An Analysis of the Psychology and Childhood of Serial Killers in Order to Determine Whether they are Born or Made

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Dennis Raider, Ted Bundy, Charles Cullen, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Gary Leon Ridgeway–these men are better recognized by their serial killer names: BTK, The Crazy Necrophile, The Angel of Death, The Milwaukee Cannibal, and The Green River Killer (Mehrotra & Scoop Whoop, 2015). A controversial topic regarding these men and all other notorious serial killers is the question of whether these individuals were born or molded into vicious killers. Is it a psychological disease or a traumatizing childhood that warped the minds of these men? Were these conscious kills that were fueled by rage and other motives? These questions beg to be answered through psychological research, interviews with these criminals, and digging into their influential moments in life… their childhoods.

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Before analyzing these serial killers individually, it is important to distinguish what actually qualifies as a “serial killer”. According to the FBI, the misconception is that an individual who kills “a lot of people” alone is considered a serial killer. However, many other components separate a serial killer from a mass murderer, a spree murderer, or a single, double, triple homicide. Among these variables, serial killers must have a “cooling off” period before committing another murder. This is a major difference between serial and mass murderers. For spree murderers, two or more murders are committed without a cooling off period. In 1998, the US Congress attempted to define a serial killer. Their agreement was that there must be three murders, with at least one in the US, indicating that each murder was committed by the same offender. This definition was slightly broadened for the sake of law enforcement. If local police suspected a serial killer based on their criteria, they could invite the FBI for assistance or begin their own investigation. More recently, the Symposium refined the definition to: “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events” (“Serial Murder,” 2016).

Understanding what defines a serial killer, Dennis Raider, also known as BTK, more than qualifies for this title. BTK stands for Bind, Torture, Kill, which is how he murdered his victims. His first killings were of the Otero family in Wichita, Kansas in 1974, where he strangled them. He stole a watch from this family as a souvenir and, after a few months of cooling off, he struck again on the Bright siblings. He waited in Kathryn’s apartment and strangled and stabbed her; he shot her brother, Kevin, twice, but he survived (Blanco, n.d.). By the time he was caught in 2005, BTK had killed ten victims. However, the murders of the Otero family provided the deepest insight into Raider. He was most proud of this crime and proved it by checking out a library book and placing a note in it confessing to the murders of the Oteros (Blanco, n.d.).

Dr. Ramsland, a forensic psychiatrist, was granted permission to exchange letters with Raider and ask him questions to better understand the mindset of a serial killer. This was described as a “code” between them, which he insisted on calling a “codex.” Through her exchange and the relationship that developed with Raider, she began to understand that he might never tell her the full truth, but the reason he cooperated was for the fame. Raider was obsessed with publicity and gaining notoriety through his murders. This explains his early note claiming responsibility for his crimes. He aimed to establish dominance by forcing Dr. Ramsland to decode his letters. He wanted her to discover his “Factor X,” which he described as his justification for his killings. She concluded that his “Factor X” was not as complicated as Raider had suggested; it was the combination of unique sexual impulses, a desire for fame, and delusions of a spy-like double life that fueled his desire to kill.

An important component of the information that Dr. Ramsland was able to uncover was the secrets about Raider’s childhood and his transition from a “white hat” to “turning dark.” She discovered that Raider hanged cats from trees in his childhood, masturbated to his father’s book, the Lonely Hearts Killer, rented hotels to bind his ankles and hands above his head, and put a paper bag over his face to reach gratification – “the Big G,” as Raider referred to it. Raider claimed that his alter ego and fantasy life belonged to “The Minotaur” inside him (Murphy, 2016). It is through Dr. Ramsland’s conclusions and the revelations about Raider’s childhood that society can gain a perspective that could potentially help determine whether BTK was a serial killer in the making or if he was born with this detrimental mindset.

Ted Bundy also started killing in 1974 but, unlike Radar, he wasn’t seeking fame. Bundy was born as the illegitimate child of his mother and was raised as if his grandparents’ adopted him and his mother was his sister. This irregular family dynamic began to impact Bundy’s psyche from the very start of his life, and by the age of three, he was already fascinated with knives. During his teenage years, he indulged in stealing and lurking in people’s windows without any hesitation. (Museum, Policy, & Accessibility, 2016) Bundy developed a method of luring victims into his car with a charismatic persona and a fake cast, giving an impression of being sweet and harmless. He would then strike from behind and move the victims to the trunk of his car, after readjusting the passenger seat to prevent them from seeing anything. (Museum, Policy, & Accessibility, 2016) Unbelievably, Bundy kept the heads of the women on a shelf and would lay with the bodies until the smell became unbearable. Bundy seemed to lead a normal life – he even graduated from law school. It wasn’t until he was charged with the murders of a 12-year-old girl and two sorority sisters at Florida State that he was sentenced to die by the electric chair. (Museum, Policy, & Accessibility, 2016) He gave one last interview to psychologist Dr. James Dobson in an attempt to set the record straight and take responsibility. He stated that his home was a good “Christian home.” When he was around 12 or 13, he found a pornographic magazine in a grocery store, and subsequently, there were gang fights in the alleys near his house. This combination fuelled his desire to kill, feeding his fantasies. He stated that there was no way to describe the “satisfaction” he felt for the violent “urges” that he experienced, and that, albeit too late and with “God’s help”, he did feel some remorse. (Focus & Family, 2016) He developed the idea of a God complex, justifying his killings as a way to make the media industry understand that children exposed to X-rated movies might “be the next Ted Bundy.” Bundy never sought fame nor was he physically or emotionally abused, which is why he is often referenced on the side arguing that killers are born, not made. He had no reason to kill, other than the unbearable urge he described in his last interview, just before his execution on January 24th, 1989, at 7:15 am. (Museum, Policy, & Accessibility, 2016)

Following Bundy, another of the most prolific serial killers was Charles Cullen, also known as “The Angel of Death.” He was born in 1960 and committed his first known murder in 1984, continuing to kill until 2003. Cullen’s method of killing stemmed from his job as a nurse in New Jersey. He relocated to ten different hospitals during his career and admitted to police that he had murdered up to 45 patients during his ten years of employment. Cullen did not leave any fingerprints, trace of DNA, or blood spatter because he killed his patients with drug overdoses. He would access the medical computer to request drugs that his patients had not been prescribed. Despite seven former coworkers alerting authorities to his suspicious behaviors, police did not thoroughly investigate Cullen: his actions were attributed to his depression, divorce, and three suicide attempts following the end of his marriage. Upon his arrest on December 14th, 2003, he tried to argue that he murdered his patients because he couldn’t bear to see them “suffer” (Blanco, 2009). This is how Cullen obtained his title of “Angel of Death”: he took it upon himself to decide when it was his patients’ time to die. His narcissistic ego and God-complex blinded him to the wrongness of his actions, a fact exacerbated by a self-described “fog” that clouded his judgment. His ex-wife stated that at the onset of Cullen’s depression, he would kill pets by putting them in garbage bags, make prank phone calls to funeral homes, and even pour lighter fluid into people’s drinks. Even as a child, he described his life as “miserable.” Born the youngest of eight and subjected to rape by his father, Cullen frequently contemplated suicide, drinking chemicals from a home chemistry set at the age of nine and later jabbing scissors into his head in grade school (Blanco, 2009). From his traumatic childhood to his disturbed adult life, there is a strong argument to be made that he was a serial killer in the making. That he came to believe he was doing the right thing by ending the pain and suffering of his hospital patients is no justification for his actions, but it does contribute an important point to the discussion of how he developed into a serial killer.

Jeffery Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, is such a notorious killer that he is predominantly known by his actual name. He is infamous for rape, dismemberment, cannibalism, and necrophilia. Dahmer’s background might be considered uneventful, or “normal.” He became more “withdrawn at the ages of 10 – 15” in social environments and developed a fascination with dead animals (10). He even claimed to have killed a squirrel and cremated it using chemicals at his own home. Dahmer was expelled from the army due to alcoholism and relocated to Florida to avoid his father. He committed his first murder at 18 years of age when he attacked a hitchhiker with a dumbbell and buried him in a backyard, confessing to police that he murdered him because Dahmer “did not want him to leave.” After molesting a 13-year-old boy, he was registered as a sex offender following an incident where he masturbated in front of two teenagers. Dahmer lived with his grandmother for six years before being asked to leave on account of the awful odors emanating from the basement due to his macabre fascination and growing alcoholism. He then moved into the now notorious “Apartment 213,” where he began to murder almost every week. His most infamous case involved a naked, 14-year-old boy who — drugged and bleeding from his rectum — was found wandering down the street. The boy was the younger brother of Dahmer’s first molestation victim. Two women discovered the boy and alerted the police, but Dahmer intercepting him claimed he was his “19-year-old boyfriend and they had had a fight.” The police, unable to communicate with the boy who could not speak English, left him with Dahmer. That night, the boy was murdered in Dahmer’s apartment (Blanco, 1991). Dahmer was under the impression that he could transform his victims into “zombies” by drilling a hole in their skulls and pouring either hydrochloric acid or boiling water inside (Museum, Policy, & Accessibility, 2016). This procedure, he believed, would prolong his sexual encounters with them (Blanco, 1991). On the day of his arrest, an escapee named Tracy Edwards flagged down a police car. The police subsequently discovered several dismembered bodies along with their photographs in Dahmer’s residence (Museum, Policy, & Accessibility, 2016). Dahmer was beaten to death while in prison in Wisconsin (Blanco, 1991). Although Dahmer was raised by divorced parents, he otherwise had a good childhood. Without any evidence of sexual abuse or traumatic experience in his early life, Dahmer personifies the theory of serial killers “being born,” not made. His urges to kill were driven exclusively by his sexual impulses and sheer lust. Lacking any other rational explanation for his horrendous actions, he remains one of history’s most brutal and notorious natural born killers.

The last serial killer to be analyzed is Gary Leon Ridgeway, also known by the media name The Green River Killer. Ridgeway was born in Utah on February 18th, 1949, to Mary Rita Steinman, who was not an ideal mother. From a young age, Ridgeway suffered from bedwetting, an issue often met with hostility from his mother, who would bathe him immediately. Her domineering personality frequently embarrassed him and perpetuated a sense of insecurity within her son. During his adolescence, Ridgeway was tested and found to have an IQ of 82, which is considered very low. Frustrations at school and at home culminated at the age of 16 when he lured a 6-year-old boy into the woods and stabbed him. Both the boy and Ridgeway claimed that Ridgeway had left the boy to die in the woods. It was then that Ridgeway reportedly laughed and said, “I always wondered what it would be like to kill someone.” Despite having a poor academic track record, Ridgeway joined the Navy. However, his inability to “relieve” his sexual frustration led him to solicit unprotected sex with prostitutes at various stationed stops. Meanwhile, his 19-year-old wife began dating back home, leading to a divorce after just one year of marriage. Ridgeway subsequently married and divorced twice more. He had a son, Mathew, with his second wife. Although Ridgeway was proven to have killed 49 women, he confessed to the police that his actual victim count might be as high as 75 to 80 prostitutes. Ridgeway’s murders were mainly perpetrated between 1982 and 1984. Interestingly, his modus operandi often involved luring prostitutes with a picture of his son to gain their trust. He would have sex with them, then strangle them from behind using his hands. After noticing bruising and cuts on the women, he started using a ligature to strangle his victims. He would then dump the bodies in “clusters,” often posing them nude and littering the disposal sites. In some instances, he would return to the sites to have sex with the corpses.

Despite his low intelligence, he was able to mislead the police for quite some time by crossing between the Washington and Oregon state lines. The police were so desperate at one point that they interviewed Ted Bundy, but he was not much help to them. Ridgeway was eventually taken in due to a prostitution charge, when his DNA linked him to the murders. He was arrested on November 30, 2001 (Blanco, 2011). Ridgeway was evidently psychologically and emotionally abused by his mother; his killings are representations of this. Ridgeway killed prostitutes and transformed their graves into garbage sites, reflecting his views on women. He believed that these women had no worth and equated them to trash. It is noted that Ridgeway often struggled with despising his mother while simultaneously harbouring sexual urges toward her (Blanco, 2011). This correlation is apparent in the fact that Ridgeway always engaged in sexual activity with his victims before strangulation. It is arguable that these women act as surrogates for Ridgeway’s kills. If he had not suffered an abusive childhood at the hands of his mother, he might not have become a serial killer. Despite being one of the most infamous, Ridgeway’s childhood and motives indicate that he is a killer who was created, not born.

Analyzing the childhoods and motivations of these killers is just one piece of the puzzle in determining whether these men are born or made serial killers. However, as all childhoods are distinct, other components must be evaluated. Another consideration involves studying the brain chemistry of a serial killer versus a ‘normal’ functioning member of society. Ted Bundy, for instance, confessed following his detention that the cycle of kidnapping, murder, and returning to the body felt ‘like a chemical tidal wave washing through his brain, like an addiction to a narcotic’ (‘Brain of the intellect vs. Brain of the serial killer,’ 1991). Studies comparing the brain chemistry of a serial killer to a normal human brain have been undertaken. The most well-known study was conducted by Jim Fallon, who facilitated a comparison of his brain make up to those of serial killers. In his study, Fallon discovered that murderers had significantly lower PFC and orbital cortex activity, which can lead to fewer behavioral inhibitors such as rage, violence, as well as sexual behaviors, eating, and drinking. These neurological factors could contribute to their deficiency in forming normal emotional bonds and a sense of belonging in society (psychneuro, 2014). Although the brain composition plays a significant role in distinguishing a killer scientifically, it is not a definitive method to identify a serial killer. For instance, Fallon found that his genes and brain chemistry were not entirely different from those of the killers’ brains he studied. However, he himself was not a killer. He did, however, suffer from depression and a flaw in attaching to relationships (psychneuro, 2014).

Childhoods and even brain scans cannot be concrete ways to pick a serial killer out of a line up since not everyone with a rough childhood and detachment to society turns into a cold blooded killer. Overall though, Dr. Elizabeth Yardley, Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University, collaborated with Crime Magazine to come up with the five common traits that all killers tend to share and their personalities that are prominent. The first common trait seen in a lot of killers is known as “The Power Junkie.” These narcissists tend to keep as much control as possible even after the fact that they are caught, they hold back bits about their case that they know is crucial for the police to find victims or other important details. (Woollaston, 2016) It is a very common trait to be found in killers especially those that have been abused or told they are not worth anything in life. It drives them to be in control and assert authority that they lack in their everyday melancholy life. The second trait is similar to the “Power Junkie” which is “The Manipulator.” These killers often try to gain their victims’ trust before the torture to lure them back or they often try to pass the blame of their murders onto others. (14) A good example of this is the previously discussed, Charles Cullen, that believed he was doing what was best for his patients by ending their suffering. He possessed the manipulator trait in the sense that he could not logically take responsibility for his own kills. The next is “The Egotistigal Bragger.” These are the killers that look for recognition in their crimes, they often will taunt the police with letters or clues or even taunt their next victim with messages to “warn them.” These killers will take souviners or “trophies” in order to relive their crimes. (Woollaston, 2016) An example of this killer is BTK who would send letters to the police to publicly claim his fame. The fourth trait is known as “The Superficial Charmer” who claims victims by luring them with their charm and smoothness. (Woollaston, 2016) A good example of this is the notorious Ted Bundy who was able to lure women to his car without any suspicion. The last common trait crossed between killers is known as “The Average Joe.” This is one of the scariest killer types since they blend right in to society, they tend to be religious figures or very involved parents that would never be suspected. They use their positions in their community to gain the trust of their victims before killing them.

In conclusion, there are many traits and many factors such as childhood and brain chemistry that serial killers have in common. However, since no one has the exact same brain make up or the exact same up bringing during childhood, these factors cannot be used to prescreen for serial killers. The reason killers kill is for their own personal fantasy, and it is inconclusive as to whether the killer is made or born this way – what is conclusive is that each serial killer has an urge that he or she needs to satisfy. It is important to recognize that a serial killer can be anywhere at anytime and whether or not it is their choice to kill, they will kill in order to satisfy their urges which label them as serial killers.

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An Analysis of the Psychology and Childhood of Serial Killers in Order to Determine Whether They are Born or Made. (2023, Feb 11). Retrieved from