When you think of serial killers, you probably think of more recent ones like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or maybe Charles Manson. But there are SO many more out there. The current uptick in trying to understand the psychology of serial killers in the world is fascinating to people, as you can tell by the number of podcasts, TV shows, and books being written about them.
But why are we fascinated by Serial Killers? What makes us want to understand them? How can we learn more about the way they think? And the better question is, can (or should) we truly ever understand them?
How to Define a Serial Killer
From the official FBI Website: “Serial killers differ in many ways, including their motivations for killing and their behavior at the crime scene. However, attendees did identify certain traits common to some serial murderers, including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control, and predatory behavior.”
They go on to say that Serial killers usually have psychopathic personality disorder. “Psychopathy is a personality disorder manifested in people who use a mixture of charm, manipulation, intimidation, and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their own selfish needs.”
However, that does not mean they have a mental illness. Psychology Today says, “Very few serial killers are considered mentally ill enough to be declared legally insane. Rather, the majority display signs of psychopathy or sociopathy; in terms of diagnosis, they may meet the criteria for antisocial personality disorder.”
But why are they different? Serial killers can be considered enigmas; they have unusual ways of thinking, and their basic moral compass is vastly different than the average person’s. Sadly, oftentimes, this is due to serial killers having suffered extreme abuse as children. The Journal of Psychiatry, psychology, and Law has done extensive research on the lasting effects of childhood abuse and the different outcomes of serial killers’ patterns based on what abuse they were exposed to in their article, A Behaviour Sequence Analysis of Serial Killers’ Lives: From Childhood Abuse to Methods of Murder.
To get a better understanding of psychopathy and how it affects the brain, I found Kent A. Kiehl and Joshua W. Buckholtz’s article on Inside the Mind of a Psychopath to be the most helpful article in understanding how a psychopath’s brain is wired and whether we will ever truly understand how they think. Kent A. Kiehl and Joshua W. Buckholtz went into vivid detail about the way a psychopath’s brain is wired and how they think differently than most of the population. They also put forth some fascinating ideas about how we can help possibly negate serial killers before they kill and the positive effects of some promising research being done in prisons currently.
When Serial Killers make headlines, their cold-blood killings leave us all chilled, especially when they are not apprehended right away. We’re left wondering—who is next? Could we be best friends with a serial killer? When the police force or FBI finally catches the infamous serial killer, a big question arises: Why did they do it?
Books on understanding the Psychology of Serial killers and their heinous crimes
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The Psychology of Notorious Serial Killers: The Intersection of Personality Theory and the Darkest Minds of Our Time by Todd Grande
Within this book, the author provides an overview of the psychology of serial killers.
“What drives serial killers to commit their horrific crimes? Are sex crimes really motivated by sexual desire? Why do some killers stop killing, while others escalate?
The science of personality theory has advanced dramatically in recent years, shedding new light on the inner workings of these criminals. In this book, professional counselor Todd Grande applies personality theory to over a dozen of the most notorious serial killers in modern history, unraveling the mystery surrounding their crimes.
Serial killers are typically motivated by sexual domination, money, or political ideology, or experiencing psychosis. Dr. Grande delves into the thought processes, behaviors, and emotions of these criminals, analyzing common personality traits as well as environmental factors such as childhood stressors and even certain kinds of injury. Empirically supported principles create a framework that offers new insight into why people do what they do and how they might recover from destructive patterns.
All human behavior exists on a continuum, and through the study of extreme behaviors, any behavior becomes a little more understandable. Learning about serial killers can enlighten us about the human condition.”
The Anatomy of Motive: The FBI’s Legendary Mindhunter Explores the Key to Understanding and Catching Violent Criminals by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
“From legendary FBI profiler John Douglas and Mark Olshaker — authors of the nonfiction international bestsellers Mindhunter, Journey into Darkness, and Obsession — comes an unprecedented, insightful look at the root of all crime.
Every crime is a mystery story with a motive at its heart. With the brilliant insight he brought to his renowned work inside the FBI’s elite serial-crime unit, John Douglas pieces together motives behind violent sociopathic behavior. He not only takes us into the darkest recesses of the minds of arsonists, hijackers, bombers, poisoners, assassins, serial killers, and mass murderers, but also the seemingly ordinary people who suddenly kill their families or go on a rampage in the workplace.
Douglas identifies the antisocial personality, showing surprising similarities and differences among diverse types of deadly offenders. He also tracks the progressive escalation of those criminals’ sociopathic behavior. His analysis of such diverse killers as Lee Harvey Oswald, Theodore Kaczynski, and Timothy McVeigh is gripping, but more importantly, helps us learn how to anticipate potential violent behavior before it’s too late.”
A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunter’s, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind by Ann Wolbert Burgess
“A vivid behind-the-scenes look into the creation of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and the evolution of criminal profiling, written by the pioneering forensic nurse who transformed the way the FBI studies, profiles, and catches serial killers.
Lurking beneath the progressive activism and sex positivity in the 1970-80s, a dark undercurrent of violence rippled across the American landscape. With reported cases of sexual assault and homicide on the rise, the FBI created a specialized team—the “Mindhunter’s” better known as the Behavioral Science Unit—to track down the country’s most dangerous criminals. And yet narrowing down a seemingly infinite list of potential suspects seemed daunting at best and impossible at worst—until Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess stepped on the scene.
In A Killer By Design, Burgess reveals how her pioneering research on sexual assault and trauma caught the attention of the FBI and steered her right into the middle of a chilling serial murder investigation in Nebraska. Over the course of the next two decades, she helped the budding unit identify, interview, and track down dozens of notoriously violent offenders, including Ed Kemper (“The Co-Ed Killer”), Dennis Rader (“(“BTK”), Henry Wallace (“The Taco Bell Strangler”), Jon Barry Simonis (“The Ski-Mask Rapist”), and many others. As one of the first women trailblazers within the FBI’s hallowed halls, Burgess knew many were expecting her to crack under pressure and recoil in horror—but she was determined to protect future victims at any cost. This book pulls us directly into the investigations as she experienced them, interweaving never-before-seen interview transcripts and crime scene drawings alongside her own vivid recollections to provide unprecedented insight into the minds of deranged criminals and the victims they left behind. Along the way, Burgess also paints a revealing portrait of a formidable institution on the brink of a seismic scientific and cultural reckoning—and the men forced to reconsider everything they thought they knew about crime.
Haunting, heartfelt, and deeply human, A Killer By Design forces us to confront the age-old question that has long plagued our criminal justice system: “What drives someone to kill, and how can we stop them?”
Books with an in-depth look at the violent crime and dangerous personalities of some well-known serial killers
Understanding Serial Killer Ted Bundy.
The Stranger Beside Me: The Inside Story of Serial Killer Ted Bundy by Ann Rule
“Ann Rule was a writer working on the biggest story of her life, tracking down a brutal mass-murderer. Little did she know that the young man who was her close friend was the savage slayer she was hunting . . .
TED BUNDY was everyone’s picture of a natural ‘winner’ – handsome, charming, brilliant in law school, successful with women, on the verge of a dazzling career.
Fast-forward to 24 January 1989, Ted Bundy is executed. He had confessed to taking the lives of at least thirty-five young women, coast to coast.
This is his story: the story of his magnetic power, his unholy compulsion, his demonic double life and his string of helpless victims. It was written by a woman who thought she knew Ted Bundy, until she began to put all the evidence together and the whole terrifying picture emerged . . .”
Understanding the mindset of Charles Manson.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
“In the summer of 1969, in Los Angeles, a series of brutal, seemingly random murders captured headlines across America. A famous actress (and her unborn child), an heiress to a coffee fortune, a supermarket owner and his wife were among the seven victims. A thin trail of circumstances eventually tied the Tate-LeBianca murders to Charles Manson, a would-be pop singer of small talent living in the desert with his “family” of devoted young women and men. What was his hold over them? And what was the motivation behind such savagery? In the public imagination, over time, the case assumed the proportions of myth. The murders marked the end of the sixties and became an immediate symbol of the dark underside of that era.
Vincent Bugliosi was the prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, and this book is his enthralling account of how he built his case from what a defense attorney dismissed as only “two fingerprints and Vince Bugliosi.” The meticulous detective work with which the story begins, the prosecutor’s view of a complex murder trial, the reconstruction of the philosophy Manson inculcated in his fervent followers…these elements make for a true crime classic. Helter Skelter is not merely a spellbinding murder case and courtroom drama but also, in the words of The New Republic, a “social document of rare importance.”
The Double Life of John Wayne Gace.
Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders by Terry Sullivan with Peter T. Maiken
“The Real Story Of John Wayne Gacy—By The Man Who Helped Catch Him
He was a model citizen. A hospital volunteer. And one of the most sadistic serial killers of all time. But few people could see the cruel monster beneath the colorful clown makeup that John Gacy wore to entertain children in his Chicago suburb. Few could imagine what lay buried beneath his house of horrors—until a teenaged boy disappeared before Christmas in 1978, leading prosecutor Terry Sullivan on the greatest manhunt of his career.
Reconstructing the investigation—from records of violence in Gacy’s past and DNA evidence confirming the identities of additional victims, to the gruesome discovery of 29 corpses of abused boys in Gacy’s crawlspace and four others found in the nearby river—Sullivan’s shocking eyewitness account takes you where few true crime books ever go: inside the heart of a serial murder investigation and trial.”
The Alaskan Serial killer Israel Keyes.
American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan
“Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Jeffrey Dahmer. The names of notorious serial killers are usually well-known; they echo in the news and in public consciousness. But most people have never heard of Israel Keyes, one of the most ambitious and terrifying serial killers in modern history. The FBI considered his behavior unprecedented. Described by a prosecutor as “a force of pure evil,” Keyes was a predator who struck all over the United States. He buried “kill kits”–cash, weapons, and body-disposal tools–in remote locations across the country. Over the course of fourteen years, Keyes would fly to a city, rent a car, and drive thousands of miles in order to use his kits. He would break into a stranger’s house, abduct his victims in broad daylight, and kill and dispose of them in mere hours. And then he would return home to Alaska, resuming life as a quiet, reliable construction worker devoted to his only daughter.
When journalist Maureen Callahan first heard about Israel Keyes in 2012, she was captivated by how a killer of this magnitude could go undetected by law enforcement for over a decade. And so began a project that consumed her for the next several years–uncovering the true story behind how the FBI ultimately caught Israel Keyes, and trying to understand what it means for a killer like Keyes to exist. A killer who left a path of monstrous, randomly committed crimes in his wake–many of which remain unsolved to this day.
American Predator is the ambitious culmination of years of interviews with key figures in law enforcement and in Keyes’s life, and research uncovered from classified FBI files. Callahan takes us on a journey into the chilling, nightmarish mind of a relentless killer, and to the limitations of traditional law enforcement.”
The FBI Special Task Force provides an intriguing insight into the methods of investigating serial killers.
Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit byJohn Douglas and Mark Olshaker
“In chilling detail, the legendary Mindhunter takes us behind the scenes of some of his most gruesome, fascinating, and challenging cases—and into the darkest recesses of our worst nightmares.
During his twenty-five year career with the Investigative Support Unit, Special Agent John Douglas became a legendary figure in law enforcement, pursuing some of the most notorious and sadistic serial killers of our time: the man who hunted prostitutes for sport in the woods of Alaska, the Atlanta child murderer, and Seattle’s Green River killer, the case that nearly cost Douglas his life.
As the model for Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs, Douglas has confronted, interviewed, and studied scores of serial killers and assassins, including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Ed Gein, who dressed himself in his victims’ peeled skin. Using his uncanny ability to become both predator and prey, Douglas examines each crime scene, reliving both the killer’s and the victim’s actions in his mind, creating their profiles, describing their habits, and predicting their next moves.”
A look at the Detective who solved the Golden State Killer
Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases by Paul Holes with Robin Gaby Fisher
“From the detective who found The Golden State Killer, a memoir of investigating America’s toughest cold cases and the rewards–and toll–of a life solving crime.
I order another bourbon, neat. This is the drink that will flip the switch. I don’t even know how I got here, to this place, to this point. Something is happening to me lately. I’m drinking too much. My sheets are soaking wet when I wake up from nightmares of decaying corpses. I order another drink and swig it, trying to forget about the latest case I can’t shake.
Crime-solving for me is more complex than the challenge of the hunt, or the process of piecing together a scientific puzzle. The thought of good people suffering drives me, for better or worse, to the point of obsession.
People always ask how I am able to detach from the horrors of my work. Part of it is an innate capacity to compartmentalize; the rest is experience and exposure, and I’ve had plenty of both. But I had always taken pride in the fact that I can keep my feelings locked up to get the job done. It’s only been recently that it feels like all that suppressed darkness is beginning to seep out.
When I look back at my long career, there is a lot I am proud of. I have caught some of the most notorious killers of the twenty-first century and brought justice and closure for their victims and families. I want to tell you about a lifetime solving these cold cases, from Laci Peterson to Jaycee Dugard to the Pittsburg homicides to, yes, my twenty-year-long hunt for the Golden State Killer.
But a deeper question eats at me as I ask myself, at what cost? I have sacrificed relationships, joy—even fatherhood—because the pursuit of evil always came first. Did I make the right choice? It’s something I grapple with every day. Yet as I stand in the spot where a young girl took her last breath, as I look into the eyes of her family, I know that, for me, there has never been a choice. “I don’t know if I can solve your case,” I whisper. “But I promise I will do my best.”
It is a promise I know I can keep.”
Understanding the Texas Serial Killer Harry Lee Lucas
Trust Me: The True Story of Confession Killer Henry Lee Lucas by Ryan Green
“On June 5, 1983, Henry Lee Lucas was arrested for the unauthorized possession of a handgun. The police believed that he was linked to the disappearance of two females, so they used the opportunity to apply pressure and encourage a confession. After four days in custody, Lucas confessed to killing the two women. What transpired in the following months was both peculiar and fascinating. Lucas confessed to murdering, raping and mutilating hundreds more women with his friend and lover, Ottis Toole, whilst under the influence of a satanic cult. But there were hidden depths to the revelations. Upon further inspection, investigators found that Lucas confessed to crimes that directly contradicted others, casting doubt over what was fact and fiction. Lucas had the answers. Could they uncover the truth? Trust Me is a dramatic and gripping account of one of the most bizarre and gruesome true crime stories in American history. Ryan Green’s riveting narrative draws the reader into the real-live horror experienced by the victims and has all the elements of a classic thriller.”
Exploring the Mind of the Zodiac Killer
Profiled: The Zodiac Examined (The Zodiac Serial Killer Book 2) by Mark Hewitt, DBA
“Following up on the meticulously detailed research of HUNTED: The Zodiac Murders (Book 1), PROFILED: The Zodiac Examined (Book 2) goes beyond the case files to develop a comprehensive psychological profile that examines the personality, psychology, physical characteristics, and motives of the Zodiac. Based in the same detailed research of HUNTED, PROFILED sticks to the facts and articulates at every step how the conclusions of the profile were reached. The Zodiac serial killer murdered, wrote letters, created ciphers, and taunted the police and the people of the San Francisco Bay area from 1966 to 1974 but, over five decades, has not been identified. At the time he was active, the term serial killer had not yet been coined, and psychological profiles were practically unknown. Now, using 21st century crime analytics and a sophisticated understanding of serial killers, it is possible to create a psychological profile that may help identify the kind of man who could commit these terrible crimes and get away with it for decades, despite an overabundance of evidence that should have pointed directly to him. Join the search for the killer as the evidence is compiled and analyzed in PROFILED: The Zodiac Examined.”
Serial Killers and True Crime podcasts
First and foremost, if you listen to any of these, please make sure you are considering those around you while listening and that you are in the right headspace to listen. True crime is not a light topic and should not be listened to lightly.
A personal favorite of mine is Anatomy of Murder “a weekly true-crime podcast examining homicide cases and paths to justice for the victims. Former New York City homicide prosecutor and host of Investigation Discovery’s True Conviction, Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, teams up with Emmy award-winning investigative journalist, and former Deputy Sheriff Scott Weinberger, to take listeners behind the scenes, for an insider’s perspective of compelling homicide cases from around the country. In every episode, listeners will also hear and gain insight from a victim’s family member, the prosecutor, or a member of law enforcement directly involved in the investigation.”
It’s fascinating to listen to the depth of the detail they give on the cases they cover and how they walk you through it all. They delve into a variety of true crime and serial killer cases. Due to the hosts’ background, it makes for an enlightening tale with great perspectives and details.
For more information, visit: https://anatomyofmurder.com/
I am also intrigued by the way podcasts lay out the True Crime stories they tell, Crime Junkies with Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat, is a true crime podcast that helps solve ongoing cases! They infused just the right amount of facts and interviews to capture your attention.
Unsolved Cold Cases, is a Spotify Original from Carter Roy. He has a great way of storytelling and bringing old cases to life again and tells the cases in a slightly dramatized story format. Park Predators is a very interesting one if you like the outdoors as it covers cases that have happened in National Parks all over the world. Lastly, if you’re looking for hidden serial killers, I suggest checking out Cults.
Coming soon: Our favorite Forensic Psychology books, Books on the Most Prolific Serial Killers, and our favorite books on Female Serial Killers.