Why Do Sociopaths Psychopaths Kill – Convicted New York serial killer David Berkowitz, known as “Son of Sam.” Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Canadian police have announced the discovery of more human remains at a property frequented by Bruce McArthur, the suspected serial killer who allegedly killed at least eight men in Toronto’s gay community. McArthur, a self-employed landscaper, allegedly buried the remains of some of the victims in flower beds. Most of his victims, all gay, were recent immigrants from South Asia or the Middle East. LGBT activists have accused Toronto police of failing to take years of reports of disappearances in Toronto’s gay village seriously.
Why Do Sociopaths Psychopaths Kill
The Guardian spoke to Peter Vronsky, a Toronto-based historian and journalist and author of several books on the history and psychopathology of serial killers. His latest film Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present opens on August 14 in the US and Canada and on August 16 in the UK.
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The book examines how our understanding of serial killers—called “monsters” before the advent of modern psychology—has changed over time, and ponders the answers to a difficult question: What exactly does a serial killer “do?”
One of the oldest questions in criminology – and for that matter in philosophy, law, theology – is whether criminals are born or made. Are serial killers a product of nature (genetics) or nurture (environmental factors)?
My basic argument is that the ability to kill again and again is essential to the human survival mechanism. Assassins are anachronisms whose primal instincts are not regulated by the more intellectual parts of our brains.
Maybe it’s not that serial killers are made, but that most of us are undone, with good upbringing and socialization. What remains are these incompletely socialized creatures with this ability to attack and kill. And often this ability is imported due to the sexual impulse – aggression, sexualized during puberty.
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Many serial killers experienced some form of trauma in early childhood: physical or sexual abuse, family dysfunction, emotional distance or absent parents. Trauma is the only recurring theme in the biographies of most murderers.
Most biographies of serial killers are self-written, so you trust what they tell you. However, there seem to be some examples. Ted Bundy is a classic. No one has really found evidence of “trauma” in his childhood, in the dramatic, traditional sense. However, he grew up believing that his mother was his sister.
Here in Canada we had a killer who was the commander of an air base. He was flying the equivalent of Air Force One—flying around the prime minister, visiting dignitaries—and suddenly, at the age of 40, a colonel, he commits two sexual murders. He is a mystery. There is nothing in his childhood that explains his behavior. The late age at which it started is also unusual.
I am currently studying a serial killer named Richard Cottingham. I spoke to him in prison last month. He comes from a nuclear family… the father was there, the mother was there, and there is no clear history of trauma or abuse. It might be something, but he doesn’t want to admit it. I really don’t know.
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But there is nothing in his past that clearly parallels the early lives of, say, Charles Manson or Henry Lee Lucas. If you read the biographies of these killers, it’s no wonder they changed in what they did.
If murderers are the product of childhood trauma or an underdeveloped brain, are they still “responsible” for their actions?
It is true that almost all serial killers suffered from childhood trauma. But here’s the rub: If 100 kids grow up in an abusive foster home and one turns out to be a serial killer, what about the other 99? They grew up, well, maybe not all well-adjusted citizens, but certainly not serial killers. What is the missing X factor?
During the first big wave of famous serial killers in the 1960s and 1970s, some defense lawyers tried to argue in court that serial killers are not guilty by reason of insanity because an irresistible compulsion to kill is a form of temporary insanity. The legal definition of insanity is the inability to know right from wrong and the inability to understand the consequences of an action. But serial killers are well aware of what they are doing. So they change clothes, hide evidence, leave the scene of the crime.
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It can be argued that serial killers suffer from psychopathy, that being psychopaths they have no feelings of remorse or empathy and their decision-making process is flawed. Interestingly, though, not all serial killers are psychopaths according to the Hare test, psychiatric diagnoses, or at least they don’t test as such.
The number one trait of a psychopath is a lack of empathy. Others are a tendency to lie, a need for excitement – psychopaths get bored very quickly – and narcissism. But the most important thing is the lack of empathy.
A common explanation is that psychopaths experience some form of early childhood trauma—perhaps as early as infancy—and as a result repress their emotional response. They never learn appropriate responses to trauma and never develop other emotions, making it difficult to empathize with others.
They grow up not knowing how to “feel” but learn to manifest what they think are emotions or the correct appearance of emotions. They know the “mask” they have to wear.
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In the case of serial killers, then, there are individuals who can raise a family, be what most people would consider a good spouse and father, and at the same time have a secret second life where they go out and kill strangers. They can distribute.
Bruce McArthur is interesting because he was arrested so late. It’s way out of the statistical norm for serial killers to kill for the first time, so either he’s been killing for decades and we haven’t identified his previous victims, or he’s some sort of new type of serial killer; the evolution of this phenomenon – someone who kills very late in life, when most serial killers have already begun to “retire” because their testosterone is decreasing.
If McArthur has committed crimes since the 1970s or 1980s, this will be an extremely difficult investigation. Law enforcement is looking for evidence on his dating apps and linking him to several potential victims. But they didn’t have that back then.
There have been dozens of homosexual serial killers. Probably the most notorious were John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Only this is not unusual.
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Apparently, there is much less stigma surrounding homosexuality today than there was in the 60s, 70s, or even 80s. On the other hand, gay serial killers were sometimes more effective because both they and their victims led secret double lives. They were already somewhat acclimated to a secret behavior, hiding who they are.
Confined people are particularly susceptible to being victimized by predators. If there are no witnesses or confidants – relatives, etc. – who can link your disappearance to the perpetrator of the crime, it is to the advantage of the aggressor.
About one in five or six serial killers is a woman. There are significant differences in their psychopathology from male murderers.
Investigating serial killers is difficult because there are fewer of them and they are harder to catch. Serial killers are less likely to leave bodies. They are silent killers; have longer death runs. They are much better at it.
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There is a minor sadistic tendency. They tend not to torture their victims and are less interested in mutilation. But the motivation is similar: the need to control his victim. It’s not sex, it’s control, even if they can demand it through sexual acts.
Aileen Wuornos is a classic example: a serial killer in Florida. She worked as a prostitute and killed her clients. Several documentaries and a feature film (Monster, with Charlize Theron) have been made about her. Here was a serial killer motivated by pure rage.
The types of predation that serial killers engage in are often an extension or perversion of gender roles. For example, the expectation that women are in caring roles, caring roles. You have the Munchausen syndrome serial killer category by proxy: mothers kill children, nurses kill patients.
Is it true, as some claim, that serial killings are now on the decline? Or is it just less reported in the media?
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You know, it seems like we’re arresting and arresting fewer serial killers, and when we do arrest them, they have a much smaller list of victims per killer. So yes, America’s serial killings appear to be on the decline. Either there are fewer serial killers or we catch them better sooner.
We have made remarkable advances in forensic technology,