It’s tempting to write serial killers off as monstrous, inhuman aberrations and nothing more. Surely, there are common signs of a serial killer, right? They’re a different breed than you or I. A different species, exhibiting traits and raised in conditions that normal people would never be subjected to.
Surprisingly, this isn’t always the case. Serial killers walk among us every day, going to the same schools and the same workplaces as we do, consuming the same news and forming the same opinions as us. They hide in plain sight by camouflaging themselves amongst the general populace as functioning human beings.
However, a serial killer might let their mask slip on occasion.You’ve probably heard terms like psychopathic, sociopathic, narcissistic and psychotic used in relation to the psychopathology of serial killers, and it’s true that these personality disorders (and various others) are often common serial killer characteristics. This means that they’ll exhibit behavior in line with these disorders, which means we’re able to notice them.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, it’s important to mention that behavior, personality and psychopathology will differ significantly from killer to killer. Think of psychopathy and sociopathy as mixing boards made up of various dials. While one trait (such as grandiosity) may be cranked up to 10, another trait (such as impulsiveness) may be at a 5.
In this article, I’ll use the term ‘most serial killers’ rather than ‘all serial killers’ as it would be inaccurate to apply these characteristics to every single serial murderer. With that in mind, let’s look at the most common serial killer traits and early warning signs.
11 Common Signs of a Serial Killer
The most common signs of a serial killer are:
- Lack of Empathy
- Lack of Remorse
- Superficial Charm
- Addictive Personality
- Lust for Power
- Sensation Seeking
- The Macdonald Triad
Now let's take a look at each of these behavioral issues, and show specific examples of famous serial killers who exhibit them.
1. Lack of Empathy
One of the most common characteristics of serial killers is a lack of emotional depth. In particular, empathy. It’s impossible to be empathetic towards someone and still carry out premeditated homicide on them.
This trait is common in both sociopaths and psychopaths, and therefore present in the majority of serial killers. Interestingly, this isn’t to say that a serial killer will lack empathy for absolutely everything and everyone. It’s completely possible for a serial killer to show empathy towards another human being, although that human being rarely becomes one of their victims. A number of studies have shown that serial killers will be fully aware of their victim’s distress, they just won’t feel it themselves.
Jeffrey Dahmer interview photo taken from Youtube
For example, there have been a number of serial killers throughout the years who adored their pets. Dennis Nilsen, John Wayne Gacy and Harold Shipman were all dog lovers. The most bizarre entry in this category may be Jeffrey Dahmer, who happily decapitated local dogs he found in his street, yet would never hurt his own spaniel, Frisky.
2. Lack of Remorse
This goes hand-in-hand with the entry above. Once again, a serial killer will rarely feel remorse for their crimes. If they did, they wouldn’t have earned themselves the ‘serial’ prefix.
Many serial killers have vocally opposed this trait, with some claiming that they’d learned to feel remorse after a significant time has passed since their crimes. Some people believe this is no more than a manipulation tactic, and given that many serial killers are skilled at concealing their true intentions, it’s impossible to really know the truth.
Psychologists and researchers into the criminal mind claim that on a whole, serial killers do not feel remorse, and all other claims are made for their own benefit. There may be exceptions, such as Dahmer claiming “I should be dead for what I’ve done” and perhaps Edmund Kemper for turning himself in, but these instances are very rare (and possibly another form of manipulation).
This one is both and yes and no, but it’s present in enough serial killers to warrant a place on this list.
Many killers over the years have said “I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t.” Dennis Nilsen said he didn’t want to kill but he had no other choice.
Tommy Lynn Sells said that when he saw a woman walking alone at night, he couldn’t control his urges to follow her. William Heirens once scrawled the words “for heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself,” on the wall of his victims’ bedroom. Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute who impulsively killed many of her clients while in their car.
With this said, it’s mostly the ‘disorganized’ (despite this being a very broad term) offenders who exhibit poor impulse control. These are the reckless, opportunistic killers who will see a chance to strike and be unable to resist.
Just check out this clip from an Ed Kemper interview in 1984 where he describes how impulsive and out of control he became.
On the other side of the coin, however, are killers who boast incredible impulse control. These are usually the high-functioning psychopaths who will stalk their victims for days or weeks beforehand and plan out their entire attack in advance. For example, The BTK Killer was known to spend weeks and months watching his victims and learning their routines before attacking them.
Most serial killers love to boast of their accomplishments. A lot of them see themselves as above the law and smarter than everyone else.
Dennis Rader the BTK killer showed no empathy in court. Source: Youtube
Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac, BTK. All these killers taunted police and press with letters and messages. As recently as 2009 we’ve seen the Long Island Serial Killer taunt his victim’s family via phone call. For the serial killer, this is a way of reliving their crimes and prolonging the pain they caused, as well as displaying their guile and prowess at evading capture.
Grandiosity also goes hand-in-hand with their inflated self-perception – or narcissism. Most serial killers are obsessed with how they’re perceived by the press, police and the general public, which is why they’ll sometimes attempt to control the narratives of their story. Many aren’t afraid to brag publicly about their crimes if they believe it will give them the attention they crave.
In a strange case back in 2002, cannibal Armin Meiwes killed and ate a man he met online. Afterward, he boasted about the crime in various chat rooms, even going as far as posting pictures of his handiwork as a way to show other self-proclaimed cannibals of his achievements.
Armin Meiwes showing narcissism during interview. Source: Youtube
It’s also not uncommon for killers to designate their own nicknames, either by leaving messages at crime scenes or directly contacting the media themselves. Serial killers often confess once caught to ensure that their names are attached to the atrocities that they have committed. What’s important to them is that their name is etched in true crime lore.
6. Superficial Charm
Not all killers may exhibit antisocial behavior. In fact, many serial killers have been described as charming and charismatic.
Back in 1978, this charming young man Rodney Alcala won a date after impressing a young bachelorette on The Dating Game TV show. As you can see, he’s a good looking, smooth talker with a quick wit. What this poor bachelorette didn’t know was that Rodney had killed four women.
Charisma and charm go hand-in-hand with manipulation, and serial killers know this. They know that charming someone will naturally make the other person feel more at ease in their presence and thus become more vulnerable. We’ve all heard the stories about Ted Bundy being the ultimate charmer, but it’s not just about looks or attraction.
Ted Bundy was a notorious charmer in person. Image: Youtube
Charm and charisma can come in all many varieties. While Charles Manson might not have been physically appealing, he had enough charisma to convince a whole group of people to kill for him.
Likewise, John Wayne Gacy wasn’t appealing to the eye either, but he was likable and pleasant enough to convince young boys to come back with him to his home.
With this being said, some serial killers suffer with awful social skills and aren’t able to interact with their victims and gain their trust through charm or charisma at all. These are the low IQ, sociopathic killers who blitz-attack their victims to gain an immediate advantage (Peter Sutcliffe, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein).
This same charm is just another manipulation tactic for the serial killer. Once they have gained the victim’s trust, it makes it easier for them to manipulate their potential victims into vulnerable situations that they might not have allowed themselves to be drawn into in normal circumstances.
For example, Dean Corll murdered at least 28 young boys in the early 1970s after luring them to his home where he tortured, raped and killed them. However, it wasn’t just Corll’s manipulation skills which he applied to his victims, he also applied them to two accomplices who helped source the victims for him.
Dean Corll literally lured children with candy. Image: Wikimedia Commons
8. Addictive Personality
Addiction is defined as the repetition of a behavior despite its harmful consequences. While addiction in today’s world might relate more to smartphone and social media obsession, it’s possibly that the act of serial killing can also be considered an addiction.
While a large majority of the population possess addictive personalities, it’s only when these personalities combine with things like emotional shallowness, lack of empathy and narcissism do things become deadly.
Richard Speck was an alcoholic. Photo: Dallas Police Dept.
Many serial killers exhibit addictive tendencies outside of murder. Dennis Nilsen, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Dean Corll and Richard Speck were all heavy drinkers, and some killers have even claimed themselves that they were addicted to serial murder.
9. The Macdonald Triad & Animal Cruelty
Experts believe that The Macdonald Triad posits three specific behaviors in children which suggest a person may become violent as an adult: bed-wetting, fire starting and childhood abuse towards animals.
The belief is that these three traits display a lack of self-control and a lack of empathy, two things which contribute to the makeup of a homicidal adult. As we’ve seen from many serial killers (Jeffrey Dahmer, Edmund Kemper, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Albert DeSalvo), animal cruelty is a staple of their childhood.
Arson and bed-wetting is a little harder to clarify since many instances of this may have gone unrecorded.
In recent years, the Macdonald Triad has become less associated with potential serial killers and more associated with parental abuse and psychological defects. However, this kind of upbringing can greatly attribute to the making of a serial killer.
10. Lust for power
Many serial killers desire power and dominance, either because it provides a sexual thrill or because they lack these attributes in other areas of life.
While individual motivations for murder will vary, a desire for power is one of the most common, at least amongst sexually-motivated serial killers. These offenders enjoy the act of murder because it gives them control over life and death, which to them is the ultimate satisfaction.
Moors murderers mugshot. Photo: Wikipedia
Power play can also be a factor after a killer is caught. For example, Moors Murderer Ian Brady refused to reveal the burial location of his final victim as a way to assert his power over police, the victim’s family and the general public.
Imagine going through life without ever feeling any kind of emotion. Imagine looking at your partner or your children and feeling nothing whatsoever. No love, just indifference. This is how some serial killers live their lives.
Sensation-seeking is the act of engaging in reckless and dangerous activities just to feel something. It’s commonly found in two types of people: drug users and serial killers.
Drug users will gradually ramp up their substance abuse levels after their tolerance to weaker drugs has built up. In a similar way, a psychopath or sociopath needs to resort to seeking out the most extreme sensations possible because they’re the only ones that have any effect. He may be numb to ‘everyday’ sensations such as love, affection or joyfulness, therefore, only things like murder and sexual assault make him feel anything.
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Can you think of any other traits which serial killers have in common? Perhaps you know someone who exhibits some of these characteristics. Maybe you do yourself. Let us know what you think in the comments.