Serial Killers: Defining Serial Murder
From Eric W. Hickey's "Serial
Murderers and Their Victims"
Differences Between Mass Murderers and Serial Killers
In both mass and serial murder cases, victims die as the offender momentarily
gains ontrol of his or her life by controlling others. But the differences between these two types of offenders far outweigh the similarities. First, mass
murderers are generally apprehended or killed by police, commit suicide, or turn themselves in to authorities. Serial killers, by contrast, usually make
special efforts to elude detection. Indeed, they may continue to kill for weeks, months, and often years before they are found and stopped-if they are found at
all. In the case of the California Zodiac killer, the homicides appeared to have stopped, but an offender was never apprehended for those crimes. Perhaps the
offender was incarcerated for only one murder and never linked to the others, or perhaps he or she was imprisoned for other crimes. Or the Zodiac killer may
have just decided to stop killing or to move to a new location and kill under a new modus operandi, or method of committing the crime. The killer may even have
become immobilized because of an accident or an illness or have died without his or her story ever being told. Speculation currently exists that the Zodiac
killer is stalking victims in the New York City area. The Zodiac case is only one example of unsolved serial murders, many of which will never be solved.
Second, although both types of killers evoke fear and anxiety in the community, the reaction to a mass murder will be much more focused and locally limited than that to serial killing. People generally perceive the mass killer as one suffering from mental illnesses. This immediately creates a "they"/"us" dichotomy in which "they" are different from "us" because of mental problems. We can somehow accept the fact that a few people go "crazy" sometimes and start shooting others. However, it is more disconcerting to learn that some of the "nicest" people one meets lead a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde life: a student by day, a killer of coeds by night; a caring, attentive nurse who secretly murders sick children, the handicapped, or the elderly; a building contractor and politician who enjoys sexually torturing and killing young men and burying them under his home. When we discover that people exist who are not considered to be insane or crazy but who enjoy killing others for "recreation," this indeed gives new meaning to the word "stranger." Although the mass murderer is viewed as a deranged soul, a product of a stressful environment who is just going to "explode" now and then (but of course somewhere else), the serial murder is seen as much more sinister and is more capable of producing fear.
Third, the mass murderer kills groups of people at once, whereas the serial killer individualizes his or her murders. The serial killer continues to hurt and murder victims, whereas the mass murderer makes his or her "final statement" in or about life through the medium of abrupt and final violence. We rarely if ever hear of a mass murderer who has the opportunity to enact a second mass murder or to become a serial killer. Similarly, we rarely if ever hear of a serial killer who also enacts a mass murder.
The mass murderer and the serial killer are quantitatively and qualitatively different, and disagreement continues about their characteristics just as it does about the types of mass and serial offenders that appear to have emerged in recent years. Perhaps the single most critical stumbling block that today stands in the way of understanding serial murder is the disagreement among researchers and law enforcement about how to define the phenomenon.
Defining Serial Murder
In February, 1989, the Associated Press released a story about a serial
killer who preyed on prostitutes in the same area of Los Angeles that harbored the Southside Slayer. He was believed to have killed at least 12 women, all with
a small handgun. The news story referred to the victims as "strawberries"-young women who sold sex for drugs. Farther north, the Green River Task
Force in Seattle, Washington, continues to investigate a series of murders of at least 45 young women over the past eight years. When the corpses of boys and
young men began appearing along the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, Georgia, during the early 1980s, police became convinced a serial killer was
at work in the area. The preceding cases are typical of homicides one might envision when characterizing victims of serial killers. The media quickly and
eagerly focus attention on serial killings because they appear to be so bizarre and extraordinary. They engender the kind of headline that sell newspapers:
"The Atlanta Child Killer," "The Stocking Strangler," "The Hillside Strangler," "The Sunday Morning Slasher," "The
Boston Strangler," ad infinitum. The media focus not only on how many victims were killed but on how they died. Thus they feed morbid curiosity and at the
same time create a stereotype of the typical serial killer: Ted Bundy, Ed Kemper, Albert Desalvo, and a host of other young white males attacking unsuspecting
women powerless to defend themselves from the savage sexual attacks and degradations by these monsters.
But what is the reality? For those in law enforcement, serial killing generally means the sexual attack and murder of young women, men, and children by a male who follows a pattern, physical or psychological. However, this definition fails to include many offenders and victims. For example, in 1988 in Sacramento, California, several bodies of older or handicapped adults were exhumed from the backyard of a house where they were supposed to have been living. Investigators discovered the victims had been killed for their Social Security checks. It was apparent the killer had premeditated the murders, had selected the victims, and had killed at least six over a period of several months. Most law enforcement agencies would naturally classify this case as a serial killing-except for the fact that the killer was female. Because of rather narrow definitions of serial killing females are generally not classified as serial killers even though they meet the requirements for such a label. One explanation may simply be that we rarely if ever hear of a female "Jack the Ripper." Women who kill serially generally use poisons to dispose of their victims and are not associated with the sexual attacks, tortures, and violence of their male counterparts.
Although many offenders actually fall into the serial killer classification, they are excluded because they fail to meet law enforcement definitions or media-generated stereotypes of brutal, blood-thirsty monsters. The "angels of death" who work in hospitals and kill patients, or nursing home staff who kill the elderly, or the "black widows" who kill their family and relatives also meet the general criteria for serial killing except for the stereotypic element of violence. These men and women do not slash and torture their victims nor do they sexually attack them; they are the quiet killers. They are also the kinds of people who could be married, hold steady jobs, or simply be the nice man or woman who lives next door. They are rare among serial killers, just as serial murders are rare compared with other types of homicide.
To include all types of serial killers, the definition of serial murder must
clearly be as broad as possible. For instance, Hickey (1986), by simply including all offenders who through premeditation killed three or more victims over a
period of days, weeks, months, or years, was able to identify several women as serial killers. However, there exists such confusion in defining serial killing
that findings can also easily be distorted. In addition, current research presents some narrow operational definitions of serial murder without any documented
assurances that the focus does not exclude pertinent data. To suggest, for example, that all victims of serial murder are strangers, that the killers operate
primarily in pairs, or that they do not kill for financial gain is derived more from speculation than verifiable evidence, given the current state of serial
Typologies of Murder
In essence serial murderers should include any offenders, male or female, who
kill over time. Most researchers agree that serial killers have a minimum of 3-4 victims. Usually there is a pattern in their killing that may be associated
with the types of victims selected or the method or motives for the killing. This includes murderers who, on a repeated basis, kill within the confines of
their own home, such as a woman who poisons several husbands, children, or elderly people in order to collect insurance. In addition, serial murderers include
those men and women who operate within the confines of a city or a state or even travel through several states as they seek out victims. Consequently, some
victims have a personal relationship with their killers and others do not, and some victims are killed for pleasure and some merely for gain. Of greatest
importance from a research perspective is the linkage of common factors among the victims-for example, as Egger (1985) observed, "victims' place or
status within their immediate surroundings (such as vagrants, prostitutes, migrant workers, homosexuals, missing children, and single and often elderly
women)" . Commonality among those murdered may include several factors, any of which can prove heuristic in better understanding victimization.
Much of our information and misinformation about criminal offenders is based on taxonomies, or classification systems. Megargee and Bohn (1979) noted that researchers usually created typologies based on the criminal offense. This invariably became problematic because often the offense comprised one or more subgroups. Researchers then examined repetitive crime patterns, which in turn created new complexities and problems. Megargee and Bohn further noted that, depending on the authority one chooses to read, one will find between two and eleven different types of murderers . Although serial murder is believed to represent a relatively small portion of all homicides in the United States, already researchers have begun the difficult task of classifying serial killers. Consequently, various typologies of serial killers and patterns of homicides have emerged. Not surprisingly, some of these typologies and patterns conflict with one another. Some are descriptions of causation, whereas others are diagnostic in nature. In addition, some researchers focus primarily on individual case studies of serial killers, whereas others create group taxonomies that accommodate several kinds of murderers.
Wille (1974) identified ten different types of murderers covering a broad range of bio-socio-psychological categories:
- afflicted with organic brain disorder
- passive aggressive
- juvenile (the child was the killer)
- mentally retarded
- sex killers
Lee (1988) also created a variety of labels to differentiate killers according to motive, including:
- power or domination
- contract killing
Even before American society became aware, in the early 1980s, of serial
murder as anything more than an anomaly, researchers had begun to classify multiple killers and assign particular characteristics and labels to them.
Guttmacher (1973) described the sadistic serial murderer as one who derives sexual gratification from killing and who often establishes a pattern, such as the
manner in which they kill or the types of victims they select, such as prostitutes, children, or the elderly. Motivated by fantasies, the offender appears to
derive pleasure from dehumanizing his or her victims. Lunde (1976) recognized and noted distinctions between the mass killer and the serial killer, notably
that the mass killer appears to suffer from psychosis and should be considered insane. By contrast he found little evidence of mental illness among serial
killers. Danto (1982) noted that most serial murderers may be described as obsessive-compulsive because they normally kill according to a particular style and
Researchers have been attempting to create profiles of the "typical" serial killer from the rapidly accumulating statistics on offenders and victims in the United States. The most stereotypical of all serial murderers are those who in some way are involved sexually with their victims. It is this type of killer who generates such public interest and alarm. Stories of young women being abducted, raped, tortured, and strangled appear more and more frequently in the newspapers.