In the past decade, the elusive creature known as the serial killer has captured the attention of American culture. With the popular press churning out dozens of books and movies centered around the serial killer each year, the term has almost become a catch-phrase, replacing earlier terms such as ‘homicidal maniac. ‘ Fiction writers and the movie industry use ‘serial killer’ in a much more casual manner than can be allowed in a systematic study. Therefore, for a proper definition of what constitutes a serial killer, pop culture cannot be used as a source.
It cannot be denied that the serial killer kills. Killing, however, integrates a variety of meanings. A mere slip of the hand on the steering wheel can turn a normal person into a killer. And it is conceivable that a second such happening could turn an otherwise normal person into a serial killer of sorts. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports define murder as the willful, nonnegligent, killing of one human being by another (Holmes & De Burger, 1988). The serial murderer, then, is what has fascinated American culture, and captured the attention of the law enforcement world.
For the purposes of this paper, serial killer and serial murderer will be used as interchangeable terms. Narrowing the definition to intentional homicide does not, however, limit the category sufficiently. Under the heading of intentional homicide falls the work of hired assassins, mercenaries, and the guerrilla warrior. These types of people are not of great interest, at least not in this context. The three above types of murderer work for obvious, understandable goals. The hired assassin and mercenary work for one of the most obvious motivations, money, while the guerrilla fighter kills for some ideal.
The serial killers of the popular media, and of this paper do not work for such external, obvious goals. Instead, they are driven from within, living and dying for that which appeals only to them. The nature of this drive has been heavily debated, but there is a consensus on some points. Sexual undertones in the murder have been noted by many researchers. This point was first espoused two decades ago, by David Abrahamson (1973), who said simply, sexual elements are always involved… (p. 11) in murder.
More recently, this was qualified by Albert Drukteinis (1992) , who recognized that the sexual element of the crime varies depending on its meaning to the offender (p. 533). In other words, that which signifies womanhood may differ radically between killers. At the same time, similarities in the acts and thoughts of serial killers cannot be denied. These sexual undertones are one of the more prominent difference, and have inspired several researchers to refer to the self-motivated serial murderer as a serial sexual murder (Ressler, 1988).
One of the other common points concerning the serial killer is the presence of free will. It cannot be denied that there are a great deal of unconscious drives present in the actions of the serial killer, and that these drives are still shrouded in darkness. At the same time, there is a great deal of evidence that the serial killer acts from a conscious perspective (Holmes & De Burger, 1988, p. 98). Simply put, the serial killer decides to kill. These two points make the serial killer simply fascinating for a sizable portion of American culture, as evidenced by the continuing production of serial-killer based works.
And these two points make serial killers similar enough to be put in one category, but different enough to make them difficult to study. Indeed, Albert Drukteinis (1992) argues that the mere existence of common characteristics among serial killers does not constitute a distinct psychological phenomenon. Contrary to Drukteinis’ statement, however, the serial killer is indeed a distinct psychological phenomenon. If one group was to be labeled as the leading authority on serial killers, it would have to be the FBI, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The FBI has studied serial killer methodically for over a decade (Ressler, 1988), and has compiled vast amounts of information concerning the killers themselves, their methods, and their motivations. Still, they have not developed a reliable method for identifying the serial killer before he kills. To date, most killers have been stumbled upon by local police or by the FBI (Congress, 1983; Ressler, 1988, Worthington, 1993). Thus, even though there is information of serial killers available, there is still much to be understood.
The FBI has devoted significant portions of their psychological department, the Behavioral Science Unit, to the study of such people as serial killers. In addition, they have turned crime scene profiling, the development of a criminal’s description and characteristics from evidence at the crime scene, into a science. All in all, the FBI has made great leaps in this area. No researcher, or writer, or even the FBI, however, has managed to make what now seems like a simple connection in the serial killer. It is well known that fantasy plays a large role in the life and motivation of the serial killer.
And it is also widely accepted that the serial killer uses fantasy as a crutch, as a coping mechanism for day-to-day life. No researcher, however, has synthesized these two facts into a far more intriguing thesis. The serial killer, much like the chronic gambler and problem drinker, is addicted to the use of fantasy. So strong is this compulsion that the serial killer murders to preserve the addiction, in essence preserving his only remaining coping mechanism. The statement that the serial killer is addicted to his fantasy life cannot be properly supported without a discussion of addiction.
Though the nature of addiction has been and remains a matter of argument, it is now recognized to encompass compulsions outside the pharmacological. While the pharmacological examples such as alcoholism and heroin addiction are still the clearest examples of addiction, new models of addictive behavior, including exercise addiction, compulsive gambling and even sexual addiction have gained acceptance. This has resulted in a new dichotomy in addiction, that between process addiction, including things such as gambling and work, and substance addiction, which contains the classic alcohol and drug addiction (Schaef, 1987).
Attitudes about process addictions have recently undergone a wholesale change. Just as alcoholism was once thought to be a conscious choice, these latter examples have long been thought to be the result of such things as a defective moral character. Recently, however, it has been recognized that the sexual addict or the compulsive gambler, can stop their compulsion no more easily than the alcoholic. New aspects of addiction, beyond the physiological, have been recognized and documented.
These new realizations have resulted in new, revised models of addiction. An underlying statement, accepted by most in the world of addiction research, recognizes addiction as an integrated, bio-psycho-social illness (Johnson, 1993). In other words, an addiction is not an isolated physical or social illness. The addiction contains elements of society, biology and individual psychology (Johnson, 1993). This is a rather logical statement, and will be further discussed below. Naturally, there are more restrained, and thereby arguable, definitions of addiction.
The biobehavioral view sheds important light on portions of the individual and the vast majority of the biological portions of addiction, and can thus be seen as an extension of the bio-psycho-social model: Addiction is the repeated use of a substance/ or a compelling involvement in behavior that directly or indirectly modifies the internal milieu (as indicated by changes in neurochemical and neuronal activity) in such a way as to produce immediate reinforcement, but whose long-term effects are personally or medically harmful or highly disadvantageous society. (Pomerleau, 1988).
This viewpoint manages to catch all addictions, including both substance and process, and define them in a learning context. That is, just as a rat learns to press a bar in order to receive water, the addicted individual learns to continue using the addictive substance to receive reinforcement. Without great further study of the neurochemical effects of a given substance, any statement about the internal milieu must remain theoretical, and mostly unproven. But it must be admitted that, among alcoholics, there has been definite neurochemical research findings which support this model (Pomerleau, 1988).
The continuation of addictive behavior is also explained well by this viewpoint. Much as the rat will continue to press a bar in order to receive continued reinforcement, the addicted individual continues to turn to the addictive substance for reinforcement. To further understand the psychological component of addiction, it is necessary to understand both the course and purposes of addiction. A brief, yet encompassing view of addiction’s purpose is that of a coping device.
The addiction becomes a method in which the addicted individual can manage and magically control multiple forms of anxiety (Keller, 1992, p. 4). Much like a security blanket, or favorite stuffed animal, the addiction is used to protect and comfort the addicted individual. The magical nature of the control is important, for the addictive substance really has little, if any, permanent effect on the anxiety itself, merely delaying the onset or temporarily relieving the symptoms. An alcoholic worried about losing his job does not eliminate the source of his fear by drinking, but instead finds temporary solace at the bottom of a bottle. Understanding the magical, and comforting, role played by the addictive substance is key to understanding addiction.
By viewing an addiction as a coping device, much of the addiction’s allure becomes evident, as does the addicted individual’s continued return to it. Addiction is invariably a progressive disease (Schaef, 1987; Graham & Glickauf-Hughes, 1992). Simply put, it gets worse. Some addictions progress more slowly than others, while some addictions progress very quickly. Some of the progression speed would seem to be based in the individual. While research is lacking in this area, common sense supports this conclusion. Not all alcoholics drink at the same speeds, or have problems with their drinking after a certain, predefined time.
That is, while one alcoholic may lose his job after several weeks, another alcoholic may continue his drinking for years, slowly accruing life problems. Some researchers argue that addiction is always fatal (Schaef, 1987), but others view this as a questionable statement. Some have wondered how, for example, a chocolate addiction could be fatal (Litwin, 1992). Afflictions such as worry, tobacco, and sexual addiction are more easily explained as fatal; worry, and sexual behavior can conceivably result in heart failure, for example, and tobacco products often cause cancer.
The example of the chocolate addiction can very well be extended to explain a cause of death. With an insatiable desire for chocolate, it can be posited that the addicted individual will consume a great deal of chocolate. With the fattening nature of chocolate, it can also be theorized that the individual would gain a great deal of weight, perhaps even to the point where a fatal heart attack occurs. Thus, even the chocolate addiction can be fatal. Schaef’s (1987) argument adds an important dimension to the knowledge of addiction.
Not only does addiction build, it builds until the individual is destroyed. Researchers are beginning to see that addictions are far more similar than ever believed. One author, commenting on the vast wealth of addiction-based literature, phrased it thus, Any one book describes all the addictions and it is a matter of substituting one noun for another in the other books (Litwin, 1992, p. 30). The large market for ‘addiction’ material (Litwin, 1992) isn’t the only cause. Other researchers agree that not only is there an underlying psychological sameness.
Johnson, 1993, p. 26), but that, Many different addictions will serve the same internal need (Johnson, 1993, p. 26). This isn’t just an arm-chair conclusion, either. Brian Johnson (1993) has worked with a variety of addicts, and has formed this thesis over many years of study. The similarities between sexual addiction, for example, and gambling addiction, and alcoholism, are greater than one would expect. Eisenstein was one of the first to list hypersexuality (now called sexual addiction) as an addiction (Orford, 1985).
Indeed, sexual addiction is like alcoholism in that the sex addict uses a mood-altering experience, just as the alcoholic uses a mood-altering drug (Carnes, 1983). Carnes (1983) goes farther, recognizing the progressive cycle of sexual addiction, and describing how the addict becomes increasingly focused on sex. Many anecdotal accounts describe the great lengths to which a sexual addict will go, in order to achieve the ubiquitous ‘fix’, and refer to such things as a lack of control, and a drive to action (Orford, 1985).
In line with the biobehavioral view, the core of sexual addiction, sexual behavior itself, is now seen as a psychotropic agent (Orford, 1985). The only argument against labeling sexual addiction as an addiction, which has fallen rather short in the last decade, is the societal definition of excessive sexual behavior. That is, each society defines excessive sexual behavior differently. What may be viewed as excessive in one locale and time may be viewed as quite acceptable in another. While there is some weight to this argument, sexual addiction is an unarguable affliction.
Given the progressive nature of the disease, sexual activity will build over time. Thus, while the true sexual addict may be labeled as simply active, after a period of time, the level of activity will have grown to a point where the addiction is unmistakable. Gambling, meanwhile, is also a mood modifier, or psychotropic experience (Orford, 1985). Much like sexual behavior and alcohol, gambling has the power to alter moods and cognitive states in those who partake. Some have argued that gambling is so very powerful a mood modifier, that it is for all intents and purposes a drug (Orford, 1985).
Gambling addiction, too, is a progressive disease. Virtually everyone has heard anecdotes of afflicted individuals gambling away careers, marriages, and homes. There is even historical evidence for gambling addiction. Ancient documents comment on an insatiable desire for gambling among notable historical figures, including the Roman Emperors Nero and Augustus (Orford, 1985). In line with these early documented cases, gambling addiction has now been recognized to be as powerful an addiction as alcohol, and has even been compared in strength to heroin (Orford, 1985).
The importance and similarity among the addictions is their mood- modifying nature. Exercise, gambling, and sexual behavior are all psychotropic behaviors, just as much as alcohol, cocaine and marijuana are psychotropic substances. Essentially, the addictive substance is psychotropic, and as such, is an understandable coping device. All of these behaviors can make an individual feel better for a little while, and this brief respite from anxiety is what eventually leads the individual into addiction. Predispositions to addiction have been suggested, and fall into the broad categories of behavioral and biological.
Within the biological subdivision are included theories of genetics and neurotransmitters, while behavioral predispositions include mental state and even more importantly, upbringing. Suggestions of genetic susceptibility are nothing new. Some researchers seek an addiction gene, convinced that when it is found, the key to all addiction will have been pinpointed (Edwards & Tarter, 1988). Even though this particular endeavor has made few gains over the past decades, there is growing evidence for at least a partial genetic susceptibility to alcoholism (Edwards & Tarter, 1988).
This is based partially on other theories, which posit that, for some individuals, neurotransmitter levels in the brain may predispose them toward addiction (Edwards & Tarter, 1988). Based on the similarity between alcoholism and other addictions, it is a small leap of logic to identifying the theoretical genetic basis for alcoholism with a general genetic predisposition. It is known that there are biological qualifications in regards to choice of addiction (Johnson, 1993), and this is rather logical. An individual that becomes physically ill upon ingestion of alcohol is highly unlikely to become addicted to alcohol.
It is far more likely that such an individual would become enthralled with another, different substance, such as tobacco or even a process such as gambling. Edwards & Tarter’s (1988) theory is the most plausible of all current biological theories of addictive predisposition, and Johnson’s (1993) qualification is a necessary restriction of that theory. Beyond inherent, inborn predispositions to addiction, it is known that there are many similarities in the childhood of addicts. That is, there are common points in the early lives of almost all addicts.
Potential alcoholics, it is known, often have trouble developing interpersonal relationships, and those few that are cultivated can generally be categorized as poor or superficial (Edwards & Tarter, 1988). In addition, alcoholics often come from homes with significant levels of parental conflict and marital discord. Insufficient levels of contact and poor parenting are often counterparts of the parental conflict and in-home discord (Edwards & Tarter, 1988). Antisocial, or psychopathic, behavior in childhood has also been linked to a greatly increased risk of alcoholism (Edwards & Tarter, 1988).
The list of traits does not end here, however. Further research uncovered more marks of susceptibility, and these include: poor school performance, perceived use of drugs of adults, conflict with parents, low religious involvement, absence of sense of purpose, reduced social responsibility and psychological disorders such as depression, sociopathy, and low self-esteem (Edwards & Tarter, 1988). In short, the boys at risk for alcoholism have difficulty in the regulation of their behavioral level, and difficulty with goal directedness (Edwards & Tarter, 1988).
Sexual addicts are not entirely different in their early lives. Their home lives characteristically had quite inconsistent training, and highly erratic discipline (Orford, 1985). Extensive research on sexual addicts, however, has yet to be conducted, so most comparisons between alcoholics and sexual addicts are rather tentative. Regardless of this, it can be seen that among various types of addicts, there are a series of childhood behaviors and circumstances that tend to precede, and predispose the individual to, the addiction. Even in adulthood there are definite, recognizable antecedents to addiction.
Bruce Alexander (1988) listed special traits of alcoholics as including the following: hyperactivity, reduced attention span, increased sociability, increased social aggression, and a generally heightened emotionality. While it is commonsensical to recognize these traits after the alcoholic has been drinking, these traits are also present before drinking (Alexander, 1988). Sexual addicts are listed as being afflicted with such things as continuous need, a general compulsivity and unhealthy levels of self-contempt (Orford, 1985).
A little thought will reveal the similarities between the compulsivity of the sexual addict, and the cluster of hyperactivity, reduced attention span, increased sociability and increased aggression among alcoholics. Again, just as for alcoholics, sexual addicts evidence these traits before and after the act. Research into further traits of alcoholics in fact yielded an excellent motivation for drinking: alcoholics commonly identify drinking with enhanced personal power, and greater self-worth (Marlatt & Fromme, 1988), and thus drink for greater power and self-esteem.
It is not hard to see that the sexual addict, contemptuous of self, seeks increased self-esteem and greater personal power through the act of sex. Similarities, in fact, between addicts are surprising. Virtually all addicts show low levels of self-esteem, and other similar traits. Commonalities such as this underline the equivalencies in the adulthood traits of addicts. Choice of addiction is an interesting subtopic. Some have called it random, indicating that the individual will become addicted to whatever is at hand. Contrary to this statement, however, there are definite predispositions to different types of addiction.
Indeed, the particular addiction chosen is influenced by culture, the individual’s metabolism, individual heredity, and availability (Johnson, 1993). As mentioned before, an individual that becomes violently ill upon the ingestion of alcohol is quite unlikely to become an alcoholic. Culture’s influence is undeniable; during the 1940s, it was a social norm to smoke, thus leading to widespread nicotine addiction. Individual metabolism and heredity come in again when considering how much effect the given substance or process has on the individual.
Availability’s role is obvious. If cigarettes are entirely unavailable in a culture, no one will become addicted to them. Johnson (1993) doesn’t rule out luck, and it is undeniable that chance plays a definite role in addiction. Two children of nearly identical upbringing may choose very different addictions, such as heroin and gambling. The choice of addiction, therefore, is a multi-factorial thing, with both behavioral and biological precursors. Addiction’s course is, for the most part, a predictable and sequential thing.
The addiction can be easily broken into three stages, the precursor stage, during which the individual is inclined toward addiction, the onset stage, when the individual first begins to use the addiction as an addiction, and the progression stage, which is the final stage of addiction. All addictions follow this sequence, both process addictions such as gambling and substance addictions such as heroin. The length of the stages differ radically among individuals. For one individual, the precursor stage may last for years, while for another it may be months.
An individual linger in the onset stage without the behavior becoming a true addiction, for years, while another person may move to the progression stage after only a handful of trials. Regardless of this, these stages always occur in a specific order, one after another. Attitudinal precursors to addiction are the most important. Smoking, for example, begins long before the first cigarette is lit; attitudes are developed long before the act (Orford, 1985). People become preconditioned to an addiction through familiarity (Orford, 1985). An individual that grows up in a household of smokers will be likely to smoke himself.
An individual that reads a great deal of murder-based materials could conceivably begin to become predisposed to murder. The aforementioned precursors become intertwined with the familiarity, and incline the individual toward a particular addiction. The ‘fixation’ view of addiction argues that addiction begins in infancy. The child, experiencing rage over the loss of control of self, and satisfaction at the control of some other object (such as a blanket), becomes fixated on external sources of control (Graham & Glickauf-Hughes, 1992).
Put simply, the individual gains control over themselves through the use of an outside object, through the essential incorporation of that object into themselves (Graham & Glickauf-Hughes, 1992). The researchers argue that the failure to later move the source of control from the, for example, security blanket into themselves results in an immense predisposition toward addiction. This viewpoint sheds an interesting theoretical light on addiction’s underlying foundation. One researcher has suggested a preexisting need for addiction, and argued for such a thing as an addictive search (Wurmser, 1974).
The results of this search can include irresistible violence, food addiction, gambling, alcohol use, indiscriminate ‘driven’ sexual activity or running away (Wurmser, 1974, p. 832). While empirically hard to test, this statement would seem to have some merit. The most important part of Wurmser’s (1974) attestation, however, is the list of the search’s results. He lumps violence, drinking, sex addiction and compulsive eating into the same conceptual basket. In this view, they are all simply different means to a similar end. The choice between them is determined primarily by the individual’s upbringing and social interactions.
Research has shown that, for men, sex can serve the needs for success, control, power, even aggression and violence (Orford, 1985). Above all, an addiction is related to a pleasurable activity (Johnson, 1993). The core of this paradigm is the constant progression from fun to self-abuse, which is the result of dysregulation (Johnson, 1993). Actual onset of the addiction is categorically different from initial use of the addictive object. Essentially, the shift from initial to addictive behavior is characterized by the wholesale alteration of the individual’s state of balance.
While the normal individual can continue to use the substance or behavior without great side-effects, the addicted individual’s state of balance is upgraded into a state of constant conflict (Orford, 1985). Johnson (1993) argues that the individual who is forced to adopt an addiction is unable to tolerate fear and guilt, and the heightened aggression of being an independent person. Whether the addiction causes the initial unbalance, which seems improbable in light of research, or simply escalates it, the net effect is the same: an increased level of anxiety.
The adaptive viewpoint speaks in different terms, saying instead that addictions are adaptive, in that they are better than the alternatives (Alexander, 1988). In other words, drug addiction is psychologically better for the individual than the alternative of self-hatred. As is all too common with addiction research, though, this framework is untestable. It is supported, though, by the realization that addiction soothes aggressive feelings through a combination of discharge and physical impairment (Johnson, 1993). The individual glorifies, in the view of one researcher, in the addiction’s all-powerful symbol (Keller, 1992).
The individual derives a feeling of wholeness, of independence, or surety from the addiction (Johnson, 1993). For this reason, the individual tolerates the negative effects of the addiction, such as guilt, loss of self-esteem, and loss of identity (Keller, 1992). A small portion of the addictive cycle can be glimpsed in the light of these two statements. The individual uses the addiction to gain self-worth, and in the process, further damages self-esteem. The individual must continue to use the addiction, just to achieve a normal baseline of esteem.
Addiction begins not when the individual begins to use the substance to alleviate negative feelings, but rather when the individual uses the addiction as the only method for dealing with negative feelings (Keller, 1992). Furthermore, addiction can be said to occur when the individual involuntarily and unintentionally acquires an inability to regulate the activity and has a persistent urge to engage in the activity (Johnson, 1993, p. 25). In other words, when the individual has a compulsion to engage in the activity, and uses it to deal with all external problems, he or she is addicted.
The onset of addiction, then, is marked by a categorical change in the nature of the addictive substance’s use. Where once the addiction was used for fun, now it is used as a coping device, and serves to reinforce its own use. Progression is the final stage of addiction. The actual speed of progression, of the worsening of the addiction, is partially determined by the degree of reinforcement (Orford, 1985). The question of reinforcement would seem to eliminate all but substance addictions. After all, it is easy to see where the addiction of heroin is centered, but the lure of gambling is not so obvious.
Recent research puts process addiction in the same figurative boat as substance addiction: Even apparently pure behavioral disturbances such as compulsive shopping or gambling or exercise, seem to produce a high that functions in much the same way as a drug-induced high… a powerful reinforcer for the behavior Keller, 1992, p. 223). Much of this reinforcement can be attributed to endorphins, which when stimulated, give a reduction in perceived pain on the level of a large dose of morphine (Orford, 1985).
Siegel et al (1988) contends that exercise-caused endorphin release can be classically conditioned, much like Pavlov’s dogs salivating to the sound of a bell. Processes, therefore, are just as strongly addicting as substances. The strength of addiction, meanwhile, is based on the strength of reinforcement. Another factor in the progression of the addiction is the consuming nature of the addiction itself. This can be viewed as an increasing preoccupation with the addiction, and increasing commitment to it (Orford, 1985).
In fact, there are 3 characteristics of this increasing preoccupation and commitment: an affective attachment to the object… , a behavioral intention to consume or approach the object, and a cognitive commitment to the object and approach or consumption (Orford, 1985, p. 207). Thus, the commitment is both behavioral and cognitive. In the case of excessive gambling, there is an overpowering compulsion to gamble, a preoccupation with it, and tension is only released by the act of gambling (Orford, 1985). Gambling, just like excessive drinking, takes over.
The desire to stop the behavior is opposed by a stronger force (Orford, 1985), the consuming nature of the addiction’s reinforcement. As the addiction progresses, there is an unmistakable identity transformation. The addiction has increased in importance, until it has become overvalued and offers more in anticipation than in fact (Orford, 1985). The addiction is no longer performing the role for which it was adopted, at least not to the degree required. It has already, however, become the core of the person’s identity (Orford, 1985).
All other aspects of the individual’s life has begun to revolve around the addiction. … ll the person’s energy, including sexual energy, becomes bound up by the relationship to the addictive substance until the person is no longer living in an object-related world (Keller, 1992, p. 224) The individual’s most important relationship has become the one with the addiction (Johnson, 1993). To the addicted individual, everything else has become secondary. This increased reliance on the addiction results in a gradual deterioration of interpersonal relationships (Johnson, 1993).
One sexual addict described his addiction as increasing to such an extent that it permeates all his thoughts and feelings, allowing no other aims in life… Orford, 1985, p. 92). Not surprisingly, distasteful, frightening and even self-jeopardizing behaviors will be tolerated for the sake of sustaining the addiction (Johnson, 1993). Serial killers are a more concrete phenomena than that of addiction. That is, while addiction is no less a real thing than serial killers, it is far more elusive in nature. While there is some debate among authors as to what exactly constitutes a serial killer, there is not nearly the level of contention as to the classification of specific murderers as serial killer as there is contention as to whether certain types of addiction really are addictions.
Serial killers are viewed by many experts in both psychology and psychiatry to be the ultimate extension of violence (Geberth, 1990). As this statement would suggest, serial killers have many traits in common with each other. The proper psychological classification for serial killers has been bandied about for many years, but the most appropriate is that of psychopathic sexual sadist (Geberth, 1990; Geberth, 1992; Ressler, 1988). In psychological circles, the phrase ASPD, or anti-social personality disorder has replaced the earlier terms psychopathy and sociopathy.