Serial Killer: Nature vs. Nurture How Serial Killers are Born


Drilling into the skull of a young man he began to funnel a stream of sulfuric acid into the head of his unconscious victim to create a zombie to fulfill all of his fantasies. Dead within a day, he mummified the head of his victim placing it in the freezer beside the skulls of those who came before. Dismembering the remnants of the body he placed skin, blood, and bone into a fifty-gallon vat of acid dissolving what was left of the young man. This is the mind of Jeffrey Dahmer, he murdered not in anger, revenge, or financial enrichment but on impulse and desire. Like many serial killers before him like Albert DeSalvo, Theodore Bundy, and David Berkowitz, psychologists, criminologists, and scientists searched to answer the question of why serial killers commit these mass killings and how they became such violent humans. What is left are two schools of thought, are serial killers born with predetermined genes that play an integral part in creating their homicidal tendencies or do psychokillers become murderous through their surroundings as children? Though it is important to understand how killers become such vicious individuals it is critical to understand what defines a serial killer and what makes them so incredibly different from other homicidal murderers.

A large distinction that separates serial killers from other murderers are their motives to kill. Normally homicides are committed due to disputes that range from family affairs, gang violence, financial difficulties, and disputes between lovers and between friends. "A psychokiller, I should make clear, is not a regular murderer. A murderer has a vendetta, a nice specific personal thing against his victim" (Corin 188). Unlike that of a normal homicide, serial killers are only driven by instinct and a desire to kill. Due to these sexual desires and the need to fulfill their arousing fantasies it often drives these individual to murder those who are complete strangers. Though serial killers only make up for one percent murderers nearly a dozen account for one hundred to two hundred murders annually (Fox 102).

Grover Godwin who profiles serial killers collected data from one hundred and seven serial killers and their seven hundred and twenty eight victims from sources that came from the FBI, local police departments, newspaper reports, and from the Homicide Investigations and Tracking System (HITS) database in Washington State. From Godwins investigation he found that nearly ninety percent of victims were complete strangers to the killer and that only three percent were friends and one percent were that of family members (Fox 105). This explains why serial killers are able to get away with the massacres for so incredibly long. When detectives go to investigate the disappearances of those missing there is no link between the killer and the victim making it practically impossible solve these mysteries. In an identical study by criminologist Eric Hickey, he assembled a database of nearly four hundred serial killers in which he found that eighty four percent of killers were male, twenty percent were of African American descent, and that the first murder committed by a serial killer was at the average age of twenty seven and a half years old (Fox 106). Even in movies these statistics can be found such as Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and the Saw series in which Hollywood has repeatedly created characters that fit the description of a white male in their mid twenties to thirties creating this stereotypical image of serial killers.

Publicized in movies, magazines, and on TV serial killers have "Clearly become a fixture in our popular culture" (Fox 102). Unlike in the movie Silence of the Lambs where Dr. Hannibal Lector is a man of intelligence and riddles with an above average IQ, most serial killers do not have an education past that of high school. Grover Godwin found that only sixteen percent of the nearly one hundred and seven serial killers he had studied went to college and of those, only four percent actually graduated (Fox 105). Though most have very little education, successful serial killers must still possess the cleverness and wit to be able to dispose of multiple bodies and outsmart the police by leaving little to no traces of evidence.

"Many of them are exceptionally skillful in their presentation of self, so much so that they are beyond suspicions and thus are difficult to apprehend" (Fox 105). Incorrect is the assumption that serial killers wear hockey masks or walk around in pull ups carrying a chain saw. Movies and TV have put an image into our minds that these are the characteristics of a murderer when in reality they are masters at disguising their emotions and thoughts letting them blend into society. Magicians of death, they reel their victims into a false sense of security by many times tricking them with an offer of sex and drugs. Once they have control of their victims they remove their fake personality killing their victim with any weapon that they can find, fulfilling there wants, desires, and impulses.

Not to say that the aftermath of serial killers is trivial but the real controversy among theorists lies on how and why serial killers take the step from fantasy to reality. We are all made up of tiny individual genes that make up our personality traits defining who and what we are. Many believe that murderers do not grow into the shell of a killer but have predetermined genes that make up the chemical balance of our brain, body, thoughts, ideas, and most importantly actions. "Generally speaking biological factors vis-à-vis the causes of behavior can be defined as those 'processes and conditions that typically are considered as belonging to or characteristic of the organism'" (Jeffrey 78). As Lucy Corin in Everyday Psycho Killers presents, violence and death is apart of whom we are as humans and shows that violence is most prevalent when we are in our youth. Corin relates to the nature of violence in children and desires that we have whether good or bad in our everyday lives. "One girl had grabbed another girl by the front of the shirt through to her bra and flung her against the beam. The girl lay crumpled on the locker room floor, her head bleeding, her eyes saying more and the girl who had flung her stood over the body, hands on hips, with enormous thighs" (Corin 16).

Back in 2000 a report that was published in Science by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison compared brain scans of more then five hundred people between those who were prone to violence and those who were considered to be normal. The study found that the brain images of those who had been convicted of a murder with aggressive or antisocial disorders showed distinct brain activity compared to those who were considered normal. If this study is correct then these murderers must have been born with an entirely different genetic makeup then that of those in the majority of the population who are not violent. These brain scans showed a relationship between the orbital frontal cortex, the anterior cingulated cortex, and the amygdale, which plays a large part in the control of negative and violent emotions. The orbital frontal cortex has been found to control and restrain the impulse of emotional outbursts, the anterior cingulated cortex was found to deal with responses to conflict, and the amygdale is known to control reactions to fear. When Davidson and his colleagues reviewed the brain images they found that brain activity in the orbital frontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex had diminished or was non existent compared to the amygdale which controls reactions to fear which stayed at the same activity level or went higher (Ramsland 35). Serial killers may be influenced by the culture that they are surrounded by, but those who can affect their thoughts do not have control over the reactions to ideas that are apart of our DNA. If it is possible to diagnose these genetic defects early, children can be treated and watched to make sure that the increase in emotional tendencies does not become uncontrollable causing them to hurt those around them. "We have accepted as proper for sociological study the environment external to the human person; perhaps we now should consider appropriate the environment internal to the person, not just the social psychological environment" (Jeffrey 88).

In the publication of Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920, Freud came up with two theories about the aggression in which humans express. Creating two different and opposing instincts, Freud came up with the death instinct and the life instinct. The death instinct is that of destructive behavior towards the society around them. What Freud had found that led him to the theory of the death instinct was that those he had studied who had experienced unpleasing experiences kept repeating those experiences even though they were still unpleasing. Opposite of that is the life instinct in which Freud believes that people try to maintain a better life and try to achieve bigger goals for themselves. Born with these aggressive and destructive stimuli serial killers go onto commit these horrific crimes even though they know most of the time that it is wrong. (Abel 41) Jeffrey Dahmer for example had always been intoxicated before committing a murder because his conscious knew that what he was doing was wrong. Though Freud hits the nail on the head that those with destructive behavior tend to repeat the same actions over and over again, I believe that serial killers qualify for only a fraction of this theory. Though serial killers repeatedly commit the same acts of destruction and violence it is not a totally unpleasing experience. When Dahmer committed his first murder at the age of eighteen he began drinking heavily because in his conscious he knew that what he did was unacceptable. Though he knew what he did was wrong he still felt pleasure from committing such a horrible act of violence.

Though we are all classified the same as human, we each are unequally different in our genetic makeup. "This concept states that we as humans (as well as other organism), though similar in our biological and biochemical composition, are absolutely unique; and, especially, that each biochemical composition has a pattern and distribution all its own" (Jeffery 90). Compare the fingerprints, moles, or skin tone of any two individual and you will find that each persons genes are pieced together. Genetics does not just go skin deep but affects the whole system including our minds and our thoughts. In 1915 Freud claimed that active stimuli in humans push them into action and that these active stimuli are "emanating within the organism and penetrating to the mind" (Weiner 12). If this is true then man does not have control over their actions and are instinctively born with these internal stimuli that decide when we take action and when we run from a situation in a fight or flight situation. Genes, many argue is the answer to understanding the mind of a serial killer and the only was to stop these murders is to detect these genetic defects early in their childhood.

Naturally we are all born with a different genetic make up but many argue that differences in DNA do not create a psychokiller. The main focus of many criminologists and psychologists are the origins and the surroundings of these killers childhood.

"Modern geneticists have pointed out that a nature-nurture dichotomy is clearly untenable, incorrect, and meaningless. The subject has to be discussed in terms of the continuous and complex interactions between an organism and its environment, and the relevant contributions of both sets of variables in determining the behavior of the organism" (Athens 12).

Taking a look at Jeffrey Dahmers childhood you will find that at an early age he was a fun and active child who his father described as, "Very exuberant, he liked to wrestle, liked to run around, ham it up for the camera and he liked to play with kids and get together with them" (The Monster Within). These are not characteristics of a serial killer who scientists say are born with this gene of aggressiveness. Dahmer had been a normal child until his father received his Ph. D in chemistry the family moved to Ohio relocating three times before settling down in Bath Ohio. When Dahmer had moved his father and mother noticed that he had become shy and anti-social. Jeffrey then began collecting road kill and dissecting it in experiments.

Criminologists and social behavioral psychologists have come to argue that "childhood experiences" and "repeated psychological trauma," during the early stages of growing up can cause a child to seek relief through activities of violence such as killing small animals.” Christine Falling was probably about as retarded as this friend of mine. And violent. At fourteen, she'd already been dropping cats from windows for years. Sometimes she'd squeeze them to death" (Corin 149). Much like Dahmer, when his parents began to fight he felt alone and would escape by himself out into the woods to find comfort in the pile of dead carcasses he had collected. Feeling abandoned by not only his parents but classmates he tried to seek attention by those around him by doing what his classmates called a "Dahmer," which was to act up and do things that were out of the norm and socially unacceptable. Unlike his family and classmates the dead carcasses gave him a feeling of comfort, fulfillment, pleasure and emotional release.

Sociologist Arnold Arluke compared the criminal records of one hundred and fifty three animal abusers with one hundred and fifty three non animal abusers and what he found in his study is that those who were animal abusers were five times more likely to commit acts of violence such as assault, rape, and murder against others. What was understood from this study is that serial killers in their childhood would resort to killing animals because they felt powerless against their parents who had control over them. Since these children did not have control in the household, they resorted to killing small animals in which they could exert their dominance and power over to do anything that pleased them (Fox 113).

In a study of sixty two male serial killers, Eric Hicky a criminologist found that, forty eight percent of them had been rejected as children by a parent or some other important person in their lives (Fox 113). Though this happens to many children, it certainly represents a turning point for those who become serial killers. Once rejected many of these killers begin to dive into their self indulgences and are unable to understand how and who they are when going through puberty. "The social experiences which make people dangerous violent criminals are the significant experiences rather than the trivial ones in their lives" (Athens 19).

Victims of abuse and rejection, serial killers find comfort in their fantasies and dreams that take them into a realm that only they can control. Psychokillers take their fantasies and make them a reality living their dreams. Growing up Jeffrey Dahmer had felt rejected by his parents and in turn kept the violent homosexual thoughts inside of him. Dahmer fantasized of having a male sexual partner but in his thoughts he received pleasure not only by having intercourse but also killing his partner. "Most sex murders demonstrate both the need for, and the terror or, engulfment by a figure onto whom ones primary attachment needs have been projected" (Stein 9). The need to kill fulfils this sexual desire of many killers turning their fantasies into a controllable reality. Without a proper relationship to model after in the household many of these killers do not understand to truly must interact with each other and coexist peacefully. Serial killers are violent humans and the only way to stop their killing sprees many argue is to put a stop to domestic violence in the household.

Understanding how and why serial killers commit such horrific crimes is an important step to stopping the homicidal rampages these psychokillers go on. Scientists searched and found what is believed to be hard evidence, that genetics is the key role in determining who becomes a serial killer unlike criminologists and psychologists who argue that large events such as abuse and abandonment create the setting and foundation in which serial killers grow into sadistic mass murders. Though both arguments are strongly proved and explained through research and statistics neither are individually the answer to why serial killers exist. In reviewing the evidence of both explanations I have found that it is a mix of both genetics and cultural upbringings. Though many humans must deal with violent situations as children and experience horrific events many do not become mass murderers. It is true that many children who are victims of abuse become violent in their adult lives but to cross into the category of a serial killer one must be born with a different biochemical makeup. In my conclusion nature does choose what traits we are born with but at the same time these traits cannot be exposed without a mechanism that triggers these individuals to commit these horrific crimes. Without the alignment of both natural genetic defects and the cultural nurturing in which humans are brought up in, serial killers cannot become vicious killers. If we can curb domestic violence then the chances for a serial killer to become violent will decrease significantly making our world a safer place.

Bromberg, Walter. Crime and the Mind; A Psychiatric Analysis of Crime and Punishment. New York: Macmillan, 1965. Print.

Corin, Lucy. Everyday Psycho Killers: A History for Girls. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2004. Print.

Jeffrey Dahmer: The Monster Within. Videotape. A&E Biography. 2006.

Fox, James Alan and Jack Levin. The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001. Print.

Abel, Donald C. Freud on Instinct and Morality. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989. Print.

Ramsland, Katherin M. Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers: Why they Kill. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2005. Print.

Jeffrey, Ray C. Biology and Crime. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979. Print.

Athens, Lonnie H. The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Print.

Stein, Abby. Prologue to Violence: Child Abuse, Dissociation, and Crime. Mahwah, NJ: Analytic Press, 2007. Print.

Weiner, Bernard. Theories of Motivation: from mechanism to cognition. Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing Company, 1972. Print.

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Published by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress - 2020

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