By Virginia Farrell
Worried that antisocial kid in school might grow up to be a cold-blooded murderer? Here’s a handy guide for recognizing the most common serial killer traits. Remember, however, these signs are just a guideline. Think twice before crying “serial killer” on your weird neighbor.
Ed Gein circa 1957
Psychopaths have a strong tendency towards antisocial behavior, so watch for extremely antisocial children. That being said, some children develop more slowly, and this is not a definitive sign. Pay attention if a child regresses from being extremely social to extremely anti-social.
Ed Gein, the inspiration for Psycho’s Norman Bates and Silence of the Lamb’s Buffalo Bill, had no social connections besides his extremely religious and abusive mother, who punished him whenever he tried to make friends. After she died in 1945, Gein began to murder and dig up graves, collecting body parts of women who looked like his mother and trying to make a “woman suit.”
Many serial killers start as arsonists. Arson is psychologically attractive because it involves manipulating power and control, something that serial killing also offers.
David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” killer, was infatuated with pyromania as a child, to the point that other children called him “Pyro.” After being arrested, he took responsibility for dozens of New York arsons. Some sources indicate that he might have been responsible for up to 1,400 fires.
Torturing Small Animals
This is one of the strongest warning signs. Children who torture or kill small animals like squirrels, birds, cats, and dogs without showing remorse are highly likely to be sociopaths. Many serial killers kill to control others’ lives, and as children, small animals are the only lives they have the power to control.
Cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer would bike around the woods as a child, collecting dead animals to dissect. Dahmer even killed and dismembered his own puppy, mounting its head on a stake when he was done.
Poor Family Life
Many serial killers come from unstable families with criminal, psychiatric, or alcoholic histories. These killers often have terrible relationships with their families, and often use them as their first victims.
When he was only fifteen, Ed Kemper, “the Co-ed Killer,” killed his grandparents. After being released at age twenty-one, Kemper killed six female college students. The police finally caught him when Kemper killed his violent, alcoholic mother. He treated his mother’s corpse particularly brutally, decapitating her, using her head as a dart board, and throwing her vocal cords down the garbage disposal.
Many serial killers are abused – physically, psychologically, sexually – as children by a close family member. This behavior instills in the child feelings of humiliation and helpless, feelings which they will later seek to instill in their victims.
Aileen Wuornos, the prostitute serial killer portrayed by Charlize Theron in Monster, was abandoned by her mother when she was four and never met her father, who was serving time in prison for raping a seven-year-old girl when Aileen was born. Aileen’s grandfather, who took over care of Aileen when her mother left, physically and sexually abused her until she ran away at age fifteen.
Many serial killers struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.
Jeffrey Dahmer began drinking in his teens and was an alcoholic by his high school graduation. His alcoholism resulted in both his expulsion from college and his discharge from the military.
From a young age, many serial killers are interested in voyeurism, sado-masochistic pornography, and fetishism.
Ted Bundy claimed that, as an adolescent, he would get drunk and stalk around his community at night, looking for undressing women or other titillating sights.
Many serial killers have IQs in the “bright normal” range. Organized serial killers who kill methodically, like John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy, have an average I.Q. of 113, while disorganized serial killers have an average I.Q. of 93.
Ed Kemper had an I.Q. of 136 (140 is often used as the genius mark in I.Q. tests). He used his intelligence to convince psychiatrists to release him after serving only five years for his grandparents’ murders, claiming to have reformed. He hadn’t, and he killed eight more women before being caught again.
Despite higher than normal intelligence, many serial killers have trouble keeping jobs or work in unskilled labor.
After leaving the military, David Berkowitz, who reportedly was of “above-average intelligence,” held several blue-collar jobs before he was captured, including his last one as a postman.
For more information on serial killers, check out our page on John Wayne Gacy, the “Killer-Clown,” as well as our new exhibit on him at the museum!