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Serial Killers and Mental Illness

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In the mid-1800s America was introduced to the first serial killer H.H. Holmes. Holmes was found guilty of six murders in Chicago but it is thought that he is guilty of over fifty more. A serial killer can be defined as a person who commits a series of murders without an apparent motive. Due to this fact, serial killers are complex people. This is due to what they did, why they did it, and how they were convicted. In this paper I will discuss the four main types of serial killers, the mental illness associated with each category of killers, and discuss some of the most notorious killers in history. To begin, there are four types of serial killers. The first and most common type of serial killer is the power and control killer. These killers receive complete sexual gratification over the humiliation of their victims.

These people are also diagnosed as complete sociopaths. A sociopath is someone who is considered sane. They know right from wrong but do not care because they lack empathy. They do not feel guilt or remorse over their actions and kill simply because they like it. Two examples of the most famous power and control serial killers are Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. First, in 1974 a series of murders were taking place in the Seattle area. A young woman called in to report a suspect her ex boyfriend named Ted Bundy. Police took the call into consideration and brought Ted into custody however, he was released soon after for seeming too innocent. After a period of time more murders began taking place and yet again the signs were pointing to Bundy. Police officially took him in for investigation however, Bundy managed to escape prison several times. During his short lived freedom from police he would go out and commit more murders. During his trial, it was revealed that Bundy would wear an arm sling and pretend to be hurt to lure women to help him and he would then murder these women.

In fact Ted Bundy confessed to murdering over thirty women. As a result he was sentenced to death by electric chair. Secondly, John Wayne Gacy showed an unusual fascination with corpses while working in a mortuary. During his second marriage he would pick up people from gay bars, murder them,and hide their bodies under his house. Soon after his second wife left him and he decided to dedicate all of his time to murder. It wasn’t until he raped and chloroformed a young man without murdering him that police suspected he was the cause of these murders. When police investigated his home they found twenty-eight bodies buried under his house and the most recent five bodies were thrown into a nearby river. During his trial Gacy tried to plea insanity but was denied because he would dig graved for all of his victims and was then sentenced to death by lethal injection (Cook). These two people are just a small example of the many other power and control serial killers in history. However power and control is only the first type of serial killers, the second category is visionary.

The next category of serial killers is visionary. These people claim to have voices or visions that compel them to commit murders. They are considered psychotic meaning that they are genuinely insane and have difficulty separating reality and fiction making murder a symptom of their illness. The most famous visionary serial killer is David Berkowitz also known as “Son of Sam”. David Berkowitz claimed to be surrounded by demons that were urging him to kill. He explained in a note to police that he was a monster and called himself the “Son of Sam” which was the name of the demon making him commit the murders. When Berkowitz was caught by police he confessed immediately. Although it was clear that he was a paranoid schizophrenic he was found guilty of the murders and was sentenced to three hundred and sixty five years in prison which he is still serving today. However, visionary serial killers are not the only types of killers that feel as though it is their duty to commit these crimes.

The next category of serial killers is the missionary killer. These people feel obligated to target a specific class of people. One of the most notorious missionary serial killers is Joseph Paul Franklin (Chase). Franklin was motivated by his hatred of African Americans and Jews. He was extremely influenced by his “hero” Adolf Hitler and committed dozens of hate crimes from 1977 to 1980. Franklin was not only responsible for murdering innocent interracial couples he encountered, but he was also responsible for multiple shootings, bombings, bank robberies and murders. After being sentenced to death by lethal injection he made a statement claiming that his only regret was that killing Jews is not legal (Montaldo). Although the heinous crimes of hatred by Joseph Paul Franklin were horrifying nothing can compare to the actions of a hedonistic serial killer.

The final type of serial killer may be the most horrifying. A hedonistic serial killer, also known as a lust or thrill killer, has a strong relation between personal violence and sexual gratification. These serial killers like to take their time with victims and torture them as much as possible. Hedonistic killers are most commonly known as fictional characters from movies or books however, these killers are very real. As for the aspect of mental illness hedonistic killers vary in the illness they have and are mostly motivated by their sexual needs. A terrifying example of a hedonistic killer is Jeffrey Dahmer. As a child Dahmer was fascinated with dead animals, in fact, in his free time he would take dead animals off the road and carefully dismember them. His first murder occurred when his parents left him alone in the house and he picked up a hitchhiker, killed him by hitting him on the head, and then dismembering him. After this initial killing he would go on to rape, murder and torture seventeen men and boys from 1979 to 1991. Most of these murders occurred between 1990 and 1991 where is is believed that before he was caught he was murdering almost every week.

When he was finally caught by police they discovered horrifying detail of his murders. He was fascinated by zombies and wanted try to create zombies to be his playthings (Cook). In an article by Scott A. Bonn Ph.D. he includes a quote by Dahmer discussing his fascination with zombies. “Lust played a big part in it [the murders]. Control and lust. Once it happened the first time, it just seemed like it had control of my life from there on in. The killing was just a means to an end. That was the least satisfactory part. I didn’t enjoy doing that. That’s why I tried to create living zombies with … acid and the drill. I wanted to see if it was possible to make—again, it sounds really gross—uh, zombies, people that would not have a will of their own, but would follow my instructions without resistance. So after that, I started using the drilling technique”. The drilling technique he tried using involved drilling a hole in the victim’s skull while they were still alive and pouring acid into their heads. He would then dismember bodies and keep them in his fridge and would keep the skulls and place them on an altar in his bedroom. Dahmer has also been proven to have tried cannibalism at least once.

During trail Dahmer plead guilty but insane and he was convicted of fifteen counts of murder and sentenced to fifteen life sentences. Shortly after being sentenced Dahmer refused to be kept in solitary confinement and was ultimately killed by another inmate (Cook). Jeffrey Dahmer is just one prime example of how the need for sexaul gratification and mental illness can cause a person to commit horrible crimes. To summarize, there are four types of serial killers power and control, visionary, missionary, and hedonistic. Many of these killers are considered to be psychotic, sociopaths, or suffer from other types of mental illness. Due to these facts it is hard to label serial killers simply as crazy people who commit murders. These examples show that serial killers are complex people due to what they did, why they did it, and how they were convicted. These examples also show how diverse the group can be based on what type of killer they are and what mental illnesses are typically associated with their category.


  1. Chase, J. (2015, May 08). Examining Four Types of Serial Killers. Retrieved from https://authorjenniferchase.com/2015/05/07/examining-four-types-of-serial-killers/
  2. Cook, B. I. (n.d.). Antisocial Personality Disorder and its Correlation with Serial Killers. Retrieved from https://alfredadler.edu/sites/default/files/Cook MP 2011.pdf
  3. LaBrode, R. T. (n.d.). Etiology of the Psychopathic Serial Killer: An Analysis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, Psychopathy, and Serial Killer Personality and Crime Scene Characteristics. Retrieved from https://triggered.clockss.org/ServeContent?rft_id=info:doi/10.1093/brief-treatment/mhm004
  4. Borowski, J. (n.d.). H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer. Retrieved from http://bi.galegroup.com.pitt.idm.oclc.org/global/article/GALE|A125305529?u=upitt_main&sid=summon
  5. Montaldo, C. (2018, April 02). See What Motivated Joseph Franklin to Kill. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/joseph-paul-franklin-profile-972152
  6. Bonn, S. A., Ph.D. (n.d.). Hedonist Lust Killers Must Feed Their Insatiable Hunger. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201412/hedonist-lust-killers-must-feed-their-insatiable-hunger
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