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The Human Side of a Serial Killer

There are several definitions or descriptions of a serial killer. According to the FBI, a serial killer is a person who murders three or more victims with breaks, referred to as cooling-off period, in between each murder (Freeman, 2011). A serial killer can also be described as a single offender who commits a series of two or more murder in separate incidents. A serial killer does not kill many people in a day, but rather, kills in a series in separate occurrences. Mostly, serial killers kill for psychological gratification and do not kill out of greed or jealousy. Unlike mass murderers who commit multiple murders at a given time in a location or spree killers who commit murders in different locations in rapid succession without breaks in between, serial killers commit murders in separate events and with breaks in between them.

The coinage of the term serial killer is largely attributed to Robert Ressler, the former director of the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program in the mid 1970s (Freeman, 2011). This was based on the serial films he used to watch and the description from police in England regarding these types of crimes. Serial killers normally work alone, killing strangers, and they do that just for the sake of killing, unlike other murderers who kill due to passion for crimes. For serial killers, the murders are planned or executed in a characteristic manner that may be repeated in different incidences and the victims may have some similarities such as race, sex, age set, taste, or behavior. In addition, a sexual element may be involved in the killing but experts believe that motives for these killings can be due to anger, thrill, financial factors, and fame seeking.

Serial killers, though commit horrible crimes, they are human in nature and share with rest of humanity in many human aspects (human side). For example, they posses human physiology, live amongst us, do human activities such working, studying, and apart from behavior, when identified, there is no definite way of isolating them from rest of the humanity. In the society, people tend to view serial killers as murderers who turned into evil killing monsters, animals and killing machines who are very cold and cruel, forgetting that it is the human nature of the killer that turns evil and not the animals or monsters mentioned in the description, thus the murderer is human after all (Cassuto, 2009, P.266).

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Psychologists classify serial killers as suffering from personality disorders which are normally incurable, while mentally ill people suffer from mood disorders treatable through therapies and medications. From this view, the community tends to view serial murderers as cruel beast not capable of human sympathy as they are incurable and the religion mostly confine them to criminal punishment due to deprivation of sympathy, which leads them to horrible acts; thus, involvement of  sympathy offers a positive vision of human connection (Cassuto, 2009, P.263).

After a serial killer commits crime, his actions are described in two ways. In the first way, there are media popular and touching accounts showing the inhuman and cruel aspects of the actions. On other side, there are accounts showing the monster’s person life reasons for turning into a serial killer. These actions can be interpreted as attempts to give a villain a human side. According to Waltje (2005, p. 128), ‘by giving the criminal a human side, a background, a character and sometimes a voice, these depictions offer the possibility if not to identify with the  serial killer then at least to understand his thought process and the reasons which drove him to his deeds.’

Most part of serial killers is lived in normal human ways through a shield of pretence enabling him to appear normal. In these times, they appear normal and tend to have human behavior control while engaging in human activities. For them, sometimes when their psychopathic urges to commit murder sets in, they can evaluate the situation and through power, human heart of mercy resist the urge. This can be illustrated below by one of the incident involving a well-known American serial killer, Danny Rolling. Through his acts, Danny believed he had two different egos, one called Ennad that was a rapist and a robber, and one called Germini that was a killer thirsting for blood. According to Rolling & London (1996, P.4), ‘…during the course of an intended rape-murder, he realized that there was a baby lying in a crib watching him with innocent curiosity. He allowed his intended victim to escape.’

The serial killers have a different mind, which drives them to commit murders. Some confess their action were ignited by the urge to reveal their human side; for example, in the publication of ‘The Untold Story of Ryan’, Verry Idham Henyansyah, the alleged serial killer better known as Ryan, hopes his human side will be well depicted in the revelation of action. He further adds, “I do not want people to know only my bad side,” my hope is that this book will bring good things to the people around me; it doesn’t matter whether it is a success or not, I just want people to look at my life” (Jones, 2011). This clearly shows willingness to portray cruel acts as human and justifiable in the human side. Ryan describes his life experiences very well showing that they somehow justify his weird behaviors. In the book, psychologist Dr. Sarlito Sarwono explains that Ryan’s discontentment with his parents and his homosexuality was a long-term factor that might have contributed to Ryan’s poor mental capacity at the time of the killings (Jones, 2011). Ryan also likes to portray a human behavior of caring by offering to donate all the proceeds of the book sale to his mother and dedicates the book to fame (a ‘human side’ of achievement).

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People have put efforts to humanize the lives of serial killers to the level of elevating them to celebrity status through collection of books. In addition, movies and television show study the serial killers, why they kill, and how they execute their murders. There has been much preoccupation and obsession with serial killers stories and lifestyles to the extent that there is a lot auction of murderabilia (serial killer tools and objects) in the internet. Like in America, this is the subject of a new book by David Schmid, an associate professor of English at the university at Buffalo ‘Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture’ which is a study on how our creation and lifting of the serial killer as a cultural symbol as portrayed the Americans’ unconscious held fears about human nature, power and sexuality (Montaldo, 2011).

In this book, Schmid explains that though America produces about 85 percent of the world serial killers, they are still treated as icons, celebrity performers, and fetish symbols with an entire entertainment industry revolving around them creating employment to the FBI, true-crime writers, novelists, filmmakers, movie vendors, and television producers. With the serial killers viewed as monstrous and evil, they have created a sensation, which derives that people use their creativity and skills to propel this industry. The obsession with serial killers is expressed through promoting creepiness by collecting their nail clippings, photos, and dirty clothes, watching their trials and listening to their victims on the news (Montaldo, 2011). People spend much time playing serial killer online games, preparing games, books and films of their lives and actions, and reading several best selling serial killer books, while they are already aware of the serial killer actions. This is done due to fantasies and compulsion with the anxiety about the body, sex and sex orientation, fear for violence, powerlessness and loss of control and obsession with celebrity (Montaldo, 2011). By embedding the serial killer in our society, it is an indication we are accepting them as part of human nature and allowing their actions to be viewed as human.

For serial killers to commit murders, they are driven by a human aspect called motive. Motive is described as an emotion, desire, physiological need, or a similar impulse that act as an incitement to action. In order to further understand the human side that motivates serial killers to commit the cruel crimes, below, we will look at the motives of serial killers. According to typology developed by scholars, Ronald Holmes and James DeBurger, the motives of serial killers are classified into four categories: visionary, mission oriented, hedonistic and power or control.

Visionary serial killers suffer from psychological hallucinations, believing they have been instructed by gods or demons to kill a particular person or group of persons. They are impelled to murder through hearing voices or seeing visions, demanding them to kill (Waller, Allhoff, and Doris, 2010, P.5).

Mission-oriented type

Mission-oriented serial killers are not just driven by thrill to kill but they believe they have a mission to eliminate a certain type of person they view as unworthy such as gays, prostitutes, and people of certain ethnicity or religion. They are not driven by psychotic hallucination, all they believe is that they are on a self imposed duty to clean the society of unworthy group of people, thus bring cure to societal ills (Waller, Allhoff, and Doris, 2010, P.5). They interact very well, living real life to an extent that when caught, people tend not believe they are responsible for their crimes.

The hedonistic serial killers are after thrill and derive pleasure from killing. They do not kill with goal to cure society, but just for enjoyment and they are psychopathic. Hedonistic killers are further classified into three sub types: lust, thrill, and comfort. The lust serial killers are driven by sex motives. Their sex gratification is attached to torture and cruel acts they perform on their victims. They kill their victims well in close contact with them, thus they use hands or handheld weapons that can used in that close proximity.

The thrill serial killer is driven by urge to induce pain or terror in the victims while achieving gratification and stimulation. They normally kill for the thrill, do not prolong their action, or involve sex agendas. For the comfort serial killers, they are motivated by the craving for material gain and a decent lifestyle. Generally, they kill family members and people close to them. Commercial killers such as hit men and assassins can also be included in this class.

Power or control type

The power serial killers are motivated by the urge to gain and exert power on their victims. They achieve gratification by complete control of the victim. Although sexual elements may be involved in the murder, Waller, Allhoff, and Doris (2010, P.5) claim that, “by exerting complete control over the life of his victim, the murderer experiences pleasure and excitement, not from the sexual excitation or the rape, but from his brief that he does indeed have the power to do whatever he wishes to do to another person who is completely helpless and within his total control.”

For each type of serial killer, the motive serves the purpose to give the killer a personal excuse or explanation of his or her actions. Serial killers have been observed to show some behaviors and lifestyle patterns prevailing in our society. It has been observed that several serial killers exhibit three behaviors in childhood known as the MacDonald triad: bedwetting, arson, and cruelty to animals, and they are likely to have come from broken homes in which they had been abused or less cared for (Freeman, 2011). Serial killers are mostly normal people or psychopaths who are not insane, therefore capable of determining the right from the wrong. This situation puts them in the same state as other people capable of exhibiting all human side behaviors and aspects.