Serial killers are wildly popular in crime fiction. Why do you think that is? Perhaps it’s because they’re complicated creatures, and deliciously naughty. We, as writers, are told never to make our antagonist (villain) all bad, or our protagonist (hero) all good.
That is certainly true of Dr. Hannibal Lector, played by Mads Mikkelsen in the television adaptation. Dr. Lector is a brilliant forensic psychologist and culinarian, even though some of the ingredients in his dishes are questionable. In past seasons we’ve seen his soft side with Dr. Alana Bloom. We’ve watched in horror as he’s slaughtered innocent people and posed their bodies in dramatic, convoluted positions–far beyond what is necessary to end a life.
Yet we keep coming back for more. Why? Because nothing is black and white with him. Hannibal feels justified in his actions, which makes him an ideal character. Hats off to Author Thomas Harris, his creator.
In the real world, however, the serial killer is a frightening creature. And one I never want to run into in a dark alley. Or anywhere else for that matter.
What makes the serial killer tick?
Joel Norris PhD is the founding member of the International Committee of Neuroscientists to Study Episodic Aggression. In his book, Serial Killers, Norris explains that the serial killer’s addiction to crime is also an addiction to specific patterns of violence that ultimately become their way of life. He suggests that there are seven key phases to the ritual of serial killing.
In this phase the killer withdraws from reality, and his senses heighten. Time can stand still. Colors become more vibrant, as if he literally views the world through rose-colored glasses. During this time the killer distances himself from society, but friends, family, and acquaintances may not detect the change in personality.
The killer becomes antisocial and no longer has meaning in his life. This can last for several moments to several months. During the aura phase the killer fantasizes, and often these fantasies include sadistic sexual and other violent acts, which could derive from early childhood experiences.
The trolling phase is when the killer tries to find his victim. Normally, he’ll hunt in places familiar to him. Often referred to as his “comfort zone.”
During the trolling phase he looks for the perfect place to abduct his victim and dump the corpse afterward. It is not unusual for him to start trolling school zones, red light districts, or lover’s lanes. This phase can continue for days or even months before he finds his ideal victim.
In the wooing phase the serial killer tries to win the confidence of the victim before luring her into a deadly trap. Note: the wooing phase is only done by the confident, well-organized killer. By nature the organized killer has better social skills than his disorganized counterpart. As such, he’s much more daring.
This phase is important, because the serial killer only seems to kill those who have succumbed to his charms, thereby allowing him to gain their trust. Once the trust is received he lures his victim to a quiet, secluded area, where his mask comes off.
Thus begins the next phase.
During this phase the killer reveals himself to his victim. The capture can be as swift as snapping on a pair of handcuffs or a blow to the head, rendering the victim helpless. He may draw the victim into his vehicle with no door handle. No means for escape.
This moment he savors. Not only does he find the capture phase disturbingly fun but his fantasies are finally realized. With his victim secure he drives her to an out-of-the-way place. Secluded, with no houses or witnesses, where no one will hear her scream. When he’s confident his prize cannot escape, the next phase begins.
Norris describes the murder phase as “the ritual reenactment of the childhood experiences of the killer, only now the roles are reversed.” The killer may decide to kill his victim instantly or “play” (torture) with his victim to death. Often times, once the victim is on the brink of death he’ll revive them to continue the torture. Over and over the cycle repeats.
It is likely that he’ll depersonalized his victim by marring the face and body (I hope readers of this blog know the definition of Marred *smile*). Any violent means of rape are often times performed after the victim is dead, aka necrophilia.
The organized killer takes a much slower approach to killing his victim. He revels in the torture, the game. The murder is delayed because often it is not the serial killer’s main objective. The torture is. The sexual sadist, for instance, will resort to using different equipment. Such as, an electrical wire that he brought with him to the primary crime scene. Eventually, when he finishes with the torture, he’ll carry out the murder.
After the kill, the sudden excitement drops and he wakes from his fantasy. At this point he is likely to slip into depression. Which is why some killers take trophies, to relive the kill and preserve their fantasy. Some may take the victim’s clothing or cut articles out of the newspaper, articles about the manhunt or the murders. Whereas some serial killers take body parts to consume later. And others shoot video to memorialize their time with the victims.
Possessing trophies allow the serial killer to relive the power he experienced at the time of the kill, and to remind himself that the fantasy is real, that he actually took a life.
The last phase, the depression phase, can last for days, weeks, even months. The serial killer may even become so depressed that he attempts suicide. Because the fantasy is always better than the act itself. Even though he tries to keep the fantasy alive with trophies, it never quite measures up to the picture in his head.
In each subsequent attempt, the killer tries to better recreate the fantasy. However, because the victims are not viewed as people, recollections of the murder may be vague, or viewed as though the killer looked on as someone else committed the act.
And the cycle begins again.