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Research has demonstrated that many serial killers have much in common when it comes to their childhood experiences. Below, I provide a list of the common characteristics they may sometimes share. It goes without saying, however, that people with many or even all of these characteristics will not invariably grow up to be serial killers! Furthermore, some serial killers will have shown few or none of the traits presented below during their childhoods.
As can be easily inferred, those who showed many of the characteristics presented below are also more likely to have developed an anti-social personality disorder as adults when compared to individuals who demonstrated none of the characteristics.
1) EMOTIONAL ABUSE –
The vast majority of those who go on to become serial killers have suffered childhood abuse; most commonly, the type of abuse that they have suffered is EMOTIONAL ABUSE or NEGLECT (about half have suffered one, the other, or both according to the available research).
Any discipline that they received as children tended to be unpredictable, arbitrary and unreasonable, usually involving the child being humiliated and degraded.
Emotional neglect impairs the child’s ability to develop empathy (lack of empathy is one of the main hallmarks of psychopathy).
2) FANTASIES –
Because the child lacks control in his own life and may be the victim of severe abuse, he will often have a propensity to escape into a world of fantasy – the fantasies will frequently revolve around the themes of CONTROL and VIOLENCE.
3) CRUELTY TO ANIMALS –
Again, many individuals who have become serial killers ‘graduated’ from tormenting and torturing animals.
4) HEAD INJURIES –
A disproportionate number of serial killers suffered one or more head injuries as children. It is thought, in particular, that damage to the LIMBIC BRAIN, HYPOTHALAMUS, TEMPORAL LOBES and PREFRONTAL CORTEX is linked to the development of violent behaviour. The first three areas are involved with aggression, emotion and motivation whereas the fourth (the pre-frontal cortex) is involved with planning and judgment.
5) VOYEURISM AND FETISHISM –
This kind of behaviour may have developed fairly young; the individual may, for example, have started off his ‘career’ as a ‘peeping tom’.
6) BEDWETTING –
If this goes on over the age of about 5 years, the child may feel humiliated because of it, especially if teased about it by, for example, older siblings or cruel parents.
7) DYSFUNCTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS –
Often, the adult serial killer began to have problems with relationships early on in life. Unable to form or maintain relationships, he is much more likely than normal to have become a ‘loner’ in adult life.
8) ALCOHOL/SUBSTANCE ABUSE –
Nearly three-quarters of serial killers grew up in homes in which other family members had problems with alcohol and/or narcotics
OTHER CHARACTERISTICS OF SERIAL KILLERS’ CHILDHOODS :
– exposure to alcohol in the womb
– low self-esteem
– poor social functioning
– academic failure
– witnessing violence within the family
– a failure to complete high school
– victim of bullying
– an early display of anti-social tendencies
– a fascination with weapons
– dismissive of/does not acknowledge the rights of others
– early displays of unusually high levels of violence and aggression
BURGESS’S MOTIVATIONAL MODEL
The criminologist Burgess carried out a study of sexually motivated serial killers in 1986. In this study, he was able to develop a theory relating to the kinds of childhood such individuals typically experience. I summarize his main findings below:
Burgess suggested that four main categories of childhood experiences contributed to the individuals in the study becoming serial killers. These were:
1 – they grew up in an ineffective social environment
2 – they experienced negative formative events during their childhoods
3 – they developed destructive behaviours
4 – the breakdown of interpersonal relationships
5 – they developed certain critical personality traits during their childhoods
Let’s look at these in a little more detail:
1– INEFFECTIVE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT :
Burgess” study (1986) found that those who went on to become serial killers showed a pattern of failing to bond in a healthy way to their primary caregivers, as well as a failure to bond with others in general.
Also, as children, the future serial killers’ negative behaviours very frequently remained completely unaddressed by their primary caregivers.
2 – TRAUMATIC FORMATIVE EVENTS :
It was also found in the study that, as children, the future serial killers experienced far more trauma than the ‘average’ child. These trauma s included :
– severe illness
– divorce of parents
– abandonment/rejection by parent/s
– death of parent/primary caregiver
– abuse by a parent/primary caregiver (physical, sexual, emotional, or a combination of these)
It was also found that the negative effects of the above traumas were compounded by the fact that the children in the study tended to have NO SOCIAL SUPPORT SYSTEM (e.g. friends and wider family) and NO OTHER PROTECTIVE FACTORS IN THEIR LIVES (e.g. a skill or ability which raised their self-esteem).
In part as a result of the above, Burgess found that the children tended to become :
– suffered overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
3 – DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOURS :
In the group studied by Burgess, these destructive behaviours included :
– setting fires
– cruelty to animals
– destroying property
4 – BREAKDOWN OF INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS :
As the children got older, their problematic relationships with their primary caregivers tended to deteriorate further.
Many of the children, too, experienced continued EMOTIONAL NEGLECT.
Furthermore, the children were found to LACK POSITIVE ROLE MODELS and had nobody in their lives who might encourage them to act in a pro-social way.
5 – NEGATIVE PERSONALITY TRAITS :
The way in which the future serial killers were brought up tended to lend itself to the children developing negative personality traits and emotions; in Burgess’ study these were found to include :
– prone to anger, hostility and aggression
– prone to criminal and deviant behaviour
– sense of entitlement
– criminal/deviant behaviour
– a sense of having been rejected by society
– the cynical and negative view of self, others and of the world in general (sometimes referred to as a NEGATIVE COGNITIVE TRIAD).
– social isolation
– lack of confidence, particularly in connection to forming relationships
– chronic/pathological lying
– the tendency to retreat into a world of fantasy (see below)
THE ROLE OF A FANTASY LIFE :
Importantly, Burgess’ study found that the young people had a marked tendency to retreat into a FANTASY WORLD; this was thought to be in part due to their social isolation.
This retreat into fantasy tended to become deeper as the children grew up.
It is theorized that because these future serial killers lacked control and power in their own lives, they obtained it through the fantasies that they wove in their imaginations. In other words, they used their fantasy lives to compensate them for their inadequacies and shortcomings in the real world.
In interviews it was found that their fantasies tended to revolve around the following :
Tragically, eventually, fantasy alone could not keep these individuals’ anxiety levels at bay (it is thought such fantasies serve to reduce intolerable anxiety) and they acted them out in lethal fashion.
OTHER RESEARCH INTO THE CHILDHOODS OF SERIAL KILLERS:
Mitchell et al. carried out a research study involving 50 serial killers and identified that 68 per cent had suffered childhood abuse (although the figure could be much higher as some may have concealed their experience of abuse or not have understood how they were abused/been in a state of denial about their childhood abuse).
Another study (Marono and Navarro) looked at whether the type of abuse serial killers had suffered during childhood (physical, sexual, emotional) affected their modus operandi.
After a statistical analysis was performed, it was found that, indeed, type of childhood abuse suffered and modus operandi as an adult serial killer were related.
The study identified 4 typologies of a serial killer. These were as follows:
- lust and rape
- financial gain
Also, the study split childhood abuse into 3 categories. These were as follows:
The statistical analysis suggested the following links:
Sexual abuse as a child and serial killers that are motivated by:
- lust and rape
Physical abuse as a child and serial killers motivated by:
- lust and rape
Psychological abuse as a child and serial killers motivated by:
- lust and rape
- financial gain
A further study (De Saniago Herroro et al., 2017) a difference between the modus operandi of serial killers who suffered abuse during childhood and serial killers who did not suffer childhood abuse. The findings were as follows.
Serial killers who had suffered childhood abuse: were significantly more likely to sexually assault their victims prior to killing them compared to serial killers who have not suffered childhood abuse.
Vronsky, 2004 stressed the crucial importance of the mother-infant relationship during the infant’s first year of life as if this relationship is dysfunctional and the infant is abused or neglected this can harm the child’s personality development. In fact, Vronsky suggests that signs personality disorder (or, more specifically, of nascent psychopathy) may be observed in children as young as two years old.
Research carried out by Leyton emphasizes the importance of early life relationships with primary carers in relation to how likely a young person is to develop into a serial killer as it demonstrated that those individuals who become serial killers are much more likely to have been adopted compared to their non-serial killing contemporaries.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INCIPIENT SERIAL KILLER’S RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS MOTHER:
Moesch found that many serial killers ‘hated women’ and that such sentiments are frequently linked to a dysfunctional mother-child relationship and, in connection with this, Moesch states that mothers of serial killers have been found to be overly controlling and emotionally abusive. Indeed. Moesch found that, from the sample of serial killers that he analyzed, 68 per cent had been brought up in families in which the mother was the dominant figure.
BURGESS, A. W., HARTMAN, C. R., RESSLER, R. K., DOUGLAS, J. E., & McCORMACK, A. (1986). Sexual Homicide: A Motivational Model. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1(3), 251–272. https://doi.org/10.1177/088626086001003001
Leyton, 1987. Serial Murder: Modern Scientific Perspectives (with Linda Chafe) (1999)
Mitchell, H., Aamodt, M.G. The incidence of child abuse in serial killers. J Police Crim Psych 20, 40–47 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02806705
Moesch, C. (1977). Review of: I Have Lived in the Monster
Peter Vronsky, Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. New York: Berkley Penguin Group, 2004. pp. 3-95
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
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