Category Archives: Serial Killer

Hannibal Rising – A Review

Hannibal RisingI have always been curious about the Hannibal Lecter stories, especially the movies, which I enjoyed. I have recently watched the entire series of Hannibal on NBC and I’m totally digging that – not only are the main cast fantastic, but it’s fantastic to see Eddie Izzard sink his teeth into the role of a serial killer. With this enthusiasm in mind, I decided to turn to the books for the first time, and see how Thomas Harris writes.

I suppose it is perhaps wrong to start with the latest book in the Hannibal Lecter series, but I was more than curious to see how Lecter as a child develops into the formidably brilliant killer. I was not disappointed. Harris’s writing is poetic and thought-provoking, a narrative worthy of Lecter himself. Much like Lindsay’s ‘Dexter’, you immediately love and sympathize (hesitate to say empathize) with young Hannibal, as the dark forces play and shape his mind towards the inevitable. Of course we know what Lecter becomes, but this in no way diminishes the enjoyment to be had as Harris sits the reader in a front row seat in Lecter’s nascent shadow.

I recently watched a video from the online magazine Slate, entitled Which Movie Psychopaths are the Most and Least Realistic. An audience of forensic psychiatrists sat down and watched a number of movies featuring psychopathic killers. Lecter (as played by Hopkins in the movies) was dismissed as being too much of a genius, a characteristic which is rare among normal populations, let alone psychopathic killers. Being a genius, though, just makes his character less probable, and not necessarily less realistic.

In later incarnations of Lecter, you never see him lose control or see him at odds with his drives and desires. In Hannibal Rising you get to witness the death of his innocence and the masterful acceptance of his fate.

A Sense of Future and the Act of Killing

Nietzsche future pastIt’s easy to forget how much the ideas we have about our own futures impact our daily lives. We all try to invest in our futures (financially, academically and intellectually, and emotionally and genetically) so that when ‘it’ arrives we will be comfortable and happy. Ideas of a comfortable future make us feel happy, and conversely, thoughts of a chaotic future fill us with dread and peptic ulcers. How we end up in the future is in some ways besides the point, because what we are really trying to do is feel satisfied and happy in the present – by doing what we need to do to secure good thoughts of the future.

Thoughts of the future are intimately related to our sense of morality. Take the golden rule, for example – treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. How would you like to be treated? We need to think about a hypothetical future scenario that involves us being treated a certain way and deciding whether or not we would like it. I say hypothetical future scenario, rather than simply hypothetical, because hypotheticals depersonalize the scenario, and the whole point is that you imagine an act happening to you. Imagining a future scenario overcomes this problem.

Furthermore, if we begin to lose interest in the outcome (future realization) of various activities, we will start to neglect those activities. This is not a moral issue if we no longer care to play the piano, but if we are no longer interested in personal relationships, we can start to neglect people. In fact, a common reason for romantic relationships to fail, is that at least one person in the relationship doesn’t see a future. Considering and being considerate towards your own future and the future of those you care about is clearly moral behavior.

In order to achieve these happy future thoughts, we often set ourselves certain rules and make plans governing our behavior, usually in the name of saving money, staying healthy and in shape, and maybe trying to shape the behavior of our children by being strict. All of the rules are often at the expense of fun and cheap kicks. So, every now and again, we decide to Seize the Day! and completely forget about the future. Obviously, when we do choose to forget about the future and live in the moment it’s still done in a controlled way – none of us really believe that the day to be seized is the be all and end all of our lives.

So what has any of this got to do with killing?

A point that I hope I’ve impressed upon you is that by limiting our sense of future, there is also the danger of relaxing and disregarding our own rules and ethics. I think a ‘sense of future’ actually plays a very potent role in the brains of killers. Below, I have listed what I consider to be the different types of killer (excluding military and legally sanctioned killers), and how a sense of future helps to determine their actions. I have stereotyped each one, but obviously in reality the categories could overlap to varying extents. Brains are dynamic and constantly changing, and so the act of killing only reflects a brain at one moment in time promoting the act within specific contextual cues. Clearly, other people kill in self defense, by losing their temper, or perhaps because of the psychotic symptoms of a mental disorder, and a sense of future may or may not play a role in those events. Regardless, I just want to focus on these three:

Psychopathic Serial Killer: Psychopaths lack a sense of morality and struggle to understand or empathize with emotion. It seems that most serial killers accept that abduction, raping, and killing is going to be a part of their life. Upon this acceptance, and knowing that their behavior can only be continued by evading capture and suspicion, serial killers plan out future events, and are often very meticulous in doing so. It does appear, though, that some psychopathic serial killers do have genuine empathy and morality, but it is only temporal. During these moments they are genuinely able to forge meaningful relationships and lead a ‘normal’ life. Other times, a capacity for empathy isn’t temporal and only limited or faked relationships are possible. This means that serial killers are likely to  fall on a spectrum between a dark/normal life and a dark/faked-normal life. Capture means that both lives are finished, and given the nature of the necessary dark life, a sense of future is integral to the intellectual machinations of the serial killer.

Sociopathic Killer: Sociopaths have a sense of morality, although it’s different from the morality of the parent culture. This means that the sociopath has values or a worldview that one, differs from most people, and two, includes beliefs that devalues or denigrates the lives of certain groups of people. If you hold genuine beliefs that the lives of women, those of different skin color to you, Jews, homosexuals, those of a different religion /worldview / or political ideology are worth inherently less than your own life, then you are a sociopath. Some sociopaths are willing to kill for the sake of their outlook, for their ideology to champion the parent ideology, and so in this sense some may see themselves as revolutionaries. A sociopath is unlikely to have a sense of future while the parent culture/morality remains. As we have already discussed, to lack a sense of future can lead to being unhappy and uncomfortable. A sociopath wants a different future, and may be willing to try and forge it through violence.

Spree Killer: Spree killer is a bit of an outdated term now, but it tends to describe those who arm themselves to the teeth and choose a place where they can inflict maximum casualties in a short space of time. James Holmes, the man who killed many movie goers in Aurora, CO, in July, 2012, might fit this category. Spree killers have a tendency to die in a crossfire with police, commit suicide, or hand themselves peacefully over to the police (as Holmes did). For these killers, there doesn’t appear to be any regard for their lives after the act. The act might be planned out to the nth degree, but if you intend to die in a gun battle, take your own life, or hand yourself over to police knowing that you are going to spend life in prison or receive the death penalty, you clearly have no sense of future. No sense of future – no morality.

Survived By One – A Review

Survived by OneSurvived By One tells the devastatingly sad story of Thomas V. Odle, who was still a teenager in 1985 when he murdered all of his close family members – his parents, two brothers, and his sister. Dr. Hanlon, the author of the book and forensic neuropsychologist, traces young Tom’s life from his childhood to his teens, and then from his arrest through to his prison sentence. Odle had been on Death Row in Illinois, but this was eventually changed to life in prison after a series of landmark court cases. While in prison, Odle reached out to Dr. Hanlon to help put his life in perspective. With Odle’s assistance and permission, Hanlon has expertly put together this life story of a killer.

Apart from being very accessible, one of the best things about this book is how Odle’s story is told. Hanlon describes the life of Odle, which includes his expert psychological analysis of events in Tom’s life, as well as the historical and legal context of the story, and splices in Odle’s own personal narratives. This allows the reader to build up a rich idea of how Tom’s mind and life perspective developed throughout his childhood. For those seeking to understand how a person could commit familicide, Hanlon’s telling of the story is genius.

The story also reminds us that nothing is black and white when it comes to understanding human behavior. Even though Tom was physically and psychologically abused as a child, many abused children do not go on to murder anyone, let alone their entire family. Odle displayed Conduct Disorder as a teenager and developed the habit of taking numerous drugs on a relatively frequent basis. But Odle considered taking his own life before he even thought about taking the lives of his family, and when he did eventually take their lives, he explained it as an out of body experience that he just watched happen.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, not just students of psychology or criminology, who are interested in the question of what makes a killer.

Dissecting Empathy: How Do Killers Experience Other People?

Dissecting empathyThe stereotype of a killer, especially a serial killer, is well known – a cold and remorseless man who usually plans and calculates his abductions and assaults, and has absolutely no empathy with his victims. The victim is not a person. They do not have hopes, dreams, and desires. They do not have family or friends who are going to miss them. They do not feel pain or suffering. They are a thing to fulfill the self-serving desires of the monster.

The topic of empathy in all humans (not just criminals) has been studied extensively, usually by taking ‘normal’ people and contrasting their biology and behavior with people we know have killed or committed cruel acts against another. In psychology, this line of questioning has led to diagnostic categories that are used to indicate a variety of disorders. For example, it is widely held that a lack of empathy is characteristic of a number of personality disorders – such as Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). However, it must be noted that the lack of empathy experienced is not necessarily permanent, and may even be for only brief periods of time in very specific circumstances. Out of all three of the above mentioned personality disorders, APD is by far the most associated with serious crime.

Because of neuroscience, we now know that there are numerous ‘mirror’ neurons in the brain that become active in an individual when they both watch a task and perform the same task. This suggests that witnessing the behavior of others causes activation in our own brains similar to if we were doing the behavior ourselves. The argument is that perhaps we can ‘recreate’ the experience of others, which points to the presence of a neurological tool kit geared for this very purpose.

A recent study by Meffert et al. (2013) looked at brain activation in psychopaths when they were deliberately asked to empathize with individuals they saw in videos. One of the videos involved slapping another person’s hand with a ruler. When psychopaths observed this action there was low activation in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) (an area associated with pain), but when asked to empathize, the activity in the area increased when viewing the same video. Another aspect of the experiment involved the psychopaths actually getting hit in the hand with a ruler, similar to the video, and there was no difference in activation between the psychopaths and the non-psychopaths. This means that the dACC was active in the psychopaths when experiencing the slap. The study suggests that the mere act of asking the psychopaths to empathize, literally did ‘flick on’ their ability to empathize with pain.

Could a victim of a psychopathic killer or rapist simply ask their attacker to empathize with their pain? Probably not. Passively watching a video of a non-sexual and relatively innocuous act seems to be necessary for it to work, and we have to remember that empathy with no action does not stop criminal behavior. This is not to undermine the above study, because showing that empathy can exist in psychopaths is a major finding. I would also like to know what would happen if the normal group in this study were asked to not empathize or at least fabricate irrational reasons why they hate the person getting hit by the ruler. Would we see something as devastating as the Stanford Prison Experiment?

So, empathizing with victims is clearly compromised in the mind of a killer, but what about empathizing with partners in crime? I bring this up because I think it adds another layer of complexity as to why people kill. Most serial killers act alone (Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, Sowell, Keyes, etc.), but there are some infamous partnerships and groups who are also responsible for multiple murders. The D.C. Sniper (John Allen Mohammed), who terrorized Washington D.C. in early October 2002, had an accomplice – Lee Boyd Malvo. Mohammed had become a father-figure to Malvo after they met, and despite being separated numerous times, Malvo always sought out Mohammed. Malvo had only been fifteen when the two met the first time. After the two were arrested, Malvo did later testify that Mohammed had pulled the trigger ten times, and himself three times (Censer, 2010).

Clearly, there was a relationship between Mohammed and Malvo.  I do not think it is a stretch to say that Malvo loved Mohammed, as evidenced by his willingness to imprint on the former U.S. soldier. Mohammed had very strong anti-U.S. views and even went so far as to say that the U.S. deserved the terrorist attack on 11th September, 2001 (Censer, 2010). Mohammed’s views no doubt rubbed off on Malvo, who was receptive to them because he loved his father-figure. In a child-parent bond, it is love that helps provide our truth criterion for the world. Parents are imitated by their children, in part because the child loves them (they would be less inclined to imitate people they have taken an active dislike to). The activities of the parent are therefore recreated and performed in the brains of the children – this means that the child can and will now empathize with the parent. Malvo imprinted on a killer.

Mohammed may have loved Malvo as a son or a protégé, but Malvo is not the reason he became a killer. Mohammed had killed in the army, felt betrayed by the U.S., and developed strong radical Islamic beliefs that preached the U.S. to be the enemy. The choice to kill civilians is lost within those facts and we do not know if he had any pathology that led him down the road to murder (i.e. psychopathy).

Linda Kasabian, Patrica Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins also imprinted on a dangerous man. Through the use of drugs, role playing and open sex, Charles Manson slowly but surely began to control the minds of these young women when he met up with them in California in the 1960s. Manson was eventually able to talk these women into the mindset of murder. He had become their leader and they would do anything for him. Like Mohammed, Manson had very strong beliefs about the world, particularly that a war between black people and white people was inevitable. Through the relationship that these women established with Manson, he was able to persuade them to share a similar outlook.

I have argued elsewhere that we need to treat the terms ‘psychopathy’ and ‘sociopathy’ differently (Pemment, 2013). One reason I give for this is that sociopaths do have a sense of morality (Hare & Babiek, 2010) and as such their brains are likely to function differently than the psychopath. The need for this distinction can also be seen in the light of these examples. A strong relationship with a criminal mind can facilitate the acceptance of criminal behaviors and the adherence to dangerous ideas. This happens because of empathy. A sense of morality is still present, only it allows for circumstances that devalue life. A sociopath, therefore, must be capable of empathy for a cause or an ideology (or a person who represents them), so they can ironically prevent themselves from empathizing with those this ideology devalues. A psychopath, as we have seen, has a diminished capacity for empathy that results from their brain not developing correctly. Psychopaths, by extension, do not tend to have a sense of morality.

In law, when considering murder, the concept of guilty mind (mens rea) and guilty body (actus reus) are often considered, and I also think these concepts can be used to discuss psychopathic and sociopathic killers. Dahmer was a psychopath and tortured and killed animals as a teenager and later had uncontrollable urges to drug and kidnap other men, rape them, and carryout unspeakable acts with the bodies. In an interview with Stone Phillips, Dahmer discussed how he wanted complete sexual control over the men he abducted, and this was not explainable, other than he just felt the compulsion to commit these acts. The detective (Keppel) who helped bring the psychopath Ted Bundy to justice, once interviewed Bundy, and Bundy explained his need for necrophilia like a chemical tidal wave – like the sudden need for a narcotic. These needs do not reflect a morality or a worldview consisting of many interlocking and self-supporting ideas.  Mohammed’s anti-US Islamic ideas, Manson’s race wars, and I would argue Anders Breivik’s National Socialism, do.

There has been a lot of debate surrounding psychopathic serial killers and whether or not they can be held accountable, especially if they have a unique brain. If we consider the mind as the part of the brain responsible for our intellectual life and our worldview, then this is not the part of the brain that motivates psychopathic killers to kill – therefore they would have actus reus, but not mens rea. Sociopathic killers, by contrast, would have at least mens rea, and possibly actus reus. Psychopathic killers have to have a guilty body because the physical interaction with their victim is everything to them – and this interaction usually results in their victim’s death. But to have a guilty mind in the context of murder, one must have a capacity for empathy.

© Jack Pemment, 2013

Sources

Censer, J. R. (2010) On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media, University of Virginia Press

Hare, R; Babiak, P. (2006) Snakes in Suits, Harper, New York

Meffert, H.; Gazzola, V.; den Boer, J. A.; Bartels, A. A.; Keysers, C. (2013) Reduced Spontaneous But Relatively Normal Deliberate Vicarious Representations in Psychopathy, Brain, 136, 2250-2562

Pemment, J. (2013) Psychopathy Versus Sociopathy: Why the Distinction Has Become Crucial, Aggression and Violent Behavior (in press)

The Anatomy of Violence – A Review

Anatomy of ViolenceAdrian Raine’s The Anatomy of Violence is possibly the most informative book I have ever read about criminal behavior. The deeper I got into the book the more I realized that I do not think about criminal behavior nearly as dynamic as it deserves. I do not honestly believe that there is another book out there that brings together so much useful information about antisocial behavior. Raine uses his extensive and admirable academic career to mention an exhaustive list of studies on the subject of criminal behavior, including studies that have shown a trend between fish-eating countries and their lower overall violence.

Raine makes a very powerful argument throughout the book that you cannot ignore the biological basis for crime, and to cement this argument he discusses studies that have explored genes, neuroanatomy, and the autonomic nervous system in those prone to criminal behavior. But to add to this, Raine helps to destroy the long standing barrier that is often reinforced between nature and nurture, and discusses how the role of the environment is heavily implicated because it interfaces with a person’s biology, at all levels. Many in the sciences now shun the nature v. nurture over-simplistic dichotomy, and Raine helps us to see how in understanding the criminal mind this dichotomy can only hinder our understanding of human behavior.

But the thing I like the most about this book, is that Raine does not stop once he’s fully indicted Biology. He goes on to discuss curing crime, what it means to bring biological knowledge to the courtroom, and in a very powerful section at the end he discusses measures that could be taken in order to seriously reduce and perhaps even eliminate crime altogether. Although, you should be warned – you will be lured into what many would consider an Orwellian nightmare, only to have your rationale for opposing his ideas gently pulled away.

This is a serious must read for anyone interested in how criminals come to be and why they continue to do what they do.

Acting at Random – An exhaustive look at the life of Israel Keyes

Acting at random

I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to the blog Acting at Random: A Study of Israel Keyes. The biographer of Keyes, Molly Kaneski , has done a fantastic job of illuminating the life of a killer, who five months ago was being held in police custody and awaiting trial. Keyes committed suicide in his cell in December, 2012.

I mentioned Keyes, briefly, in a blog post I wrote for Psychology Today, entitled When Serial Killers Commit Suicide. At the time I wrote this post, a concise history of the life of Keyes was unavailable, and I had to find what I could from various media outlets. Kaneski has put together a very well researched study on the life of Keyes, and it includes life photos, as well as audio and video files pertaining to his crimes and eventual capture.

Keyes worked in construction and had ‘kill kits’ buried around the United States. He researched the activities of other killers and was even compared to Ted Bundy in terms of how well he kept his dark-side hidden and how meticulous he was carrying out his crimes.

I highly recommend Acting at Random: A Study of Israel Keyes to anyone interested in the lives of serial killers, as they will profit immensely from this excellently put together biography.

I am certainly looking forward to the future work of Molly Kaneski.

Richard Chase: A schizophrenic serial killer

Richard Chase (1950-1980)

Schizophrenic individuals do not usually present with violent behavior, and the odds of a schizophrenic committing serial murder are probably about the same as me winning the jackpot from numerous Vegas casinos in one night. However, it does appear that Richard Chase, who became known as the Vampire of Sacramento, was one such individual. Serial murder is most often associated with the psychopathic, or those with extreme Antisocial Personality Disorder. David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam, claimed to be schizophrenic and that his neighbor’s dog was instructing him to kill, but it wasn’t long before he recanted.

There are a number of different types of schizophrenia, perhaps the most common being paranoid schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenics have progressed passed the so called negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as jumbled and confused thoughts, and an inability to speak fluently and coherently, to the positive symptoms, which include auditory and visual hallucinations. In other words, paranoid schizophrenics are having sensory experiences that are not obviously coming from their environment (i.e. hearing a voice when nobody has spoken). It is not hard to imagine how this could become a living hell. In fact, for some insight, watch this video from youtube as to what it is like to experience these symptoms.

Although schizophrenia can result in violent outbursts, it must be realized that as a mental disorder that results in disordered thinking, it is not really conducive to the cold blooded and premeditated serial killing that we have come to associate with Bundy or Ridgway.

Richard Chase was clearly a special case.

While still young, Chase did wet the bed excessively, liked to light fires, and killed small animals. These three behaviors are actually associated with Conduct Disorder (childhood psychopathy), so while schizophrenic in his early adult life, he could have also had Antisocial Personality Disorder. In his late teens, Chase would hear voices and even answer them, responding, “I’m not going to do that,” and, “Stop bothering me.” This seems consistent with schizophrenia.

Chase developed an obsession with his own personal health and believed that there were problems with his blood and his circulation. While in hospital he remarked to a doctor that his pulmonary artery had been stolen and that his blood flow had stopped.

Throughout his twenties, Chase continued to exhibit weird behavior and paranoia, and continued to receive diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia. His mother, however, did not want him to be put in a mental health home, and eventually was able to get him his own apartment.

It wasn’t long before his neighbors began to witness his weird behaviors, and the fact that animals would be seen in his apartment, such as dogs and cats, but would never be seen again certainly raised some questions. In fact, one day Chase showed up at his mother’s house, holding up her dead and bloodied cat by the tail. Much to his mother’s absolute horror, Chase stuck his hand into the dead animal and then smeared the blood all over his body.

Chase eventually moved on to stalking humans. After a few close encounters with a number of individuals who managed to escape, some were not so lucky. Theresa Wallin, who was 3 months pregnant, had been spotted by Chase only moments before he decided to gun her down in her home with his .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol, which he had managed to purchase legally as the 3 day wait had not picked up his psychiatric history. Chase mutilated the body and smeared Wallin’s blood on his own body, also using an empty yoghurt cup as a means to drink from her.

Less than a week later, Chase entered the home of Evelyn Miroth and murdered four people, including Evelyn. He shot all of them with his .22 caliber. After shooting Evelyn, Chase mutilated her body and drained much of her blood into a pail, from which he dipped a coffee mug and began to drink her blood.

Chase was caught the very next day after killing Miroth. Police knocked on his apartment door, and he came out carrying a box. After trying to make a sudden break for it, the box fell and revealed bloody papers and rags, and Chase was quickly apprehended. Later in the evening, after obtaining a search warrant,  police entered Chase’s apartment. On his bed was a dinner plate with a piece of human brain swimming around in it. In his freezer was a half gallon container with either human or animal organs sitting inside it.

You can see from these events that Chase does not fit the stereotype of a serial killer. For one, the murders don’t seem very calculated or premeditated, other than Chase’s insatiable drive for blood – he probably knew he wanted human blood, but he went after it in a very irrational and disorderly way. And secondly, the murders happened very close together and were devoid of the “cooling off” period that typically describes the psychopathic serial killer.

Chase was sentenced to death, but actually died from an overdose of his medication while in San Quentin State Prison.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2013

Source

Alone with the Devil: Famous cases of a courtroom psychiatrist, Ronald Markman M.D. & Dominick Bosco