Serial Killers and Ways of Detection

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Serial Killers and Ways of Detection

A serial killer is defined as an individual who engages in a series of murders, usually with no clear motive and typically the murders portray certain characteristic, predictable behaviour (Pettigrew, 2020). A typical serial killer is believed to commit three or more murders, often in service of abnormal psychological satisfaction, with the murders occurring in a period of at least one month and including a substantial amount of time between them. As such, serial killers differ from other murders in the fact that serial killers often select their victims, take several days, weeks, months, or years to emotionally cool off between murders, and also adhere to a plan when perpetrating crime (Pettigrew, 2020). Therefore, serial killing is one of the most frightening criminal acts that need to be well understood to provide diverse ways to prevent them. According to Marono et al. (2020), the most common targets of serial killers are young adults, but victims are profiled to be anywhere from their early childhood to late adulthood. Unlike what has been observed in single incident murders where males are predominant, serial killers are more likely to victimize females. Therefore, this paper will explore the approaches the help detect serial killers at a younger age and related red flags, which include aspects that may prompt an individual to become a serial killer. Some of the early signs and attributes that are considered to lead individuals into serial killing include antisocial behaviour, childhood trauma, pyromania and arson, voyeurism, and pleasure from torturing animals (Ürmösné Simon, 2018).

Antisocial Behaviour

Portraying introvert characteristics is not considered a definitive sign of violent tendencies but it is observed that early or sudden antisocial behaviour has been associated with violent tendencies (Canter, 2020). For instance, there is a clear variation in the speed at which kids open up to a community but there are cases of extreme isolation that should be considered are red flags. The case of Ed Gein who is also nicknamed the Butcher of Plainfield, a murderer and a grave thief is a good example of serial killers who manifested from extreme aversion to social relationships (Travaglione, 2021). Ed Gein oddly stole bodies from graves and converted their limbs into keepsakes. Evidently, he had limited to no social connections during his young years other than interacting with his abusive and religious mother (Travaglione, 2021). He would be punished for attempting to make friends. As such, it is reported that after Gein’s mother died, he began killing people and searching for bodies that bear a resemblance to his mother with the purpose of making a ‘woman suit’ (Travaglione, 2021). This clearly explains antisocial behaviour at a young stage as a red flag to serial killing. Besides, a situation where a kid who was once outgoing and gregarious suddenly regresses into antisocial behaviour is also a vital sign of a developing serial killer. Such children will start focusing their attention on odd practices such as animal torture and negative thoughts that might make it easy for them to hurt some especially if they are abused (Marono et al., 2020).

Childhood Trauma

Serial killers are also often portrayed as victims of circumstance. Many studies have shown that most serial killers have experienced psychological, physical, and even sexual abuse as children, usually from close family members (Simon, 2020). While the trauma they encountered in the past should never be an excuse for the murders they committed, it does provide a better understanding of the motivation of serial killing. For instance, the helplessness and humiliation individuals experience during childhood are a recipe for their serial killing at a later stage since those experiences are things they want their victims to suffer through (Simon, 2020). This is often referred to as a twisted sense of catharsis, an instance of justifying the suffering of others due to your own. Therefore, children from disturbed family backgrounds where they are exposed to all sorts of abuses are more predisposed to serial killing. The case of Aileen Wuornos who committed seven murders from 1989 to 1990 is a good example of serial killers who experienced childhood abuse (Knowles, 2020). Her mother left her at the tender age of four and was forced to live with her grandfather who was physically and sexually abused until she eventually escaped at fifteen. She claimed that all her murders were a result of self-defence. This is evident of the impact of childhood trauma from a myriad of abuses that results in distrust of others and pent-up rage that explodes at a later stage.

Pyromania and Arson

Arson is considered a key indicator of violent tendencies. Specifically, serial killers are reported to have a high affinity setting things ablaze as it is a dangerous exercise of control and power, similar to murdering and torturing others (Geldenhuys, 2018). Serial killers particularly those who find pleasure in rendering their victims at their mercy often in the quest to attain power and control, and fire is a key instrument. Furthermore, children who portray signs of pyromania are likely to commit serious atrocities as they consider setting as their only way to relieve their built-up anxiety, tension or arousal (Geldenhuys, 2018). A good example is David Berkowitz, a known serial killer who as a child was described by his peers as a pyromaniac (Hier, 2020). He found pleasure in playing with fire and at times would even burn living things to death. David reported having started more than 1,000 fires in New York and was responsible for the demise of six people from 1976 to 1977 (Hier, 2020). Evidently, his childhood obsession with fire as means to attain power and control contributed substantially to his serial killing at a later stage.


Fascination with voyeurism is another key red flag that is observed in potential serial killers at early ages. Specifically, voyeurism involves receiving sexual gratification from watching individuals who are naked, engaging in sexual activity or undressing (Duff, 2018). It is reported that most serial killers are fascinated with violent iterations of sex, voyeurism, and sadomasochistic pornography. Such characteristics develop from childhood and evolve to violent behaviour in the future, especially since the sexual desires are acted on without the consent of other parties. For instance, Ted Bundy who committed ten murders from 1974 to 1978 along with acts of necrophilia on the bodies of some of his victims is reported to engage in stalking women as an adolescent hoping to see them undressing (McCann, 2021). Such behaviours in children are red flags to becoming serial killers in the future. As children grow they are tempted to engage in physical contact with the women they stalk, which may turn to violent altercations when confronted, and hence murder (Mondal, 2019).

The pleasure from Torturing Animals

Another notable sign of seral killing at an early age is children finding pleasure in torturing animals. In specific, serial killers often start young, using animals to test their boundaries by killing them. Children who find pleasure from such acts are regarded as sociopaths and is one of the most potent warning signs of violence (Ramya & Roshanara, 2019). They often portray no remorse since they find joy when they exert power over small creatures as well as have control over the lives of others, and this can evolve to killing people. For instance, Jeffrey Dahmer who murdered seventeen people from 1978 to 991 started killing small creatures such as pets and keeping dead animals for dissection (Jentzen, 2017). His childhood obsession converted him into a serial killer and a cannibal when he was an adult. As such, episodes of animal abuse during childhood can manifest into violent offences against others are people grow up (Hensley et al., 2018).

There are other signs that can help detect serial killers at an early age such as genetics and early separation of children from their mothers. There are specific genes that are believed to predispose individuals to violence. Monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) also known as the warrior gene is associated with aggression in people, and it is present in approximately 30% of the population (Checknita et al., 2018). Coupled with other experiences such as childhood trauma, people with this gene can easily commit murder due to built-up rage from abuse and his/her aggressive nature. Furthermore, children who are separate from their mothers at early stages may develop certain levels of insecurity due to the cruelty of contemporary society, and as such resorting to violence as a defence mechanism.


It is evident that serial killers often start young, with the environment they are exposed to being a major contributor to their adverse behaviours. Some of the key warning signs such as antisocial behaviour, childhood trauma, pyromania and arson, voyeurism, and pleasure from torturing animals have been historically present in several cases of serial killings, and as such, can help detect and prevent the potential serial killing. It is important, though, to comprehend the variation between causation and causality to ensure not to profile individuals based on attributes that are relatable to serial killing. For instance, just because a person enjoys playing with fire or is an introvert/anti-social does not necessarily mean that s/he will become a serial killer.


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