Facts About Serial Killers and Psychopaths
The sick and twisted have an undeniable draw for us. Satisfy that curiosity with these fascinating facts about serial killers and psychopaths.
Even amongst the worst of criminals, serial killers have a particular mystique—their crimes are often the most shocking, and their psyches the hardest to understand. But there's a lot more to these criminals than a desire to kill—some of these facts about serial killers and psychopaths may surprise you.
Sociopaths are not psychopaths.
Any list of facts about serial killers and psychopaths must first say what psychopathy is not: though the two are often confused, psychopathy and sociopathy are two very different social-emotional disorders.
The modern Sherlock, a self-proclaimed "high-functioning sociopath," hunts serial killers and their ilk. His social difficulties are mostly humorous, and the character still portrays much humanity in his role as a detective.
Sociopathy, or anti-social personality disorder, makes it difficult for people to relate to others and form bonds. However, they are capable of emotion, empathy, and guilt. Sherlock might be abrasive, but there's no doubt he cares about Watson and a few others in his life.
Psychopaths, on the other hand, cannot feel empathy or guilt at all. Though they may learn to fake it convincingly, they do not feel genuine emotion. As a result, many psychopaths become criminals, because they cannot be guided by an emotion-driven moral compass. Most of the world's most notorious serial killers were psychopaths.
Serial killers are often delusional.
Serial killers usually suffer delusions of their own superiority over the rest of human kind. They blame others for their mistakes, and often use this as justification for their crimes. Gary Ridgeway, who confessed to the murder of almost 100 women and girls in the United States, blamed human weakness for his crimes, once claiming that his actions followed an ingrained philosophy that "might makes right."
There is a neural basis for psychopathy.
Neuroscience has been able to provide us with some enlightening facts about serial killers and psychopaths.
Brain scans of known psychopaths and serial killers show a significantly thinner amygdala than normal brain scans. The amygdala is responsible for a number of emotion-related functions, most significantly fear—as a result, psychopaths don't feel fear, or empathize with their victim's fear.
However, it's important to note that this doesn't mean we can predict psychopathy—these behaviors and tendencies are often the result of a combination of factors, including both biology and upbringing.
Not all psychopaths are serial killers.
Though many facts about serial killers and psychopaths apply to both categories, not all serial killers are psychopaths, and not all psychopaths are serial killers. To illustrate the fact that psychopathy does not a serial killer make, many high-functioning members of society show neural and behavioral similarities to criminal psychopaths. Highest amongst this group are CEOs, lawyers, and law enforcement, such as police officers.
One neuroscientist, James Fallon, actually found that he himself had many of the traits of murderers and psychopaths. His studies supported the conclusion that while many people are born with psychopathic brains and tendencies, they often need to be triggered by abuse or trauma to result in someone becoming a serial killer.
Many serial killers suffered abusive childhoods.
This leads us to the next fact about serial killers and psychopaths: although abuse doesn't create serial killers, many psychopaths and serial killers have difficult, often abusive, childhoods which played a role in their becoming a serial killer. In some cases, this abuse is reflected in their victimology: for example, Ed Kemper murdered women who reminded him of his family and mother, an abusive alcoholic. John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer clown, whose primary abuser was his father, would come to kill as many as 33 men before being caught.
Henry Lee Lucas and his partner Otto Toole, one of the most prolific and notorious serial killer teams in United States history, similarly suffered abuses as children—they were both forced to wear girl's clothes as children, as well as suffering physical attacks.
Some of the most notorious serial killers have extremely high IQs.
Although they often lack formal education, many of the world's most notorious serial killers actually have very high IQs. Rodney Alcala, often known as The Dating Game Serial Killer, had an estimated IQ around 170. He was so intelligent and charismatic, in fact, that he won a reality TV show The Dating Game during the time he was active as a serial killer. Other notorious murderers with genius-level IQs include Ed Kemper (145), Jeffrey Dahmer (144), and Ted Bundy (136).
Intelligence is not the norm.
However, facts about the most famous serial killers are not necessarily facts about serial killers and psychopaths in general. In fact, this level of intelligence is not the norm for serial killers: though many of the most notorious and prolific have high IQs, which enable them to get away with their crimes for longer, the majority of serial killers actually have below-average IQs.
Serial killers are often very charismatic.
As with Rodney Alcala, many serial killers were highly charismatic. They often used this to lure their victims, gaining their trust while keeping suspicion away from themselves. Ted Bundy, in fact, worked in politics—and we know that many psychopaths who do not become serial killers are employed in leadership roles such as politics, management, law, and law enforcement.
Isolation may be a trigger for violent crime in psychopaths.
Many serial killers experience social isolation as children. Ed Gein, who inspired Hitchcock's Psycho and the Netflix original Bates Motel, was kept home by his mother and punished for trying to make friends. Ed Kemper's mother also kept him for long periods in the basement, not even allowing him to talk to his sisters. This isolation is believed to be a significant contributor to his mental decline and criminal activity—he murdered at least two women, and exhumed corpses from a nearby cemetery in order to make decorations of the bones and skin. Yikes.
Psychopathy is linked to smell sensitivity.
Oddly enough, in an Australian study, psychologists found that psychopaths have a lot of difficulty identifying smells. Although the parts of the brain responsible for emotion and smells are very different, they both appear to be damaged in a majority of psychopaths. Why this may be is as of yet unclear.
Psychopathy abounds in the technology age.
In the modern age, internet anonymity allows for a lot of expression of psychopathic tendencies. Analyses of Twitter and YouTube comments show that many psychopaths take to the internet to express their sadism and self-importance. In fact, researchers believe that the majority of internet trolls are psychopaths.
Alternatively, the ease of anonymity on the internet may actually cause people who normally do feel empathy and guilt to withhold such feelings, leading to widespread psychopathic behavior.