The Making and the Breaking of the Serial Killer

A look at how the serial killer brain could develop over time.

Posted Jan 02, 2013

The serial killer, Israel Keyes, made headlines recently. Keyes, who may have been the most meticulous serial killer of modern times, committed suicide in his prison cell in Anchorage, AK, at the beginning of this month. Since his death, details of his nefarious life that he relayed to the Anchorage Police since his arrest on March 12th, 2012, have become widely available. The current estimation for his death toll is eleven people, and his assaults spanned at least four states (AK, OR, WA, and VT), but probably more.

Keyes is being compared to Bundy and for good reason. His crimes span numerous states, he was very methodical in his planning, and towards the end he appeared to lose control and the gap between murders narrowed. Like Bundy, Keyes knew that he was losing control over his desire to kill. In fact, Detective Monique Doll, of the Anchorage Police Department, explained, “Israel Keyes did this because he got an immense amount of enjoyment out of it, much like an addict gets an immense amount of enjoyment out of drugs.” This is not the first time serial killing has been compared to addiction, indeed Robert Keppel, one of the main detectives responsible for catching Bundy, described Bundy’s fascination with death and the need for necrophilia like a chemical tidal wave surging over him, like a craving for a narcotic (Keppel, 2010). 

This reported (and demonstrated) rise in killings and assaults due to an out of control urge reminds us that like everyone else, their brain is constantly in flux and changing with life experience. Conduct Disorder (CD), sometimes known as childhood psychopathy (Lynam, 1997), is given as a diagnosis to children and teenagers who exhibit extreme antisocial traits, such as animal torture and cruelty (Dahmer and Keyes have both been implicated in this). If the antisocial traits are still there after the age of eighteen they would likely receive a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (APD). In fact, CD in childhood has been shown as a predictor of psychopathy in adulthood (Burke, Loeber, & Lahey, 2007). To understand this idea of addiction, therefore, it is perhaps a good idea to consider the first time a child with CD comes across a cat, a dog, or a squirrel with that morbid sense of curiosity.

Addiction to anything starts with an introductory act; the anticipation of the act will be coupled with feelings of promise and exhilaration, and once the act has been completed there will be an elevated sense of satisfaction. The child’s lack or absence of empathy could mean that feelings of pain will not be reciprocated and the animal will not be afforded any special rights or immunity in the child’s eyes. A child’s destructive nature and curiosity (usually with respect to toys), coupled with CD, therefore, is a recipe for killing animals. And once the child has felt the exhilaration, something that the psychopathic crave, given their physiology, the antisocial behavior will be reinforced. This sets the ground for addiction, particularly given the high level of exhilaration.

Those with psychopathy and CD also show poor impulse control (Barry, et al., 2000), which seriously increases the likelihood of any behavior that has been met with high levels of reinforcement in the past. If you toss in the awakening of sexual feelings and impulses brought on by puberty, those with CD will inevitably start to see humans in a different way.

We must also look at the role of fantasy. Most people fantasize about things that they cannot have, but the psychopath has every intention of getting everything they desire. Psychopathic serial killers know that rape and killing provide exhilaration, and so in order to maximize that exhilaration they will plan out and fantasize over their next act. As they gain experience and learn what kinds of things provide maximum levels of reinforcement, they are likely to try and replicate the experience, perhaps trying to make it better than the time before. It must not be underestimated how much time and planning goes into this process, as they are expecting a huge physiological payoff. If the anticipation and the fantasizing goes as planned, the killer will get the stimulation they crave, but if not, all of that anticipation, planning, and personal investment will turn into frustration or rage.

Eventually, the serial killer is likely to meet a number of personal problems that frustrate their efforts for stimulation. Firstly, if the stimulation is contingent upon ever complex rituals and acts, then they will become harder and harder to fulfill. Secondly, if the well-planned and researched avenues for killing are shut off, due to police investigations or economic or social problems, then there is no promise of a forthcoming fix. And thirdly, there could be biological problems in the aging killer’s brain that make it harder for them to control their impulses. 

I raise this last point as conjecture, because there have been no longitudinal studies of serial killers (or psychopaths) that have monitored any changes in integrity of the regions showing significant differences in the antisocial brain; for a review of these regions see Pemment (2010). In terms of impulse control, the frontal lobe plays a significant role (Brower & Price, 2001). The undeveloped regions of the frontal lobe could be responsible for the psychopath’s poor impulse control, anyway, but if the brain begins to expect a certain level of stimulation (which has been escalating over the course of their life), the compromised frontal lobe could lose its ability to have any control. Alcohol abuse, something that can often be comorbid among psychopaths (Morgenstern, Langenbucher, & Miller, 1997), is also responsible for frontal lobe shrinkage (Kubota, Nakazaki, Hirai, Yamaura, & Kusaka, 2001). Throw in frontal lobe dementia or early onset Alzheimer’s Disease and the problem of poor impulse control could escalate.

Neurologically and behaviorally, it is not hard to see why serial killers could end up falling apart. Hopefully, this decreases the adaptive value of psychopathy.

Copyright Jack Pemment 2012

Works Cited

Barry, C., Frick, P., DeShazo, T., McCoy, M., Ellis, M., & Loney, B. (2000). The importance of Callous-Unemotional Traits for Extending the Concept of Psychopathy to Children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(2), 335-340.

Brower, M., & Price, B. (2001). Neuropsychiatry of frontal lobe dysfunction in violent criminal behavior: a critical review. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, 71, 720-726.

Burke, J., Loeber, R., & Lahey, B. (2007). Adolescent Conduct Disorder and Interpersonal Callousness as Predictors of Psychopathy in Young Adults. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 36(3), 334-346.

Keppel, R. (2010). The Riverman: Ted Bundy and the Hunt for the Green River Killer. New York: Pocket Books.

Kubota, M., Nakazaki, S., Hirai, S. S., Yamaura, A., & Kusaka, T. (2001). Alcohol consumption and frontal lobe shrinkage: study of 1432 non-alchoholic subjects. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, (71), 104-106.

Lynam, D. (1997). Pursuing the psychopath: Capturing the fledling psychopath in a nomological net. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106(3), 425-438.

Morgenstern, J., Langenbucher, J. L., & Miller, K. (1997). The comorbidity of alcoholism and personality disorders in a clinical population: Prevalance and relation to alcohol typology variables. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106(1), 74-84.

Pemment, J. (2012). The neurobiology of antisocial personality disorder: The quest for rehabilitation and treatment. Aggression and Violent Behavior, (In press).