Crime Research

Serial Killers And Childhood Abuse: Is There A Link?

The infamous “Jack the Ripper” case in Whitechapel in London in the 1880’s sparked a national interest and curiosity into the cases of serial murder. The air of mystery when a sequence of murders occur thought to be carried out by the same 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 Child Abuse and Serial Killers

Childhood abuse is a factor which 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 abusers, criminals and murderers there is a heightened risk associated with childhood trauma and anti-social behaviours for personality disorders and criminal activity in later adult life.

A study carried out by Mitchell and Aamodt from the Radford University in Virginia in 2005 aimed to explore the rate of childhood abuse in a large sample of convicted serial murderers and compare this against the rate of childhood abuse in the general population.

The aim of this research was to see if there is indeed a relationship between childhood abuse and serial murder. 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.

Related: FBI’s Robert Ressler: The Psychological Profiling of Serial Killers

In the child abuse and serial murder study, this 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.

The prevalence of child abuse amongst serial killers is not a new topic and it has been thought to be a contributing factor for many years. Researchers who study serial killers have noted that a large percentage have suffered childhood abuse leading to the suggestion that this could have contributed to their murderous behaviour in later life.  Abuse includes personal abuse and witnessed violence or sexual events during childhood.

Psychopathic Killers and Childhood Abuse

There have been a number of studies which have focused on some of the most high profile and well known cases of serial murder, such as John Wayne Gacy and Ed Gein and have reported child abuse amongst their history (LaBrode, 2007). Psychopathic killers, those who show psychopathic traits in their personalities and behaviours, have become increasing 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 behaviour.

Serial Killers and Childhood Abuse Statistics

In this 2005 study, 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 non accidental 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. Of the 50 serial killers included in the study, key findings were:

  • 36% suffered physical abuse, 
  • 26% sexual abuse, 
  • 50% psychological abuse, 
  • 18% neglect 
  • 2% having no reported abuse at all

The authors also included data on the 50 serial killers when organised 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 organised killer compared to disorganised killer. The percentages of abuse suffered in each type of abuse were very similar across the three offender types.  25 of the 50 were organised killers, 11 were disorganised 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 compares to the percentage of abuse suffered by the general population. Do serial killers have more abuse in their history than the everyday person?

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.

Source: Data from Mitchell, H., and Aamodt, M.G. (2005) The Incidence of Child Abuse in Serial Killers

For example the serial killer group have 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 a organised, disorganised or mixed offender. 3% of the general population were reported to have suffered sexual abuse in 2001, whereas 26% of this serial killer group were; this is almost 9 times higher than the general population statistics.

The biggest difference was seen under the psychological abuse category were the levels were 2% in the general population and 50% in the serial killer group.  The authors claim organised killers were most likely to have such psychological abuse in their history and disorganised killers the least likely. Overall this data suggests that childhood abuse is quite strikingly more prevalent within serial killers as it is in the general population in the United States.

Related: Can Criminal Behavior Be Predicted Using Brain Scans?

Noting that child abuse is often unreported, it should be said that the figures for the general population may actually be  higher.  Furthermore the reliability of the information regarding any childhood abuse by the serial killers in question must be interpreted with caution 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 behaviour 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 have no reason to publicize abuse suffered; they are not using it to explain behaviour or give reason for such behaviour.

Equally some criminals who have a reputation they wish to maintain may not have reported incidents of childhood abuse or do not consider it to be abuse.  All 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 which contributes to such behaviour.

We all should be careful not to generalize these findings across all serial killers and note these were are group of categorized lust killers, other types of killers may not show the same pattern regarding childhood abuse. However, the differences found within this study are indeed great. They do suggest, even with these various factors taken into account, that there is a trend of higher prevalence of child abuse within the serial killer population when compared directly with the normal population. This is a finding of great interest to criminologists and psychologists studying serial killers and the factors which may have contributed to their behaviour.

The Incidence of Child Abuse in Serial Killers

Journal: Police and Criminal Psychology
Authors: Heather Mitchell and Michael G. Aamodt, Radford University

ABSTRACT
Fifty serial killers who murdered for the primary goal of attaining sexual gratification, termed lust killers, were studied to determine the prevalence of childhood abuse. Information regarding the childhood abuse sustained by each killer was obtained primarily from biographical books, newspaper articles, and online sites. Abuse was categorized into physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect and was then compared to societal norms from 2001. Abuse of all types excluding neglect was significantly higher in the serial killer population. For serial killers, the prevalence of physical abuse was 36%; sexual abuse was 26%; and psychological abuse was 50%. Neglect was equally prevalent in the serial killer (18%) and societal norm populations.

Read the full paper


Further References:

To cite this article: 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/

Related Books:

  • 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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17 Comments

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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.

  • Thank you so much for providing me with the citation in APA format! That is very much appreciated!

  • […] explore even further, I found another source, “Serial Killers and Child Abuse: Is there a Link?” by Fiona Guy, a psychology and […]

  • 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

  • […] lives. Yet, I refuse to believe that. It is still an on-going study if there is a link between serial killers and child abuse, and yes, there are a lot more people being abused but did not commit crimes as many will argue. […]

  • 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.