Serial Killer Causes
What turns a person into a serial killer? There’s no shortage of theories. Unfortunately none of them is completely convincing.
One of the most intriguing (if controversial) comes from the little-known field of paleopsychology. According to this view, our civilized brains are built on a primitive, animalistic core known as the R-complex. Deep inside every one of us are the savage instincts of our apelike ancestors. For the vast majority of people, this basic, brute nature is kept in check by our more highly evolved faculties—reason, intelligence, and logic. But for various reasons, a small fraction of people are controlled by their primitive brains. In essence, advocates of this view see serial killers as throwbacks—bloodthirsty, Stone Age savages living in the modern world.
Freudian theorists take a similar view, though they talk about the id instead of the R-complex and see serial killers not as latter-day apemen but as profoundly stunted personalities, fixated at an infantile stage of psychosexual development. Because of their traumatic upbringings, compulsive killers never progress beyond the emotional development of a two-year-old. Put a porcelain vase in a toddler’s hands and it will end up in little pieces. Serial killers act the same way. They love to destroy things. To them, a human being is just a breakable object—something to be taken apart for pleasure.
Other explanations run the gamut from the physiological (head injuries, hormonal imbalances, genetic deficiencies) to the sociological (class resentment, overpopulation, too much exposure to media violence). There are even environmental theories. One expert has proposed that serial murderers suffer from a disease caused, among other factors, by toxic pollutants.
Whatever other factors may or may not be involved, one common denominator seems to be that they all have an atrocious family background. The appalling Upbringing of most, if not all, serial killers clearly contributes to their pathology, turning them into people so full of hate and self-loathing that sadistic murder becomes their substitute for intimacy (see Sadism). Still, even a truly dreadful upbringing doesn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation. After all, countless human beings suffer traumatic childhoods without growing up to be serial lust killers.
Ultimately, the root causes of serial murder are unknowable—as mysterious in their way as the sources of Mozart’s musicianship or Einstein’s mathematical genius. Perhaps the only possible answer is the one provided by the great American novelist Herman Melville in his masterpiece Billy Budd. Pondering the depravity of the villainous John Claggart, who sets out to destroy the innocent hero for no discernible reason, Melville concludes that Claggart’s “evil nature” was “not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living” but was “born with him and innate.”
Sometimes, in short, “elemental evil” simply takes a human form.