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 methods and motives for killing. Michael Newton’s (2000) The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers is a comprehensive book detailing serial killers and the categories into 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 subtypes. 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 was 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 were 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 cause of their behavior and we should be aware that they may not have been truthful.
The general population, on the other hand, may be 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.
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I found this post really interesting. Traumatic and abusive childhoods are often blamed for violent behaviour and you often wonder whether this is true or just an excuse. When it comes to serial killers we really still don't know what has led to them committing such acts. It was interesting to see the link between serial killers and childhood abuse, thank you for posting this article.
Hi there, you are very welcome and I am glad you found it interesting. There have been many serial killers who have stated they suffered childhood abuse as a child, however equally there have been many who have claimed this with no evidence to support it. This study I found very interesting as it collated a large number of cases and backgrounds and compared them against the norms within the everyday population. The result of physical and sexual abuse been much higher (6 and 9 times higher) in the serial killer sample studied compared to the general population, does definitely suggest a link between these experiences and their criminal behaviour in later life. Another avenue of exploration with regards to understanding how a person develops and enters into serial crime and especially serial murder.
This is really helpful to me since I am doing my senior paper on the reason behind serial killers killing people. This topic interests me, and thanks to this article, I now know that most are traumatized one way or the other growing up. Thank you!
Hi Brianna, that’s great. I’m really pleased you enjoyed the article and found it useful for your paper!
Fiona, I am looking for an author for this article, is it you? I am doing a college level paper and have to cite everything in APA format. This is an excellent article and I would love to be able to use it! Thanks so much.
Hi Chasdity, yes I am the author of the article, I am glad you have found it useful. If you need the citation in APA format you can use the following:
Guy, F. (2015, November 10). Serial Killers and Childhood Abuse: Is There A Link?. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2015/07/serial-killers-childhood-abuse/
Good luck with the rest of your studies!
Thank you so much for providing me with the citation in APA format! That is very much appreciated!
I’m doing my college exam paper on “Does childhood abuse impact serial killers?” I find serial killers, why and how they kill very interesting. This article gave me a lot of information I really enjoyed it
Hi Jalen, that’s great, I am glad you found the article helpful. It is a fascinating topic. Good luck with your exam paper!
great article. I don’t think there isn’t a question that their is a connection. Matter of fact it’s the very foundation. The fascination of why they do is relatively easy to answer as well as the how aspect. would you likever a unique insight
The real connection between serial killers and childhood abuse is the continued sense of being powerless. As children we are used and abused by adults and we have no power to stop it. As we grow up we are still used and abused by others, at school, at work, in general. I think we try to find a way of being powerful and who is more powerful than God, who has the ability to take life when he wants to? People also for get that those who do not become serial killers out of fear of either express such power or going to jail, may act out in other ways. Being a junkie, a prostitute, a thief, a menace to society in other ways or everyone’s favorite actor/actress are all ways that abused children think they will find that power. I know these things simply because I felt that lack of and need for power as I went through therapy for physical and emotional abuse. I felt how empty it was and how wonderful it might feel to fill the whole with the blood of others.
I think there’s a link. I mean, 99% of abuse victims don’t become serial killers, but I do believe a high % of serial killers suffered from childhood abuse.
Depends on the person, the extent of the abuse, the brain wiring, etc…One of my friends suffered from abuse from an uncle and also emotional abuse from his parents, and he is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Very weird and in his own planet, but nice to a fault.
Others I know who suffered childhood abuse definitely have suffered emotionally, but aren’t violent or sadistic. More just self-destructive with substances.
This article was really interesting, but I think there was a typo. It says ¨2% having reported no abuse at all¨, however in the paper attached, the number is 32%
Hi there, you are absolutely right, well spotted, thanks! This has now been corrected to read “32% having reported no abuse at all”, matching the data displayed in the graph further down.
Great info. Lucky me I discovered your website by accident (stumbleupon). I’ve saved it for later!
Hi Fiona – In light of the fact that they just caught the Golden State Killer, I became curious and ran across this very interesting and informative article. During the series on the Golden State Killer, they did a profile on him and a history of child abuse was presented as likely being part of his personal history. It doesn’t surprise me.
Concerning those serial killers who claim not to have experienced a history of child abuse, I have questions. My biggest question is how do some of these people who claim not to have suffered abuse judge that they did not suffer abuse? Were they given any definition by professionals/authorities of what constitutes “child abuse”? I ask this because many people grow up thinking their family is just like any one else’s family. They know no different, having grown up in a particular situation, and thus they may understand their parents as being like anyone else’s parents. They may believe that they grew up in the standard, “normal” family situation, when in fact they may NOT have. So, previous to questioning some of these serial killers, has anyone informed them of just what constitutes child abuse? Or are they questioned by psychologists/others in such a way that these professionals know what to look for in their answers? ( I suspect the answer is that they already know what to look for in answers given by serial killers).
Hi Fiona! I am a student at Auburn University, and I am using this article as a source for a research proposal I am doing. I just have one question, is this article peer reviewed?
Hi Abigail, I am delighted to hear you have found the article useful for your research proposal. The article is not peer reviewed, but the research study the article discusses (Mitchell, H., and Aamodt, M.G. (2005) The Incidence of Child Abuse in Serial Killers) has been published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology which I believe is a peer reviewed journal. You can find a link to that study and others mentioned in the references section under the article. I hope that helps and best of luck with your research!
Hi Fiona this article is helpful to me as well. Thanks for posting it. I will use it for my research paper in my Intro. Psychology Behavioral Research college level class. Thanks for the citation.Do you have any other article about serial killers? I need six articles in total.
Hi, thanks for your comments and I am glad you have found the article helpful for your paper. There are a lot of articles on the site on serial killers and related topics. Here is the link that will take you to the full list – https://www.crimetraveller.org/tag/serial-murder/. Best of luck with your research paper!