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10 Chilling Glimpses Into The Minds And Lives Of Serial Killers

by Eli Nixon
fact checked by Jamie Frater

“Portrait of a Monster.” That was the headline emblazoned across the front of the Daily News in 1993 after Joel Rifkin confessed to strangling 17 prostitutes and leaving their dismembered bodies around Long Island, New York. It’s the kind of headline that boldly tries to answer a terrifying question: What makes a serial killer tick? What’s happening in the mind of a person who finds calm satisfaction in sadistic murder?

Monsters. We’ve interviewed them. We’ve studied their DNA and stuck slabs of their brains on microscope slides. We’ve spoken with their families. Yet we’re still no closer to understanding what makes serial killers so different from the rest of us. Although no academic explanation ever will—or should—exonerate these people of their crimes, the study of a killer’s mind is a fascinating field that can offer glimpses into our own minds. After all, how can you truly understand what’s normal until you understand what isn’t?

10 Serial Killing And Psychopathy

Mind of a serial killer: Why one in every 150 people is a psychopath

“Not all psychopaths are serial killers, but all serial killers are psychopaths.” According to Dr. Sue Stone, a psychologist at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, that’s something of an adage in the field of psychology. But is it true? According to the FBI’s statement on serial killers and psychopathy, the link is there, but not necessarily concrete: “All psychopaths do not become serial murderers. Rather, serial murderers may possess some or many of the traits consistent with psychopathy.” They define psychopaths as being glib, lacking in remorse, being impulsive, and lacking in empathy, to name just a few characteristics.

There are psychopaths everywhere. CEOs, doctors, and lawyers are often psychopaths. They’re driven, focused, and can have little remorse in their quest for success—but they don’t kill (usually). Some people would even argue that almost everybody has a little psychopath in them, although that may be extreme.

So not all psychopaths are killers. But if you intentionally kill multiple people over an extended length of time, isn’t there bound to be a seed of psychopathy in there somewhere? With as broad a definition as psychopathy has, it’s impossible to point at two different people and say that one is a psychopath while another isn’t. Herbert Mullin, who killed and mutilated 13 people because voices told him it was the only way to save California, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and schizo-affective schizophrenia years before he began killing. He is generally considered psychotic, not psychopathic.

In fact, the most gruesome murders are generally attributed to psychotics rather than psychopaths. The difference is that psychotic serial killers have lost touch with reality, while psychopathic serial killers know exactly what they are doing. It’s worth noting that psychopathy is not a mental illness and can’t be used for an insanity plea in court.

9 Underdeveloped Brains

In March 2013, Joanna Dennehy, a mother of two, killed three men and dumped their bodies. A few days later, she stabbed a man in broad daylight, stabbed another one nine minutes later, and then ran off with the second man’s dog. At her trial, Dennehy laughed about the crimes.

And she’s definitely not the first. Jeffrey Dahmer said he’d keep killing if given the chance. Israel Keyes, who was definitively linked to three murders and admitted to at least eight more, cracked jokes about the locations of the bodies. In interviews with serial killers, one of the most common themes is a complete lack of remorse.

Adrian Raine, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks the reason for this is that serial killers have underdeveloped brains. He points to two parts of the brain that violent, repeat offenders like serial killers seem to be lacking in: the ventromedial cortex and the dorsolateral cortex. The first is linked to decision-making, and Raine found criminals with psychopathic tendencies to have reduced function there. The second is linked to our ability to learn from our mistakes, and those criminals committed crimes more on impulse than through premeditation.

Faced with the fact that psychopathy is not a mental illness, Raine argues that these people with underdeveloped brains should be treated like people with other mental disorders. His sentiments are echoed by Graeme Fairchild, a researcher in the UK, who says, “We have to ask if they are really to blame for their behavior.”

8 The Happy Face Killer’s Daughter

What It Was Like to Grow Up With Dad Who Was ‘Happy Face Killer’

Melissa Moore was 15 years old when she found out that her father was a serial killer. It’s possibly one of the most shocking revelations anyone could receive. This wasn’t a man who’d abandoned her as an infant—it was the dad who dropped her off at school, who lovingly tucked her in at bedtime, who laughed and told jokes at dinner. But it was also a man who raped and strangled eight women and then confessed to at least one crime on the wall of a truck stop toilet stall.

That man was Keith Jesperson, whom the media dubbed “The Happy Face Killer” because he drew a little smiley face at the end of his truck stop confession. From 1990 to 1995, Jesperson killed at least eight women, most of them prostitutes. That made Melissa about 10 at the time of his first murder, and although Jesperson was often away for long stretches due to the demands of his job as a long-distance truck driver, he still found time for his children. As Melissa wrote in an article for the BBC, she remembers him during this period as “doting and kind . . . a good dad.”

It’s enough to make any sane person question whether Jesperson was just that good at covering his tracks or if his family saw the signs and chose to ignore them. We’ve seen before how denial can be a powerful thing, and that may be especially true with Jesperson.

Looking back, Melissa recalls how even the doting dad had his dark side. He tortured some of the cats that wandered around her childhood farm. He told her once that he knew how to kill a person and get away with it. And once, just before his final murder, she was riding in the cab of his truck when she found a roll of duct tape under his pillow and a pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment. Her dad didn’t smoke.

Jesperson is currently serving a life sentence for his murders, and Melissa spent years grappling with the conflicting emotions of it all. How could a killer also be able to love his children? Was it just an act? In her case, at least, she finally found a semblance of an answer. After visiting Jesperson in prison, her grandfather came to talk with her, and what he told her was both chilling and final: “He said that he had had thoughts of killing you children.” For Melissa, that was enough to finally let go.

7 Classes Of Killers

Is this the face of the Zodiac Killer?

There are all kinds of different serial killers. Over the years, they’ve been neatly filed into different categories, so we can easily cross-check who killed whom and for what reason. Visionary killers are the ones who suffer psychotic breaks and hear voices (“God made me do it.”). Mission-oriented killers decide that it’s their duty to rid the world of a certain population, such as prostitutes or African Americans.

Hedonistic killers, the third classification, make up the majority of serial killers. This category is further broken down into three subcategories: comfort killers, lust killers, and thrill killers. Comfort killers see killing as an unfortunate speed bump in their main mission. They don’t necessarily enjoy it, but they do it because they need to get something else, like money or a job promotion. Lust killers, of course, are the sexual killers. Some of them can’t get sexual gratification without violence, while for others, violence just heightens the sensation.

Perhaps the most sensational serial killers, at least in a media sense, are thrill killers. They’re probably what most people consider to be the most heinous killers for one simple reason: They kill just because they like it so much. They might spend weeks finding the right target, reveling in the planning of it as much as in the execution. The Zodiac Killer probably summed it up the most succinctly in one of his letters to the police: “I like killing people because it is so much fun.”

6 The Karolinska Study

Doctors want to get rid of violence gene

Is killing in our genes? Jari Tiihonen thinks so. Tiihonen is a professor at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute who took blood samples from 794 criminals in Finnish prisons and ran DNA tests on them to see if he could isolate a particular genetic mutation in repeat offenders of violent crimes.

He did. MAOA is a gene in the X-chromosome that plays a role in the production of dopamine, which is linked to aggression. It’s also known as the “warrior gene.” CDH13 is another gene, one that’s partially responsible for the brain’s neuronal connections. According to the study, people with variants in both of these genes are 13 times more likely to commit violent crimes. A separate study in the US came to the same conclusions.

The warrior gene could also help explain why most serial killers are men: “Since MAOA is located in the X-chromosome, men have only one copy of the gene and women have two copies,” Tiihonen told Discovery News. What that means is that while women could have one variant gene, they also typically have a normal one as well that can sort of act against it. Men aren’t so lucky.

So are some people natural-born killers? Tiihonen was quick to say that a lot of different factors have to combine to create the perfect storm. He believes he’s only picked out one of those factors.

5 The Neuroscientist With Killer Genes

Some people may have the warrior gene, but what happens when genetics gets personal? Dahmer’s dad had violent urges and fantasies, but he never carried them out. Keith Jesperson’s great-uncle had a record of sexual sadism and committed suicide in a mental hospital by driving a nail into his skull. Was there a push somewhere along the line that turned Keith into a murderer while Uncle Charlie just got the crazy stick?

Neuroscientist James Fallon thinks something like that might have been the case, and his test subject is the most personal of all: himself. He’s not a murderer or an avowed psychopath, but he’s always had a seemingly irrational interest in the brains of murderers—as a matter of fact, it’s something of an obsession for him. And while he’d always viewed it as a healthy dose of curiosity, this particular obsession may go back for centuries.

It started when his elderly mother suggested he look into his own lineage because “there were some cuckoos back there.” So Fallon dug up some ancient history and made a startling discovery. In 1667, his direct great-grandfather, a man named Thomas Cornell, was executed for killing his own mother. Seven of Cornell’s descendants were involved in murder scandals, including none other than Lizzie “Took an Ax” Borden. His family tree was sprouting killers like rotten apples.

So Fallon took some scans of his own brain and found that, physically, his brain was identical to the serial killers he’d been studying professionally all these years. Specifically, his brain lacked major activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with impulse control and ethical behavior. It’s one of the hallmarks of psychopathy, and Fallon fit the profile like a dream. So why isn’t he a killer when so many others with the same brain scans are? Fallon chalks it up to a pleasant childhood and caring parents, something which he says many serial killers don’t have. He looks at it as if he dodged a bullet, saying to NPR, “Had I been abused, we might not be sitting here today.”

4 The Abuse Excuse

The Childhood of a Serial Killer (Part 1 of 3)

James Fallon’s pegging of abuse as a mitigating factor in serial killing is a controversial one.

In many camps, especially in recent years, it’s become acceptable to point to a child’s traumatic childhood as an excuse for their actions later in life. The serial killer who was beaten as a child. The spree killer who suffered a severe childhood head injury. The pedophile raised as a victim of pedophilia. It’s a common background with serial killers.

Even Ted Bundy, who in interviews spoke of his pleasantly normal childhood, might have had a more twisted childhood than he was able—or willing—to recall. He was raised by a grandfather with violent mood swings who would abuse him, and according to his aunt, three-year-old Ted would often sneak into her room in the middle of the night and slip butcher’s knives under her blankets and then stand there in the darkness with a “glint in his eye.” He was moved away from his grandfather at the age of four, but according to some people, the damage was already done.

The fact that abuse often plays a major role in the development of serial killers isn’t what’s being contested. The controversy lies in whether or not childhood abuse is a valid excuse for their actions. For every serial killer who says someone beat him, there are a dozen people who had terrible childhoods but didn’t resort to murder. The “abuse excuse,” as it’s been termed, can be dangerous because it takes the responsibility away from the individual and puts it perilously close to an argument for self-defense.

3 A Damaged Brain


In 1986, criminal psychologist Dr. Dorothy Lewis published a study that looked at 15 convicted killers on death row. All of them, Lewis found, had suffered head injuries in their childhoods. Most of them didn’t remember the injuries or where the scars came from—Lewis had to check childhood medical records to figure out what had happened to them. In another study, Lewis looked at 14 juveniles who’d been given the death sentence. Again, she found that each and every one of them had suffered brain damage as a child.

Although other psychologists have criticized Lewis’s work, saying that most of her studies have been performed on small groups with no controls, the evidence is compelling.

But it raises an interesting moral question, similar to the questions raised by Adrian Raine’s research on underdeveloped brains: Even if some serial killers are shaped by brain damage, by the time it manifests as murder, does it even matter? Can murder be a symptom? And if it is, is the underlying issue something worth trying to treat?

2 A Cure For Killing

BTK Killer: The Decades Long Hunt For The Monster | Born To Kill? | Real Crime

The theory that serial killers can’t be held accountable for their actions raises another important question: If the theory is true, can a killer be cured? A lot of people don’t think so, at least in regard to serial killers who are psychopaths. Forensic psychologist Dr. Nigel Blackwood thinks there will never be a cure for psychopathy because, he says, psychopaths don’t fear punishment the way normal people do. That also makes psychopathic killers notoriously hard to treat in prison.

But they can be managed. Dennis Rader has been in prison since 2005, and he’s shown good behavior all across the board. During his conversations with Rader, author and psychologist Scott A. Bonn, PhD, found that Rader’s mental outlook favored a reward system of treatment in which he was granted small privileges for good behavior. If he goes to bed on time, he gets to watch TV. He’s come to look forward to those rewards, which likely provide a focus for the reward-oriented psychopathic urges that led him to kill in the first place.

1 The Family Men

BTK Confession, Part 1 – the Otero Family Murders

In 2003, a young, exuberant woman named Kerri walked down the aisle of a small church toward Darian Rawson, her husband-to-be. Holding her arm until the moment he gave her away was her father, a bespectacled man with thinning hair who was the president of the Christ Lutheran Church council and a respected Boy Scout leader.

Two years later, the FBI knocked on her door and told her that her father was none other than the notorious BTK killer who had been on the loose since his first murder in 1974. Over a period of 31 years, Dennis Rader had murdered 10 people, including two young boys, stalked countless women, and defiled the dead bodies of many of his victims. He killed his seventh victim, Nancy Fox, while his wife, Paula, was three months pregnant with Kerri. He killed his next three while teaching his children the difference between right and wrong. At the time of Kerri’s wedding, perhaps even as he walked his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day, he was planning to take his 11th victim.

The question that so many people have asked is, how could they not have known? After 34 years of marriage, how could his wife not have known that the man who slept beside her every night was a depraved murderer? Yet Kerri claims that the family had no idea.

“He was everything,” she told The Kansas City Star. “He was just a dad. He taught us about nature. How to fish. How to go camping. How to garden. He taught me a ton. He took us on good vacations. He was pretty Boy Scouty—no swearing.” Rader’s son called him “a perfect father.”

And although Rader is the poster boy for the inexplicable monster in disguise, the exception to the rule that serial killers have to be deranged loners, he’s not the only one by far. Robert Yates, who murdered at least 15 prostitutes, has been married since 1976, raised five children, and was described as “a generous and dedicated father” in a statement by his family. Gary Ridgway murdered 49 women in between taking his son out for doughnuts.

Those are perhaps the most frightening of all. Until we understand why and how someone can have a seemingly happy life while still reveling in taking the lives of others, well, anybody could be a killer. You wouldn’t even know.

Eli Nixon is the author of Son of Tesla, a novel about family, honor, forgiveness, and Nikola Tesla’s planet-destroying robot army. The action-packed sequel, Mind of Tesla, has even bigger robots. It’s due for release this October.

fact checked by Jamie Frater