Some would say nineteenth century Jack the Ripper is synonymous with James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooter. Both are murderers, right? However, these two killers fall into two completely different categories of murderers. Jack the Ripper, an unidentified person, infamous for murdering several women in the slums of nineteenth century London, is a serial killer. James Holmes, on the other hand, shot and killed twelve people and injured fifty-eight others at a Colorado movie theater, making him a mass murderer. The numbers and timing matter.
A serial killer is conventionally defined as a person who murders three or more people in a period of over a month, with “cooling down” time between murders. For a serial killer, the murders must be separate events, which are most often driven by a psychological thrill or pleasure. Serial killers often lack empathy and guilt, and most often become egocentric individuals; these characteristics classify certain serial killers as psychopaths. Serial killers often employ a “mask of sanity” to hide their true psychopathic tendencies and appear normal, even charming. The most notable example of a “charmer” serial killer is Ted Bundy, who would fake an injury to appear harmless to his victims. Ted Bundy is classified as an organized serial killer; he methodically planned out his murder and generally stalked his victim for several weeks before committing the actual crime. He committed an estimated thirty murders from 1974-1978 before his eventual capture. Serial killers such as Ted Bundy are known to be organized and psychologically motivated to commit murder, which separates them from mass murderers who appear to kill randomly in one given event.
Mass murderers, unlike serial killers, kill a large number of people, typically at the same time in a single location. With some exceptions, many mass murders end with the death of the perpetrators, either by self-infliction or by law enforcement. According to Dr. Michael Stone, professor of psychiatry at Columbia, mass murderers are generally dissatisfied people, and have poor social skills and few friends. Generally the motives of mass murderers are less obvious than those of serial killers. According to Stone, 96.5% of mass murderers are male, and a majority of them are not clinically psychotic. Rather than being a psychopath like most serial killers, mass murderers tend to be paranoid individuals with acute behavioral or social disorders. Similar to serial killers, mass murderers also display psychopathic tendencies, such as being cruel, manipulative, and uncompassionate. However, most mass murderers are social misfits or loners who were just pushed over an edge by some uncontrollable event.
Serial killers and mass murderers often display the same characteristics of manipulation and lack of empathy. What differentiates the two is the timing and numbers of the murders. Serial killers commit murder over a long period of time, and often in different places, while mass murderers kill within a single location and time-frame.