Saturday, October 21, 2006

Serial Killers: All they need is love

The lecture theatre was filled to the brim, people were sitting on the floor and those who weren't cheeky
enough to push their way through Dr. Joanna Phoenix, the organiser, were turned away due to to safety regulations. Fortunately, I was one of the cheeky ones and found myself a spot on the floor.


The lecture was part of the Sociology of Crime and Deviance course run by Dr. Joanna Phoenix (University of Bath, Department of social and policy sciences) , who decided to make this a talk public as she thought there would be a public interest in this grisly topic (perhaps the great public interest was used by her to demonstrate some, to us unknown, point to her students?) She sets the scene by issuing a disclaimer and how this talk links to the rest of her course. Firstly - the disclaimer: The University of Bath is not doing a forensic psychology course. Secondly - the course looks at the reasons for crime, by objectifying crime, rather than looking at the rights and wrongs, the morality and ethics of crime. In general the course deals with the mundane, ordinary, everyday sort of crimes that we are all guilty of. To prove this, she asks the audience how many of us has committed a crime this week (e.g. crossing the red light, littering, using an invalid bus ticket, etc.)? In response the lecture theatre ruffles and shuffles uncomfortably, enough said.

To make the link between the extremeness of a serial killers violent crimes and the everyday offences of the ordinary person she asks us to reflect whether the questions Diaz puts to the serial killers during his one-on-one interviews are helpful and whether they are appropriate in regard to revealing both the serial killer's and the mundane criminal's reasons for their actions.


A nervous Professor Joseph D. Diaz (Fayetteville State University) steps up and begins by giving a definition of a serial killer:

  1. A serial killer commits multiple homicides
  2. There is a "cooling of period" for an extended period of time
  3. The killings take place at multiple locations
  4. The murders produce a physical reaction in the killer (e.g. sexual gratification)

The last point was further emphasised by differentiating between e.g. a gangster who does several drive-by shootings in order to rise in the gang ranks and that of a serial killer. The former is driven by social reasons such as group acceptance while the latter is driven by an internal force (note - although I don't see why these two factors wouldn't be able to coexist... and I think to some degree, as will be explained elsewhere in the blog, that there isn't really much difference between gangster killers and serial killers).

Furthermore, some serial killers do not have any physical reactions, such as increased heartbeat when killing, but remain eerily calm during the murder. Other common characteristics of serial killers are:

  • Average age between 30-45 years
  • Above average IQ around 112-115
  • Caucasian

Male (I assume, all examples were male and all serial killers were referred to as he) (see notes)

Of course there are exceptions to these rules, the Peruvian child serial killer was given as an example to this.

The impossible psychopathic serial killer

According to Diaz, many people make the mistake of thinking that serial killers are psychopaths. This, he believes, is due to the popular culture portrayal of serial killers as psychopaths, when in actual reality it is not possible anymore than for Diaz to play pro for the Liverpool football team. A psychopath could be sure that he was killing somebody, while in fact he was simply stroking a cat. A psychopath can hear voices, e.g. the voice of God telling him that all people in green t-shirts must die. Contrary to a serial killer whose killings would be very calculated, taking every step to avoid arrest. Whilst the psychopath could stand next to policeman and still kill the women in a green t-shirt, regardless of his own situation. In short, the psychopaths would generally not know what they were doing, i.e. they suffer from delusions and as such would be able to pass a lie detector test (note: not that lie detectors are worth very much...).

A serial killer's true nature is that of a sociopath. Sociopaths, in terms of objectivity, are bit like babies in that they don't have it. Babies don't care about your disposition when they cry in the middle of the night. They can cry just because they want to, because they can, because they are hungry, because they are happy, it does not matter to them whether you like it or not. They, babies and serial killers, care only about their immediate needs. A serial killer's objective state can be aligned to that of a 3-4 year old child.

Portrait of a Serial Killer

Dennis Andrew Nilsen (a.k.a "Des"), lived in a small flat in North London, a homosexual and used to frequent all male bars. He describes himself as gangly and awkward looking (he is 6'5" tall), in photographs he looks uncomfortable in his own skin. He feels uncomfortable around others, which according to Diaz is due to events occurring in his formative years where the sense of objectivity/subjectivity develops. By the time he was arrested he had killed 15 men, who he had raped and mutilated. When police came to his flat to arrest him, they found the bodies (or parts of the men's bodies) in various stages of decomposition. Dennis Nilsen was most interested in the lower parts of the men's bodies and would keep these. He would repeatedly have sex with the body parts and keep these for several months.He is basically a necrophiliac, like the infamous Eddie Gein who the characters in the films 'Psycho' and 'Silence of the lambs' are based on.

The original Eddie Gein

The interviews

During the interviews Diaz had to carefully phrase his questions in such a way so Nilsen always felt he was in control of the conversation. The aspect of control was also why he kept the bodies for such long periods of time, that way he felt has was in control over the men. In one of the interviews between Diaz and Nilsen, Diaz wanted to know how he dealt with the smell of the decomposing bodies. But he could not ask flat out "Didn't your apartment stink?" So instead, he cautiously asked, if he hadn't found the smell in the flat nauseating? Nilsen replied, that it wasn't any different to someone getting used to the smell if they worked in a hog house. The fact that Nilsen, or Des, as Diaz referred to him, compared the men to hogs illustrated a point. He would take from the men what he wanted, to him they were not men or individuals, they were just people, not victims nor humans, but general people-objects. Nilsen would use the ambiguous term "the people" whenever he described his activities with his victims. It was as if he was talking about a prop (c.f Erving Goffman for further stage analogies). His activities with "the people" included watching TV, dancing and taking baths. When talking about these events it was as if he was describing intimate moments, but without actually using the word 'intimate' or even without knowing what it was. Diaz' theory is that in general it is this feeling of intimacy, or the lack of it, which drives the serial killer. The serial killer strives to shut of the feelings of inadequacy, the sense of anger, abandonment, loneliness. Diaz likens these feelings to those most of us will experience during a relationship break-up, when we no longer know what to do with ourselves because the person who knows us best has left and that intimate link between two people has been severed. Another example would be how you would feel in a social situation, e.g. a party where no one speaks to you and you are all alone with no friends or how you would feel if your love was unreturned. These are feelings that serial killer has all the time just a hundred times stronger and deeper. According to Diaz, the serial killer will start to have these feelings around the age of twelve to thirteen, during those years they begin to feel different to everybody else as their lack of social skills, fear of failure and never feeling they'll be OK increase.

Jeffery Dahmer was another serial killer, convicted in 1993 and beaten to death by a fellow inmate in 1997 . During his prison time, he and Nilsen frequently wrote letters to each other and became close. Nilsen told Diaz "that it makes me so mad that they'll treat him like that." The serial killer has no sense of wrong, in the traditional sense. To them it's crazy that there is almost 6 billion people in world/usa? and that they can't kill one or two of them every now and then.

This lack of normal perspective turns up again when 'Des' mentions how he suffers from deep feelings of inadequacy. "That the only reason "it" (i.e. the murders) happened was because I was gay and to had to play along with all that teasing." This resulted in feelings of alienation at the age of 14, but, Diaz asks, does that mean you will go out and kill? To 'Des' he has not done anything that is a big deal, it is all just a natural progression of things. In general he feels that a great injustice is being done to him. For instance he has written a 4000 pages long book which the Home Office refuses to let him publish (but which his lawyer has managed to smuggle out and keeps secret) this makes him feel he has no rights. To get an accurate profile Diaz has to look at other sources of information during the interviews because most serial killers have trained themselves to a life of secrecy from a very young age where they have had to conceal their true selves.

Question Time

This concluded the main talk with time for questions from the audience.

The first question was whether the killing was part of the game. Diaz explained that serial killers generally hate to kill and have to get very intoxicated in order to commit the crime. Although he, Nilsen, would get very excited about it, like very intense butterflies in the stomach, which mixed with alcohol would inevitably lead to him throwing up during the act. His pen pal, Jeffery Dahmer, also hated killing. Described using the bodies to become something they could not be without them. Apparently, he was not interested in the power that comes from killing and insisted that only his methods were different to other people, not himself.

The next question regarded the killers' planning technique and whether their high IQ was a correlate or a causality of their disposition. In reply, the example of the "Green River Killer" was given. Gary Leon Ridgeway, hunted in the same area for 25 years and killed an estimated of 100 women, primarily prostitutes. He was clever enough to know that there were certain variables that he could control. For instance he picked up women in his car by having his baby son in the car seat with him. His thought was "What do women need to see in order not to see him as a threat?".

Gary Leon Ridgeway

Someone also asked if there was any patterns to how serial killers murder - they usually use their hands. There are only two known killers who have used guns.

"Why are most serial killers found in the U.S.? Diaz thinks that it is because of a culture of male domination, giving the example of going to war with no reason. A fearful society, where anyone who is not male is not good enough e.g. a survey was made where the following question was asked: "Who would you vote for a gay or a female president?" The majority of respondents replied: "none". The need to just have power, to have power over others is part of the American ideal, the image the Americans have of themselves permeates the culture. Any insecurity results in an need and enjoyment to assert itself and getting into a fight. It is very difficult to be taken down a peg for Americans, a feeling that the country experienced when attacked on 9/11. The consequent (over-) reaction was a result of this "pegging down".

Final question: "Would he do it again if he was set free?". Diaz does not think he would be likely to kill again as Nilsen is in his sixties and so no longer has a strong sexual drive. But think he would certainly become confrontational as the need for being in a position of power will never go away.

For interested parties and more detailed information, a book will be published in the next few months describing the case of "Jeff".

For further details and information take a look at the papers by Diaz ( I couldn't find the last paper online but he seemed like a pretty nice guy so would probably email it to you if asked nicely) :

"Killing as an initiator of self-change: A symbolic interactionist comparison of the etiology of Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer" in

"The working of the mind of violent offender: Psychopaths and sociopaths" forthcoming in Police Review (Nov 2006)


More links from:

The Dennis Nilsen story from

The Jeffrey Dahmer story also from

Corky's Crime Writings - featuring both "Jeff" and "Des"

My (humble) Opinion

OK, I'm not sure about the question that Dr. Jo asked us to keep in mind. I mean, I don't really think he went over the interview techniques he used very much. He just mentioned that he has to make Nilsen feel in power. I guess that applies to most people, if you want information from them then you need to make them feel in control, otherwise they'll feel threatened and clam shut. But that's about it really. He didn't mention what other ways he'd gain his information from, besides leafing through the letters that Nilsen and Dahmer sent to eachother (more info is available in the papers).

I think my main point to make here is that I found the distinction between gangster killings and serial killings interesting. Especially after Diaz had introduced and identified the motivating aspects of the murders to be emotional for the serial killer, whilst claiming that the for the gangster killer they were purely social. But at the end he conceded that there is a social aspect to serial killers (in America at least), it being the need for control. Surely, one wouldn't succumb to the kind of peer pressure involved in becoming a part of gang, if you don't really crave to have that same sort of intimacy a serial killer is supposedly craving and also cultivated in gangs. Where feellings of safety, acceptance, brothers in "da hood" being a family, perhaps a family you're not very likely to have if the stats of broken homes in the ghettoes are anything to go by (Reference). But hey - I'm not one of the 15 to 20 people involved in doing this kind of serial killer criminology study in the world, so what do I know...

Oh, and in the papers he mentions women killers so although in the lecture they aren't mentioned - they are out there! In the papers the difference between a serial killer and a gangster is also made more clear (in that there 's usually a longer period between kills and the gangster doesn't get sexually aroused by the kill - although I'm not so sure about the last bit or the first one for that matter)

For further details and information take a look at the papers by Diaz ( I couldn't find the last paper online but he seemed like a pretty nice guy so would probably email it to you if asked nicely) :

"Killing as an initiator of self-change: A symbolic interactionist comparison of the etiology of Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer" in

"The working of the mind of violent offender: Psychopaths and sociopaths" forthcoming in Police Review (Nov 2006)

1 comment:

Chris said...

I read this on Tuesday morning at work. Ah, there is nothing like a good read about serial killers. Very interesting stuff. My work colleague was rather surprised (and probably slightly worried) when I sparked up a conversation on the subject. Glad the course has become more interesting. Cheers, Chris.