In the early 1960s Boston was terrorized by a killer who became known as the Boston Strangler. Killing 13 women, they were left naked, raped and strangled. Eventually, a handyman called Albert Desalvo was convicted for the murders.
In March 1953 a new tenant at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, discovered the first of 6 bodies hidden around the flat. Police found the previous tenant – John Reginald Christie – and he was later hanged for the crimes.
The above are typical serial killers – people who gain a thirst for killing and continue to do so over and over again. The murders are usually very personal events, the killer leaving much of his personality behind. Profilers often use the crime scene in order to understand what is going on in the killer’s mind.
As with most serial killers, Desalvo and Christie were loners. Motives vary. Christie appeared to be sexually frustrated, with evidence of having sex with the corpses. Desalvo, on the other hand, was a pervert. Before turning to murder, he had a career as a sexual molester.
This slow transition from lesser crime to murder can often be identified. Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed 15 times in America between 1978-91 began his career by killing animals. He was a walking zombie who considered himself a failure.
Sometimes, a killer can appear a confident, normal person. Homosexual John Wayne Gacy, who admitted to 33 murders of young men around Chicago in the 1970s and 80s, was a successful businessman and even entertained children as a clown.
Ted Bundy, who was executed in 1989, killed all over America. His deep frustrations were hidden behind a confident façade, and he even appeared a bit of a womanizer. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who killed 13 women between 1975-81, lived with a wife who had no idea what he was up to.
Sutcliffe was, infact, an evangelical killer. God spoke to him to tell him to clean prostitutes off the street. He carried out his crimes in a matter of fact way. Alternatively, Dennis Nilson, who was discovered when his drains were blocked by body parts in 1983, killed 15 young men principally, it seems, because he had taken them to his flat and he didn’t want them to go.
One worrying aspect of serial killers is that they do not appear to be insane. In court they are judged sane and sent to prison rather than a mental institution. But maybe this point may hold the key to understanding them.
That they are monsters is not in doubt, but could it be that the monster is simply a part of their make-up that only surfaces from time to time? For instance, how can a ‘monster’ successfully lead a normal life undetected? Further, in most serial killings, silly mistakes are made, and often they are happy to be caught, as if there is a ‘conscience’ working behind the scenes.
These three aspects of the serial killer – the monster, the façade and the conscience – have similarities to a phenomenon known as multiple personality, where, due to psychological problems, the mind can fragment into different characters who take it in turn to occupy the host.
I am not saying that serial killers are multiple personality sufferers, but as Ted Bundy advised, sometimes a monster takes him over. Perhaps, to understand the serial killer, we need to know more about what goes on in his head.
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