Serial Killers: Victims of Genetics or Circumstances

Upon researching such a broad topic, I have kept in mind that every soul on the planet is born with a certain amount of thought and compassion. I am yet to be convinced that anyone can be born without either, some can have more than others but they all possess an undetermined amount. That is what leads me to believe that serial killers have to be a by-product of genetics combined with circumstances. They are born without enough compassion to curtail their violent fantasies and after enduring whatever life throws at them they settle into what is comfortable. For everyone else, the things that make us comfortable are completely different (almost like a fingerprint) and hold different rewards. However, to a serial killer, that comfort is all they seek to get peace within their minds.

Since beginning my research, it has become apparent that my initial thoughts could be wrong in some cases. I have discovered that while all serial killers kill in multitude, most are fueled by very different sources. FBI profilers have discerned that most killers are raised in similar environments; however, I believe that that is where the circumstances come in. The circumstances determine how early in life a serial killer strikes, but not whether or not they will. There are those that do it for the game (or the thrill), there are those that do it to quiet voices in their heads, some do it out of hate and disdain, and still others that do it because they enjoy it.

Kevin Haggerty, a University of Alberta sociologist and criminologist, argues that society, not psychology, is responsible. Once again, my problem here is that in trying to label something that has so many facets, you miss the point of it all. If you rule out one influence then you are missing a big part of the picture needed to determine who and what serial killers are.

"I would say there's minimal evidence that psychological approaches have made more than a small difference in our understanding of this phenomenon," he told Discovery News. "Almost every psychological approach applied to serial murder has been ruled out as a uniform claim to understanding this behavior."(Discover News website, 2009)

I have noticed that every scientist involved in researching this phenomena, wants to direct their efforts toward either one or the other; psychological or societal? If it were related to either one or the other, wouldn’t we have definitive answers by now? You can tell by looking at fellow humans that we are built from different compositions, we have similar traits but what separates us is our deep genetic make-up. Blonde hair versus auburn, blue eyes versus brown, tall versus short, and fat versus thin; the differences are all around us. So why, can’t our thoughts and emotions be designed just as differently? In our society, we coerce everyone to alter to fit one mold in how to interact with others; however, there can never be one mold. You cannot force everyone into the same category without catastrophic results.

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Serial killers are born to kill but never given the proper forum. It sits inside them until they determine that they have had enough of a society that they view as weaker and less intelligent than themselves. Of course, that is only one type of serial killer, but this one is the most sadistic of them all. This group includes Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez (Night Prowler, 1985), and probably Jack the Ripper (1888). To them it was a game, they believed that they were smarter than everyone else and therefore laughed in the faces of the society trying to end their reigns of terror. Jack the Ripper never got caught and the other two continued the mockery through their trials. Heads held high as they admired their own tales being recanted in the courtroom. They could never be rehabilitated, because to them it was their move next in this hideous game. This group is the prime example of genetics being the deciding factor in their evil.

Other killers lash out after enduring a life of pain and torment. They fantasize about making others feel the pain they have carried inside, silencing voices, or fulfilling an imagined prophecy. This group includes David Berkowitz (Son of Sam, 1977), Robert Trenton Chase (1977), and Jeffrey Dahmer (1987-1991). When you factor in the mental aspect this group is the most sadistic of all. Tallying up more victims and doing things that are unimaginable, all the while going unseen for long periods of time allowing them to amass larger body counts. However, much like every other category, genetics plays a part but it is life that decides the ultimate path they must take.

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We can argue infinitely about the motives and predispositions of serial killers without ever coming to a conclusion about why they have acted out as they have. We can dissect every crime scene in search of how and why to maybe get answers to prevent future attacks, however, much like natural disasters, we can never predict nor prevent them from happening. It all falls back on the fact that serial killers are genetically and circumstantially built to kill. It is widely believed that every human is born with the ability to kill; however, most are never pushed into the circumstance. Most serial killers are found to have traumatic childhoods to explain their aggressive behavior later in life but not all fit the mantra. Many are born with no conscience and kill because it fills a need within them. In a sick way it almost makes them whole, the act of taking another’s life as if they were God himself.

Ted Bundy claimed to have a normal childhood but psychiatrists believe he saw something traumatic that festered inside of him fueling his hatred for women. His grandfather was known to have a violent temper as well as a big collection of pornography (which Ted stumbled upon as a child), and Ted does credit pornography for his hatred of women. Richard Ramirez had a normal childhood but turned to Satanism as an adult in an effort to find something fulfilling, and this new found religion fueled his homicidal desires. David Berkowitz, however showed violent tendencies as a child, entered the Army, became a marksman, and then unleashed his terror on New York City, while being told to do so by his neighbor’s dog. It is widely believed that all three of them were born to kill but it was life that dealt the defining blow.

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A new research has claimed that it is society that is to blame and not genetics. Traditionally the behavior of serial killers has been viewed through a psychological framework, blaming customary factors like bad parenting, maladjusted brain chemistry or past abuse. But Kevin Haggerty, a University of Alberta sociologist and criminologist, argues that society, not psychology, is responsible.

That is the opinion of Mr. Haggerty, however I dispute his justification, "I would say there's minimal evidence that psychological approaches have made more than a small difference in our understanding of this phenomenon," he told Discovery News. "Almost every psychological approach applied to serial murder has been ruled out as a uniform claim to understanding this behavior” (Haggerty, 2009).

It has been widely believed that once serial killers start killing, they cannot stop. There are, however, some serial killers who stop murdering altogether before being caught. In these instances, there are events or circumstances in offenders’ lives that inhibit them from pursuing more victims. These can include increased participation in family activities, sexual substitution, and other diversions. BTK killer, Dennis Rader, murdered ten victims from 1974 to 1991. He did not kill any other victims prior to being captured in 2005. During interviews conducted by law enforcement, Rader admitted to engaging in auto-erotic activities as a substitute for his killings. Jeffrey Gorton killed his first victim in 1986 and his next victim in 1991. He did not kill another victim and was captured in 2002. Gorton engaged in cross-dressing and masturbatory activities, as well as consensual sex with his wife in the interim (FBI website).

This shows that serial killers can control their tendencies if they wish, which means they are not genetically forced to fulfill their fantasies. If a person can quit killing then it makes sense that he could have never done it in the first place.

According to this, his reasoning is predicated on the fact that you cannot uniformly claim all serial murderers under the same affliction. Everyone has their own breaking point, so you cannot even claim all actions on society. In the case of Richard Ramirez, it was his satanic worship not society that pushed him into killing. I agree that society plays a big part but we all have to live in this society and yet very few result to killing people. There has to be a chemical imbalance, a head injury, or a gene that is just not there for a person to consciously desire the taking of other human lives. There have been many studies on the psychology of serial killers and whether or not they possess a trait that can be noticed early to distinguish whether or not they will kill. However, nothing has ever been found conclusive to include them all into one category.

In one report I read, Julietta Leung states, “Many character traits can fit a serial killer’s personality profile. The three most common traits seen in childhood are wetting the bed, setting fires and abusing animals. They are all motivated to kill in different ways, some kill for the pure pleasure of killing, some kill for power, some kill for a mission, some kill because they believe they are told to and some kill because they think they have a responsibility to.” There are so many reasons and so many patterns that it seems impossible to classify all serial killers into the same category, for genetics versus circumstances argument. Take Dahmer, he claims to have had a normal childhood yet turned out monstrous so the argument can be made that his actions were completely genetic. However, many others had been neglected and abused as children, growing up to despise certain people (women mainly), and feeling justified for ridding the world of certain types of women. And still others have a sense of superiority that fuels them to rid the world of lesser individuals.

As we look into the trend of these vicious killers we must be alert to the fact that there are so many similar characteristics that tend to sway thought to the possibility that maybe it is all genetics. Even if we tear it all the way down to genetics, how do we shield them from society to prevent an outburst? With so many people on the planet there is no way to monitor every one so he/she does not walk in the path of or trigger an attack from a ticking time bomb. Do we send it all back on the families for not spotting the traits sooner? Or are they society’s problem from the onset? Eventually they all become society’s problem but they do so without society knowing what it has inherited.

A more specific profile of a serial killer has been presented by Apsche (1993), stating that most are white males in their twenties or thirties, who target strangers near their homes or places of work. "According to criminologist Eric Hickey, who has assembled the most extensive database on demography of serial murder states that, 88% of serial killers are male, 85% are Caucasian, and the average age when they claim their first victim is usually around 28.5. In terms of victim selection, 62% of the killers target strangers exclusively, and another 22% kill at least one stranger. Finally, 71% of the killers operate in a specific location or area, rather than traveling wide distances to commit their crimes (Apsche, 1993, p.16)”. Also, the F.B.I claims that to be classified as a serial killer, the person must first complete 3 separate murders, that are spaced by a duration they call "the cooling off period" which can vary from a few days to years. But one thing that very few definitions include is that for a killer to be known as a "serial killer", they must have a particular method to their killings. For instance, Wayne Gacy had the trade mark of gagging victims with their own underwear so that they would die in their own vomit.

These are all great facts discovered during this study, however they do not give any of us the ability to spot these monsters before they strike. Unfortunately the traits listed here apply to a large percent of the population that do not go on to commit murder. If we tore a person down because he fit this profile we would fill our institutions with innocent men that would have never gone on to kill. Too many people suffer oppressive and abusive childhoods yet manage to live peaceful lives. The question is: are they genetically equipped with a stop button? Or are they spared the final nudge by society as adults? If we could answer those two questions with certainty, we would finally be able to create a blue print for future generations to protect society from the beasts that live within.

In conclusion, I contest that in order to become a serial killer you must genetically be predispositioned and suffer certain circumstances in your life. If genetics are not involved then a head injury is the only other contributing factor. I am a proponent of watching who you deal with in this world because all of it adds up to one thing, the rest of us have to pray; we are not in the wrong place at the wrong time because when that switch flips we are all vulnerable, and there is no way to know who or when. It is a fascinating debate that can never truly be answered, because we lack the ability to actually enter the minds and download the information that is hidden inside. Scientists will always study these intriguing individuals in an effort to learn and grow, and perhaps they will unlock the mystery someday. Maybe they will finally be able to come forth with concrete evidence, as to the origin of such beastiality. All men are born with the ability to kill; however, is there an internal stop button that some lack? That is the only thing that would support the genetics argument but because all men are born with this ability then genetics has to contribute. The end note is that everyone must be aware of the presence of these killers and take precautions for inhabiting the world in which they live.

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