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Are Serial Killers Born or Made?

Like Agatha Christie, a well known detective crime writer, mentioned in one of her classics ABC Murders, “If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner, what would you choose? Let’s review the menu. Robbery? Forgery? No, I think not. Rather too vegetarian. It must be a murder, red-blooded murder”, decoding the minds of serial killers goes deeper than family background, but conflicts in personality and genes.

Pinpointing potential serial killers by examining a range of suspects’ psychological states, the nature of their crimes and the patterns they follow, there are four types of serial killers: visionary, mission-oriented, hedonistic, and control-oriented.

A visionary serial killer is driven by his inner demon which they experience and perceive to be real. They carry out the murder at the command of imaginary internal or external voices. David Berkowitz, "Son of Sam", is often considered a prime example of a visionary serial killer. In handwritten letters he sent to police and press before his arrest, Berkowitz testified that Satan had ordered him to be killed, while a mission-oriented serial killer, as the name suggests, has a certain goal to fulfil with overwhelming feelings of killing certain types of people.

Joseph P. Franklin is a classic mission-oriented serial killer. He justified his forced and ritual killing by saying, “Interracial mixing is a sin against God and nature. I think it's my duty as a servant of God to protect the white woman from injury or degradation”. They won't stop until they're caught or killed.

Hedonistic serial killers also referred to as sexual sadists, kill for pleasure and are compelled by the thrill of it. They kill to fill their insatiable hunger and a control-oriented serial killer seeks pleasure from knowing that they have complete dominance over their victims. Gary Ridgway's primary motivation was to control and dominate their victims.

The argument in science has long been nature versus nurture. But both biological and social factors contribute to the making of a serial killer, says criminologist Dr Adrian Raine in his book, The Anatomy of Violence, where he explains that "Genetics and environment work together to promote violent behaviour." There are several theories as to what constitutes a serial killer in the criminal world, ultimately revolving around the basic concept of nature versus education. Are they born to be serial killers? Are they serial killers through their upbringing? While the scientists have yet to come to a conclusion of such consensus, let us focus on the three main aspects that significantly contribute to making a serial killer, a serial killer.


In 2010, the sentence of a male convict accused of murder was reduced, after he was found to be a carrier of genetic variants that were associated with a predisposition for aggression. A ‘genetic susceptibility test’ was performed showing that the convict carried several variants of the MAOA, COMT, SCL6A4 and DRD4 genes, which are involved in the modulation of aggression, then resulting in a revised sentence from 9 to 8 years.

The MAOA gene, the star-player, also commonly known as the warrior gene, has a complicated heritage. The Monoamine oxidase A gene plays a key role in the breakdown of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Serotonin is supposed to make a person calm and relaxed, but if someone has this gene in utero, their brain is bathed and is the reason behind the whole brain becoming very insensitive to serotonin. It is sex-linked and is present on the X chromosome which is why one can only get it from their mother because a female has XX chromosome while a male has an XY chromosome. This is probably why inherently mostly men are psychopathic killers, and aggressive. A daughter can get one X from the father, one X from the mother, so it's kind of weak and cancelled out. But, when it’s a son, he can only get the X chromosome from his mother, so this is how it's passed from mother to son.

Also known as the serial killer genes, as mentioned in one episode of Riverdale, where Betty was told at a young age that she possesses the serial killer gene because of which she has a predisposition to violence. Leaving aside the Riverdale plot, the serial killer gene exists, and some people believe it's the basis of a person’s violent behaviour. Although, studies say it's way more complex than that.

Family background

Not all abused children are serial killers, and not all serial killers are victims of childhood abuse. However, the connection between the two cannot be regarded as purely coincidental. Deep traumatic experiences, especially in childhood, can act as a cycle of violence and have a deeper impact on adult life. They can significantly shape a person’s personality and life choices. Serial killers like Ted Bundy (confessed to 30 homicides, committed in seven states between 1974 and 1978) found out that his mother was not his real mother and believed that his whole life was a lie, Jeffrey Dahmer (murdered 17 men between 1978 and 1991) was sexually abused as a child by his neighbourhood which is why he used to sexually assault the corpses and cut off their penises and John Wayne Gacy ( killed 33 young men and boys between 1972 and 1978, and buried most of the victims in the crawl space beneath his home) is also known as a clown killer as he dressed up as a clown and lure kids into his house and kill them. He was verbally, physically and sexually abused as a childlike in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer.

It is presumptuous and imprecise to summarize the reasons for criminal behaviour by their cycle of violence, but for decades, many studies have clarified the link between child abuse and serial killing. Except for some common personality traits, serial killers are unique and are influenced by their own extraordinary experiences, environment, and mentality. It remains to be seen whether genetic studies used to assess serial killer tendencies will prove groundbreaking for crime analysis and crime prevention. However, with extensive and growing evidence research in this field, the key to understanding the composition of serial killers may be at hand.

Psychology of serial killers

The Macdonald Triad’s study singles out three main predictors of serial violent behaviour. He claimed that many of his subjects exhibited some form of these behaviours in childhood, which may be related to their violent behavior in adulthood.

i) Being cruel or abusive to animals, as a means to feel a sense of control over their environment

ii) Setting fire to objects, to vent feelings of aggression and helplessness

iii) Bedwetting after the age of 5, due to more anxiousness and helplessness often linked to stress or anxiety.

But there are also case files open where the killers are unidentified to date. The Zodiac, Redhead Murderer and Alphabet Murder are cited as some of the classic unsolved mysteries of all times. It is beyond human comprehension how the mind of a serial killer works. Now that it has become impossible to understand the mental workings of serial killers, it is time we need a Sherlock Holmes for every Zodiac that surfaces.

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