Are Serial Killers Born or the Product of Their Environment?

serial killers
serial killers
Courtesy of Matt Brown (Flickr CC0)

I am writing this article knowing that the question raised by my title will not be completely answered in this short effort to shed some light on the reasons serial killers exist. However, television, movies, and I share an obsession with the genre. My first three novels were focused on serial killers.

Opinions Vary About the Origin of Serial Killers

After reading much of the information about why serial killers exist, I found no definitive answer. Their compulsion to kill is based on individual experiences and social environment. It is also true that some serial killers are born with damaged brains resulting in a lack of normal human emotion and rage that most humans are incapable of understanding. Most of the latter display their propensities early in life and begin receiving psychiatric care early.

Serial killers are often highly intelligent and have the ability to mesh with normal society, literally hiding in plain sight. The fact is, they exist in larger numbers than most people realize. Therefore, the question becomes, “what triggers the change from fantasy to reality?”

This is where opinions begin to vary. A number of scientists claim that genetics are responsible for the existence of individuals who discover their only reason for living is to take the lives of others. The billions of possibilities revealed by genetic science offer convincing evidence that there have been millions of men and women who possessed the possibility of taking the big step from living a normal life, finding that their reason for existing is ending the physical existence of others.

One Possibility Why Serial Killers Exist

My research for several dark novels in which the “anti-hero” was a man who murdered others who fit a certain profile and became targets, discovered that a single incident, or possibly a relationship with one person, was the trigger that changed their life’s direction. However, we all have experienced a strong desire or hope that someone in our lives would simply go away, or even die at some point. Once again, the question is, what increases that feeling of hatred to a level resulting in violent action other than simple fantasy?

serial killers
Courtesy of Brecht Bug (Flickr CC0)

Science Offers One Explanation for Serial Killers

A study in 2000 presents a strong theory about the century-old question, “are we products of genealogy or our environment?” Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison compared brain scans of more than five hundred people between those who were prone to violence and those who were considered to be normal. The scans revealed dramatic differences between those who committed violent crimes and those who lived normal lives.

Without being too “scientific,” let me just inform you that parts of the brain that control emotions and reactions to feelings such as fear and hatred were diminished in those of men who had committed murder.

However, this does not fully explain the fact that some serial killers began their carnage after a single traumatic experience. This is where psychiatry and practical science collide.

The Case of Ted Bundy Raises More Questions

The story of mass murderer Ted Bundy is particularly disturbing and the reason his name is at the top of any list when serial killers are the topic of discussion.

Anyone who met Bundy offered a common impression: “he was a nice guy.” He was handsome and affable to anyone who was not a victim of his killing spree between 1974 and 1978.

The identity of Bundy’s father remains unconfirmed. However, the consensus of those who studied every detail of his life are convinced that his maternal grandfather, Samuel Cowell, was also his father. It is widely believed that he raped his daughter, Louise, and Bundy was the product of incest. Family members described Cowell as “Deeply racist, a true bully and bigot, committed violence against animals, committed violence against family members, and was obsessed with pornography.”

In his adult life, Bundy learned that the woman he believed to be his older sister was in fact his mother. The Cowell’s were devout Methodists, and to prevent criticism and possible exile from their community, after learning their daughter Louise was pregnant, they sent her to a home for unwed mothers in Vermont. Samuel adopted the male child from the orphanage.

The Dichotomy of Ted Bundy

Bundy was complex. He has been credited with saving multiple lives while volunteering at a suicide prevention center while in college. In 1970 he rescued a three-year-old child after falling into a river without hesitation.

Now compare this to his last victim, a 12-year-old girl. He admitted that he had also killed men, and although the number has never been confirmed, he claims to have killed at least 100 people during his four-year spree.

Was Bundy a product of genetics, or his environment, and what was the trigger which began his long list of murders between 1974 and 1978? No one will ever know. He was executed on January 24, 1989.

By James Turnage, Novelist


Infamost: 27 Of The Most Shocking Facts About Ted Bundy

Top and Featured Image Courtesy of Matt Brown‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of Brecht Bug‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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