SERIAL killings like the ones generating headlines out of
Milwaukee the past two weeks are a relatively rare form of murder,
But serial killings are on the rise, and all-too-common social
and cultural problems are believed to be a factor in what drives
human beings to this violent extreme, they say.
An understanding of the underlying meaning of the killings to the
offenders themselves is key to solving murders as well as preventing
them, say criminologists. Trying to make sense of the apparently
senseless, to understand the killers, they say, will help police
shorten the killers' careers if not prevent them altogether.
"We can't relegate the whole thing to evil; to inhumanity. We
have to think about the themes that excite (the serial killer),"
explains Candice Skrapec, a City University of New York criminal
psychologist whose research involves extensive interviews with
people incarcerated for serial killings.
The consensus among experts in the field is that it is not
coincidental that a sudden upturn in the late 1970s of serial
killings in the United States - as well as other violent crimes -
paralleled increases in dysfunctional families, reported child
abuse, media images of violence, and sexual and psychological
permissiveness. The social milieu plays no small part in the
escalation of serial killings, experts suggest.
Symptom of larger problem
While there is scientistic evidence that some evidence of a
genetic predisposition to such criminal behavior, says Ms. Skrapec,
social conditions such as a healthy family setting "can override
"If indeed there is a bona fide increase in family dysfunction
then, yes, it would be consistent with many (forms of violence) like
gangs as well as serial murders," says Skrapec. "Serial murder is
just one symptom (of a larger problem)."
FBI analysts say that the number of serial murders has never been
as high as it is now. In 1976, just 8.5 percent of all US murders
had unknown motives (a category which includes, but is not
exclusively comprised of, serial killings), FBI data show. That
figure had risen dramatically to 23.7 percent of all murders in
The numbers of known mass murderers shows the increase more
conclusively, says Ron Holmes, a professor of criminal justice at
the University of Louisville's Southern Police Institute and the
author of several books on serial killings.
Data Dr. Holmes has compiled show that between 1900 and 1970
there were 28 known mass murderers with 742 victims among them.
Meanwhile, in just the decade of the 1970s there were 29 known mass
murderers with 906 victims. And in the 1980s there were 47 known
serial killers with 670 victims.
His studies show that there were varied motives for these murders
in the early part of the century - including some committed for
material gain - but that today's serial killings are largely
sexually oriented. And while men and women were equally likely to
be mass murder victims then, he says, the majority of today's
victims are women and children. …