Serial murder is a relatively rare occurrence. It is estimated to comprise less than 1% of all murders. The fascination of serial killers far outweighs the amount if murders these heinous people commit. This fascination began in the late 1880’s after a series of unsolved murders occurred in London. The person who committed these murders called himself “Jack the Ripper”. He sent letters to the police taunting them for not being able to catch him. This piqued the interest of the general public.
However, most of the public’s knowledge of serial murder comes from Hollywood TV and movies. In the movies, serial killers are meant to look like loners. Yet, many serial killers often have families, nice homes, good jobs, and appear to be normal members of the community. Since these killers blend into society, they are often overlooked by both the public and law enforcement agents (Morton, 2005). There are many types of serial killers including mission-oriented, visionary, thrill seekers, and power and control killers.
They can also be divided into organized and unorganized killers. Both female and male serial killers show key differences in methodology, motive, and relationship to victim.
Many people wonder what truly makes someone a serial killer. Psychologists and criminologists often identify three types of multiple homicides. These types are mass, spree, and serial (Canter & Alison, 2000). Mass murder includes killing four or more people in one period of time. An example of this is when student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on Virginia Tech’s campus on one day in 2007 (Raud, 2016).
Spree murder involves killing three or more individuals in different locations within a short period of time.
An example of spree murder includes ex-marine and snipe Charles Whitman. He killed his mother and his wife at his home and then proceeded to the University of Texas where he killed 14 other people. Serial murders include killing three or more people with significant breaks, or cooling-off periods, in between (Canter & Alison, 2000). Serial killers are not usually included in the category of spree and mass murder because they do not include crimes of passion. Serial murders usually involve careful planning (Rauf, 2016). These definitions tend to be the standard. However, there are slight differences with a similar theme. This changing factor could be the number of murders completed, motivation, or time periods in between murders (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000).
There are four main types of serial killers. These types include thrill seekers, mission-oriented killers, visionary serial killers, and power and control killers. Thrill seekers are killers who tend to play games with the police. They get amusement out of outsmarting law enforcement agents and also enjoy being pursued by agents. Mission-oriented serial killers kill because they feel they are doing society a favor by killing a certain group. These groups typically include young women, prostitutes, drug dealers, or homosexuals. Visionary serial killers are those who are compelled to kill because they believe God or another higher power told them to. Power and control killers murder individuals and enjoy seeing them suffer and scream (Margrave, 2011).
To further break down serial killers, scholars often break the four main types into two different categories: organized and disorganized. Those who are organized killers are often very clever and meticulous in their methodology. They tend to plan carefully and make sure they do not leave any clues behind that could lead to their identity being found. Organized serial killers may track their potential victim for days in order to decide if they would be a suitable target to kill. They often try to gain the trust of a potential target by faking emotions or gaining sympathy from them (Rauf, 2016). Organized killers have higher IQ’s than disorganized killers. Their IQ scores range from 105-120 (Margrave, 2011). These killers are said to be true psychopaths because they take sincere pride in how they are able to kill and get away with it (Rauf, 2016).
On the other hand, disorganized serial killers do not plan their crimes at all. The victims of disorganized serial killers tend to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They usually don’t make any effort to cover up their crimes and murder when the times or circumstances seem right. These killers typically have lower IQ’s than organized killers (Rauf, 2016). Their IQ scores range from 80-85 (Margrave, 2011). Most disorganized killers have some form of psychosis where they lose touch with reality for brief time periods (Rauf, 2016).
Though female serial killers have been around for decades much more is known about their male counterparts. Women are often thought to be sweet and nurturing. They can take form of mild-mannered housewives, jovial grandmothers, or attractive young ladies. Many people don’t believe these kind of women could be cold-blooded killers. Some believe that female serial killers murder because they feel they have no control over anything in their lives or because they feel helpless. When they kill, they feel powerful and important. Once they feel powerful, they can’t stop (Rauf, 2016).
There are five main types of female serial killers. These types are black widows, angels of death, sexual predators, revenge killers, and profit killers. Some female killers either don’t fit into any of these categories or they fit into multiple categories. Black widows and angels of death are the most common types of female serial killers (Rauf, 2016).
Black widows, named after the deadly spider, kill multiple family members or spouses. They are named after the spider because Black Widow spiders always kill and digest their mate after laying their eggs (Margrave, 2011). Angels of death kill those who depend on them for medical attention. Sexual predator killers kill others in acts that provide them with some kind of sexual gratification. A revenge killer is one who kills out of hate or jealousy. Profit killers take lives for the sake of profit. It is also worth noting that approximately 1/3 female killers are part of some sort of “team” of murderers (Rauf, 2016).
Eric Hickey analyzed 64 female serial killers in order to get a better understanding of their methods and their motives. He found that an overwhelming 80% of females used poison as their weapon of choice. This was followed by 20% using shooting, 16% preferring to bludgeon their victim, and 16% suffocating their victim. The main motive was found to be money according to 74% of women surveyed. Control, enjoyment, and sex came after money with 13, 11, and 10% respectively (Rauf, 2016).
Women usually kill for financial gain. In most of these situations, the victim has a large life insurance policy. When a woman kills this individual, she sees it as a way out of her own financial issues. For the most part, women target those who are close to them (Parker, 2018). An example of this would be a woman killing her estranged partner because he removed her from the will following a divorce. Another example would be a female killing her husband in order to cash in on his life insurance. This is interesting because women are at a very high risk of being killed by their former partners. However, there is not much in the media about women killing their male partners instead.
As for men, the main motive for serial killing is usually sex. The act of sex may not take place during the crime, but may still be the motive. Men also kill for power, manipulation, domination, and control. Men tend to be more violent when they kill people. They rape, torture, beat and strangle their victims. Women are usually more passive in their methodology by choosing poison (Rauf, 2016).
Going off the notion that female serial killers usually kill those who are closest to them, this can also include their children. Women kill their children for two main reasons. The first reason is the mother believing the death is in the best interest of the child due to a mental illness or fear for the well-being of the child. This could include a woman who is in an abusive relationship killing her baby before her partner gets to do it themselves. The second reason is the mother intending to take her own life, but not being able to bear the thought of leaving her child behind. She believes the child would not be able to survive without her there, so she kills the child before she kills herself (Parker, 2018). Other less obvious reasons include the mother fighting with her partner and killing the child to get back at him and women killing their children in order to “start fresh” (Nicholls & Petrilla, 2005).
The home is usually considered a safe space for the individuals living there. However, women serial killers tend to take advantage of this idea. Mothers, females, or caretakers are usually aware of everything that goes on within the household, including what is ingested. No one ever suspects that the “nurturing mother” figure would ever be one to kill her lived ones. This is how she gets away with it. A lot of females will give doses of poison over time verses delivering a fatal amount all at once. This is because it looks less suspicious for the victim to become ill for a period of time rather than dropping dead (Kelleher & Kelleher, 2005).
Stereotypically, female killers do not leave bodies lying around their house or in forests or roadways like male serial killers do. They are much more careful and pay particular attention to details in their murders. Women do not usually torture their victims nor do they go back to desecrate the victim’s body. Women also very rarely kill for sexual reasons unlike the majority of male serial killers (Farrell, Keppel, & Titterington, 2011).
The average age of male serial killers is 27.5 years old. The average for females is said to be 32.9 years old. Female serial killers tend to start killing later in their lives than males. They also tend to have longer “killing careers” than their male counterparts. On average, males are done killing by around 40 whereas females tend to kill into their 60’s or 70’s (Vronsky, 2007).
Although male and females share more differences than similarities in terms of serial killing, there are quite a few similarities. These similarities include coming from a broken home, childhood abuse, race, educational level, and occupation (Keeney & Heide, 1994). Rauf says serial killers tend to come from dysfunctional backgrounds that include high levels of abuse, emotional cruelty, isolation, lack of stability, and abandonment/neglect (Rauf, 2016).
Overall, the main differences include choice of victim, motive, and method of killing. Women kill those they are closest to while men choose to kill strangers. The motive for women is usually financial gain while men kill for sex and power or dominance. Women choose to be more passive with the majority of female killers choosing to poison their victims. Men choose to rape, torture, beat and strangle their victims a majority of the time.