Forensic Psychological Services

Serial Killers: Fact & Fiction

Did you take our quiz at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival? Here are the answers to shed light on everything you always wanted to know about serial killers but were afraid to ask.

  1. Serial killers are all dysfunctional loners. False

    The majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone. They are not monsters and may not appear strange. Many serial killers hide in plain sight within their communities. Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community. Because many serial murderers can blend in so effortlessly, they are often times overlooked by law enforcement and the public.

  2. Serial killers are all white males. False

    Contrary to popular belief, serial killers span all racial groups. There are white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian serial killers. The racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population.

  3. Serial killers are only motivated by sex. False

    All serial murders are not sexually-based. There are many other motivations for serial murders including anger, thrill, financial gain, and attention seeking.

  4. All serial murderers travel and operate interstate. False

    Most serial killers have very defined geographic areas of operation. They conduct their killings within comfort zones that are often defined by an anchor point (e.g. place of residence, employment, or residence of a relative). Serial murderers will, at times, spiral their activities outside of their comfort zone, when their confidence has grown through experience or to avoid detection. Very few serial murderers travel interstate to kill.

  5. Serial killers cannot stop killing. False

    It has been widely believed that once serial killers start killing, they cannot stop. There are, however, some serial killers who stop murdering altogether before being caught. In these instances, there are events or circumstances in offenders’ lives that inhibit them from pursuing more victims. These can include increased participation in family activities, sexual substitution, and other diversions.

  6. All Serial killers are insane or are evil geniuses. False

    Another myth that exists is that serial killers have either a debilitating mental condition, or they are extremely clever and intelligent.

    As a group, serial killers suffer from a variety of personality disorders, including psychopathy, anti-social personality, and others. Most, however, are not adjudicated as insane under the law.

    The media has created a number of fictional serial killer “geniuses”, who outsmart law enforcement at every turn. Like other populations, however, serial killers range in intelligence from borderline to above average levels.

  7. Serial killers want to get caught. False

    Offenders committing a crime for the first time are inexperienced. They gain experience and confidence with each new offense, eventually succeeding with few mistakes or problems.

    While most serial killers plan their offenses more thoroughly than other criminals, the learning curve is still very steep. They must select, target, approach, control, and dispose of their victims. The logistics involved in committing a murder and disposing of the body can become very complex, especially when there are multiple sites involved.

  8. Predisposition to serial killing, much like other violent offenses, is biological, social, and psychological in nature, and it is not limited to any specific characteristic or trait. True

    • The development of a serial killer involves a combination of these factors, which exist together in a rare confluence in certain individuals. They have the appropriate biological predisposition, molded by their psychological makeup, which is present at a critical time in their social development.
    • There is no generic template for a serial killer.
    • Serial killers are driven by their own unique motives or reasons.
    • More research is needed to identify specific pathways of development that produce serial killers.
  9. Utilizing investigative resources to discern the motive may derail the investigation. True

    • Motive generally may be difficult to determine in a serial murder investigation.
    • A serial murderer may have multiple motives for committing his crimes.
    • A serial murderer’s motives may evolve both within a single murder as well throughout the murder series.
    • The classification of motivations should be limited to observable behavior at the crime scene.
    • Even if a motive can be identified, it may not be helpful in identifying a serial murderer.

* The above questions and answers are derived from the FBI’s symposium on Serial Murder published by the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.