Serial Killing as a Desire for Intimacy
The pathology of serial killing and the limitations of empathy.
Posted Feb 20, 2019
In the past, I have explored what disorders might be present in the brain of somebody who engages in serial killing. It is not uncommon to look at disorders that result in a lack of empathy, the primary candidates typically being psychopathy, or to use DSM-5 terminology, Antisocial Personality Disorder. However, there are a few problems with exploring the potential diagnoses of someone who could commit serial murder.
First, it does not matter which diagnosis you explore — you’ll find that the vast majority of people with that diagnosis do not commit serial murder. Second, there is no reason to believe that all serial killers would have the same diagnoses. However, it does appear almost self-evident that a serial killer is able to value taking a person’s life over allowing that person to keep living. A failure of empathy would seem to permit this to happen under certain circumstances. I believe there is credibility to this view, but we must remind ourselves that empathy, defined here as the ability to understand others, does not necessarily lead to ethical (or good) behavior.
It is entirely possible that someone who enjoys pain, or has normalized it, can also enjoy watching or inflicting pain in others. Understanding how much pain a person is in can allow a torturer to decide if it is not enough. There is a range of responses to physical pain that depend on how bad the pain is and how long it is felt. Excruciating physical pain for extended periods of time tends to elicit the most powerful response, and I think a case can be made that it is this response that the sadist wants to see and experience as it gives them pleasure. This opens the doors to consider inflicting pain on others as a perverted desire for intimacy. In healthy consensual relationships, we can derive a lot of pleasure in witnessing and causing arousal in our partners. We are already equipped to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others (schadenfreude), and so there is a fertile pathology that could lead one towards extreme acts sadism. When you consider that acts of torture and deliberate assault could be orgasmic for the perpetrator, you can start to understand why it continues to happen in the world (even though it is terrifying).
There is no reason, therefore, that an empath could not be a sadist; in fact, understanding the level of pain their victim is in could make it all the more satisfying.
The histories of serial killers are commonly (but not always) marred with childhood abuse and trauma. This can sometimes mean that as a child, so much pain was experienced, and to an extent, normalized, that their own habits and view of who they are have been shaped by it. Humans are creatures of habit, and so the violence experienced as a child could easily resurface as an adult (cycle of violence). The periods of abuse could also function as mental milestones, and so re-experiencing violence could become a means of reassuring themselves of their own identity.
As an adult, this person might continue to deliver and experience the violence upon themselves, or decide to deliver it upon others. A masochist who sublimates the experience of pain through another body becomes a sadist. The feelings of helplessness when they were abused as a child might also motivate them to switch roles and change the power differential. Having complete power over another individual is also indicative of a sadist.
The event of killing is extremely important to a serial killer, which tells you that they have a lot invested in the experience.
Serial killers often go to great lengths to find exactly the right kind of person and plan to kill them in the right kind of way. This is akin to drug addicts who want to take the right drug in the right environment to maximize their high. A lack of empathy is sometimes considered a lack of feeling and psychopaths are often known for being emotionally "color blind"; Dr. Robert Hare suggests that violent psychopaths just cannot understand love, and often equate it with hedonic sex. Murdering somebody must come with such a powerful feeling that it temporarily satiates the killer before the desire to do it again resurfaces.
The range of emotion might be limited in those who can kill repeatedly, but the ability to feel might not be diminished at all.
This means that there remains an elusive X factor behind serial killing. It has been hypothesized (notably by Dr. Lawrence Simon) that male serial killers typically experienced an abusive mother and a physically and/or emotionally absent father. This certainly opens discussion for a number of Freudian interpretations, but if the first and crucially important relationship with a woman is with one’s mother, it’s not hard to see how this abuse could lead to misogyny. Edmund Kemper seems to exemplify this model perfectly, and once he killed his mother, after a handful of previous murders, his desire to kill seemed to stop (at least according to Kemper).
When you look at serial killing as the desire to have an experience with another person, it frames it as the dire need for a connection, albeit temporary, and a way of connecting with the world.
© Jack Pemment, 2019