I’ve thought about my fascination with serial killers a lot, especially given my chosen profession. Why did I become a forensic psychologist and private investigator? What is it about the criminal mind that is so compelling?
There’s a back story to this plot. While I didn’t know it when I got hooked at age fourteen after reading Vincent Bugliosi’s book, Helter Skelter, about Charles Manson and his “family” while on a vacation with my own, I am a legacy of true crime lovers. My mom was a diehard whodunit aficionado. Columbo, Hawaii Five-0, Dragnet; whenever these shows were on TV, she was parked in front of it. On one vacation, we even drove out of the way to see the Clutter farm, where the tragic family murder featured in Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood took place. Maybe I inherited my interest from her.
Maybe it’s my personality. I’ve always rooted for the underdog, which may have inspired my interest in victim’s rights and child-abuse prevention. I’ve always loved scary movies; perhaps that’s a link to my attraction to the dark side of human nature. There have been times when I’ve felt trapped by my empathy. Could this have fueled my curiosity about psychopaths, people who feel free to do whatever they want without any concern for others?
I’m still not sure I have the personal answer to those questions. But I know I’m not alone. If you are reading this book, I assume that you, too, are interested in true crime. Hundreds of thousands of people are. Which, by the way, is nothing new. Serial killers and other bad guys have attracted attention since the rise of mass-circulation newspapers in the early nineteenth century. The reasons why are complicated.
First of all, it’s hard to wrap our minds around a seemingly normal human being—someone who is able to blend in and fool everyone—who is secretly boiling a victim’s head or having sex with a corpse. The discrepancy between how a serial killer appears and how they really are is both horrifying and compelling; we ask, how can a person capable of such atrocities be hiding in plain sight?
Then there’s the “better the devil you know” theory. While it can be scary to learn about the horrible things people do—and have done—it can be empowering to understand the motivations, emotions and actions of dangerous people. Maybe it can help us figure out what people and situations to avoid, and how to spot, and report, something that doesn’t seem right. As a crime writer, I’ve often been amazed at the safety tips that my true-crime readers share. And, while no one thinks interfering in a police investigation is a good idea, everyday citizens who’ve spoken up have prevented suicides, solved missing-persons cases, and, by providing useful information to law enforcement, even solved murders. There’s also the true-crime-as-a-catharsis theory. Just as horror movies allow us to experience fear and excitement from a distance, reading about convicted serial killers can be a safe and controlled way to experience the endorphin and adrenaline rush of fear without ever being in harm’s way. In essence, it’s cathartic; we experience uncomfortable emotions in a controlled way, knowing there will be justice in the end. In some ways, it’s similar to our need to look at car accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters; we might feel guilty about looking, but it sure is hard to look away.
The media may also have something to do with it. Contrary to some, I don’t think the media glorifies serial killers. I do think, however, they often sensationalize them in order to tell a good story. Any good fiction writer knows that, unless your readers can sympathize with the “bad guy,” they will not continue reading. There are lots of ways writers do this—provide an understanding of why they do what they do, show the villain doing something nice early on, imply that they regret something from the past, and so forth. Applying these tactics to real-life villains, though, can have unfortunate side effects; callous serial killers who tortured innocent victims can come across as misunderstood and attractive-but-evil geniuses.
Some, or all, of these theories might ring true to you. I might have been a lifelong crime junkie rather than a forensic psychologist and private investigator if it wasn’t for two things. One, growing up with a seriously mentally ill family member left me with a hunger to understand the human mind, all the ways it works and all the ways it doesn’t. And, when I was a senior in high school, Ted Bundy broke out of a Colorado jail and wound up murdering young sorority girls at the Chi Omega sorority house at Florida State University. I was a high school senior, the campus was an hour and a half from my home, and some of the victims looked a lot like me. My interest in human nature took a dark turn into the criminal mind.
My first official foray into forensic psychology began as soon as I finished graduate school. My first job was working with victims of abuse or neglect, where I got an up-close- and-personal look at the impact of trauma on children. We were all too young to see such pain—maybe we all are, no matter how old—but it took its toll. We coped by going out together and getting drunk every few months to blow off steam. There were times when I was filled with rage; I once commented that, if the electric chair were still in vogue, I would volunteer to flip the switch.
For the most part, the abuser was in the family. I saw mothers call their children liars just to keep a man around. I heard perpetrators deny the evidence sitting right in front of them or blame it on the most innocent victim; I once heard a sex offender comment on the provocativeness of his 4-year- old victim. But I also saw women who were blindsided by a child’s abuse, who responded with full and loving support and a desire for justice. I also saw fathers who were working hard to break the violent, and often multigenerational, legacy of their own fathers. I saw most children on the path to recovery. And I saw a few who scared me.
Later in my career, I worked in a maximum-security prison, among inmates for whom the boundaries between victim and perpetrator were often blurred. Many of these men and women had experienced trauma they didn’t even recognize; in fact, one of the first things I learned during an interview was to ask about specific experiences rather than about general abuse because so many described their childhood as normal. And they believed it.
Think that I’m some bleeding-heart idealist who thinks that abuse is an excuse for the behaviors of the perpetrators in this book? Let me reassure you. By the time you or I are introduced to any one of these adults—and likely long before that—any chance of rehabilitating them is long gone. Not only are the majority of adults who engage in violent predatory behavior not likely to change, they don’t want to. It takes a certain kind of irreparable psyche to cold-bloodedly carry out the murder of someone just to get an orgasm, to feel a different kind of thrill or to make a buck. The best the rest of us can do is go about our lives as safely as possible, learn the warning signs of a dangerous personality and, if we see something that’s odd or worrisome in them, speak up.
But it is also true that no one is born a serial killer. If we continue to think of serial killers as monsters instead of adults who consciously decide to hurt other people and who were once babies and toddlers who didn’t, we’re never going to understand why a third of abused children become abusers themselves while the vast majority don’t. We’ll never learn how to tell the difference between a teen who doesn’t want to be controlled (which is normal) and an adolescent who constantly tries to control others (which is not). Or even how some psychopathic adults use their personalities to become successful businessmen and businesswomen while others spend their lives committing murder and mayhem. There are many steps along the path to becoming a serial killer and some of them include opportunities for intervention before it’s too late. We need to be able to recognize every step.
So, let’s get started. As the title suggests, this book is organized by questions, many of which I received from readers of my Psychology Today blog, viewers of my YouTube channel, and listeners of my radio show/ podcast. I have also added case studies to support many of the questions, trying to focus on more recent cases and/ or international cases that may not be as familiar as those spotlighted in the media.
At times, I have also done the reverse: I’ve started out with a certain case and then used it to ask a deeper question. So, for example, in a recent case about a teen serial killer, I tell you about the case and then talk about (and encourage you to think about) the unique challenges and dilemmas we have in dealing with these young but frightening perpetrators.
As interesting as these cases are, let’s never forget that they involve real people’s lives.
SERIAL KILLERS | 11
12 | JONI JOHNSTON, Psy.D.