Throughout history serial killers have haunted the world and brought the stuff of nightmares into a chilling reality. In order to answer the question of whether serial killers are born or made one must establish what a serial killer is. A serial killer is typically defined as an individual who has killed three or more people over a period of more than a month, with downtime (a “cooling off” period) between the murders, and whose motivation for killing is usually based on personal psychological gratification.
However, we all have sexual desires and experience rage but what makes us able to control our inner monsters while others act on impulse? Notably a large distinction that separates serial killers from other murderers are their uncontrollable motives to kill. The minds of these horrifying humans are complex and still, to this day fail to be understood which therefore begs the question, are people born serial killers or are they created by external factors? I will now consider the different responses to this question.
Firstly one must consider the nature theory. The Nature theory explains that behavioral traits are innate and are present in the human instinct. Jeffery Dahmer, a notorious serial killer claimed that he was born with a part of him missing, this could be referred to as the nature explanation. Scientists that support this theory believe that brain damage , specially to the frontal lobe or perhaps other genetic disorders are causes of this unexplainable behaviour.
According to Rutigliano, “the frontal lobe is considered responsible for much of the behaviour that makes possible stable and adequate social relations”. Some scientists believe this area of our brain is our moral compass, which without this essential guidance surely would have dystopic consequences. A study carried out at four universities found that individuals with damage to the frontal lobe had abnormal social emotions in real life, lacking empathy. Furthermore, other scientists have suggested that if the limbic system is missing from within the brain it could result in acts of uncontrollable anger and aggression.
This idea of a nature theory could provide possible explanations for John Wayne’s killing of 33 young males. Wayne was a bright clever boy whilst he was growing up. He was kind, polite and showed no signs of a killer instinct. Then, around the age of 15 he suffered a blow to the head. The accident caused a blood clot in his brain that was only discovered when Wayne turned 16. Until age 16 when he was treated with medication, he suffered from blackouts that were caused by the clot. Scientists who support the nature theory believe it is possible that this severe head injury caused his abnormal and violent behaviour. If taking this view, one can argue that these killers are mentally unaware and should instead be cared for and treated as victims.
The opposing view can be defined as the nurture theory. This theory differs to the above because it looks at the influence that external factors have, throughout socialisation, on the individual. Such factors could involve one’s family and the way one’s parents have had an impact on the child which could have resulted in psychological damage and as a result created a being that has different norms and values to the rest of society, namely, serial killers exist without a moral conscience.
Lee Lucas, a killer, blamed his upbringing on his countless murders. In this sense, perhaps the true victims are the very monsters that commit the offences and who have suffered throughout their childhood.
Rosemary West who was convicted for 10 killings had a very distressing upbringing that could possibly serve as an explanation for her disgusting and cold crimes. Rose’s mother suffered from severe depression and was given ECT while pregnant, some have argued that this may have caused prenatal injury to her daughter. Rosemary grew up into a moody hormonal teenager and performed poorly at school due to her poor attendance. Rosemary’s parents split up when she was a teenager. She lived with her mother before moving in with her father at the age of 16 in Bishops Cleeve, near Cheltenham. Significantly her father was prone to violence and repeatedly abused her sexually. This type of behaviour could provide an explanation to why Rose sexually abused her victims before killing them, lacking a moral conscience and accepting this as the norm.
Both these explanations seem to suffice so perhaps different killers experience different abnormalities whether that abnormality is during socialisation or whether there is a part of the brain unable to function effectively or perhaps even, the answer is a mixture of the two. There is no doubt that this discussion of whether serial killers are a result of nature or nurture is, indeed very important to society. If we were to understand what creates a serial killer, then future advancements could aim towards prevention by offering support to those abused children or perhaps, developing a drug that could help an individual function successfully even though a vital section of the brain is missing.
Additionally, the findings could be considered in court, which, instead of blaming the killers and locking them up like monsters behind bars, could offer a branch of support in order to help reestablish moral values and norms in the individual. Sadly however, most serial killers won’t stop. They continue to kill until they are arrested and even then have no desire to reform themselves. Famously Panzram stated: “I have no desire to reform myself. My only desire is to reform people who try to reform me. And I believe that the only way to reform people is to kill em. My Motto is, Rob em all, Rape em all and Kill em all”.
Still, I think that it is important to not give up on individuals in society because if this happened, our society would lack the social cohesion that is essential for human flourishing. The only way to perhaps understand a serial killer is to get inside their head and try to comprehend their life experiences and why the individual has transformed into a heartless, cold killing machine.