel, he collected and dissected roadkill for fun (Tithecott 15).
Right out of high school, Dahmer started his killing spree. After killing his first victim, Dahmer began to drink heavily and got kicked out of college. When luring in his victims, he would tell they could have money or sex and then give them poisoned alcohol. After they would become disorientated, he would strangle his victims. His killing spree lasts 13 years before Dahmer was caught. On July 21, 1991, Dahmer was caught after one of his helpless victims escaped from him. For his sentence, he was issued 15 consecutive life terms. After being in prison for two years, Dahmer was killed by another inmate (Tithecott 21).
Dahmer had no known physical, mental, or verbal abuse done to he when he was child but he did have a traumatic event happen to him. When his family moved, Dahmer feel isolated and unloved so he tried to cope the best way he could. Children who feel alone try and find something to make them feel loved or special. Dahmer would dissect animals to let out his hatred towards his parents for moving and ignoring him (“Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture”). Usually serial killers have damage to the frontal lobe but Dahmer did not. Dahmer’s experiences are what made him a killer.
In New York on May of 1951, Kenneth Alessio Bianchi was born. Bianchi, more commonly known as the “Hillside Strangler”, had a difficult childhood. His biological mother was teenage, alcoholic prostitute, who gave Bianchi up for adoption three months after his birth. Around the age of three, he was diagnosed with petit mal syndrome, or moments of unresponsive trance like daydreaming. Petit mal syndrome is caused by overactive neurotransmitters due to unknown genes. A couple years later, Bianchi would sustain an injury to the frontal lobe by falling off a jungle gym. After the head injury, he became an odd child. He had behavioral and angry problems and had to change schools multiple times because of it (Vronsky 35).
After school, Bianchi moved in with his adoptive cousin, Angelo Buono. Buono and Bianchi started their rampage after a woman lied to them about prostitution. To kill these women, the two men would rape and strangle them to death. Most of the women murdered were prostitutes. Together, Bianchi and Buono killed 10 women before Buono was captured by police. Bianchi killed two more women before getting caught himself. He was sentenced to life in prison with possibility of parole. To this day, Bianchi is still living (Vronsky 45). Most killers have some abuse by parents but Bianchi did not. He did have a frontal lobe injury which changed him. Even though the abuse was not there, he still ended up being a serial killer. Bianchi’s biological factors are what him a killer.
Theodore Bundy was born in November of 1946. He was “mother’s secret shame” (“Ted Bundy Biography”). To hid the fact, he was born out of wedlock, he was told his mother was his sister at a young age. But after a few years, his mother and him moved to Washington and grew up in a normal family. When Bundy was three, he showed an interest in knives. Nothing aspired from this knife fascination in his childhood. During his primary school days, Bundy was quiet, shy and maintained good grades. But did not get along with the other students in his classes. As Bundy grew to be a teenager, his more mischievous side showed. He would often look into the windows of house but never stole anything. After high school, he enrolled at University of Washington and made his dream girl. She broke the relationship off with him and he was heartbroken (“Ted Bundy Biography”).
After the break up, Bundy began kill women who looked like the previous girlfriend. Many sources say his murderous reign started in 1974 while others say otherwise, after graduating from University of Washington, he went on to law school in Utah. Once in Utah, he would lead victims in his car by saying he was injured and then begin his killing process. He would rape the victim and then beat them to death (“Ted Bundy Biography”).
One day Bundy was pulled over by police and he was arrested for having burglary tools in the car. They linked the tools to multiple murder cases and he was sentenced to prison. He was sentenced to life in prison. He just multiple times to get his sentence appealed but he had no luck. He ended his terror by confessing to 30 victims but the real is most likely much higher. He ended dying in prison in 1989 (Vronsky 24).
Bundy is considered the “postmodern serial killer role model” (Vronsky 6). He is the person; people think of when the word serial killer is mentioned. He is famous due his charm. Unlike other criminals, Bundy is very likeable.
But why did Bundy kill his victims? When Bundy’s college girlfriend broke it off with him, something in him changed. He hated her with all of his heart because she broke his heart. But he did not want to kill the girl he once cared for but to take out his anger on others. His killings were driven by hatred. Bundy killed due to experiences.
Bobby Joe Long was in October of 1953 in West Virginia. Long’s mother moved him to Florida after she divorced his father. His parents were divorced by the time Long was two so, he spent time traveling between West Virginia and Florida for most of his childhood.
Throughout his childhood, Long grew a longing hatred for his mother. She made him sleep in the same bed as her till Long was thirteen years old. His mother would also bring multiple men home every night. He despised her being. Long was in many accidents where a car was involved. He was hit by a moving car twice while walking. He suffered a concussion and a majorly broken jaw. He was also hit by a car when he was driving a motorcycle and was hospitalized for multiple weeks. Long’s wife claimed his personality changed after the motorcycle accident (“Bobby Joe Long Biography”)
After separating from his wife, Long began to rape multiple women. Long committed around 50 rapes before he moved on to killing. Long raped and killed around 10 people before getting caught at a local movie theatre. He was sentenced to 7 consecutive life sentences in 1985 and is still living in present day (“Bobby Joe Long Biography”).
Fueling by his hatred for women, Long raped and killed multiple women. His childhood of being pushed back and forth between each parent, can cause Long to feel unwanted. His mother was also not very attentive to him which caused him to create a hatred for his mother and other women. Long also sustained a few injuries to the face and head which caused a change in him. The experiences and abuse, Long endured he became a serial killer, Long was driven to kill.
Aileen Wuornos was born in Rochester, Michigan on February 29, 1956. When she was really young, her father killed himself in prison and her mother abandoned her. Her and her brother were raised by their grandparents. Her grandfather was a very violent man while her grandmother was an alcoholic. While with her grandparents, Wuornos was molested by her grandfather. Wuornos’s brother, Keith, would also force her to have sex with him. After becoming pregnant around the age of fifteen, she was kicked out of her grandparent’s house and had no other choice but to live in some nearby woods (“Aileen Wuornos Biography”).
To make a living on her own, Wuornos prostituted herself around. After a while, she was arrested for assault but was soon released after the charges against her were dropped. Soon after being released from jail, she meets a man with the name of Lewis Fell. Fell and Wuornos got married in 1976 but the marriage was annulled by Fell, a few months later (“Aileen Wuornos Biography”).
From 1989 to 1990 was Wuornos’s killing spree. During that time, she managed to kill six men. In December of 1989, a man’s body was found in a junkyard and the police were able to find DNA on the victim that linked to Wuornos. Wuornos pleaded innocent in her trial. She insisted she was raped by the man and she killed him in self-defense. After, almost getting away with the murder, more victims’ bodies were found and she was charged with six counts of first degree murder. After 10 years on death row, Wuornos was killed by lethal injection in 2002 (“Aileen Wuornos Biography”).
It is very obvious, Aileen Wuornos had a violent and tragic childhood. She was sexually assaulted by both her brother and grandfather and then forced out of her home when she became pregnant. Wuornos feel alone when her mother and father abandoned her and left her to die with her terrible grandparents. Wuornos wanted to let others feel her pain so she killed them. Aileen Wuornos was a serial killer because she was driven by her experiences. Born or Made?
Many factors go into who you become whether it be a serial killer, a doctor or a mailman. Every single person is different in their own way. The five serial killers mentioned, Jeffrey Dahmer, Kenneth Bianchi, Ted Bundy, Bobby Joe Long and Aileen Wuornos are all different people. They may have had similar upbringings but different combinations of biological factors and past trauma that made them serial killers. Jeffrey Dahmer was never abused by his parents but received a head injury that made him a serial killer. Kenneth Bianchi had an abnormal seizure disorder and also had a head injury that made him a serial killer.
Ted Bundy had a mostly normal childhood but his girlfriend broke up with him and he snapped and became a serial killer. Bobby Joe Long hated his mother because of the way she treated him and took his anger out on other women to make his mother pay. Aileen Wuornos had a terribly abusive family who made her feel alone so she killed to make others feel her pain. None of these cruel people had a life that was exactly the same as one and another. But, they still all became serial killers.
“It’s just a combination of biological, biochemical, personal psychology and social environment that come together, very rarely, to produce this kind of abomination” (Kirkey). It is experiences and biological factors such as genetics that make you who are. Serial killers are born and made, not one or the other.