It seems that everywhere you look, there’s another book out about a serial killer. One that operates in a big city. One that travels the countryside. One that eats his victims. One that is a former cop. Or a former priest. Or maybe even a former writer. These fictitious characters are based, of course, on the actual serial killers in the past.
If you are gearing towards introducing a serial killer into the pages of your next great novel, be aware of the distinctions between a serial killer and a mass murderer. As I have mentioned before, accuracy is a must in your writings so that you gain readers and do not lose credibility. So, let’s move on to the “real deal.”
In both mass and serial murder cases, victims die as the offender momentarily gains control of his or her life by controlling others. But the differences between these two types of offenders far outweigh the similarities.
First, mass murderers kill large numbers of people at the same time, and are generally apprehended or killed by police, commit suicide, or turn themselves in to authorities. Serial killers, by contrast, kill multiple people, but over time and separately, and usually make special efforts to elude detection. Indeed, they may continue to kill for weeks, months, and often years before they are found and stopped-if they are found at all. In the case of the California Zodiac killer, the homicides appeared to have stopped, but an offender was never apprehended for those crimes.
Why do some serial killings suddenly stop for months, or even years, or forever?
Sometimes they get incarcerated for other crimes, which puts them out of commission . . . until they get out. Perhaps the offender was incarcerated for only one murder and never linked to the others, or perhaps he or she was imprisoned for other crimes.
The killer may even have become immobilized because of an accident or an illness or have died without his or her story ever being told. The Zodiac killer case is only one example of unsolved serial murders, many of which will never be solved.
Second, although both types of killers evoke fear and anxiety in the community, the reaction to a mass murder will be much more focused and locally limited than that to serial killing. People generally perceive the mass killer as one suffering from mental illnesses. This immediately creates a “they/us” situation in which “they” are different from “us” because of mental problems. We can somehow accept the fact that a few people go “crazy” sometimes and start shooting others.
However, it is more disturbing to learn that some of the “nicest” people one meets lead a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde life: a student by day, a killer of coeds by night; a caring, attentive nurse who secretly murders sick children, the handicapped, or the elderly; a building contractor and politician who enjoys sexually torturing and killing young men and burying them under his home.
When we discover that people exist who are not considered to be insane or crazy but who enjoy killing others for “recreation,” this indeed gives new meaning to the word “stranger.” Although the mass murderer is viewed as deranged, a product of a stressful environment who is just going to “explode” now and then (but of course somewhere else), the serial murder is seen as much more sinister and is more capable of producing fear.
Third, since the mass murderer kills groups of people at once, whereas the serial killer individualizes his or her murders, the serial killer continues to hurt and murder victims. An example of this would be the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre. We rarely if ever hear of a mass murderer who has the opportunity to enact a second mass murder or to become a serial killer. Similarly, we rarely if ever hear of a serial killer who also enacts a mass murder.
But what is the reality? For us in law enforcement, serial killing generally means the sexual attack and murder of young women, men, and children by a male who follows a pattern, physical or psychological. This pattern is called “criminal profiling.”
Although many offenders actually fall into the serial killer classification, they are excluded because they fail to meet law enforcement definitions or media-generated stereotypes of brutal, blood-thirsty monsters. The “angels of death” who work in hospitals and kill patients, or nursing home staff who kill the elderly, or the “black widows” who kill their family and relatives also meet the general criteria for serial killing except for the stereotypic element of violence.
These men and women do not slash and torture their victims nor do they sexually attack them; they are the quiet killers. They are also the kinds of people who could be married, hold steady jobs, or simply be the nice man or woman who lives next door. They are rare among serial killers, just as serial murders are rare compared with other types of homicide. To include all types of serial killers, the definition of serial murder must clearly be as broad as possible.
Even before American society became aware, in the early 1980s, of serial murder as anything more than an anomaly, researchers had begun to classify multiple killers and assign particular characteristics and labels to them. They described the sadistic serial murderer as one who derives sexual gratification from killing and who often establishes a pattern, such as the manner in which they kill or the types of victims they select, such as prostitutes, children, or the elderly. Motivated by fantasies, the offender appears to derive pleasure from dehumanizing his or her victims.
Some psychological differences between the mass killer and the serial killer are that the mass killer appears to suffer from psychosis and should be considered insane. Most serial murderers may be described as obsessive-compulsive because they normally kill according to a particular style and pattern, but are actually denied the insanity defense at trial. The reason: their planning, skill and intellect is actually used against them when they present this defense through their defense attorney.
Researchers have been attempting to create profiles of the “typical” serial killer from the rapidly accumulating statistics on offenders and victims in the United States. The most stereotypical of all serial murderers are those who in some way are involved sexually with their victims. It is this type of killer who generates such public interest and alarm. Stories of young women being abducted, raped, tortured, and strangled appear more and more frequently in the newspapers.
No matter where you live, serial or mass killings grab the headlines. So, I can see why they might be a good way of getting readers to buy your book.