Signs of a Serial Killer, Common Traits

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 psychopathicsociopathicnarcissistic 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.

Serial killer brain illustration of traitsBefore we get into the nitty gritty, it’s important to mention that behaviorpersonality 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 serial killer traits are:

  • Lack of Empathy
  • Lack of Remorse
  • Impulsivity
  • Grandiosity
  • Narcissism
  • Superficial Charm
  • Manipulation
  • 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 exhibits lack of empathyJeffrey 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).

3. Impulsiveness

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 female serial killer 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. Charles Albright was a serial killer who impulsively collected his victims eyes as trophies.

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.

4. Grandiosity

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 BTK KillerDennis Rader the BTK killer showed no empathy in court. Source: Youtube

Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, 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.

5. Narcissism

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 NarcissistArmin 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 famous serial killer Ted Bundy being the ultimate charmer, but it’s not just about looks or attraction.

Ted Bundy Superficial CharmTed 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).

7. Manipulation

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 master of manipulationDean 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 AlcoholicRichard 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 MurdersMoors 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.

11. Sensation-Seeking

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.



Also someone needs to check on Raven, the praise they put on these serial killers is alarming.


Someone need to check on Liz and Sylas fr.

Christina Sanchez

I lived with a man and fathered a man’s children who is a complete psychopath. I often wonder why they allow this man to be on the streets, he’s a very dangerous man. He’s only happy when he’s placing harm on others. he’s done tortuous things to me, and others. everyone ilia and always has been afraid to go to police. i must say for good reason, things usually get turned around. I don’t see how in Gods sake he hasn’t been profiled and heavily watched. what they would discover is that certain accidents and deaths in his entire community would come to a complete hault.

Anonymous for safety

I believe someone I know to be one. Enough so that he did everything to skirt the issue but sort of inadvertently confessed here and there as sort of a taunt. He admitted his ex wife died in a housefire, that he “got off the hook” from being investigated because a woman who frequented a local bar in the neighborhood was his aliby. He would and does show me things like jewelry etc. womens clothing items, and attempts to give them to me. (And admits to trying to give them to other women as well). Said everything but “I killed my ex”… like always putting her down. Saying he is polyamorous and likes “both”. Said one of his daughters still thinks he killed her mom. (This girl moved out of state and married someone in the military). First he claims to be her biological daughter, but during times of extreme drunkeness said he adopted her for a friend that died. Acts and says things constantly to make you afraid of him. Extremely charismatic and charming. Has raped me at least 3 times. Only after knowing me, and claiming to have major friends in local militia, police and court officials. Is currently on probation. Will forget lies he spoke of. And try to convince me of things he already told me about. Used my shortcomings or personal information against me to make me believe he has great power and wealth to back him up, and that I would not end up well if he were caught. I have thought on most occasions he was definitely a serial killer. He has admitted to being not only a fan of Jeffrey Dahmer, but that he had sexual relations with him. Does come from a very wealthy family. Does have friends with power and influence. Extremely highly intelligent. Brags about and thinks his arresting female officer and probation or parole officer, and judge all love him. Has prevented me from calling 911 when severely injured after he admitted to spiking my drink, and kept me in his house for two weeks. Shows zero feelings of caring other than what others can do for him. Will appear like he cares and is kind. Will occasionally admit a severe hatred of women due to his moms control, but says the same about men due to the abuse from his dad. Preys on older women with young daughters and has admitted to sleeping with them behind the older womans backs. Says he was his moms caregiver, but dose not speak kindly of her, only that she was batshit crazy. (Usually if a man cares for someone who has passed you would think they would not constantly put them down). Will say very very very disrespectful things to you appearing to be “just joking or kidding”. Called me up recently and was singing “how he killed me in his bathtub (which is how one of his wives died. (Not clear if she was a girlfriend or actual wife). Always brags that if you have enough money and know the right people you can get away with anything. (Ties to motercycle gangs and the kkk). Has hordes of feral cats overtaking where he lives. Which many died from being sick. Lives in illegal trailer place behind his old boss’s house which is not “up to code” and holes in floor around bathtub suggest recent flooding and such in bathroom. (I fear he killed one of the gals he dated a few years ago). Suddenly he stopped bragging about her, as he attaches himself to women who have mental issues in order to have an edge over them. (Many mentions of being single), but will try to keep you as “one of his women”. Brags about being a viking of “pure bloodlines” who never gets sick, and that he feels that a woman saying “no” to sex is not only rude but that “no means yes”. Is a highly skilled tradesman, highly educated, extremely handsome to opposite sex (and same sex; as he also brags of) . Brags about having his criminal record expunged and complains of the cost. I feel he is so dangerous I do not feel me or my family or friends are safe. He has made friends with my former ex boyfriends and maintains a closeness with them for some reason. (Very creepy). Really truly does have police friends. Has other guy friends with similar criminal history of drugs, alcohol, sexual abuse, and issues. (There is an entire network out here). Knows more than he should about alot of people. Any recomendations? Oh and age bracket could place him in Boston at the time of Boston Strangler Murders. (Says family had mansion in Boston before moving to this town when he was young. I have thought, he may have killed one of his brothers. Feel he is using one of his brothers social security numbers. Has help from local militia and social groups. I think there are more or many murders unsolved from him FOR SURE. No doubt in my mind. Do not contact local or state authorities. This goes higher, as in F.B.I. I did background check, and it appears he hardly has a record. He tried to hurt another woman previous to me, but beat him over head with her drums. He brags about having to call his friend to staple his head back together since he will not go to docs. (He has quit drinking due to getting another drunk driving… (I cannot tell how many or other things due to his expunged record). He brags about being able to “snow everyone”. I think he even has my phone tapped. He has recording equipment from being a musician, and records EVERYTHING. Is there a way that authorities could check him out without him knowing it was me?

Raven Hawke

i see no one meantioned Peter Sutcliff…the man was ahead of his time! lol a true Master! and am i really the ONLY one noticing not only was D. Nilsen & J. W. Gacey active basicly at the same time but they’re damn near identical in M.O. and No One bothered to look into that? lol plus…why give morons like Bundy n Manson so much credit? its the smart ones like Nilsen/Gacey/Dahmer that knew “no crime”…they’re the ones that actually deserve the props =)

nick conrad

also why is being a “ sociopath “ always a negative. most top CEO’s and execs are sociopaths


The true psychopaths I’m aware of were serial liars and good con artists along with the above mentioned traits. Many wrote bad checks and cheated many people out of property. They lied even when the lie served no purpose. They always thought they were the smartest person in the room. Superficial intelligence, but after you drilled down on the subject they were talking about, they were clueless. Ever hear of the psychopath stare. It’s true. Trip one up during a discussion, you will get the evil, vacant, cold stare from them that that will raise the hair on your arms. They are phony, evil, unpredictable people…big time risk takers and thrill seekers.


lol i know several people like this… they’re cool to hang out with cause we like to discuss murder and whatever.

ur mom

someone check on Liz lol


You people in the comments are incredibly cringe. “Bwah I think,, I might becoming a serial killer..” as if anyone with sociopathic tendencies would even care in the slightest about that; as well as post these comments from a system that could easily lead back to your real life identity. Literally can tell most of you are double digit IQ retards.


My cousion is all of these. She has always said she wants to kill somone its scary. One night on new years we were spending the night togother and we were paint. i was making a video when she attcked me. She was pulling my hair choking me and smiling. I got her off me and kicked her stomach. I went to bed with one eye open.

Todd gray

Well i be god dammed !!!!!


I match many if not most criteria for a serial killer, but I will never kill another human who is not an imminent threat to me or a loved one. It still bothers me how many traits I share with serial killers.


I think I know someone who may be a serial killer. Actually,two people who I know,both meet these criterion.One of them once said to me," On average,how many times does a person kill, before they are caught?". I was curious and looked it up. I let him know it was three. This person is extremely charming, and has low affect,says he is shallow, and I wonder about him sometimes.He meets the requirements. Another man I know,had a head injurie( s) in childhood,heavily into power and control. Tends to be deviant in many ways.He is stalking me. The second one more so chills me to the core of my being. Then I had a dream. A dream where I witnessed my husband dump a woman’s body in the woods. Then he turned around and looked at me.He has ALL of these traits.He has attempted to kill me before too. We are separated.p.o in place.Then,after having these recurring nightmares,I start wondering….Are there women going missing in my city? So I went to a missing persons site. A bunch of women who resemble me and have reddish brown hair,5’5_5’6,a bit heavy,have gone missing in the last year.I noticed that they are my nationality and even dressed similar. I’m getting very very concerned. I suspect my ex partner is a serial killer. Cannot verify it,cannot prove it. In the last year,he’s been stalking,spying. I took a danger assessment quiz for abused women,and the score ? Came back that I’m in “Extreme Danger.” I cannot even get my email because he hacks into it.. I’m sure he is studying .



I worry constantly about the idea that I may be a killer.
Every time a killer is mentioned I need to think to myself what about me could lead me in that direction. One of my mother’s reasons I’m not allowed to transition is that she supposedly got a tarot reading saying her first born son would kill her. This is where it started- there is someone who I admire who is very interested in stories of killers, no matter what kind. And reading this article nudges me towards watching his behaviors more closely.
All then and again I could be entirely wrong and just being paranoid for the sake of it. If anything I feel I may be too emotional. Feeling too much empathy, rather than not enough. I use that idea to remind myself that if I feel like I should be punished for purposefully crushing a bug, what makes me think I could take the life of a human being? And for what reason?


There are people who I believe are right on the edge. Like a snail in a razor blade, they have increasing behaviors and maybe never kill, but they are extremely cold, manipulative and prey on people.

I have always wondered what it is that makes one person over another go over that edge.


I wonder if a person who had started out with traits of a sociopath, can be halted. As a child, I killed a one animal and was stopped from killing another by my mother, started a couple fires and wet the bed. I haven’t killed any people though and am married with kids and dogs.

Demarcus Faulkner

I think we all know people who have these traits. I know I do from my work in the community

Jeffrey Reinke

I think all the rhetoric regarding seriel killers is textbook…What if someone turned themselves into a sociopath on purpose…Has anyone gone down that area of study?Well ,I haven’t seen any studies regarding self made sociopaths,but I’m still looking…Sociopaths can be made by watching shows about seriel killers,wanting to emulate them…It’s very easy to suppress emotion from self schooling…So I’m going to end this post and see the comments around what I’ve learned and I want to see what the world has to say about it…Thank You…


Many serial killers are loners, socially inept, have failed to fit in to the norms of society.


Well i guess i am a serial killer then


Killers are killers. I believe you are born good or bad. I do believe you can control this. It is something I have seen in my life. I saw a friend of mine turn into a killer. It terrifies me to think how long we were friends but she was a bad. In some ways I already knew this but didn’t want to believe. Her name is valessa Robinson and she killed her mom. I have been trying to r ach our to people since her release but have had no feedback as of yet. Watch this person. She is dangerous and in Florida

Anne G

They should expand the MacDonald Triad: apparently, head injuries and peeping tom activities in youth are frequently present in serial killer. I’ve heard something like 90% of serial killers have had head injuries in child hood. Its astonishing and it make sense if it knock out the part of the brain that regulates trauma.


It does matter what they are called and what matters most is that the police need to start find these people too many missing persons or murdered and no one cares


Liah, lack of remorse is a common trait among serial killers especially when they were young.


Speck raped and murdered 8 girls why they fuck does it matter what you call him he’s a sick person


Richard Speck was a mass murderer, not a serial killer. He killed eight student nurses in one night and not at different periods of time. Mass murderers and serial killers have very different mindsets..


The Term ‘ Serial Killer ‘ Is A Term Used To Dub A Person Who Kills In A Series ( EXM. 1 Every Couple Of Days , Weeks , Months ) The Term ‘ Serial ‘ Has Nothing To Do With A Lack Of Remorse . Sorry But That Comment In The Text Irritated Me Being That This Is An Article Trying To Educate Or Inform People When That Particular Comment Isn’t Correct In The Slightest .


So apparently I’m a serial killer? LOL

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