Serial killers rarely take their own life, even when in police or prison custody, and so it is intriguing when it does occur. To be sure, it is also rare for humans to take their own lives when considering the entire U.S. population; in 2010, there were 38,364 reported suicides from a national population of 308,745,538, or 0.01% (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). However, a number of characteristics that relate to serial killers appear to directly challenge the notion of taking their own life.
Most serial killers fit the description of a psychopath; they are without conscience, have a very limited capacity for emotion and empathy, and are often tremendously narcissistic. With no conscience the serial killer will not be haunted by what they have done, meaning that they will not feel the huge amount of pain or anguish that those involved in crimes of passion or those in the military could feel over taking a life; therefore a guilty conscience is not going to drive them to suicide. A lack of empathy, too, means that they will not recreate and experience the suffering of their victims or their families.
The narcissistic element of psychopathic behavior, however, is intriguing. On the one hand, it is hard to imagine somebody who thinks so highly of themselves wanting to end their own life, but on the other hand if environmental and social constraints stem their self-serving desires, then perhaps life becomes not worth living. Ronningstam, Weinberg, and Maltsberger (2008) offer numerous reasons for why a narcissistic personality could be prone to suicide, but one that could be relevant here is the loss of the ideal self-state; the ideal self-state being, “[a conglomeration] of experiences that are desired and associated with a sense of pleasure or positive self-regard.” A departure from this state, then, would cause pain and discomfort.
Psychopaths may be oblivious to a range of emotion, but I think it is true to say that they do experience pleasure and frustration. Like most people in this regard, they are likely to make choices that seek to maximize pleasure and minimize frustration, but unlike most people, psychopaths often have poor impulse control and are often addicted to sex, drugs, and alcohol. In other words, psychopaths crave stimulation, and one reason that has been offered for this is that psychopaths have a low resting heart rate; it has been hypothesized that a low resting heart rate creates an unpleasant sensation, and so the individual seeks stimulation to achieve an optimal or normal level of arousal (Raine & Portnoy, 2012).
If a psychopathic serial killer, therefore, suddenly finds themselves in an environment that will not allow them to seek the kind of pleasure they crave, it is not unreasonable to assume that some may decide to end their own life. This idea is bolstered by the fact that the few serial killers who have committed suicide (usually by hanging) have done so while in police or prison custody: The list includes Harold Shipman, Fred West, and Charles Ray Hatcher. Recently, Israel Keyes, a serial killer wanted for the abduction and murder of Alaskan resident, Samantha Koenig, killed himself while in police custody; he slit his wrist and strangled himself with bedding.
There is no way to determine how powerful a person’s impulse is to take their own life, as clearly it can vary with the moment and is dependent on the reasons and drives behind the suicidal thought. These reasons and drives, however, are likely to be different in the suicidal serial killer, because after all, they have a different pathology. Depression is often listed as a primary reason for suicide, but psychopathic serial killers are unlikely to experience depression in the same way that normal people do, because they are emotionally stunted. The closest feeling to depression is probably frustration. The reasons behind serial killer suicide, therefore, should perhaps be studied independently.
I have focused on psychopathic serial killers, but there are other pathologies that could be involved in serial killing, such as schizophrenia. The positive symptoms of schizophrenia include visual and auditory hallucinations, and it is not uncommon for those to drive the afflicted into acts of violence against others and themselves.
The suicide of serial killers is unlikely to meet much compassion, but it should still be taken seriously. As serial killers are incredibly violent and destructive, anything that would allow us to better understand them would be of vital importance, especially if they have crucial information regarding their victims.
Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012
Raine, A., & Portnoy, J. (2012). Biology of Crime: Past, Present, and Future Perpsectives. In R. Loeber, & B. Welsh, The Future of Criminology (pp. 30-39). New York: Oxford University Press.
Ronningstam, E., Weinberg, I., & Maltsberger, J. (2008). Eleven Deaths of Mr. K. – Contributing Factors to Suicide in Narcissistic Personalities. Psychiatry, 71(2), 169-182.