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What Is the Definition of a Serial Killer?
A serial killer is defined as an individual who murders three or more people over the course of a month or more, with a “cooling-down” period between each victim. These murders are separate events, typically driven by a compulsion for psychological gratification.
Serial killers are often grouped into four categories, distinguished by the motives that trigger the killings. Here are the four types of serial killers:
- Hedonistic: Hedonistic serial killers are compelled by the thrill of it, sexual gratification, or financial gain. Jeffrey Dahmer is an example. He fantasized obsessively about discovering his perfect lover, someone beautiful, submissive, and eternal.
- Power/Control: These serial killers are hooked on the satisfaction of having complete control and gaining power over their victims. They enjoy the process of murder, stalking, capturing, and torturing their “prey.” They are often patient and sadistic, finding fulfillment in dominating and humiliating victims. They also kept mementos to “manifest” their power. Ted Bundy is a key example. When asked why he took photos of his victims, he said, “When you work hard to do something right, you don’t want to forget it.”
- Mission: Mission killers are motivated by revenge, hatred of a specific group or person, or the need to “cleanse” the world. They believe that their specific mission (killing a certain race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, prostitutes, drug users, the homeless, etc.) will benefit the world. Mission killers are rarely mentally ill; they may be stable, employed, and long-term residents of the territory they choose to kill within. They tend to be ritualistic and may see themselves as an “avenging angel.” Some even believe they are doing the victim a favor by ending their life. Joseph Paul Franklin is a classic example; he targeted Jews, African Americans, and interracial couples. In his early life, he became invested in evangelical Christianity, Nazism, the National Socialist White People’s Party, and the Ku Klux Klan.
- Visionary: Visionary killers suffer from some sort of psychosis. They are prone to delusions and hallucinations, often feeling commanded to kill by them. Common “messengers” of these deadly demands are God or demons. These are referred to as “demon-mandated” or “God-mandated” killings. Visionary killers seemingly select victims at random, and no patterns have been pinpointed by investigators or forensic psychologists. David Berkowitz, aka the “Son of Sam,” is a prime example. In handwritten letters to the police prior to arrest, he claimed that Satan was ordering him to kill.
What Is the Difference Between a Serial Killer and a Mass Murderer?
Mass murderers kill many people at once in close geographical proximity. For example, Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator of the devastating 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, killed 32 people and wounded many others in two locations on campus. The FBI defines mass murder as murdering four or more people during an incident with no “cooling-off period” between victims.
Many mass murders end with the death of the killer, either by suicide or law enforcement. Such is the case for the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, in which 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. He had an arsenal of 23 guns, discharging more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition within 10 minutes. Fifty-eight people were killed, and more than 800 were injured. He was found dead in his hotel room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His motive still remains unknown despite a thorough FBI investigation.