SERIAL killings like the ones generating headlines out of Milwaukee the past two weeks are a relatively rare form of murder, say criminologists.But serial killings are on the rise, and all-too-common social and cultural problems are believed to be a factor in what drives human beings to this violent extreme, they say. An understanding of the underlying meaning of the killings to the offenders themselves is key to solving murders as well as preventing them, say criminologists. Trying to make sense of the apparently senseless, to understand the killers, they say, will help police shorten the killers' careers if not prevent them altogether. "We can't relegate the whole thing to evil; to inhumanity. We have to think about the themes that excite [the serial killer]," explains Candice Skrapec, a City University of New York criminal psychologist whose research involves extensive interviews with people incarcerated for serial killings. The consensus among experts in the field is that it is not coincidental that a sudden upturn in the late 1970s of serial killings in the United States - as well as other violent crimes - paralleled increases in dysfunctional families, reported child abuse, media images of violence, and sexual and psychological permissiveness. The social milieu plays no small part in the escalation of serial killings, experts suggest.
Symptom of larger problem While there is scientistic evidence that some evidence of a genetic predisposition to such criminal behavior, says Ms. Skrapec, social conditions such as a healthy family setting "can override biology." "If indeed there is a bona fide increase in family dysfunction then, yes, it would be consistent with many [forms of violence] like gangs as well as serial murders," says Skrapec. "Serial murder is just one symptom [of a larger problem]." FBI analysts say that the number of serial murders has never been as high as it is now. In 1976, just 8.5 percent of all US murders had unknown motives (a category which includes, but is not exclusively comprised of, serial killings), FBI data show. That figure had risen dramatically to 23.7 percent of all murders in 1989. The numbers of known mass murderers shows the increase more conclusively, says Ron Holmes, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville's Southern Police Institute and the author of several books on serial killings. Data Dr. Holmes has compiled show that between 1900 and 1970 there were 28 known mass murderers with 742 victims among them. Meanwhile, in just the decade of the 1970s there were 29 known mass murderers with 906 victims. And in the 1980s there were 47 known serial killers with 670 victims. His studies show that there were varied motives for these murders in the early part of the century - including some committed for material gain - but that today's serial killings are largely sexually oriented. And while men and women were equally likely to be mass murder victims then, he says, the majority of today's victims are women and children. In the latest case, a Milwaukee man, previously convicted of sexually abusing a child, has confessed to the murders of 17 males. Probation records show Jeffrey Dahmer himself was sexually abused by a neighbor boy when he was 8. Virtually all authorities interpret the modern serial killer as someone with a need to dominate - the power to determine life and death being the ultimate in control. This need stems from distorted ideas of one's self and the world, explains Skrapec. "Do you experience yourself at the core as a good person, as an attractive person, as a lovable person.... If your experience of yourself is that you are not very effective, lovable, or successful, you may assert control in this extreme way." Most serial ki llers are not psychopathic - or "clinically crazy," she says. In other words, they are not driven by visions or voices but are reacting to the world as most of us see it, but with different values. "There is always some sexual offense [committed] before killing [is resorted to]," Skrapec says. (This is noteworthy in the Milwaukee case in which probation officials have been under fire because the alleged killer was under their supervision after sexually abusing a youth.) The importance of understanding the escalation of violence in these kinds of cases has not been recognized, says Ann Burgess, a University of Pennsylvania psychiatric nurse and FBI consultant. "We don't take abuse seriously," she says. "There are very few studies on violence and an awful lot of molestings and rapings. Where will we be in 10 years [since serial killers evolve through escalating violence] if we don't do this research?"
Desensitized to violence James Fox, interim dean of Northeastern University's college of criminal justice, is particularly critical of the influence social factors may have on "pushing people over to the edge where there are no feelings of remorse. As a society we have waged a war against guilt. In the 1970s we were told we shouldn't feel guilty ... the country was more permissive so we felt less restrained. At the same time we were desensitized to violence," he says. "We do know [serial killers have] an inordinate need for power and dominance ... but then so do ruthless businessmen who get a despicable sense of satisfaction when they destroy a competitor. As long as back-stabbing is figurative we applaud it." Further, Dr. Fox observes, "We make our serial killers into celebrities ... there's a degree of romanticization." For example, a television movie using a handsome movie star was made about Ted Bundy, who was executed in 1989 for the murders of 28 women. Bundy himself had groupies who wrote to him and proposed marriage. And the popular board game, Trivial Pursuit, includes questions about the names of several mass murderers. Indeed, Skrapec says she is convinced that understanding serial killers means not seeing them as "otherworldly or evil" but as "representing extremes of human behavior" that may be partly a result of social forces."