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.
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 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
- 32% 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.
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 has 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
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.
- 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
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