Serial killers. They're fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. We make horror films about them, documentaries and TV shows. We study them, trying to work out what makes them tick. What makes them capable of murdering again, and again, and again? Are they born evil? Or has society turned them into serial killers? We simply don't know. But there are a number of characteristics and traits to look out for. Warning signs that someone might just have multiple murder on their mind...


1. The fantasist

The Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI has concluded that serial killers programme themselves in childhood to become murderers through a progressively intensifying loop of fantasy. Serial killers’ fantasies are often about control and violation, or about mutilating themselves. Or they may even fantasise about traumas they’ve experienced, only this time round they’ll be the assailant.

Fantasy in childhood can become compulsive – especially if the child has been abused, traumatised or neglected.

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Example: Ed Kemper, known as the ‘Co-ed Killer,’ murdered his grandparents, mother and his mother’s friend in the 1960s. Then, in the 1970s he killed six female student hitchhikers, had sex with their corpses before dismembering them. Kemper, who’d been severely abused as a child by his mother, once admitted, ‘I knew long before I started killing that I was going to be killing – that it was going to end up like that. The fantasies were too strong.’

And a famous quote from American Psycho, wrongly attributed to Ed Gein, but actually said by Kemper is, ‘When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part of me wants to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right … [and the other part of me wonders] what her head would look like on a stick.’ Shudder.


2. God Complex

Some killers love having the power of someone’s life in their hands. One psychologist has said serial killers have, ‘almost like a God complex that they have the ability to kill somebody and watch them die.’ What’s worse is they get a thrill out of it. Which is pretty terrifying.

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Example: Doctor Harold Shipman. Shipman was convicted of murdering 15 patients by administering a lethal injection of diamorphine, and it’s feared he could have killed over 250 people. In letters, written from jail, he displayed an alarming sense of power. He wrote in one, ‘No one saw me do anything. As for stealing morphine off the terminally ill, again no one saw me do it.’

In a BBC documentary, psychologist Dr David Holmes said that Shipman thought he was a ‘medical god’. Dr Holmes said, ‘He saw no one as being superior to him. In his own mind, in his own eyes, he was some sort of medical god.’

Another serial killer said to have a god complex was Dennis Nilsen, who murdered 16 men he picked up in bars.


3. Superficial Charm

Ah, the charming psychopath. Serial killers are said to have an incredible grasp of other people’s emotions and the ability to pick up on any weaknesses or vulnerabilities in order to convince them to do something they normally wouldn’t. Superficial charmers will get others on side and take charge of a situation with a mix of compliments and common sense. Chilling.

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Example: Jeffrey Dahmer. While out and about hunting for his prey, Jeffrey Dahmer could turn on the charm. He’d lure his young male victims back to his house for sex, for a drink, or to be ‘photographed’, then drug them, and strangle them. He’d then have sex with their dead bodies, before finally dismembering and dissolving the corpses – eating bits, and keeping other parts as trophies.

American Ted Bundy had charm in buckets too. Women considered him handsome, intelligent, outgoing, and social. But he was also a serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, and necrophile.


4. Animal killer

You’ve seen it in the films – the young serial-killer-to-be who gets sadistic pleasure from torturing and killing young animals. From burning insects with a magnifying glass, to slaughtering rabbits, dogs, cats etc. And even after seeing the morbid after effects of their actions they feel no remorse.

This sadistic voyeurism could be an early indication for psychopathic tendencies.

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Example: Albert DeSalvo – convicted of rape and sex offences, but confessed to being the Boston Strangler, who strangled 13 women to death in eastern Massachusetts in the 1960s. DeSalvo started by trapping dogs and cats in a box and would shoot arrows at them. His cruelty and taste for evil only escalated. From animal killing, to assault and rape and finally to murder.

The charming Jeffrey Dahmer also started out killing animals. As a kid, his hobby was to kill his neighbour’s pets and even impaled a dog’s head on a stick. Ed Kemper did a similar thing with a cat. Ted Bundy too. Let’s face it, getting pleasure from killing animals is like a huge neon warning sign of a serial killer.


5. The Power Junkies

Serial killers love exerting control over the people around them and have a warped sense of power. Even when they’re caught, serial killers will hold back crucial bits of information in order to keep something within their control. Some last remnants of power.

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Example: The Moors Murderers. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley killed five children in the 1960s.  Ian Brady refused to reveal where the body of Keith Bennett is buried, taking his sick secret to the grave.

And serial killer Peter Tobin reportedly bragged to a psychiatrist in jail that he had killed 48 times, then sneered, ‘Prove it.’


6. A history of sex abuse

Research shows experiencing, or witnessing violent sexual events during childhood have serious damaging affects on a person’s development. Childhood abuse can lead to social isolation, learning difficulties, self-control issues and seizures. This frightening research is a compelling argument that some serial killers are made, not born. Of course, not all victims of childhood sexual abuse grow up to be abusers, criminals and murderers.

In one 2005 study, the results were startling. Of the 50 serial killers studied:

A huge 50% suffered psychological abuse, 36% suffered physical abuse, 26% suffered sexual abuse and 18% were neglected.

Only 2% had never been abused in any way.

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Example: Widely believed to be America’s first female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos was the victim of rampant childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather. Later she turned to prostitution and violence, and between November 1989 and November 1990 shot dead seven men who picked her up for sex. She was executed n 2002.


7. The Average Joe

One of the most scariest traits. Many serial killers appear normal pillars of the community. They use this as a way to gain trust, while committing the most horrendous acts behind closed doors. They might be your friendly neighbour, a family member or a helpful colleague. You’ll have no idea of the evil acts they’re up to when no one is watching…

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Example: John Wayne Gacy, nicknamed the ‘killer clown’ – he performed as Pogo the Clown at parties and community events. But in private he raped and murdered 33 teenage boys, burying their remains in the crawlspace of his house. He was executed in 1994.


8. The Bragger

Typically, serial killers are egotistical and love to boast. Whether it’s aimed at their accomplices, their next victim, the police, or just themselves. Many also keep trophies of their victims – reminders of their work.

Once caught, famous killers have also been known to lie, or exaggerate the number of people they’ve slaughtered in a twisted bid for more notoriety than the killers before them.

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Example: Joanna Dennehy. During her 2013 killing spree, she bragged about her murders to an alleged accomplice by remarking, ‘Oops, I did it again’, later claiming to a friend she’d killed eight people. Dennehy was jailed for life for stabbing three men to death and dumping their bodies in ditches.