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Monday, October 24, 2011

Our Fascination with Serial Killers. Scott Bonn, Ph.D.

Our Fascination with Serial Killers
              Scott Bonn, Ph.D.

Dating back to “Jack the Ripper,” who terrorized London, England, and the world in the 1880s, serial killers have captured our collective imagination while sending chills down our spines. Although they account for only a small fraction (perhaps 2%) of the 17,000 or so murders each year in the U.S.A., sexual psychopaths captivate many of us, in part, because of the unimaginable savagery of their deeds.  There is currently an unidentified killer of ten people (including at least six female prostitutes) whose bodies, some dismembered, were found on the South Shore of Long Island, New York, between December, 2010, and April, 2011. 

Those of us who have been properly socialized to respect life and possess the normal range of emotions, including kindness, empathy, pity and remorse, cannot comprehend the workings of a mind that would compel one to abduct, torture, rape, kill, and sometimes mutilate or even eat another human being.  Serial killers elicit a morbid fascination from us that we also have for terrible calamities such as train wrecks and natural disasters.  Simply put, we are compelled to understand why serial killers do such horrible things to (generally) complete strangers. 

Many of us just can’t help watching the spectacle of serial killers, and we receive a rush of adrenaline from their deeds, although it is often difficult for us to admit, and we may feel a bit guilty about the inappropriate thrill that their horrible acts offer us.  Serial killers seem to appeal to our most basic and powerful instinct—that is, survival.  Serial killers have a visceral appeal that is fueled by our adrenaline, a hormone that has a powerful, euphoric and even addictive affect on our brains.  Just ask any child who will ride a roller coaster until he or she becomes physically ill.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that serial killers have become fixtures in our popular culture.  Our fascination with them is fueled by the massive news media attention they receive.  One may recall the “Son of Sam” murders during the summer of 1977 in New York City and the relentless media coverage of those events throughout the so-called summer of Sam.  Similarly, fictional serial killers are glorified and even romanticized in the accounts of characters such as Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter in the wildly popular movie “Silence of the Lambs” or Dexter Morgan in the TV series “Dexter.”                    

The profiling of serial killers—that is, predicting their characteristics and behavior, while not an exact science, is well established among criminologists and professional investigators, especially the FBI.  In the vernacular of profiling, the unknown sexual serial killer of six young, white, female prostitutes on Long Island, New York (there are also several unidentified bodies, including a female toddler and a young Asian male) is an “organized” killer.  This means that he plans and executes his murders with great care, making him very difficult to apprehend.  After establishing contact with his victims on “Craigslist,” a classified advertising site on the Internet, he meets them on his own terms, kills them, and then transports their bodies for disposal along Ocean Parkway on Long Island.  In contrast, “Jack the Ripper” was a classic “disorganized” killer and homicidal manic whose crimes were spontaneous and haphazard.  He slashed his victims and left them in a heap where they died.       
Based on the principles of behavioral profiling, the unknown Long Island, New York killer is most likely a white male in his mid-20s to mid-40s. He is likely married or has a girlfriend. He is well educated, technologically adept and well spoken.  He may even be charming.  He is financially secure, has a reliable job, and owns a car or truck.  Although he does not currently live on or near Ocean Parkway on the South Shore of Long Island, he is intimately familiar with the area and may have once lived there.  Most of all, he is careful and meticulous.

Serial killers such as Dennis Rader, the man known as “BTK” (Bind, Torture, Kill) who terrorized the city of Wichita, Kansas, U.S.A., are driven by overpowering compulsions to kill and yet suffer no remorse.  It has been clinically demonstrated that some serial killers actually become tranquil when presented by visual images of brutality and extreme violence, rather than becoming agitated as a normal person would under such circumstances.  BTK, for example, has stated that the moment of ultimate satisfaction in his crimes was reached when he extinguished the life of his victims through strangulation.  At that moment, “I was God,” he has said.

Can there be any prospect more frightening than that of a careful and compulsive sexual killer who cannot control his impulses to murder and absolutely will not stop until he is apprehended? Such an individual (or “monster” as they are generally called in the media) is almost incomprehensible, yet that is who or what now preys on young prostitutes and others on the South Shore in New York.  Let’s hope that he is apprehended quickly and before another innocent life is taken.  Until then, however, a “monster” walks among the citizens of New York who collectively comprise his captive and riveted audience.

Scott Bonn, PhD, is a criminologist and assistant professor at Drew University, Madison, NJ, U.S.A.  He is currently writing a book on serial killers and is the author of the critically acclaimed book, “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq.”  He can be reached at @DocBonn on twitter or

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