The Psychology of Serial Killers

The term serial killer was first coined in the 1970s by FBI criminal profiler Robert Ressler. Before then, serial killers were merely mass murderers which now has its own specific meaning as well. A serial killer takes lives over the course of days, weeks, or even years. Some of the most prolific serial killers continued their reign of terror for ten years or more. Serial killers capture our attention in a way that is hard to describe. This obsession has spurned a discussion which is explored at length in Why We Love Serial Killers: The World’s Most Savage Murderers. Since there is a psychology to that, we at Psych2Go decided to explore the psychology of the serial killers themselves. Here is a list of serial killers and the psychology behind why they did what they did:

1. Charles Manson (July and August 1969) 

Manson and his “family” were rather active in southern California in the 1960s. What started out as a hippy looking cult quickly turned sinister. In August of 1969, Manson convinced members of the “family” to carry out the horrific murder of actress Sharon Tate in her Los Angeles home. All in all, the night of the Tate murder took the lives of five people in what Manson hoped to be the beginning of a race war.

To understand how Manson got his followers to kill for him, we have to examine him as a person. Charles Manson started out in life as the son of a 16-year-old prostitute. Life didn’t amount too much from there as he was arrested as a juvenile for theft. From this time forward, he would spend a good deal of his life in prison for things, like transporting stolen cars and more theft charges. It wasn’t long after he moved to California that he started to attract the attention of local drop outs and runaways. Seeing their need for guidance, he seized the opportunity and placed himself directly within their psyche. While showing signs of narcissistic personality disorder with paranoid delusions, Manson was able to brainwash his followers. In 1971, Manson was found guilty of murder in the Tate and, subsequently, the LaBianca murders.

2. Jeffrey Dahmer (1978 to 1991)

Jeffrey Dahmer is perhaps one of the most studied and psychologically regarded of all serial killers. He was known as “The Cannibal Killer” and spent a good amount of time abducting, killing and eating his victims. Dahmer himself, in the middle of his insanity trial, said that he went too far with the things that he did. This is perhaps one of the main reasons why he was found to be both sane and of sound mind. He was able to establish that he knew he’d done wrong, or at least he had taken it all too far. So the question is, Why would someone found to be sane still be regarded as having a profound mental illness or defect?

The answer to this question is rather straight forward. Those asking that question were uncomfortable thinking about the fact that Jeffrey Dahmer could be completely sane and yet carry out the crimes he accomplished. There was a need to discuss a mental illness that wasn’t there as a way to distance themselves from him. While Manson had a few character flaws and personality issues, it appears that Dahmer did not have those. He killed because he could. He killed because he wanted to. And everyone associated with that case wanted there to be a reason outside of his control for the way he was. When they didn’t find it, they were forced to accept that sometimes people just do things because they can. Dahmer had a detachment from his victims and from others around him. But, detachment doesn’t necessarily make a murderer. So yet again, the answer as to why Dahmer committed crimes of murder is because he could.

3. John Wayne Gacy (1972 to 1978) 

John Wayne Gacy is an interesting specimen. Rather than attempting to lie low, he actually infiltrated many parts of his community. John had a wife and children, so the warnings weren’t there like in some other cases. He was considered a pillar within society and spent many weekends entertaining kids at their birthday parties. Gacy’s nickname ended up being “The Killer Clown” because of his propensity to dress as a clown for town children’s parties. Little did anyone know that for close to six years, their community pillar was abducting and killing young men.

What appears to be the issue with Gacy is his unwillingness to admit his sexuality. The men that he abducted were raped before they were murdered. When asked by Ressler about his crimes, Gacy said that they were nothing but worthless. When Ressler pressed him about being homosexual, Gacy stated that after his divorce, he didn’t have the time to date women so he went after transient men instead. Perhaps, after everything that was examined, Gacy was simply so disgusted with his own sexuality that he took it out on innocent young men.

4. Ted Bundy (1970s) 

Ted Bundy was very intelligent, educated, charming, and aspired to be the governor of Washington. He was also socially an outcast. Due to a difference in socioeconomic status with his peers, he was painfully shy in grade school. Bundy also longed for a relationship, but was terrified of being humiliated within the confines of one. While aspiring to climb the social ladder, Bundy was abducting and murdering somewhere around 30 women, too, before he was finally caught. This begs the question, Why would someone with such a bright and promising future become a cold blooded killer?

While those answers were slow to arrive, it was eventually discovered that Bundy didn’t exhibit any kind of psychological issue. All of the tests administered by psychiatrist Al Carlisle came back “clean” but Carlisle listened to those around him and to his instincts. Bundy had taken some psychology courses in college and was familiar with the line of questioning that he was receiving. He didn’t take very kindly to being on that side of the psychological table but he took it in stride, as did Dr. Carlisle. He had prepared for this reaction from Bundy and watched his every move to counteract his compensations. It was discovered that Bundy used traumatic events from his past to fuel fantasies and dissociate from those around him as a way to comfort himself. So, rather than having some ingrained psychopathy, instead, he had a very dangerous defense mechanism.

Final Thoughts:

Over the years, the term “psychopath” has been attributed to Gacy and killers like him. The issue with this concept is that, for the most part, many of these killers are not outwardly violent. They are part of their communities and some, like Swedish serial killer Tore Hedin, are police officers. Serial killers seem to show massive restraint while out in public which is categorically against the definitions they are given. “Sociopath” doesn’t necessarily fit them either.

Many, like Bundy or Manson were far from antisocial. Dahmer showed what might be considered a conscience with his admission that he might have gone too far. Bundy had inferiority issues and was painfully shy. While he showed textbook signs with harming animals and the like, he was simply a kid who felt like an outcast in a world he desperately wanted to assimilate to. So, aside from some slight personality issues and small paranoid delusions, what is it that makes someone a serial killer? Is it organic and within the brain from a defined point? Or is it something that they conjure up as a way to deal with unpleasant truths about themselves? Whatever the reason, the psychology behind some of the world’s most prolific serial killers might just surprise you.

Is there a serial killer you would like us to talk about more in depth? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.



Bonn, Scott. “Here’s Why We Love Serial Killers.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 22 Sept. 2014,

Bonn, Scott. “John Wayne Gacy: The Diabolical ‘Killer Clown.’” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 19 May 2014, Retrieved November 11, 2017

Bonn, Scott. “Origin of the Term ‘Serial Killer.’” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 9 June 2014, Retrieved November 11, 2017

Ullman, Joan. “’I Carried It Too Far, That’s for Sure’.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 1 May 1992, Retrieved November 11, 2017

Staff, Criminal Profiling. “About Charles Manson.” Criminal Profiling, Criminal Profiling , 19 May 2001, Retrieved November 11, 2017



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  1. How much research have you done? The first person I read is Dahmer and you got that completely wrong! He, like most serial killers suffered from childhood neglect as well as having a borderline personality disorder, which was confirmed by psychologists who studied him. He also had sexual paraphelias which he could not deal with, and oh, did I mention he potentially suffered from Aspergers? Because he was alone as a child and could not make friends?

    • First, I would like to thank you for taking the time to reply. From there I will address your concerns. This article is based off of initial findings from those that spoke with each killer first. With Dahmer there was a lot of speculation before his trial and that muddied the waters as the psychologists tried to wade past those speculations to get to the meat of the issue. This article doesn’t allow for me to say that right out in the beginning, unfortunately. I apologize for that not being evident from the start. Past that, you are correct. What you mentioned are things that were realized after the first observations occurred. There will be another article, strictly about Dhamer, that will go farther in depth with those issues. The hope is to show the understanding and evolution surrounding mental illness and personality disorders.

      All that aside, I did see where the speculation about Aspergers came into play but it came across as theory rather than fact. I also read where it is hypothesized that he was exhibiting the first symptoms and signs of antisocial personality disorder and that many of those symptoms stemmed from the neglect and abuse from his earlier childhood. Have you come across those theories as well?

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