Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Serial killing motivation

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Serial killing motivation:
What motivates serial killing?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Ted Bundy in court

This chapter examines what has motivated some people to commit serial type murders and how can we prevent others from following the same ideals and paths. Mental health issues and childhood trauma play a major role in the majority of serial killers and how they developed. This chapter explains motivates a serial killer and how each motivator plays a different role in the development of the serial killer.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Serial murders relative to single homicides are generally considered a rare occurrence (Knight, 2006), yet due to the heinous nature and the general severity of the incidents we tend to hear a significant amount about infamous killers. The majority of the more infamous killers are in fact serial killers, ones who have killed more than five people aver a long period of time. The overwhelming violence and aggression attributed to serial killers mentality has become somewhat more popular in pop culture and mainstream media, with many crime a police television shows gaining popularity.

The definitions of what a serial killer is depends significantly on whose perspective you are looking at, and varies from source to source. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that there are three main factors that must be met before the killings are considered part of a serial homicide (Holmes & Holmes, 2010). Those criteria are: the number of people killed, the time between each killing and the time frame for the murders (Kraemer, 2004). In a recent update in serial killers by the FBI, they define a serial killer as a person who kills more than three people over a longer period of a month, with a cooling off period in between each death, usually for emotional reasons. Although other various sources agree that two to ten deaths can all lead to be considered a serial killing. This definition separates itself from spree killings and mass homicides where spree killings are defined as lots of murders in a short period of time in many locations or mass killing where four or more deaths happen at the same time in the same place.

One of the major notable differences between serial killers and a single homicide is the fact that in the majority of circumstances, serial killers kill strangers over close family and friends, whereas single homicides tend to attack those close[factual?]. Most often victims were aged between 20 and 29 years (Hickey, 1997), yet almost 24 percent of killers have in some point killed a person younger that 17.

There are many determining factors which can potentially explain why these people do what they do and what motivates their actions, [grammar?]throughout history there have been many people who have addressed the issues with individuals who commit particularly violent acts. Psychological or monetary motivators play a major role in the style and type of murder. Eysenck's 1977 study[explain?] suggested that there is interplay between environment, biological factors and personality traits. And there is a general agreement that mental health and early childhood trauma also play a significant role in the forming of serial killers[factual?].

Organised versus disorganised[edit | edit source]

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) adopted a dichotomous classification to separate the main two underlying differences between types of serial killers. These categories consist of organised and disorganised killers.

An organised killer is meticulous and methodical: before they do anything, significant planning and preparation is done to ensure a clean, organised and, in someways, a more 'perfect' crime. Organised killers are often considered to have gone through some sort of significant stressful event of which they have no control of (Canter, Alison, Alison & Wentnik, 2004). This has led for them to have a desire to control and plan a crime to which they have full power over whatever happens. Organised killers are considered to be so careful in their planning that they often leave behind little incriminating evidence. On the other side of the spectrum a disorganised killer acts spontaneously and kills opportunistically. They often live within proximity to the murder and leave behind a lot of evidence and a rather chaotic crime scene. Douglas et al. (1992) introduced a third category, which was a mix of the two categories, where sometimes - for organised killers - things do not always got to plan, or there can be more than one person involved in the crime or, an organised killer can become sloppy or arrogant as time progresses. Unfortunately this has somewhat brought into question the whole concept of the classification system, where someone does not fit into one or the other and the two categories can become interchangeable between each other they can lose their effectiveness and become somewhat redundant. Regardless, this system is still in place and is often used to distinguish types and motives for killers.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]

Maslow hierarchy of needs

Maslow's five stage model is a prime example of how a child which[who?] doesn't receive a nurturing or safe environment, or a caring figure to help develop their self esteem and value cannot achieve full satisfaction in life. and do not have the normal drives and motivators which most people have been taught in early infant hood through our caregivers[factual?]. Using Maslow's hierarchy, it is apparent that children from more detached or abusive families will never receive a truly safe home, and will not fully understand that[factual?]. Furthermore, at stage three where family and belonging play a major role for that stage, many children feel like they do not belong and are not part of a family, further stalling development[factual?].

Personality disorders and mental illness[edit | edit source]

The main issue in regards to what truly motivates a serial killer is the fact that they are relatively rare occurrences, even though their actions are heavily saturated through media (Knight, 2006). With this there are issues where often psychologists cannot run through case studies and rely heavily on the media for their research, which is sometimes incorrect or exaggerated (Kraemer, Lord & Heilbrun, 2004). And due to the fact that the only true information which can be studied is that of observable behaviour, motivation is somewhat difficult to determine (Kraemer, Lord & Heilbrun, 2004)

Factor analysis[edit | edit source]

Eysenck's (1977) theory of personality states that all traits and personalities fall into two distinct categories: Extroversion-Introversion and Neuroticism, these are called super traits, and everything else becomes a subset of these super traits. Many previous studies have suggested that a predisposition to violence as a child is the cause for a more distorted view as an adult. But, in addition Eysenck (1977) has suggested that environment, biological factors and personality traits all play a role in determining behaviour. Many killers are believed to have psychopathic personality types (Schlesinger, 1998). And Knight (2006) [missing something?]that many sexually motivated serial killers can potentially have narcissistic type personalities. Kraemer, Lord and Heilbrun (2004) state that motivation is a factor and personality traits in fact play more of a role in their actions.

For several motivators, mental illness plays a major role in their motivators, [grammar?]for example Herbert Mullin was a serial killer prevalent in the 1970s. He had spent the majority of his early adulthood in and out of mental institutions, and based on the fact that mental health facilities were unable to properly diagnose his mental illness, he was often left untreated. It is now understood that Mullin suffered from paranoid schizophrenia[factual?].

Narcissistic personality disorder[edit | edit source]

Knight (2006) states that parents have two main roles when raising their children for a positive development of a child, [grammar?]this is to firstly ensure that a child needs to make its parents happy for the basis and development of their self-esteem and confidence. Secondly, it is the caregivers responsibility for a child to learn how to accept failure and how to cope with future issues. Knight (2006) also stated that a child learns its own self worth based on the admiration of their caregiver, and then learning that you can admire others this is called Idealisation[grammar?]. If a child never receives this admiration and love the child may have a developmental arrest, which affects the self esteem, which can in tow develop into a narcissistic personality disorder. Ledermann (1979) looks at this at more of a psychoanalytical perspective, where individuals suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, have never fully surpassed their anal phase, and are therefore fixated on it.

Antisocial personality disorder[edit | edit source]

Antisocial personality disorder is defined by the DSM-V as severe impairments in self and interpersonal functioning. Individuals suffering from anti social personality disorder can be described as generally being hostile, manipulative, impulsive and callous (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This can often mean that people with anti social personality disorders can be more violent and aggressive than others, and not necessarily aware of their aggressive tendencies. Although Miller (In Knight, 2006) states that most killers are aware of their urges and they do in fact know right from wrong[grammar?].

Paraphilias[edit | edit source]

Some serial killers are diagnosed with one or more Paraphilia, these can include fetishisms, sadomasochisms and voyeurisms.

Childhood[edit | edit source]

It is believed that a more adverse upbringing can lead to a more distorted view, and less of an attachment as an adult. This can mean that many serial killers lead solitary lives and distance themselves from people, although, in some cases, killers can in fact lead relatively normal lives, with successful jobs and families. A report by Dudeck (2007) stated that individuals who had been through childhood trauma, specifically sexual abuse were more likely to commit sexually based crimes when they were older.

Motivators[edit | edit source]

Not all killers are alike, what motivates each person is significantly different[grammar?]. There are four main types, or motivators which encourage certain individuals to commit serial homicides,[grammar?] these motivators can overlap and take parts from each of the types. Holmes and Holmes first defined the categories for what motivates a killer. Many serial killers are known to have sexual relations with their victims, this may be non-consensual, or can be after the victim is deceased.

Mission Oriented[edit | edit source]

These types of serial murders are motivated by the idea or concept that the person or 'killer' is ridding the world of perceived undesirable.

Joseph Paul Franklin[edit | edit source]

April 13, 1950 -November 20, 2013
Franklin, born James Clayton Vaughn, Jr. was an American serial killer who was prominent during the 1970s (FBI, 2014). Franklin was a white supremacist, who had changed his name during early adulthood in honour of two of his favourite people, Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Goebbels (FBI, 2014). Franklin was convicted of the murder of at least 15 people, and had significantly injured two prominent people including one civil rights activist. Although this number may be different as he often changed his stories and his accounts of many crimes leading to him not being charged[grammar?] (Smith, 2014).

Franklins behaviour is believed to have been triggered by an event while at high school, where he severely damaged his eye, resulting in him dropping out of school. Although there are many reports that Franklin was abused throughout childhood[grammar?].

Franklin's behaviour was considered extreme, originally inspired by several significant hate groups including the Klu Klux Klan (Ayton, 2014),[grammar?] Franklin eventually rejected all hate groups as he thought their processes and attitudes to mixed race couples wasn't severe enough, and he was growing to become more and more physically aggressive. In 1976, Franklin pepper sprayed an interracial couple, [grammar?] from that point, Franklins attacks escalated, in 1977, he bombed a synagogue, and a week later killed two men in a carpark.

Franklin was primarily motivated by an ideal which rejected other races, his intentions to basically cleanse the world of specific races, specifically Jewish and African Americans (FBI, 2014). Franklin himself before his execution admitted that his motivation was somewhat skewed by his adverse upbringing (Kohler, 2013).

Hedonistic[edit | edit source]

These killers are motivated by pleasure,[grammar?] these killers see people as expendable, and more like object[grammar?] to achieve their pleasure. This is then divided into three sub categories:

  • Lust: These killers are primarily motivated by sexual gratification and are driven to achieve said gratification. How they do this depends significantly on how they can achieve this pleasure. This can be through mutilation or torture or any other, fetish based fulfilment. These killers are also known to use more contact and use weapons which require physical contact, such as stabbings and strangulation.

Jeffrey Dahmer[edit | edit source]

May 21, 1960 – November 28, 1994

Known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, Dahmer was convicted of the gruesome murders which included cannibalism and rape of 17 young men and boys throughout the 1980s. Dahmer was understood to have suffered from borderline personality disorder, which he had been diagnosed with from[grammar?] prison psychiatrists (Weatherby, 2009). Dahmer was raised in a relatively normal household, but his mother was known for her argumentative nature and attention seeking methods,[grammar?] she often spend time in bed and had attempted suicide. Dahmer's father was a university student and spent much time studying or looking after Dahmer's mother, which led to Jeffrey spending much of his childhood alone, although he did have a few school friends,[grammar?] his teacher noted that Dahmer seemed like a neglected child.

From an early age Dahmer took an interest in animals often collecting roadkill and dismembering them. storing the body parts into jars. This developed over time, learning how to preserve bones and taking a fascination with how the parts went together.

Dahmer's first murder was in 1978 when he was 18 years old,[grammar?] he had picked up a hitchhiker Steven Mark Hicks, and taken him back to his own house to drink, when the Steven wanted to leave Dahmer hit him several times with a barbell, then proceeded to masturbate over his body. For the next 13 years Dahmer killed at least 17 young men,[grammar?] he kept many of the bodies in his room and kept photos of the dismembered bodies in his dresser. He was finally caught in 1991 when an intended victim managed to escape and flag down the police,[grammar?] when the police inspected the house they found polaroid images and noticed a foul smell within his home. Dahmer confessed to murder, dismemberment, cannibalism and necrophilia which spanned almost 30 years.

  • Thrill: These killers are driven by the fear and terror they can inflict in their victims,[grammar?] they actively seek this adrenaline rush and seek to commit the perfect crime, committing these crimes to[grammar?] complete strangers

Robert Hansen[edit | edit source]

February 15, 1939 – August 21, 2014

Hansen had an unstable upbringing,[grammar?] his father was aggressive and overwhelming to his son. Hansen was also bullied in school for having a speech impediment and was generally considered a social outcast. Hansen had spent several years in jail in his earlier years firstly being imprisoned for setting a bus on fire (Krajicek, 2014). Hansen had extensive knowledge of hunting and used this to his advantage in the killings,[grammar?] he was convicted of murdering 17 women, but is believed to have killed 21 women. Hansen says he was motivated because of his experiences throughout adolescence (Krajicek, 2014).

  • Comfort: Financial gain is usually the main motivator for these killings, and are usually committed within families and close acquaintances. These killings are usually performed indirectly through poison or hiring a killer.

Dorothea Puente[edit | edit source]

January 9, 1929 – March 27, 2011

Dorothea ran a care home throughout the 1980s where she killed mentally disabled and elderly residents, and cashed in their social security cheques for her own financial gain (Ellis & Wolinsky, 1989). Dorothea was left orphaned at 9 years old and went to live with relatives in California. Dorothea had several stints in jail including cheque forgery and running a brothel. She also had several failed marriages and suffered a miscarriage which led to her first husband leaving her. Dorothea started killing her tenants shortly after her first tenants moved in, burying bodies in the garden and dumping bodies in riverbeds and bridges (Scheeres, 2014). Dorothea was eventually found when a care worker reported a missing person who was boarding at the home, and finding the garden had been recently dug up. Dorothea was motivated by her love of money and her want of a place within society (Scheeres, 2014).

Visionary[edit | edit source]

Individuals which[who?] are considered visionary killers are primarily motivated by a mental illness or a so-called psychotic break. These killers are usually driven to murder based on orders or beliefs of a higher power which controls something uncontrollable. They sometimes believe that they are committing these crimes for a greater good, or that killing a few saves many more.

Herbert Mullin[edit | edit source]

Herbert Mullin mugshot

April 18, 1947 -
Mullin is known to have committed 13 murders within the California area during the 1970s. Mullin had a loving and supportive upbringing, but was devastated when his best friend died in a car accident during high school (Ressler & Schachtman, 1992). Mullin was committed to a mental institution when he was 21 by his family and for several years afterwards Mullin had several stints inside mental institutions, but was always eventually released (Ressler & Schachtman, 1992). Mullin was an avid drug user, and it is believed his heavy use of LSD, somewhat attributed[Rewrite to improve clarity] to his disorder. Mullin believed that he was hearing voices which were telling him to kill people like a blood sacrifice in order to avoid a massive earthquake devastating California. Mullin was examined by a FBI profiler who stated that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia (Ressler & Schachtman, 1992). Mullins[grammar?] main motivating force was that of trying to help a greater force by listening to a higher power.

Power/Control[edit | edit source]

These killers are usually driven by the idea of being in a position of power and having strength over their victims. Sometimes these types of killers were victims themselves during childhood of sexually based or physical abuse.

Ted Bundy[edit | edit source]

FBI-360-Ted Bundy FBI 10 most wanted photo[grammar?]

November 24, 1946 – January 24, 1989

Ted Bundy is one of the most prolific serial killers of the 20th century [missing something?] convicted of raping and murdering at least thirty women, although that number is estimated to be much higher. Bundy is known for his charm, wit and eloquence. Ted Bundy himself.[grammar?] considers that he had a normal upbringing and was raised in a 'loving, Christian household' Although, there is information that states otherwise (Michaud, Aynesworth & Bundy, 2002). He has also stated that his obsession with pornography was what initially set him down the path of becoming a serial murderer. Bundy is known for keeping physical trophies of his victims included keeping severed head in his house. Many believe Bundy suffered from antisocial personality disorder (Michaud, Aynesworth & Bundy, 2002), although diagnosis has changed many times over the years. Bundy himself said he was motivated by the idea that he owned something and that he had taken it himself (Michaud, Aynesworth & Bundy, 2002),

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

There is constant debate about what causes serial killers to do what they do. But there is a general consensus that mental health plays a major role[factual?] in doing what they do, and with modern medicine and a better understanding in the role that psychological disorders play in today's society there is now a greater understanding of treatments and preventative methods. Yet, considering there is still a large stigma attached to mental health, there is still a long way to go before these issues no longer exist. Earlier diagnosis of mental illnesses could reduce the number of killings. Especially in regards to recently where spree killings and the beliefs that those individuals have some sort of mental illness have become more prevalent within the media[explain?][factual?].

It is also important to address issues during developmental years, seeing as domestic and sexual abuse is more spoken about within the last decade, there is less of a stigma attached to coming forward and getting help. Even though these developmental steps may still be stalled, children may not feel as alone, and if placed into care, may be able to develop and become more accepted without fear or rejection[factual?].

To Summarise[explain?]

  • Less stigma towards mental health
  • Better understanding of mental health
  • Ensuring as stable an upbringing as possible
  • Making sure children are raised in a nurturing and caring household
  • Ensuring any sort of childhood trauma is addressed early on in life, and that practical steps are taken to ensure a smooth transition for positive development

Quiz[edit | edit source]


1 Which one of these is not an example of an organised killer?

A meticulously laid out plan
Often kill because of a stressful event which is out of their control
Leaving behind a scene with little evidence
A spontaneous and reckless act

2 What is the percentage of people under the age of 17 killed?


3 What are the three subsets of hedonistic killers?

Visionary, Lustful and control
Visionary, thrill and comfort
Thrill, comfort and lust
Anger, financial gain and attention seeking

4 What is the 'normal' amount of time between murders that the FBI will consider it a serial killing?

Over a month
Less than a month
Less than a week
Within a year

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ayton, M. (2014). How Hate Groups Influenced Racist Killer Joseph Paul Franklin. Retrieved 26 October 2014, from

Canter, D. Alison, L., Alison, E., & Wentink, N. (2004). The Organized/Disorganized Typology of Serial Murder: Myth or Model?. Psychology, Public Policy, And Law, 10(3), 293-320. doi:10.1037/1076-8971.10.3.293

Dudeck, M. (2007). Forensic inpatient male sexual offenders: The impact of personality disorder and childhood sexual abuse. Journal Of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 18(4), 494-506.

Ellis, Virginia and Leo Wolinsky (March 25, 1989) "Death House Landlady Got Drugs From Doctor, Prosecutors Contend." Los Angeles Times. (Retrieved September 20, 2014.

Eysenck, H. (1977). Crime and personality (2nd ed.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

FBI,. (2014). Serial Killers, Part 4: Joseph Paul Franklin. Retrieved 26 October 2014, from

Hickey, E. (1997). Serial murderers and their victims (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Holmes, R. M., & Holmes, S. T. (2010). Serial murder (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Knight, Z. (2006) Some thoughts on the psychological roots of the behaviour of serial killers as narcissists: An object relations perspective. Social Behaviour And Personality, 34(10), 1189-1206.

Kohler, J. (2014). Condemned serial killer on Missouri death row says he has remorse, is no longer a racist : News. Retrieved 26 October 2014, from

KRAJICEK, D. (2014). Robert (Bob the Baker) Hansen blamed his tortured adolescence for the rape and murder of dozens of women in Alaska in 1970s. NY Daily News. Retrieved 26 October 2014, from

Kraemer, G., Lord, W., & Heilbrun, K. (2004). Comparing single and serial homicide offenses. Behav. Sci. Law, 22(3), 325-343. doi:10.1002/bsl.581

Ledermann, R. (1979). THE INFANTILE ROOTS OF NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDER. Journal Of Analytical Psychology, 24(2), 107-126

Michaud, S., Aynesworth, H., & Bundy, T. (2000). Ted Bundy. Irving, TX: Authorlink Press. (2014). Antisocial Personality Disorder. Retrieved 26 October 2014, from

Ressler, Robert K. and Tom Schachtman. Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Hunting Serial Killers for the FBI. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 127-132.ISBN 0-312-07883-8

Robert J. Dvorchak; Lisa Holewa (1992). Milwaukee Massacre: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Milwaukee Murders. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-7090-5003-2.

 Scheeres, J. (2014). Dorothea Puente, Killing for Profit — "Sewer Problems" — Crime Retrieved 26 October 2014, from

Smith, M. (2014). Retrieved 26 October 2014, from

Taylor, S, Lambeth, D, Green, G, Bone, R, & Cahillane, M. (2011). Cluster Analysis Examination of Serial Killer Profiling Categories: A Bottom-Up Approach. J. Investig. Psych. Offender Profi L., 9(1), 30-51. doi:10.1002/jip.149

Weatherby, PhD, Georgie Ann; Buller, Danielle M; McGinnis, Katelyn (2009). "The Buller-McGinnis Model of Serial Homicidal Behavior: An Integrated Approach".Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Research and Education 3 (1): 12.