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  • Writer's pictureKathryn McMaster

10 Characteristics of a Serial Killer and Myths Dispelled

Updated: Aug 15, 2018

What are the characteristics of a serial killer? Surprisingly, it is just a small percentage of people who murder this way, less than 1% of all murders in a given year, yet there is a morbid fascination with serial killers, their motives and methods for multiple murders.

Of course, most people when they think of serial murderers think of killings that shocked the world at large: Jack the Ripper, BKT, the Boston Strangler, the Green River Killer, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, to name but a few.

While most of what the public knows about serial killers is gleaned from celluloid movies, TV series and newspapers, much is sensationalized to heighten the interest and to feed ghoulish appetites.

So what is the definition of a serial killer? Well, first of all we need to dispel a few myths so that you know what a serial killer is not.

1. Characteristics of a Serial Killer -

Myth 1: All Serial Killers are Social Misfits

Not all serial killers live in the basements with their widowed mothers, plotting their next victims because they don’t have a social skills. The scary thing is that most serial killers lead normal lives outside of their killing sprees. They don’t have two heads, often live among the community as personable people, many with families and who have a steady employment.

Dr. Harold ‘Harry’ Shipman, an English serial killer, was a respected practitioner who used his white coat to hide behind the death of 218 (possibly up to 250) elderly patients, mostly women, whom he knowingly and actively killed from 1975-2005, earning him the dubious title of being one of the most prolific serial killers of all times. He was a pillar in society, was married, and had four children.

Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, killed 10 people in and around Wichita, Kansas and he was married with two children. He was also a Boy Scout leader, served in the US Air Force, was a church leader and a local government official. He seemed the perfect citizen.

The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, killed 48 women over a 22-year period in and around Seattle, Washington. He had been married three times and was still married at the time of his arrest. He was a church goer, read his Bible at home and at work, and even discussed religion with is colleagues. He was employed as a truck painter for 32 years. However, despite his strong religious fervor, during the time he was on his killing spree, he would also pick up prostitutes and pay them for sex.

And let’s not forget Ted Bundy. Although he was unmarried, he was known as a charming man and even worked at a suicide hotline center. He was also good-looking which certainly helped when he feigned injuries and asked young women to help him to his car before overpowering them, raping, and killing them. He was finally convicted for killing 40 women, but there could have been more.

2. Characteristics of a Serial Killer -

Myth 2: All Serial Killers are White and Male.

Serial killers are from all racial groups and from all sexes. There are white, African-American, Hispanic and Asians responsible for multiple murders. There have been lesbian , homosexual, and transgender serial killers.

A colored portrait of Chinese serial killer, Yang Xinai
Yang Xinai

Yang Xinhai, known as the ‘Monster Killer’ was China’s most prolific serial killer. Operating between 1999-2003 he was convicted of 23 rapes and 67 murders. At night, he would enter his victims' homes, and kill all of the occupants—mainly farmers—with axes, hammers, and shovels, sometimes killing entire families, each time wearing new clothes and larger shoes to secure not being caught. However, caught he was, and he was executed by firing squad in 2004.

Thag Buhram, also known as Buhram Jemedar was known as the King of Thugs. He was cited during his time as the world’s most prolific serial killer when he killed during the late 18th, early 19th centuries. It is thought that he was responsible for at least 931 murders by strangulation and was part of a cult before being hanged by authorities in 1840.

A black and white portrait of Japanese serial killer, Miyuki Ishikawa
Miyuki Ishikawa

Japan’s worst serial killer was Miyuki Ishikawa was a woman who killed between 85 and 169 infants in her care as a Japanese midwife. However, the general estimation is 103 deaths that occurred in the 1940s. Her motive for wilful neglect of the babies in her care was that they were born to poor families who would not be able to provide for them. As she would not be able to help them either through social or charitable services, she thought it best if they were dead. She was married but had no children of her own. Surprisingly, she only got a 4-year jail

sentence, considering how many lives she took.

3. Characteristics of a Serial Killer -

Myth 3: Serial Killers Work Alone

There are many who do, but there are some instances when people pair up to kill together. Examples of this are Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris. Both men met in prison, one for assault with a weapon, the other for rape. Once both men were released, they teamed up together to rape, torture and kill 5 teenage girls before they were caught.

John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo teamed up to target innocent victims working as snipers from the boot of a car. They were thrill killers and felt the need to murder due to anger over grievances felt at the time.

4. Characteristics of a Serial Killer -

Myth 4: Serial Killers Kill to Rape and for Sexual Fantasies

Many serial killings are triggered by erroneous issues, and not always sexually motivated. As we saw above, Miyuki Ishikawa’s murders were done because she felt she was protecting them from a life of hardship.

Harold Shipman may have also been motivated in a similar way. He lost his own mother from lung cancer when he was 17 and he watched her suffering eased with the use of morphine. Morphine was his weapon of choice for his elderly female patients as he hastened them to their end.

Others, like Muhammad are driven to kill by rage and discontent, in order to extract revenge.

We could say terrorists are serial killers motivated by religion, but we would be wrong. These are mass murderers, rather than serial killers.

So what is the definition of a serial killer? A serial killer is someone who kills more than two people with a cooling off period in between the killings. This could be days, weeks, months, years.

5. Characteristics of a Serial Killer -

Myth 5: Serial Killers never Kill in Their own Neighborhood

There is this belief that these murderers travel a great deal, often moving from place to place. This is not so. The BTK murderer chose Wichita, The Green River Killer worked in and around Seattle, and Shipman murdered patients in Hyde, a town in Greater Manchester where he worked for 15 years.

Serial killers tend to kill in areas they know, areas where they can commit their awful deeds without detection. These are their comfort zones, over which they feel they have some control. Very seldom do they travel. This is not to say that there are those who don’t use travel as a way of covering up their crimes, there are, but you will often find that travel is part of their job and because they are familiar with the routes and where to hide a body, this becomes part of their modus operandi.

A colored portrait of English serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe
A young Peter Sutcliffe

Peter Sutcliffe, another English serial killer, was a long-distance truck driver who traveled for work. He used his job to murder sex workers throughout England. Although the majority of his crimes were committed in Yorkshire, earning him the moniker, “The Yorkshire Ripper”, it is thought he may also have been responsible for the deaths of two Swedish sex workers who were murdered in Sweden. He felt comfortable enough on these routes to murder 13 women and attempt to murder a further 7 who had a lucky escape.

6. Characteristics of a Serial Killer -

Myth 6: Once a Serial Killer, always a Serial Killer

There is the misconception that these murderers cannot control their impulse to kill. If the spate of murders stops, then it must be because that person is either in jail for another crime, or dead. This is simply not true. There have been many cases where serial killers stop killing. This is often where they channel their fantasies through other activities that give them the same level of satisfaction, or because they are no longer able to kill due to increased family inclusion that would expose them for who they are. With rape-murderers, the older they get the lower the testosterone levels, until after the age of 50 these sorts of crimes are seldom seen.

When Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer married his third prostitute he seemed very happy with his married life and the number of time he felt the urge to kill dwindled.

Denis Rader, the BTK Killer, indulged in auto-erotic sex that brought his killing spree to a halt in 1991.

7. Characteristics of a Serial Killer - Myth 7: Serial Killers are Borderline Geniuses or Insane

Rodney Alcala's Mugshot
Rodney Alcala, America's Smartest Serial Killer

Some of these murderers do have high IQs. The smartest American serial killer is Rodney Alcala, known as the Dating Game Serial Killer who was a sadist with an estimated IQ of 170. Most, however, have an average intelligence, with a few outliers spending time in mental institutions before or after their murders.

The common denominator linking them together is their personality disorders with many being psychopaths, sociopaths, or having other personality disorders etc.

8. Characteristics of a Serial Killer - Myth 8: Serial Killers Want to Get Caught

When these people venture down this path of killing they will start off experimenting first. Many times the first murder will be botched in some way. When Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris killed their first victim, Lucinda Shaefer, they first tried to strangle her using their hands, first Norris, then Bittaker. When that didn’t work, Bittaker put a wire hanger around her neck and tried to tighten it with his hands, but he couldn’t get the wire close enough around her neck to kill her. So he then used pliers to tighten the wire and finally took her life. Afterwards the pair ‘graduated’ to ice picks and the pliers to torture and kill the young girls before they died.

Sometimes, the victim will be able to escape before they are able to complete the action due to their inexperience. As more victims are dealt with, the less chance this happens.

Being a serial killer takes far more planning due to the number of bodies that need to be disposed over time. Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris spent several months examining fire roads in the Southern California Mountains as places to use for future victims. Each time they murdered, they went further along the trial, passed the last victim’s body, to commit the next murder.

If it looks as if serial killers want to get caught, it is only because the killer or killers become too confident in their own abilities and feel they won’t be caught. As they have gotten away with murder several times in the past they feel they are invincible, that they will never get caught, and once they have this mind set they make mistakes, become sloppy in covering up their tracks, and eventually the authorities catch up with them.

9. Characteristics of a Serial Killer -

Myth 9: Serial Murders are Difficult to Investigate

One would think, with multiple deaths, seemingly unrelated, that serial murders would be difficult to investigate. The problem with some serial killers is that they often have large egos, and they want police to know that they, and they alone, are responsible for the killing of their victims. As a result they leave their calling cards in the form of pattern crimes, or signature killings. This is when the modus operandi is the same: always killing their victims in the same way, with the same weapons. Perhaps, too, they always stage the body afterwards in a certain manner, leave a meaningful symbol behind, or bite their victims in a particular place.

Once a pattern emerges, police can start connecting the dots, and then it becomes far easier to find the killer because through the multiple victims one can start looking for the person who had contact with each of them, or perhaps re-looking at clues that seemed inconsequential at the time.

10. Characteristics of a Serial Killer -

Myth 10: Serial Killers can be Identified when Young

There are those who will say that a child who:

1. Wets the bed until they are well past school-starting age,

2. Has a fascination with fire, and,

3. Kills and maims small animals is the trifecta that identifies a budding serial killer.

Eric Smith is one such child, some feel, who was stopped in his tracks after his first kill at thirteen.

Eric Smith with red hair and glasses at his trial
Eric M. Smith

And yet, there are many serial killers who do not show any signs of becoming dangerous people as children, or even as young adults. Most serial killers being their killing sprees in their twenties, but there are some, like Faye and Ray Copeland who didn’t start until they were grandparents in their 70s. Ray Copeland’s prior brushes with the law had always been for bad checks during livestock sales. fraud, never murder.

Which brings us full circle. You never know who is living next door to you. They may be the nicest neighbors on the street, but they may also be the ones who hide the darkest of secrets keeping the characteristics of a serial killer well hidden.

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