Making a Monster: The Biological, Social, and Artistic Construction of a Serial Killer
From Psychosis to Sondheim
Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, the Boston Strangler, Jeffrey Dahmer. Despite the years of history that separate these names, they remain indelibly preserved within our collective societal consciousness because of the massively violent and calculated nature of their crimes. Serial killers, both men and women, represent social monstrosities of the most terrifying variety. They are human predators, cannibals in a figurative and, often, literal sense, and are therefore uniquely subversive to society's carefully constructed behavioral tenets. They frighten because they are human in form but without the social conscience that, for many, defines humanity. They capture the public eye because they terrify, but also because they elicit a sort of gruesome curiosity about the human potential for evil; as Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde alleges, wickedness lies within each heart, waiting only for the proper time and impetus to break free.
Although the behavioral patterns of serial killers have long been attributed to external (that is to say, social) causation, psychologists have recently begun to examine the biochemical circumstances underlying behavioral precursors of serial violence. A British philosopher, G.H. Lewes, noted that, " Murder, like talent, seems occasionally to run in families" (1,2). The observation, while loosely empirical in nature, has proven common enough to catalyze widespread research to identify a genetic factor resulting in a behavioral predisposition to violence. As yet, no single gene that unequivocally stimulates socially maladaptive aggression and violence has been isolated (1). However, several studies have traced psychological disorders, many of which are associated with aggression, through familial lines (4,9). A survey conducted through Boston's Children's Hospital noted a higher incidence of various psychopathologies in the families of young patients with borderline personality disorders than in families of a control group of non-pathological youths (4). Similarly, it was observed that a group of children with criminal and/or socially maladapted parents had abnormally elevated levels of social delinquency and aggression (9). The investigators conducting both studies suggest that the children's misbehavior appears genetic in origin, although it may also be the result of neglect or abuse (4,9). Although the interplay between genetics and environment in predisposing violent behavior is tightly, almost inextricably, woven, the current belief among those studying intensely violent individuals believe that "bad seeds [i.e. products of violence-predetermining genetics] blossom in bad [i.e. negligent, abusive, or violence-glamorizing] environments" (1).
Physiological deficiencies in the neurotransmitter serotonin have also been linked to psychopathologies involving...