The Serial Killer

serial killer quote by BTKSerial 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.

serial killer Ted Bundy quote

Aura Phase

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.

Trolling Phase

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.

Wooing Phase

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.

Capture 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.

Murder Phase

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.

Totem Phase

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.

Depression Phase

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.

Serial killer Richard Ramirez quote

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She lives in rural New Hampshire where she's surrounded by wildlife...bear, moose, deer, even mountain lions have been spotted. Course, Sue would love to snuggle with the animals, but her husband frowns on the idea.

31 Comments

  1. Fascinating insight by the wordsmith of terror….
    I never realised there were seven stages in the crazed cycle of a serial killer, such an interesting revelation.
    I love reading this blog, you learn so much, in so many different ways….looking forward to the next one immensely.

  2. I come from the lower ranks of society, and I would say that I am a much lower-skill-level author than Sue Coletta without feeling a lack of confidence, as it is simply true and obvious.

    One book which is rarely known to authors, but coming with a source list and ideas SOME might find inspiring is the following LINK. Please note that reading the reviews may help, as the basic info is better found at Wiki or by browser. It is certainly a book for adults!

    http://www.amazon.com/WoD-Slasher-OP-World-Darkness/dp/1588467449/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1455763339&sr=8-1&keywords=world+of+darkness+slasher

    Beyond that I remember the ‘Jack the Ripper’ as a delusional killer in the movie ‘From Hell’ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120681/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

    Sorry, on the ‘Aura Phase’ I can’t be of more help. Especially during the throttled-down time of my notebook flat. 😉

    • Thanks for the links, Andre, and for your kind words. *blush* I’ll check out the book. Sounds interesting. As far as Jack the Ripper is concerned, we can’t trust Hollywood. I’m not saying their logic is skewed in From Hell. I haven’t seen the film. However, we know–the collective “we”–that crime writers need to be careful about getting our facts from movies and TV.

  3. A chilling look at what makes serial killers tick. I often wonder about the people (profilers and law enforcement personnel) who have to “get inside” the heads of such criminals. It must be close to walking a thin line that could easily topple into severe depression. Thank God there are people willing to take the risk.

    I’m knee-deep in reading the latest Kevin O’Brien release. Still haven’t figured out reasoning for the ritualistic way the murders are taking place, but he keeps me turning pages well into the night. I can see a few of the above traits playing out in some of the characters!
    Mae Clair recently posted…Guest Blogger Staci Troilo on Alchemy, Michelangelo, and the ProtectorateMy Profile

    • Ooh, sounds like an excellent read. What’s the title? I’d love to check it out. Hope you had an awesome vacation, Mae. It’s nice to have you home. 😉

      • I love Kevin’s stuff. His latest is No One Needs to Know. Also, my fave books involving killers of all sorts go to the writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. They write about FBI Special Agent, Aloysius X. L. Pendergast, who is one of the most mesmerizing characters I’ve ever discovered in the realm of fiction. Their latest, Crimson Shore just released today. I’m addicted to Pendergast and their writing. Highly recommended reading for anyone who likes crime fiction with a twist of the unusual!

        Thanks for the welcome back 🙂
        Mae Clair recently posted…Guest Blogger Staci Troilo on Alchemy, Michelangelo, and the ProtectorateMy Profile

  4. This is such a fantastic post. We are (generally)obsessed with serial killers, and this is a great analysis of them. I think part of our obsession comes from not quite believing an “ordinary” person could do such things. On top of that it’s easy to become fascinated by the details of the ritual because it’s often so quirky even if it is is rather gruesome. Great insight:-)
    A.K. Andrew recently posted…3 Key Points Creatives Can Learn from #NaNoWriMoMy Profile

  5. Chilling, yet fascinating. I was particularly intrigued by the depression stage. It would make for interesting reading, adding a third dimension to the killer.
    Nicholas C. Rossis recently posted…November Book Deals: Free Books and CashMy Profile

    • It is fascinating that they fall into the depths of despair. But I think my favorite phase is the aura phase, how their entire view of the world changes. It must be a rush of chemicals in their brain, I would think, a defect of some sort that triggers the bright, crisp colors.

      • Or a choice, Sue. Whereby the ‘Aura Phase’ then would actually mean the beginning consequence of that choice made, or that harrowing doing a dark revival of the original, and often formerly victimized or violated, personality who once lived in the same body.

        I remember an analogy about it being alike with vampires, they only feel anything at all ‘during the act’, feeling anguished or empty the entire rest of their life, which suits the ‘lack of empathy’ seemingly known to be common on certain ‘types’ of what is called serial killers.

        • Good analogy, Andre. Oh, it’s definitely a choice. Most know right from wrong; they just don’t care. I’ve seen some fascinating TED talks about serial killers. There’s scientific proof that serial killers have a defect in their frontal lobe (the area in the brain where empathy stems from, as well as our sense of right and wrong). Early in childhood these killers construct a fantasy. They relive this fantasy over and over till the day they finally act it out in real life. But the act itself is never as good as they’d imagined. The first kill, yes. After the murder, they experience euphoria. “I finally did it.” With each subsequent kill, however, that feeling lessons.

          I could talk about serial killers all day. In Wings of Mayhem, my FBI profiler character delves into what makes them tick, and why their signature never changes. I’m fascinated by serial killers, but I’d never want to meet one. 🙂

  6. Great post Sue. With regards to your question as to why serial killers are a popular book characters, it may be because you cannot reason with them. Their humanity is on permanent hold. No amount of pleading, begging or crying will stop them from achieving their twisted result.

    Trying to discern what makes them tick in order to stop them becomes a lesson few can understand. It may be this horrific puzzle they present to crime solvers that is so fascinating.

    • I agree 100%, June. Which makes them all that more intriguing. It’s also that flip of the coin. On one side many have been great husbands, fathers, and friend. On the other side lies the monster.

  7. Another excellent blog post, Sue!
    Reading about these phases, I will now watch my favourite crime series with critical eyes, trying to find the reasons why earlier than my husband. 😉

    • You go, girl! I was thinking of using the quotes to fulfill my challenge, but I didn’t want to link back to your blog with a serial killer post in case I offended your readers with a pingback. They’re creepy, though, huh?

  8. My grandson is a cereal killer. He can eat a bowl of Fruitloops like nobody’s business. He even eats them dry sometimes.

    Seriously, here is a book you might like http://www.amazon.com/Without-Conscience-Disturbing-World-Psychopaths/dp/1572304510/ref=sr_1_1/189-5695724-7950158?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1446949618&sr=1-1&keywords=Robert+Hare
    Craig recently posted…The Muse returnsMy Profile

    • Hahahaha! Actually, the BTK used that kind of humor. Remember? He posed cereal boxes near one of the sites (I think it was Cheerios) and wrote “BTK Cereal Killer.”
      Ooh, the title looks fascinating. I’m going to check it out now. Thanks!

  9. Excellent post, Sue. I’ve read this similar material somewhere before and I think it’s very a telling insight into what makes these aberrations tick. This is a great psychological resource for writers in developing fictional characters. What’s the chances of linking this great post as a tip in the Writing Deadly Crime Characters Guide? (please 🙂

  10. Wow – great research for my book 🙂

  11. This is really interesting, Sue, as are all of your posts. I think that, for people who are going to write a serial killer character, they really need to understand how actual serial killers think. Not, of course, that you can say that each serial killer things in the same way, but I think you do need to have a solid understanding of psychopathology to make such a character authentic.
    Margot Kinberg recently posted…I Conjure Up My Muse*My Profile

    • I agree, Margot. For instance, I’m writing about one now (as I tend to do) and had to refer back to my research to really capture the aura phase. Which is what prompted this post. 🙂

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