Mindhunter takes us all the way back to the beginning of our modern-day fascination with serial killers — it even captures the moment the very term "serial killer" was coined. Based on John E. Douglas' book by the same name, the series reveals how psychological profiling was used in the investigation of a string of serial murders in the 1970s.
Sadly, serial killers aren't a relic of that era, so we're still researching their behavior and motives. To get an idea of what the criminology community now knows about serial killers, we spoke with
Peter Vronsky, author of Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters and Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters.
If there's one thing he makes perfectly clear, it's that findings about serial killers, no matter how consistent they may seem, aren't predictive. Whether we're looking at someone's upbringing, mental health, or general behavior, we cannot say that someone is likely a serial killer simply because they share a few characteristics with people who
are. But, of course, there's more to it than that.
Ahead, Vronsky helps us narrow down seven things criminologists understand about these intriguing — yet chilling — figures.
The Macdonald Triad is not a golden rule. For the record, nothing is a golden rule when it comes to understanding serial killers. But the one that gets thrown around as universal truth most frequently is known as the triad of evil, or the Macdonald Triad, named for forensic psychologist J.M. Macdonald. Using results from what's now considered a small and unrepresentative study, he suggested that three forms of early behavior are consistent among people who grow up to commit serial murders: bed-wetting, arson, and hurting or mutilating animals. Although subsequent studies were able to recreate these results to an extent, it shouldn't be taken as a given that every child who wets their bed and sets things on fire will become a serial killer. "The Macdonald Triad is symptomatic of childhood maladjustment, but not necessarily of a future serial killer," Vronsky says.
But serial killers' childhoods still play a major role in their future. Vronsky tells us that, at this point, researchers have found a few consistencies across most (but not all) serial killers' childhoods: sexual or physical abuse, abandonment, loneliness, lack of stability, and general trauma. One key difference he highlights is that, although some serial killers grow up with distant and even abusive relationships with their parents, others were raised under "stifling maternal overprotectiveness." A whole host of other environmental factors may or may not have a hand in moulding a serial killer, though. Vronsky says this is a matter of endless speculation, and at the end of the day, we're still waiting on clear-cut answer as to why serial killers become, well, serial killers. "We don’t know what the ‘X-factor’ is that leads one abused child to become a rare serial killer but not most others," he says. "At this point, I would not entirely rule out old-fashioned Biblical evil as a factor, either — whatever that might be."
Most murders start as a fantasy. In addition to their home life, many serial killers have violent fantasies from an early age (but, again, not all people who dream up scenes of murder and revenge end up to be serial killers). Vronsky says that these fantasies can be sexual in nature or solely occupied with destruction. What's more important is that these ideas are formed early on and nurtured until a serial killer takes their first victim, at which point the killer realizes the real thing isn't as satisfying as what they'd imagined. "Disappointed, they are now compelled to attempt [murder] again in the hope of 'improving' on how they act out their fantasy," Vronsky says. "Every time they fail to realize the fantasy, they find the compulsive need to try it again."
We can look at their motives to better understand serial killers. Naturally, one of the biggest points of fascination with any serial killer is the "why" of it all — but that can be difficult to answer. The most common motive appears to be an overwhelming desire for control, but Vronsky says there are many, many other motives that a serial killer may cite. There are "hedonistic" serial killers who find pleasure in murder, whether they're doing it out of lust, for profit, or for the pure thrill of it. "Missionary" serial killers kill for a cause, with the conviction that their actions are morally right (see: those who kill people with different political views or religious beliefs, or those who target marginalized groups). "Visionary" killers, Vronsky says, are a slightly separate group, due to their mental health: "They have ‘visions’ or hear ‘voices’ urging them to kill. Visionary serial killers are extremely rare." Most serial killers, he explains, don't fit the legal definition of insane.
Or, we can look at the crime scenes they leave behind. Law enforcement officials prefer to categorize serial killers by types of crime scenes. By these standards, there are two "types" of serial killers: organized and disorganized. Vronsky says that organized killers, as their name would suggest, follow a clearer pattern in their crimes: They abduct, kill, then dump their victims' bodies. They usually rely on a set "kit" of weapons and clean up evidence as they go. Organized killers tend to lead seemingly regular lives as spouses, employees, and generally sociable people. Meanwhile, disorganized killers are the opposite. "Disorganized crime scenes are left behind by anti-social, recluse-type serial killers who use brute force to overcome their victim, often using improvised weapons found at the crime scene," Vronsky says. Driven by impulse, they rarely do anything to cover their tracks or hide the bodies of their victims. They're also more likely to already have criminal records and dysfunctional personal lives. As you can tell, this is a very day-and-night way to think about serial killers. "Very few fit perfectly into either organized or disorganized," Vronsky says. "Thus, the FBI came up with a relatively meaningless 'mixed' category, which most serial killers fit into." Focusing on a killer's crime scene won't help you understand their motivations, he says, but it can help investigators eliminate multiple suspects at once.
The details can be the most telling. As Mindhunter author John E. Douglas himself said, “If you want to understand the artist, look at his work.” Vronsky tells us that, in some cases, investigators discover the most when they consider what the killer didn't have to do, but did anyway — from taking "trophies" from their victims to leaving behind messages at the scene of the crime. Without taking these smaller extra steps, the murder wouldn't feel complete to the killer, Vronksy says: "All these unnecessary elements are signatures coming deep from a serial killer’s mind and fantasy."
How we study serial killers is changing. While Mindhunter sticks to the importance of psychological profiling in studying serial killers, nowadays researchers are paying more attention to killers' locations. Vronsky says that most serial killers follow a geographical pattern in finding, killing, and disposing of their victims. Once investigators know the location of at least three crime scenes, computer algorithms can analyze that information and narrow down where a killer's home base might be. "It’s the next frontier of profiling," Vronsky says.