Researchers from Radford University in Virginia have compared the childhood abuse history of 50 convicted US serial killers classified as ‘lust killers’ against the rates of childhood abuse reported in the general population. Their results indicate considerably higher levels of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse in the serial killer study group.
The infamous “Jack the Ripper” case in Whitechapel in London in the 1880s sparked a national curiosity into cases of serial murder. The air of mystery when multiple murders are carried out by just one individual only adds to this intrigue. Research into why such individuals kill and kill repeatedly has been abundant since this time and as science develops it continues to grow.
The factors which lead a person to embark on a quest to take the lives of others continue to perplex psychologists and criminologists trying to figure out what makes one person go on to be a serial killer and not another.
The Relationship Between Serial Killers and Childhood Abuse
Childhood abuse is a factor that has received much attention in the media and academic circles in recent years, fuelled by the claims of many serial murderers that they suffered child abuse at the hands of a parent or guardian. While evidence has shown not all victims of child abuse grow up to be criminals or abusers themselves, there is a heightened risk associated with childhood trauma and anti-social behaviors for personality disorders and criminal activity in later adult life.
“Let me state unequivocally that there is no such thing as the person who at age thirty-five suddenly changes from being perfectly normal and erupts into totally evil, disruptive, murderous behavior. The behaviors that are precursors to murder have been present and developing in that person’s life for a long, long time – since childhood.” – Robert Ressler, ‘Whoever Fights Monsters’
A study carried out by Mitchell and Aamodt from Radford University in Virginia in 2005 aimed to explore the rate of child abuse in a large sample of convicted serial murderers and compare this against the rate of child abuse in the general population. The aim of this research was to see if there is a relationship between an abusive childhood and serial killing later in life.
The prevalence of child abuse in serial killers is not a new topic. Researchers who study serial killers have noted that a large percentage have suffered childhood abuse and trauma leading to the suggestion that this could have contributed to their murderous behavior in later life. The term ‘abuse’ includes abuse personally suffered and/or abuse witnessed against another which involved violence or sexual acts.
Psychopathic Killers and Childhood Abuse
A number of studies have focused on some of the most well-known cases of serial murder and serial killers who have reported child abuse in their history. John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgeway, and Ed Gein are three infamous serial killers who were physically and verbally abused as children by a parent.
Rebecca Taylor LaBrode wrote in her paper ‘Etiology of the Psychopathic Serial Killer’, “Other historical factors common in serial killers are abuse, trauma, insecure attachment, loss or abandonment of a parent or caretaker, antisocial behavior, head injury and low arousal levels.” Furthermore, Mitchell and Aamodt wrote, “Familial contributions include the physical absence or lack of personal involvement by one or both parents and alcohol or drug dependency by one or both parents.”
Psychopathic killers, those who show psychopathic traits in their personalities and behaviors, have become increasingly of interest to scientists and particularly neuroscientists. Along with forensic psychologists and criminologists, they are looking for differences within the brains of psychopathic serial killers as a further way to understand their behavior.
Serial Killers and Childhood Abuse Statistics
Between 1979 and 1983 FBI profiler Robert Ressler headed the Criminal Personality Research Project where along with colleagues he interviewed 36 convicted murderers inside prisons across the US. At that time it was the first study and most comprehensive examination carried out focusing on violent criminals who had committed multiple murders, their psychological and behavioral characteristics, their histories, and their motives.
Ressler wrote in his book ‘Whoever Fights Monsters’ in 1992, “All the murderers – every single one – were subjected to serious emotional abuse during their childhoods.” He reports 40% of the serial killers interviewed reported being physically beaten and abused in their childhoods, with 70% reporting they had “witnessed or been part of sexually stressful events”as children.
Serial killers are categorized in accordance with their method and motives for killing. Michael Newton’s (2000) The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers is a comprehensive book detailing serial killers and the categories in which they fall into. Furthermore, the book highlights the realities of their crimes and psychology against the myths and speculation often found in media reporting on such high-profile crimes. Newton has estimated there are around 1,500 known serial killers in history confirming the act of serial murder is indeed quite rare.
In the 2005 child abuse and serial murder study by Mitchell and Aamodt, Newton’s data was used to select 50 serial killers from within the United States who fell into the ‘lust killer’ category, where some form of sexual gratification was involved in their killing.
Childhood abuse was categorized as abuse suffered by the individual when they were under the age of 18 years. Finding credible and accurate information regarding these killers is challenging and the authors focused on 48 books, 54 websites, psychiatrist related reports, and 140 news articles and used the following categories:
- Physical abuse – causing or allowing a nonaccidental physical injury
- Sexual abuse – any sexual activity, unhealthy or meeting the criminal definition
- Psychological abuse – acts causing emotional conflict or are psychologically damaging
- Neglect – failing or refusing to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter, healthcare, or emotional nurturing
Their results suggest that childhood abuse among the serial killer population is higher than the general population across all types of abuse except neglect. Of the serial killer study group:
- 36% suffered physical abuse,
- 26% sexual abuse,
- 50% psychological abuse,
- 18% neglect,
- 32% reported no abuse at all.
The authors also included data on the serial killer group when classified into organized, disorganized, and mixed offenders and found no difference in the frequency of abuse across these sub-types. For example, those who suffered more psychological abuse did not become a more organized killer compared to a disorganized killer. The percentages of abuse suffered in each type of abuse were very similar across the three offender types. 25 of the 50 were organized killers, 11 were disorganized and 14 were mixed.
Interpretation of Research Statistics
For this information to mean anything we want to know how the percentages of abuse suffered by these killers compare to the percentage of abuse suffered by the general population. Do serial killers have more abuse in their history than the everyday person?
As the graph below demonstrates, the results are quite striking with a very clear higher percentage of abuse in all abuse categories, bar neglect, suffered by the serial killer group compared to the general population.
For example, the serial killer group had six times more reported physical abuse during childhood than the general population. Furthermore, this level remained at six times higher regardless of whether the killer was an organized, disorganized or mixed offender. In 2001, 3% of the general population were reported to have suffered sexual abuse. This is in stark contrast to the 26% who reported abuse within this serial killer study group. A percentage almost 9 times higher than the general population statistics.
The biggest difference was seen under the psychological abuse category where the rates of abuse were 2% in the general population and 50% in the serial killer group studied. The authors claim organized killers were most likely to have such psychological abuse in their history and disorganized killers the least likely. Overall this data suggest that childhood abuse is quite strikingly more prevalent among serial killers than it is in the general population in the United States.
The reliability of the information regarding any childhood abuse suffered by the serial killers in question must be interpreted with caution, however, as it may not be entirely accurate. All of the serial killers in the study have discussed and openly highlighted issues of childhood abuse and often cite such abuse as the causes of their behavior and we should be aware that they may not have been truthful.
The general population, on the other hand, maybe grossly under-reported on the actual levels of abuse suffered. The general population has no reason to publicize abuse suffered; they are not using it to explain any behavior or potentially have anything to gain by reporting such experiences. Equally, it should be said that some criminals who have a reputation they wish to maintain may not have reported incidents of child abuse or do not consider it to be abuse.
All of these points should be taken into account when interpreting the true nature of these findings. The proportion of the serial killers included in this study with no reported abuse in their childhood is a significant finding as it highlights that while childhood abuse may be a factor, it is not the only factor that contributes to such behavior.
We all should be careful not to generalize these findings across all serial killers and note those included in this study were a group of categorized lust killers. Other types of killers may not show the same pattern regarding childhood abuse. However, the differences found in this study are indeed great. They do suggest, even with these various factors taken into account, that there is a higher prevalence of child abuse within the serial killer population when compared directly with the normal population. This is a finding of significant interest to criminologists and psychologists studying serial killers and the factors which may have contributed to their behavior.
- LaBrode, R.T. (2007) Etiology of the Psychopathic Serial Killer: An Analysis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, Psychopathy, and Serial Killer Personality and Crime Scene Characteristics, Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, Vol 7, Iss. 2, pp151- 160
- Mitchell, H., and Aamodt, M.G. (2005) The Incidence of Child Abuse in Serial Killers. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Vol 20, Issue 1, pp40-47
- Ressler, R. K., & Shachtman, T. (1992). Whoever fights monsters. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Guy, F. (2015, Jul 24) Serial Killers And Childhood Abuse: Is There A Link?. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2015/07/serial-killers-childhood-abuse/
- Journey Into Darkness The world’s top pioneer and expert on criminal profiling delves further into the criminal mind in a range of chilling cases involving rape, arson, child molestation, and murder.
- The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers Accurate, unglamorized information on hundreds of serial murder cases including the Sniper Killers; the Green River Killer; Harold Shipman and Aileen Wuornos.
- Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters Vronsky not only offers sound theories on what makes a serial killer but also provides concrete suggestions on how to survive an encounter with one.