Serial killers and mass murderers have been committing heinous crimes since well before the 1800’s. Serial killings only account for about one percent of all murder cases yet always find a way to take the world by storm. By understanding mass killings and the way their minds work, investigators can find suspects more easily and know what to look for. The first two modules discuss the differences between serial killers and mass murderers, the history, frequency, and motivation of serial killing and mass murder, and the theories of causation.
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In order to understand the minds of killers, it is important to first decipher the primary differences between serial killing and mass murder. Not only are their killing methods different, so is the psychology of these individuals. The definitions of each can vary in different states, however there are some critical similarities between all definitions. In the Media Mayhem video, uploaded by TheLipTV (2013), Jim Clemente states that serial killers have “multiple incidents of kills over time”, get up close to their victims, and try to keep a low profile to continue to kill while mass murderers “kill multiple people at one time”, typically take out victims from a distance, and try to gain media attention. With serial killing, the victims usually follow a pattern, for example with the case of Jack the Ripper, who targeted women who were prostitutes. In order to be officially classified as serial killer, there has to be two or more victims. With mass murder, the victims are not targeted, but are tragically in the wrong place at the wrong time, while the killer makes a “political statement”, usually associated with mental illness. In order to classify as a mass murderer, there must be four or more victims.
Mass killing is nothing new and can be traced back thousands of years. Robert Morton goes in depth about the history of serial killing in the eBook Serial Murder: Multiple-Disciplinary Procedures for Investigators. Large public fascination with serial killings began in the late 1800’s at the time of Jack the Ripper. This case remains unsolved and consequently “spawned many legends”; including the Green River Killer, Ted Bundy, and BTK (Morton, n.d). With the rise of technology, it is now harder than ever for serial killers to go on these rampages undetected. Morton also states myths commonly associated with serial killers and provides examples of cases that contradict the myths. Some of these myths include that serial killers are “all dysfunctional losers, white males, only motivated by sex, travel and operate interstate, cannot stop killing, insane or evil geniuses, and want to get caught”. A serial killer could be anyone, anywhere, and even someone you would never expect. These myths are in place from the way killers are presented by the media and can be incredibly misleading. By breaking these myths, the public can be more informed about killers and the stereotypes behind them. With this knowledge, potential victims can learn to be more aware of their surroundings and to not trust strangers as easily, no matter how charming they may be. It is also important for investigators to know these myths are false, as these stereotypes can vastly change the suspect pool. Whether someone is a either serial killer or a mass murderer, his or her intent is still ill. There are several distinctive labels for killers depending on their motives. Some of these labels could include “profit, passion, hatred, power or domination, revenge, opportunism, fear, contract killing, desperation, compassion, and ritual” (Hickey, n.d.). Not everyone will have the same reasoning for killing, and by classifying these labels, killers can be sorted and differentiated, and can therefore be examined by psychologists properly. By understanding the motive before finding the criminal, it can vastly accelerate how quickly the suspect is found.
Serial killers and mass murderers are not born to kill. They are rather raised to kill by going through certain circumstances that cause trauma, leaving murder as their seemingly only coping mechanism. Childhood experiences play a large role in developing the young mind of a killer, as explained in the article “Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture”. In the year 2000, there was a study conducted that scanned the brains of hundreds of individuals who have committed murder, which showed a correlation “between the orbital frontal cortex, the anterior cingulated cortex, and the amygdale, which plays a large part in the control of negative and violent emotions” (Serial Killers n.d). These parts of the brain are described as controlling emotions and responses to conflict and fear. After looking through experiences these individuals all shared, childhood trauma took the lead for similarities. This trauma can make the killers feel isolated, abused, and rejected. These experiences lead the developing children to develop violent tendencies, which can most commonly be seen in harming small animals. In fact, sociologist Arnold Arluke examined the records of “one hundred and fifty three animal abusers with one hundred and fifty three non animal abusers and found that those who were animal abusers were five times more likely to commit acts of violence such as assault, rape, and murder against others” (Serial Killers n.d). This in no way means that children who undergo these experiences are inevitably murderers, since childhood trauma is dealt with in many different ways, depending on the certain individual. Instead, it provides insight as to what causes these homicidal behaviors and signs to look for to possibly help prevent them from turning into criminals. It also allows concerned adults to offer help and to possibly change this child’s life forever. There are many different theories that explore how a killer comes to be a killer. All possible theories are discussed in the Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Research and Education. These theories include: “theories of violent behavior, contemporary trait theory, biological perspective, and psychological perspective” (Yurtoglu, 241-243). Theories of violent behavior explore how and why violent behavior occurs. Contemporary trait theory views criminal behavior as coming not from a single trait, but from numerous interactions dealing with biology, psychology, and environment. Biological perspective focuses more on genetic makeup and the DNA of a killer, and even more specifically, the brain structure. Psychological perspective focuses on mental illnesses being the main contributing factor. Killers cannot be put into one category all together, but are all explored in their own unique way with various theories and experiences that lead them to this point.
There are many aspects that can provide insight to what makes someone a serial killer or mass murderer. While they are two different things, individuals in these categories go through similar childhood trauma. However, there are so many different factors and elements as to why someone results to homicide. These modules discussed the origins and psychology of mass killers, the differences, and the theories for motivation.
- Hickey, E. W. (n.d.). Defining Serial Murder. Retrieved from http://www.serialhomicide.com/serial-killers.htm
- Morton, R. J. (Ed.). (n.d.). Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Procedures for Investigators. Retrieved from http://ct2learn.com/els/resources/ebooks/serial-murder-multi-disciplinary-procedures-investigators/view-serial-murder-multi-disciplinary-procedures-investigators/
- Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aaets.org/article213.htm
- TheLipTV. (2013, February 10). Mass Murderers vs. Serial Killers. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=31&v=y45q5TcZZvs
- Yurtoğlu, N. (2018). Http://www.historystudies.net/dergi//birinci-dunya-savasinda-bir-asayis-sorunu-sebinkarahisar-ermeni-isyani20181092a4a8f.pdf. History Studies International Journal of History,10(7), 241-264. doi:10.9737/hist.2018.658
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