Serial killer minds are both fascinating and terrifying. Although no two are exactly alike, we want to understand them not only out of macabre fascination, but to be able to recognize threatening individuals and perhaps be able to keep them from killing again. There have been many explanations for how the serial killer's mind operates, but while they reveal certain insights, no single theory can explain the diversity of serial murderers and what makes them tick.
According to the FBI there are certain traits many of these criminals have in common. Usually they are defined as people who kill multiple victims who usually begin as strangers. The normative serial murderer does not typically kill a friend or relative but targets strangers, perhaps strangers fitting a certain profile.
These killers like to target vulnerable people. Runways and prostitutes make for easy prey as they often are willing to engage a stranger, and if they turn up missing it may go unnoticed long enough for the killer to hide the body. In addition, a typical serial murderer will have "cooling off' periods, or normal periods between killings. Some may even go dormant for several years before emerging and resuming their murderous ways yet again.
The assailant often will exhibit certain characteristics of sadism. They may enjoy watching their victims suffer or plead for mercy. Early childhood predictors of future problem behavior often cite cruelty to animals or starting fires as special behaviors to be concerned with.
These individuals often enjoy exercising power over another person. They may choose to impersonate authority figures such as police officers, or in some cases medical professionals. Sometimes posing as an authority figure helps them gain trust and access to people who might otherwise be suspicious. Another tactic is to feign injury or weakness so as to appear less threatening. Ted Bundy often wore a cast and asked women to assist him before he was then able to abduct them.
What may be most shocking to some people is how well some serial killers blend in as ordinary people. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, was a well respected member of his community and a leader in his church. Bundy was a handsome aspiring law school student. John Wayne Gacy entertained children as a clown.
Thrill killings are popular among these men. Some simply enjoy the act of taking another person's life. Others are motivated by sexual perversion and a desire to conquer. A few are truly delusional and have a tenuous grip on reality. Many lack a strong moral compass. However, their pathology is not always easily noticed by the casual observer. Many of these people look and act little different from others through much of their lives, making them difficult to detect.
To understand serial killer minds, we must get beyond the idea that these individuals are so unlike the rest of us that they are easy to spot. While they do exhibit certain traits, they are not always easily distinguishable from "normal" people. This ability to blend in is part of what confounds law enforcement officers when they are attempting to catch a murderer.
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