Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

What Makes a Serial Killer’s Clock Tick?

By Justin Cook


Warning: There are at least 35 to 50 active serial killers at this time. While 35 of 300 million people in the United States is a small number, it’s enough that in 2000 to 2009 275 people were murdered by serial killers and from 2010 to 2013 67 victims were already reported dead. These are merely the victims we know about, which is most likely not everyone who has died. Your chances of being singled out and murdered by one of these individuals are fairly thin, but the threat still exists.

If we average all the known victims from 2000 to 2013 we get 24.4 known victims a year. That means you may have better odds of winning the lottery than you making it on the news as victim #12. Still, the fact that statistically someone innocent is going to die within the next month or so does make a person pause and ask pressing questions about life, death, and the insane mind. No wonder there are many people who devote their time and careers learning what turns human beings with apparent empathy and compassion into the stuff of great horror movies.

What is a Serial Killer?

According to the FBI, a serial killer is defined as anyone who commits two or more murders in separate events. The authorities are usually alerted to the existence of a serial killer by discovering an action that only serves as personal gratification, known as a ritual that is carried out from one murder to another. Rituals might be leaving a note or positioning the victim in a certain way. The common profile for a serial killer is a white male in his mid to late twenty’s; and while it’s true that over 90% are male, over 50% white, and over 25% are in their mid to late 20’s, killers that meet all of these criteria only make up about 13% of serial killers.

The FBI also breaks serial killers into two types, organized/nonsocial and disorganized/asocial. Organized serial killers blend in; they are usually college educated, have good hygiene, are active during the day, highlight their wealth, and come off as very normal. Sometimes they even have spouses and hold normal relationships. The only thing abnormal about their lives is that in many cases there is evidence of physical abuse in family history. Organized serial killers make it a point to get close to their victims and will often kidnap them and talk with the victim before committing the act. They leave very clean crime scenes. They will move the body around and are more likely to engage in dismembering the victim. Following the act, these serial killers will follow the investigation of the crime and may even taunt the police.

Disorganized killers tend to be very socially awkward and not care how society sees them. They may have poor hygiene, be active at night, and be uneducated. Oftentimes disorganized serial killers come from families where they’re abused or have a lack of a father figure. Disorganized serial killers do not know their victims and will kill in a very quick and sudden way. Disorganized serial killers will leave messy crime scenes with the body still at that the scene of the killing. Disorganized serial killers relive the act by contacting the victim’s family or by revisiting the area later on and show no interest in the investigation of the crime. As we will see the differences between organized and disorganized serial killers reveals a lot about what mental illnesses might cause these people to have murderous urges.

What It’s Not

dexters7art1_FULLMany people seem to think serial killers must have suffered one of the following: child abuse, an extreme religious upbringing, homosexuality, or demonic possession. While child abuse may play a role in the making of a sociopath, most victims of abuse get past it, to some extent. Furthermore, most sociopaths don’t actually engage in serial killing.

Most religions focus on an empathy for your fellow humans and/or humanity as a whole and thus, would not be of interest to the empathy-lacking psychopath/sociopath. Most religions also forbid violence. There seems to be a fairly close parallel to the number of straight and gay killers so it’s unlikely sexual identity is a major determinant. As far as demonic possession goes, not everyone is convinced possessions are “real.”

What Disorders Lead to Violent Behavior?

Below are specific disorders that have the potential to lead to violent behavior of the serial killer.To possess such a disorder does not necessary mean the person will become a serial killer, or is stifling murderous urges; it simply plays a role in the deployment of the behavior. Serial killers are an extremely small amount of the population and the same is true among people with living with these disorders. That said, these illnesses are more common among the deviant population, and could be the root of their murderous rampages.

• Psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder likely caused by a lack of conductivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is as of now thought to be genetic. It’s characterized by a lack of empathy and blunted negative emotions like fear, sadness, and embarrassment.
• Psychosis is a warped sense of realty involving hallucinations and or delusions due to mental illnesses like schizophrenia.
• Sadism is the enjoyment of causing pain some times to the point of arousal and its cause is currently unknown. Sadists do not necessarily have empathy problems.
• Narcissism is an obsession with one’s self including an inflated ego and sense of entitlement. It’s unknown what factors cause narcissism.
• Obsessive personality disorders involve an intense psychological need to think and or act on an idea. It tends to run in families but it’s not been decided whether its genetic, learned, or both.
• Border line personality disorder causes people to have problems controlling their emotions and behaviors. They may have wild manic episodes that can be violent. Borderline personality disorder may be due to a mix of genetic, environmental, and brain anomalies.
• Sociopathy, similar to psychopathy, in that it severely mutes empathy. It differs in that sociopaths can empathize to some degree with people close to them and are more prone to violent out bursts. Unlike psychopaths, who learn to mimic emotions and tend to organize their actions, sociopaths do not and will come off very different than most people in behavior. While psychopathy is likely a genetic trait, sociopathy is thought to be caused by childhood abuse or trauma.

Let’s take these disorders and match them to the two types of serial killers recognized by the FBI. When looking at the differences in psychopaths and sociopaths, we see a clear parallel between organized and disorganized killers. Sociopaths lack the emotion mimicking trait, which would make it very hard for them to get personally close to their victims, thus making them much more likely to be disorganized killers. We also know that disorganized serial killers tend to suffer emotional trauma as children, which happens be a likely cause of sociopathic behavior. It would seem that disorganized verses organized comes down to sociopath or psychopath.

The University of Radford made this list of motives for serial killers which tells you the count of serial killers that had that motive (first number) and the percentage of total serial killers that claim it.

• Enjoyment (thrill, lust, power) 1224 48.44%
• Financial Gain 772 30.55%
• Anger 213 8.43%
• Multiple Motives 176 6.96%
• Gang Activity 74 2.93%
• Avoid Arrest 28 1.11%
• Attention 16 0.63%
• Convenience 13 0.51%
• Hallucinations 11 0.44%
• Cult 5 0.20%

If we remove money and gang activity, and avoiding arrest as motives, we are left with a group of people with clear psychological issues. All most half of all serial killers simply kill because they enjoy hurting others, which means for 48% of serial killers, sadism plays a part. Anger with 8.4% claiming this motive, it’s the second highest psychological reason, and may have its roots in the violent outbursts of a sociopath, or a person with borderline personality disorder where they aren’t capable of controlling their rage normally.

american_psychoA small amount of killers do it simply for the attention, which would require an extreme amount of narcissism which also may explain killers who seem to want to be caught and send clues or taunts to the police. Next to cults, the smallest amount is those who kill due to hallucinations, which are symptoms of psychotic illnesses, like schizophrenia. While psychopathy or sociopathy is somewhat common in serial killers, and maybe what allows them to kill innocent people, disorders like sadism, narcissism, borderline personality disorder, obsessive personalities, and psychosis supply the reason for the killing. This combination of psychological anomalies may explain why most people with these illnesses never start killing. It takes both to make a serial killer tick.

Profiles of Known Killers

(Note: This section contains descriptions of violence and may disturb some readers)

Dennis Rader, or the BTK strangler, killed 4 women in 1970’s. He strangled his female victims and revived them until he got bored. Then finally, he strangled them to death. He is known for sending letters to taunt the police and media and he even suggested his own pseudonym. We can deduce from his modus operandi that he was a sadist that enjoyed torturing his victims. From him sending letters and his planed approach to the murders, he fits the organized killer profile, and thus is most likely a psychopath and a narcissist. We can see that the lack of empathy that is the main symptom of psychopaths allows the sadistic tendencies to go unchecked.

Likely one of the most infamous serial killers is the cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer killed 17 young males, dismembering them and eating several of the bodies. On top of being a murderer, he was also a child predator. Dahmer is reported to saying he had no emotions toward his victims, other than he didn’t want them to leave and that’s why he killed them. He also stated that he wanted to create a zombie. Dr. Walstrom testified that Dahmer was psychotic and experienced delusions. Dr. Palmo claims that Dahmer was a sadist and did the crimes out of self-hate. Dr. Deitz disagreed with Dahmer being a sadist, citing his use of sedatives. What’s clear is that Dahmer was a psychopath with an obsession about keeping his victims. We see with Dahmer, that his psychopathy allowed him to act on his dark obsessions.

David Berkowitz is the Son of Sam killer, who shot 13 people, killing 6. He is famous for sending letters to the police and reporters. His fast killing style, and not making sure the victim was dead, points strongly to a disorganized killer, which are most likely sociopaths. The letters show a strong narcissism by wanting to be famous for his actions. David Berkowitz claims to be reformed in prison, a trait that would only be possible with sociopaths. His narcissism added by his sociopathy. Lack of empathy makes him a poster boy for a fame killer.

Profiles of Unknown Killers

Jack the Ripper killed 5 women in Victorian London. The Ripper would slash the victim’s throat and then do primitive surgeries on the victim’s body, taking the female organs and leaving the body in full view. While any profile of The Ripper can’t be 100% since he never was caught, the very quick method of killing seems to point to a disorganized killer and likely a sociopath. The fact that all his victims were women and prostitutes and due to the fact that were no signs of rape, insinuate that the killer had a negative obsession with women. While letters were sent to the authorities, it has not been proven they came from The Ripper.

San Francisco, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, suffered the unsolved case of the Zodiac Killer. The Zodiac shot and killed 8 people, and is famous for sending cryptic letters and phone calls, as well as wearing a terrifying costume. The Zodiac killers MO seems to follow the MO of the Son of Sam the Killer, which means that the person is a narcissistic psychopath that is looking for fame. What’s odd is that most fame killers get caught, which they see as taking credit for their work, but The Zodiac was never caught and seemed to simply enjoy toying with the police.

One Author’s Theory on the Cause

Through history, we have seen many who kill indiscriminately, each one with their own unique style that is derived from the narcissistic fame killer, torturing sadists, and the killers that feel they on a psychotic mission. What seems common amongst all these individuals is the sheer lack of empathy for an innocent person’s life, and a personal depravity that maybe only the killers themselves can understand. What makes serial killers tick, at least by the books, is said to be a mix of either psychopathy or sociopathy, and another psychological defect like psychosis, narcissism, or sadism, both the psychological ability and the psychological reason are needed. It’s a formula, a combination, that makes capacity into reality.

We may never know what causes all the illnesses that make these people commit evil. As Dr. Berit Brogaard says, “Most psychopaths are manipulative, aggressive and impulsive but these features far from always lead to criminal activity”.

What would be nice to see is more individuals who are categorized as antisocial personality disorder, aka psychopathy, and those with sociopathic tendencies, get screened for other personality issues like sadism or obsessive traits. Since we are coming to understand a combination is what makes murder happen, maybe it’s also time we catch the development of these people before they have a chance to hurt others.
I am interested in your ideas on the subject and if you agree or disagree with my theory. Thanks for reading and remember…monsters are real.




1.Mind hunter by John Douglas quote from

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