“Portrait of a Monster.” That was the headline emblazoned across the front of the Daily News in 1993 after Joel Rifkin confessed to strangling 17 prostitutes and leaving their dismembered bodies around Long Island, New York. It’s the kind of headline that boldly tries to answer a terrifying question: What makes a serial killer tick? What’s happening in the mind of a person who finds calm satisfaction in sadistic murder?
Monsters. We’ve interviewed them. We’ve studied their DNA and stuck slabs of their brains on microscope slides. We’ve spoken with their families. Yet we’re still no closer to understanding what makes serial killers so different from the rest of us. Although no academic explanation ever will—or should—exonerate these people of their crimes, the study of a killer’s mind is a fascinating field that can offer glimpses into our own minds. After all, how can you truly understand what’s normal until you understand what isn’t?
10 Serial Killing And Psychopathy
“Not all psychopaths are serial killers, but all serial killers are psychopaths.” According to Dr. Sue Stone, a psychologist at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, that’s something of an adage in the field of psychology. But is it true? According to the FBI’s statement on serial killers and psychopathy, the link is there, but not necessarily concrete: “All psychopaths do not become serial murderers. Rather, serial murderers may possess some or many of the traits consistent with psychopathy.” They define psychopaths as being glib, lacking in remorse, being impulsive, and lacking in empathy, to name just a few characteristics.
There are psychopaths everywhere. CEOs, doctors, and lawyers are often psychopaths. They’re driven, focused, and can have little remorse in their quest for success—but they don’t kill (usually). Some people would even argue that almost everybody has a little psychopath in them, although that may be extreme.
So not all psychopaths are killers. But if you intentionally kill multiple people over an extended length of time, isn’t there bound to be a seed of psychopathy in there somewhere? With as broad a definition as psychopathy has, it’s impossible to point at two different people and say that one is a psychopath while another isn’t. Herbert Mullin, who killed and mutilated 13 people because voices told him it was the only way to save California, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and schizo-affective schizophrenia years before he began killing. He is generally considered psychotic, not psychopathic.
In fact, the most gruesome murders are generally attributed to psychotics rather than psychopaths. The difference is that psychotic serial killers have lost touch with reality, while psychopathic serial killers know exactly what they are doing. It’s worth noting that psychopathy is not a mental illness and can’t be used for an insanity plea in court.
9 Underdeveloped Brains
In March 2013, Joanna Dennehy, a mother of two, killed three men and dumped their bodies. A few days later, she stabbed a man in broad daylight, stabbed another one nine minutes later, and then ran off with the second man’s dog. At her trial, Dennehy laughed about the crimes.
And she’s definitely not the first. Jeffrey Dahmer said he’d keep killing if given the chance. Israel Keyes, who was definitively linked to three murders and admitted to at least eight more, cracked jokes about the locations of the bodies. In interviews with serial killers, one of the most common themes is a complete lack of remorse.
Adrian Raine, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks the reason for this is that serial killers have underdeveloped brains. He points to two parts of the brain that violent, repeat offenders like serial killers seem to be lacking in: the ventromedial cortex and the dorsolateral cortex. The first is linked to decision-making, and Raine found criminals with psychopathic tendencies to have reduced function there. The second is linked to our ability to learn from our mistakes, and those criminals committed crimes more on impulse than through premeditation.
Faced with the fact that psychopathy is not a mental illness, Raine argues that these people with underdeveloped brains should be treated like people with other mental disorders. His sentiments are echoed by Graeme Fairchild, a researcher in the UK, who says, “We have to ask if they are really to blame for their behavior.”
8 The Happy Face Killer’s Daughter
Melissa Moore was 15 years old when she found out that her father was a serial killer. It’s possibly one of the most shocking revelations anyone could receive. This wasn’t a man who’d abandoned her as an infant—it was the dad who dropped her off at school, who lovingly tucked her in at bedtime, who laughed and told jokes at dinner. But it was also a man who raped and strangled eight women and then confessed to at least one crime on the wall of a truck stop toilet stall.
That man was Keith Jesperson, whom the media dubbed “The Happy Face Killer” because he drew a little smiley face at the end of his truck stop confession. From 1990 to 1995, Jesperson killed at least eight women, most of them prostitutes. That made Melissa about 10 at the time of his first murder, and although Jesperson was often away for long stretches due to the demands of his job as a long-distance truck driver, he still found time for his children. As Melissa wrote in an article for the BBC, she remembers him during this period as “doting and kind . . . a good dad.”
It’s enough to make any sane person question whether Jesperson was just that good at covering his tracks or if his family saw the signs and chose to ignore them. We’ve seen before how denial can be a powerful thing, and that may be especially true with Jesperson.
Looking back, Melissa recalls how even the doting dad had his dark side. He tortured some of the cats that wandered around her childhood farm. He told her once that he knew how to kill a person and get away with it. And once, just before his final murder, she was riding in the cab of his truck when she found a roll of duct tape under his pillow and a pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment. Her dad didn’t smoke.
Jesperson is currently serving a life sentence for his murders, and Melissa spent years grappling with the conflicting emotions of it all. How could a killer also be able to love his children? Was it just an act? In her case, at least, she finally found a semblance of an answer. After visiting Jesperson in prison, her grandfather came to talk with her, and what he told her was both chilling and final: “He said that he had had thoughts of killing you children.” For Melissa, that was enough to finally let go.