Serial Killers: What Lies Behind Their Crimes?
There were over five hundred murders in the UK last year. That's down by nearly four hundred per year since 2001 - a huge reduction. The UK is one of the safest places in the world today. You're five times more likely to be murdered in the United States, and a staggering ninety-two times more likely to be murdered in Honduras.
The huge reductions that the UK has seen in its murder rate are down to a number of factors, not least because of the laws controlling firearms. More than a third of the UK's murders are by sharp objects like knives and broken bottles. And many murders are committed by spouses. On average, two women a week are murdered by their male partners. But, let's not forget that approximately one woman murders her male partner every couple of weeks, too.
Most people kill only once: A fit of rage; an act of revenge; to cover up some other crime so the victim can't talk. But what of the people who kill more than once? Serial Killers?
There is no distinction in law that separates a single, isolated murder from serial killings or from a mass murder. However, there are important distinctions between them from a psychological point of view.
Mass murder or serial killer? A mass murder might well involve the death of more people at a single moment or from a continuous act of violence. Jermaine Lindsay, for example, murdered twenty-six people in a single bomb blast at Kings Cross in July 2005, during the London bombings. Shockingly, that's almost twice the number of deaths of Peter Sutcliffe and Dennis Nilsen, combined.
However, the serial killer is very different in the way that they act and behave. There is always a break in the killings, space and time in the middle, separate acts of violence, time for the killer to consider what he or she has done, and to plan the next. It is this space and time between each killing that sets the serial killer apart and marks them out as something entirely different.
So, why do these people do it? Surprisingly, studies indicate that the profile of a serial killer has shifted considerably over the time. What we call pre-industrial killers, those who lived more than two hundred years ago, tended to be aristocrats or of the upper classes. One French Baron is said to have murdered more than 800 people, mostly young boys. The pre-industrial killer would typically prey upon peasants of orphaned children. But as the industrial revolution came and we moved into modern times, the serial killer has increasingly been drawn from the middle classes.
Victim profiles Are then, serial killers born from economics? Modern serial killers in the UK have tended to be white males, many have been unemployed or in low paid work. However, what is consistent, both historically and in modern times is that their victims tend to be vulnerable people; people that the killer had some position or perceived status above. Fred West targeted girls from children's homes; Harold Shipman targeted his elderly patients, and Dennis Nilsen vulnerable gay men. This shows that the psychology of power and control is firmly in the mind of the serial killer, but more than that, it shows that serial killers select victims based on a particular profile, they are not completely random.
Killers don't just start killing. They are what criminologists term 'increasers'. Violent acts start off small, perhaps with acts of cruelty, then the slaughter of pets and animals, then violence (not involving death) to people and then, ultimately, to killing people. Intervention by police, social workers and family can potentially stop or curtail this behaviour. But one thing is for sure, once they start killing, they won't stop until they are dead or captured.
What makes a serial killer?
Are they mentally ill, are they born that way or is there some other factor at work? Not all killers are mentally ill, some simply enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on others. There is no single study that can show if a killer is born that way - and even with twenty years' police experience at Scotland Yard, I still cannot guarantee the exact factors which define one. However, it is possible to nurture a killer, and new studies are beginning to show how our genetic makeup may be a factor, with childhood experiences and cruel treatment from others having the potential to trigger 'risk genes' in us.
Increasingly we are also seeing personal ideologies and religious beliefs playing a greater and greater role in the psychology of the serial killer. Acts of violence on civilian populations across the world, undertaken by people claiming that it is compatible with their own beliefs, in order to provide them with a sense of moral justification for their acts of violence - are becoming frequently apparent.
One thing is for sure...
When you sit across the interview table from a serial killer, look into their eyes and they tell you calmly and dispassionately how they did it, as though they are describing a trip to the shops to buy some milk, rather than the details of how they brutally clubbed yet another victim to death - you know instantly that there is something very evil and utterly terrifying looking back at you.
David Videcette is a former Scotland Yard investigator with twenty years' experience of hunting down criminals and the author of The Theseus Paradox. Find out more about David and his work at www.davidvidecette.com
Serial Killer Season starts Monday 13th June from 9pm