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A person killing more than two people is not necessarily a serial killer

The body of Jack the Ripper’s las known victim, Mary Jane Kelly. Although she was eviscerated, the modus operandi shows planning, and concealment so Jack would have been an organized serial killer in my opinion. (Public Domain)

Many people automatically assume when someone kills more than two people, he / she is a serial killer.  This is usually not the case, but the press love to sensationalize headlines with ‘serial killer’ as clickbait. It is the deep subconscious psychological motivation that drives and defines a serial killer – not the number of victims.

We can differentiate between multiple murderers, mass murderers, spree killers and serial killers.

Mass murderers

A mass murderer is defined as one person who kills several victims during one event at one location.  There is no cooling-off period and family members may be victims. On 15 November 1988 Barend Strydom, who nicknamed himself the White Wolf, killed 8 people on one day at Strijdom Square in Pretoria, South Africa. This was a racial-hate motivated crime.  Two psychologists and a psychiatrist testified that Strydom was “eccentric but not insane” and knew what he was doing. He was released from prison as a political prisoner by F. W. de Klerk in 1992, and amnestied by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1994.

On 22 July, 2011 Anders Behring Breivik / Fjotolf Hansen killed eight people by detonating a van bomb at Regjeringskvartalet in Oslo, and then went on to kill 69 participants of a Workers’ Youth League (AUF) summer camp, on the island of Utøya. He had a far-right nationalist background. Breivik was found guilty of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism and was sentenced to the maximum civilian criminal penalty in Norway. He applied for parole in 2022, but was refused.

School shootings, such as Columbine in America are examples of mass murders. The killers are usually motivated by hate, often triggered by ostracism or bullying but they can also be motivated by  racial hate. Family murders can also be classified as mass murders and these are usually motivated by perceived rejection, financial problems, revenge or depression.  This can also include family feuds.

Mass murder can also occur for example when bank robbers shoot all hostages, or gang members attacking each other in a shoot-out, or faction fighting between political groups. During the Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 in Chicago, seven members and associates of George “Bugs” Moran’s bootlegging gang were lined up against a wall and shot dead, allegedly on Al Capone’s instructions, but the case was never solved. The assassination of Tsar Nicolas of Russia and his family is another historical example of a mass murder, politically motivated.

The main principle is many people are killed, within one event, usually at the same location and there is a discernible motivation.

Multiple killers

Close to mass murderers would be multiple killers. This could for example be a hitman who kills several double-crossing drug dealers, or someone killing people who knows a terrible secret, over a period of time (weeks, months or years) at different locations, but there is a discernible motive – often financial – either a hitman or assassin being paid, or someone eliminating opponents for financial gain, or people complicit in fraud, or witnesses to a crime. The victims are all identifiable and known to killer.

Spree Killers

A spree killer is defined as one or more persons, who kill two or more victims during a spree which could have a long or short duration, at two or more locations, with no cooling-off period – they say on the run and kill indiscriminately as far as they go.  A cooling off period signifies a period when the killers have no intent of killing and usually carry on with their normal life activities. Historically Bonnie and Clyde would be good examples of spree killers. South Africa’s Charmaine Phillips and Peter Grundling killed four people in June 1983 over a period of two weeks, whilst travelling though different provinces.  Their motivation is thrill. Like the mass murderers this usually ends in a shootout or suicide.

Serial killers

The late FBI profiler Robert Ressler is credited for coining the term “serial killer”. He explained the term by using the example of a television series.  As an episode ends on a cliff hanger, the viewers are kept in anticipation and suspense of the next episode, much as the serial killer anticipates the next murder after committing the previous one.  Ressler defined a serial killer as a person or persons who kill more than three victims, during more than three events, at three or more locations, with a cooling-off period in between.  There is also premeditated planning and fantasy present.  

The FBI profilers and others also differentiated between organised and disorganised serial killers:

The organized serial killers commit premeditated murder – they plan, they select idiosyncratic victims, execute the murder, hide the evidence, dump the bodies and do many things to conceal their involvement – all indications that they know the wrongfulness of their acts – they just don’t care.  Disorganized serial killers have such mental impairments that they do nothing to conceal their involvement, such as leaving a weapon with their fingerprints on the crime scene – there are no signs of rational planning or coherent thinking – these are the few killers that may succeed when their lawyers enter insanity pleas.  And quite rightly they should be committed to a psychiatric ward, where they are treated, but also where the community can be protected from their madness.

I propose the following definition of a serial killer:  A serial killer is a person who murders several victims, usually strangers, at different times and not necessarily at the same location, with a cooling-off period in between.  The motive is intrinsic ; an irresistible compulsion, fuelled by fantasy which may lead to torture and / or sexual abuse, mutilation and necrophilia. 

In my opinion, a person does not only qualify to be a serial killer after he/ she has killed three or more victims, since a serial killer may be apprehended after the second murder, and why wait for a third victim to die, before we launch a serial killer investigation?

I added the criteria of intrinsic motive, sexual abuse, mutilation, necrophilia and irresistible compulsion to Ressler’s definition in order to cover the fantasy aspects. What would differentiate a serial killer, from a robber who also murders several victims, usually strangers at different times by entering their homes and killing them – different locations, with a cooling off period in between – why does he not qualify as a serial killer, you may ask.  Because he has a discernible motive – in the robber’s case it is greed. 

Serial killers’ motives are buried deep within their subconscious. They are based upon the sexual fantasies,  sprouting from their fixations in one of the Freudian psychosexual developmental phases.  The serial killer acts out the sexual fantasy on the crime scene, and this is what makes them so unique and so difficult for copycats to imitate them. 

In retrospect, like any true academic tinkering at their theories, I need to qualify the term ‘irresistible compulsion’ – serial killers experience the need to kill as a compulsion – when their fragile ego’s are threatened by life’s disappointments or rejections or losses, or whatever, they need to kill to feel in control again, and to reset the homeostasis of the ego.  This is when they will go hunting for victims.  However, when they have some control in their lives, or experience some kind of happiness or contentment, they do not experience an urge to kill and this will often explain the cooling off periods – they carry on with their normal daily activities.  Cooling off periods therefor also serve as proof that they can control the urges not to kill at all times.

The urge is not so irresistible as they would like us to believe.  Also, one should also apply the ‘reasonable man theory’ – if a policeman was standing right next to them, would they still go ahead and commit the murder? No, they will not. 

The last crime scene of the notorious late 19th-century serial killer, Jack the Ripper, operating in Whitechapel in London, was a real mess when he totally eviscerated his last victim Mary Jane Kelly in her room.  One might even say this mess was the work of a disorganised serial killer.  No doubt Jack was by then losing his marbles, but he still had enough reasoning to know what he was doing for when he was disturbed in the act of killing Catherine Eddowes, a short time before on the same night, he fled the scene. This is a clear indication that he knew what he was doing was wrong – culpability.  A truly ‘mad” or disorganised killer would have continued despite the risk of being discovered. 

Jack met Mary Jane Kelly, a prostitute and convinced her they should go to her room for privacy. Jack’s frustration of not acting out the full fantasy on Catherine, was vented on poor Mary Jane Kelly in the privacy of her room where he knew he would not be disturbed.  These are indications of rational thinking, and as such, I would have profiled him as fit to stand trial, if I had lived then.

Serial killers can control their urges – the problem is, they do not want to. They kill because they like it – it makes them feel good.  There is no greater omnipotent feeling of having control over someone else’s life or death – it is a godly feeling. 

Featured image: The body of Jack the Ripper’s las known victim, Mary Jane Kelly. Although she was eviscerated, the modus operandi shows planning, and concealment so Jack would have been an organized serial killer in my opinion. (Public Domain)

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