Jack Pemment MA, MS

Blame the Amygdala

The Building Blocks of Necrophilia

Changing the focus from life to death.

Posted Jan 13, 2019

Necrophilia, which is frequently taken to mean a sexual attraction to corpses, is defined by the DSM-V as "an other specified paraphilic disorder, involving recurrent and intense sexual interest in corpses." (1) However, since necrophilia was first documented in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (2), there has been a lot of variation discovered in those who engage in this behavior, and subsequently many attempts to produce a cohesive classification.

The majority of recent classifications seem to focus on a description of the type of necrophilic behavior, but there is an absence of necrophilic thoughts and motivations behind the behavior. This is not surprising. If you consider the thoughts and motivations behind why people have sex with the living, you would be presented with a vast number of reasons that could be assessed with a variety of different academic tool kits. Even though necrophilia seems to be a very specific type of sexual interaction done by a minority of people, why would the motivations be any less diverse?

Perhaps the most exhaustive and useful system of classifications has come from Aggrawal, who in 2009 proposed 10 different types of necrophile [3]. Aggrawal’s categories are sensitive to the intentions or motivations of a necrophile, and range from those who receive pleasure from being near the dead (not necessarily sexual; for example, the mummification or preservation of a deceased loved one), to those who are aroused by touching the dead, to those who exclusively require sex with the dead.

However, even this system of classification comes with limitations. Each of these categories can only be viewed as temporal at best. A person’s needs and desires over the course of their life can evolve and fluctuate, or even go dormant or vanish entirely. For this reason, it is easy to see that a necrophile in custody could fit more than one of these categories when examining their history, and one cannot rule out how their necrophilic behavior could have escalated, not just from thoughts to actions, but from lawful to unlawful behavior.

Aggrawal only captures homicide in one category “Homicidal Necrophiles," and he lists these people as capable of having intercourse with the living, but would be willing to kill to satisfy their need for sex with a corpse. This classification seems strange in that Aggrawal has linked homicide only with those who able to have sex with the living, but also enjoy sex with corpses. However, there are six other categories in his list (classes IV-VIII, and X) in which homicide could be used to create access to a corpse.

The need to identify possible acts of necrophilia and necrophilic desires and intentions is crucial, not just for law enforcement, but academically, too, to see if it has entered into a person’s pathology. Given the cultural taboo on this subject, it is unlikely that those favoring necrophilic behavior would share this information publicly. As difficult as this is, I believe there could be methods of possible identification.

The Importance of a Diagnosis and Understanding the Implications of Olfaction

Necrophilia is not associated with any one mental illness or disorder. However, it is known that some necrophiles had previously been diagnosed with Conduct Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder [4]. Necrophiles with this diagnostic history have increased likelihood to commit homicide before carrying out necrophilic acts, simply because diminished empathy and antisocial behavior are characteristic of these disorders. There has also been suggestion that those who have committed necrophilia have suffered from depression [5,6], and schizophrenia in the form of anthropophagy and vampirism [7-8].

While it would be folly to conclude a disorder or illness must be present in those desirous of necrophilic interactions, these illnesses and disorders do provide grounds for further understanding the canon of recorded cases involving necrophilia.  For example, in the absence of any co-morbid illness or disorder, those with Conduct Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder do not experience psychosis, which means a strong prosecutorial case can be built at trial that the defendant was in control of their actions and it could be demonstrated that they do at least understand (if not feel) the difference between moral right and wrongs. This could be more of a challenge with defendants diagnosed with severe types of depression, and even more so with those diagnosed with schizophrenia.

These disorders and illnesses are also useful to us in understanding necrophilia because sensory perceptions, particularly olfaction and gustation [9-13], are different when compared to a control population of healthy volunteers. The smell of a dead body is unique, and involves putrefaction, which most people find abhorrent. This makes one wonder how somebody with necrophilic desires could approach a corpse and not be repulsed enough to decide not to interfere with the body. Differences in olfaction could hold the answer.

Cumming, Matthews, and Park (2010) found that individuals with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were less able to correctly identify odors using the UPSIT test [14], which involves matching an odor to the correct noun from a list of four. In addition to this inability to identify smells, the team also found that those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder rated smells more positively than the healthy controls. Taken together, these findings indicate that those with these disorders demonstrate confusion in identifying smells and that there’s a tendency to rate smells as more pleasant. One cannot help but wonder, therefore, if having these disorders either could facilitate or encourage necrophilic encounters (provided the motivation is also present), as the strong and typically foul smell of a corpse would be less of a barrier; the smells of death could even be perceived as pleasant. This is even more relevant for those necrophiles who have repeat interactions with the same corpse, as the course of putrefaction would be met with higher tolerance.

Smell and the propagation of emotion are partly processed in our orbitofrontal cortices [15-17]. This area is also associated with personality characteristics such as impulse control and decision making [17], and was the region discovered to have been lesioned by a railroad rod explosion in the case of Phineas Gage [18]; Gage was noted to have been a changed person after the incident, and more antisocial than he had been. As the orbitofrontal cortex can suffer dysfunction or maldevelopment in those with Antisocial Personality Disorder [19], Conduct Disorder [20], major depression [21], and schizophrenia [22], it stands to reason that emotional processing surrounding smells, antisocial behavior, and compromised decision making would be evident in the behavior of individuals with these disorders. Taken together, the appeal of necrophilia could seem less outrageous. 

However, a possible challenge to this idea might be a person’s natural propensity to habituate to strong smells over time, or if the corpse has been embalmed. Karen Greenlee, a notorious American necrophile, commented on the smell of a dead body in her interview with Jim Morton in 1989, “I find the odor of death very erotic… Now you get a body that’s been floating in the bay for two weeks, or a burn victim, that doesn’t attract me much, but a freshly embalmed corpse is something else.” [23] The manner in which the death smells are overcome is an important area of investigation in necrophilic cases.

Smells are also strongly linked to emotion [24, 25], and so any kind of unique smell, especially as described by Greenlee above, could enhance and promote the necrophilic experience, in the same way that a person enjoys the smell of their spouse’s perfume, aftershave, shampoo, or other scented lotions or ointments. The smell is unique to the couple and the promotion of intimacy, both emotional and sexual. Therefore, any smell that is determined unique to the necrophile’s desired encounter could ultimately be cherished, even if habituation is required.

It is also not uncommon to enjoy or even seek out smells from our history as they can trigger autobiographical memory [26]. This could even create a feeling of comfort or nostalgia, or the yearning for something lost. The smells associated with death could also serve this function, and this could range from childhood memories of slaughtering animals to smells from a lost loved one who was a taxidermist or mortician. This desire to recreate the past, especially moments of joy or feelings of security, could prompt one to seek out the same smells.

The Need for Necrophilia

Many researchers and authors have posited their ideas behind necrophilic motivation, and one of the primary reasons given is the need for an unresisting or unrejecting partner [4]. This reason is worth unpacking, as on the surface it seems to indicate a violent offender asserting his will over his victim and abolishing their will completely. This is no doubt true of those who commit sexual homicide, but what about necrophiles who find other ways to come into contact with a corpse?

The need for an unrejecting partner is universal for most humans who desire an intimate relationship with another living human, as is the need to feel accepted. And so with necrophilia, it would be worth assessing all of the qualities people look for in a living person (using dating websites, and the ample pop psychology outlets), and seeing if those needs could be met with a deceased partner. A dead partner is not judgmental, there is no fear of needing to produce a reciprocal orgasm during sex, they cannot emotionally hurt anyone, they can be trusted, they do not answer back, there is no concern about offspring, and they can meet what is only a temporary need for sexual intimacy. The necrophiliac also has the luxury of creating, imagining, or fantasizing the corpse to be anything they want it to be. (It is worth noting that a sex doll also fulfills these needs, and it is perhaps a worthwhile study to explore a history of sex doll use in the lives of necrophiliacs.)

Conclusion

Necrophilia will never be neatly defined. We can only do our best to classify, but at the same time understand the limitations and usefulness of our classifications when assessing necrophilic case studies. To understand the motivations of the wide array of necrophiles, we need to understand the motivations of loving the living, and see under which contexts a person’s preferences might change to focus on the dead. We must also consider the barriers to necrophilia such as smell (addressed here), and how a person is able to “give themselves” permission to become intimate with the dead; for example, we see in those with Antisocial Personality Disorder, or a history of Conduct Disorder, that a conscience is lacking.

Once we can start putting these building blocks together, law enforcement can become better informed, and greater strides can be made in knowing the risk factors that lead one to necrophilia.

© Jack Pemment, 2019

For more, see Blame the Amygdala

References

1)      American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. Mar 25, 2017

2)      Krafft-Ebing, R. Von (1886) Psychopathia Sexualis. CG Chaddock, trans. Philadelphia, PA: Davis.

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