“Let me state unequivocally that there is no such thing as the person who at age thirty-five suddenly changes from being perfectly normal and erupts into totally evil, disruptive, murderous behavior. The behaviors that are precursors to murder have been present and developing in that person’s life for a long, long time – since childhood.” – Robert Ressler, ‘Whoever Fights Monsters’
It will hardly come as a surprise to even the most modestly reflective person that that rarest of phenomena, the serial killer – only about 1500 have ever been documented in history (Newton, 2000) – is seldom the product of a loving, nurturing, and secure childhood but, instead, frequently has suffered extreme maltreatment in early life in the form of abuse (psychological, sexual and/or physical).
But which of these forms of abuse is most commonly experienced by this exclusive club of profoundly damaged and disturbed individuals to which few ever aspire to become a member?
To answer this question, a study was conducted by Aamodt (2005) who found that among serial killers:
- 36% had experienced physical abuse (6 times more than the general population).
- 26% had experienced sexual abuse (9 times more than the general population).
- 50% had experienced psychological abuse (25 times more than the general population).
So we can see that the form of childhood abuse that is most strongly associated with serial killers is psychological abuse.
Indeed, several other studies (e.g. Cleary and Luxenburg,1993) have also found that histories of psychological abuse are extremely common amongst serial killers.
Additionally, Vronsky (2004) carried out research demonstrating the prominence of lack of love during the infancy and childhoods of serial killers.
Morono and Avarro studied 4 types of serial killers shown below:
- Those motivated by sex
- Those motivated by anger
- Those motivated by power
- Those motivated by money
The researchers found that these 4 types were associated with different childhood experiences of abuse as shown below:
Those who had experienced sexual abuse in childhood were more likely to be motivated by sex and anger.
Those who had experienced psychological abuse were more likely to be motivated by sex and money. Furthermore, torture was more likely to feature in the homicides that they committed.
Those who had experienced physical abuse were more likely to be motivated by sex alone and were also more likely to kill their victims swiftly.
SERIAL KILLERS AND GENES:
Of course, the vast majority of even those who have suffered extreme childhood trauma do not go on to become serial killers as it is likely that, for a person to become a serial killer, genetic factors, as well as environmental factors need to come into play though more research is required in this area.
Whilst there is no ‘serial killer gene’, certain personality traits that increase a person’s chances of becoming a serial killer do have a genetic component including a propensity to engage in violence, impulsivity, and thrill-seeking.
NOTE: As the assessment of childhood abuse referred to above is substantially based on self-report it should be borne in mind that such abuse can be both under-reported (e.g. due to feelings of shame) and over-reported (e.g. in the context of the above, due to wanting to receive a lesser legal penalty).
Vronsky: Serial Killers Are ‘Unmade’ Rather Than ‘Made.’
Vronsky argues that the potential to kill repeatedly is an inbuilt human characteristic that developed in our ancestors as a result of natural selection and, therefore, it is not so much that serial killers are made by their environmental experiences but that the vast majority of people are ‘unmade’ serial killers as a result of adequate parenting and socialization. Serial killers, Vronsky asserts, because of this failure of parenting and socialization, have developed brains over dominated by animalistic instincts driven by primitive brain regions that are inadequately inhibited by more highly evolved brain regions
Mitchell H, Aamodt MG. The incidence of child abuse in serial killers. J Police Criminal Psychol. 2005;20(1):40-47.
Shawna Cleary, Joan Luxemburg. Serial Murderers: Common Background Characteristics and Their Contribution to Causation. American Society of Criminology. Meeting, 1993
Peter Vronsky, Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. Penguin, 5 Oct 2004
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
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