Real Life Serial Killers– What makes them tick?

The serial killer has become wildly popular in crime fiction.  Maybe they are so fascinating to us, as readers, because they are complicated creatures.  They are deliciously bad.  We, as writers, are told never to make our antagonist (bad guy) all bad, or our protagonist all good.

Dr. Hannibal Lector is a perfect example of this.  Especially the one depicted in the television series, Hannibal.


Dr. Hannibal Lector– played by Mads Mikkelsen– is a brilliant forensic psychologist and culinarian (although some of the ingredients in his dishes are questionable).  In one scene we see his soft side with Dr. Alana Bloom, and in the next, he is slaughtering people and arranging them in dramatic convoluted poses.  Far beyond what is necessary to end their life.  He’s an artist when it comes to designing a shocking display for the FBI.  Yet, part of me loves him!  Why?  Because nothing is black and white with him.  He’s justified in his actions, which makes him a perfect character.  However, in the real world the serial killer is a frightening creature.  And one I never want to come in contact with in a dark alley.


I’ve done a lot of research into serial killers and what makes them tick.


Joel Norris Ph.D. is the founding member of the International Committee of Neuroscientists to Study Episodic Aggression.  Norris explains that the serial killer’s addiction to crime is also an addiction to specific patterns of violence that ultimately becomes their way of life.  He suggests that there are seven key phases to the ritual of serial killing:


1.  The aura phase:  In this phase the killer withdraws from reality and his senses heighten.  Meaning, the killer distances himself from society.  Nevertheless, friends, family and people who know this killer may not detect the change in personality.  The killer becomes antisocial and no longer has meaning to his life.  This can last for several moments to several months.  During this phase the killer fantasizes.  These fantasies often include sadistic sexual and other violent acts which possibly derive from early childhood experiences.


2.  Trolling phase:  The trolling phase is when the killer tries to find his victim.  The killer normally hunts in places that are familiar to him.  Often referred to as his “comfort zone.”  In this phase they will also look for the perfect place to abduct his victim and dump the body after his kill.  Often they start trolling school zones, red light districts, or lovers lanes.  This might go on for days or even months before they find the perfect victim.


3.  Wooing phase:  In the wooing phase the killer tries to win the confidence of the victim before luring him/her into a trap.  This phase is only done by the confidence, well-organized killer.  They are more daring and have better social skills than the disorganized killer.  This phase is important because the killer only seems to kill the ones that allow him to gain their trust.  Once the trust is received, the killer will then lure the victim into a quiet secluded area where his mask comes off and the next phase begins.


4.  Capture phase:  The capture phase is where the killer reveals himself to his victim.  The capture can be a swift as snapping on a pair of handcuffs, or a blow to the head which renders the victim helpless.  The killer may draw the victim into his vehicle which has no door handle and thus, no means for escape.  He usually savors this moment.  It is disturbingly fun for him and what he’s fantasized about.  He then drives his victim to place, far out of the way of other houses and people, where no one will hear their screams.  Once the killer is confident the victim cannot escape, the next phase begins.


5.  Murder phase:  Norris describes the murder phase as the ritual reenactment of the childhood experiences of the killer, only now the roles are reversed.  The killer may decide to kill his victim instantly, or torture “play” with his victim to death.  He then revives the victim on the brink of death and begins the cycle again.  It is likely that the victim is “depersonalized” by marring, mutilating the face and body.  Any violent means of rape are often performed after the victim is dead (necrophilia).  The organized killer takes a much more slower approach to killing his victim.  He revels in the torture, the game.  The murder is delayed because often it is not the serial killer’s main objective.  The torture is.  The sexual sadists will resort to using different equipment, such as an electrical wire that they brought with them to the crime site.  Eventually, when the killer finishes with the torture, he proceeds to kill.


6.  Totem phase:  After the kill, the sudden excitement drops and he wakes from his fantasy.  He is likely to slip into depression.  Which is why some killers take trophies, to relive the kill and preserve their fantasy.  They may take their victims clothing or cut articles out of the newspaper about their crimes.  Some serial killers cut off body parts to consume later.  Others take videos of their crimes.  The trophies are meant to give the killer the same feelings of power he experienced at the time of the kill, and to remind himself that the fantasy is real, that they really did it.


7.  Depression phase:  This is the last phase before the killer starts the cycle again.  The depression phase can last for days, weeks, even months.  They may even become so depressed they try to kill themselves.  The fantasy in the killer’s mind is always better than the act itself.  He tries to keep it alive with the trophies, but it never measures up to what’s in his mind.  In each subsequent attempt, the killer tries to make the scene equal to what’s in his mind.  However, because the victims are not viewed as people, recollections of the murder may be vague or viewed as the killer watched someone else commit the act.
And the cycle begins again.


4 thoughts on “Real Life Serial Killers– What makes them tick?

  1. Interesting article. I prosecuted for twenty years and the latter part of my career was devoted to violent crimes only. I’ve prosecuted a plethora of homicide cases, but never had to face a serial killer, thank god. I know that many of us are fascinated by fictional serial killers. I enjoy reading psychological thrillers and many of the plots focus on serial killers. I think Ted Bundy is the only real serial killer that I read multiple books about.

    There is something about serial killers that I’ve always been curious to ask. We all know that the vast majority, if not all serial killers are sociopaths and lack empathy for others. This makes it impossible for them to form real relationships with others. But, what keeps them from harming their own family. I realize that many killers have killed their entire families. I am referring to stranger killing, serial killers. Bundy, for example. How did he maintain superficial relationships with coworkers like the author, Ann Rule? I mean if they have the urge to kill that cannot be suppressed, how do they manage to suppress it when it comes to people they are more familiar with? Is it part of their counter forensic measures – methods of attempting to avoid detection or do they spare people closer to them for some other reason. We know they are not capable of feeling anything for others so why are they able to control their urges.

    Thanks for sharing. You have a fantastic blog with a wealth of information. I am eager for the release of your novel. I signed up for your ebook. I’ve bookmarked your blog for future reading and reference.

    Melissa Sugar

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Melissa! You raise some interesting questions. I’m not sure all psychopaths feel nothing for others. The Iceman, for instance, had a wife and two daughters whom he loved with all his heart. It was this love that helped him evade arrest, not wanting to cause his family shame. And yet, he could kill without feeling, a cold-blooded psychopath. The defect in serial killers’ frontal lobe–which often turns them into killers to begin with–basically numbs them to feeling right from wrong, or worrying about consequences. But, it appears that it does not prevent them from forming relationships (like Ted Bundy). Perhaps, this is how they can live two separate but parallel lives. So much is still unknown. The subject is fascinating, though, eh?

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying my blog. Welcome!


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