Synopsis: Common characteristics, traits, and backgrounds of accomplished and developing serial killers. Information gathered from The Big Book of Serial Killers by Jack Rosewood, Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, and Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert Ressler.

Hello and welcome back! We’re kicking off 2021, continuing a theme of true crime, by creating a small profile listing the traits and characteristics of various serial killers. After placing a poll online, I was surprised most preferred to read about serial killers and true crime over articles on positive energy for 2021. But, at least I have a mountain of books covering more than enough on this topic.


FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler coined the term serial homicide, meaning killers who murder in succession, often having a minimum of three victims in 1974. (Although there’s evidence the term had been used much earlier by other researchers.) Serial homicide later evolved into the term serial killer. History presents enough evidence serial killers existed as early as the 1500’s with people from wealth and power assaulting and murdering local peasants. Below are common signs and traits of a developing, or established, serial killer.

Common Signs of Psychopathy in Children:

  1. Harming animals or other living things
  2. Setting Fires
  3. Lack of remorse/guilt
  4. Juvenile Delinquency
  5. Sadistic Activity
  6. Pathological Lying
  7. Constant Boredom (However, I’d say most children have the tendency for this and alone it means nothing)

Many articles point out that simply because a child may set fires or present minor criminal behavior, it does not always indicate the child will later become a murderous, blood-thirsty serial killer. This is a general guideline and some of the most infamous serial killers had admitted to meeting each sign and symptom above (and there are many other signs than the ones I’ve listed) whereas some serial killers claimed to meeting none.

Similar Childhood Backgrounds Found with Serial Killers:

  1. Traumatic Childhoods
  2. Often raised by one parent, usually the mother, with no stable or loving father figure.
  3. There is a complicated, and emotionally abusive or often neglectful, relationship with the mother.
    • There have been a plethora of cases where convicted serial killers have expressed great fear (and sometimes bizarre respect) of one or both parents
  4. Childhood filled with emotional abuse or neglect by parents who suffered from various mental health disorders or substance abuse disorders
  5. Childhood permeated by sexual abuse that often goes unnoticed by neglectful parents, or were often perpetrated by sexually abusive parents
  6. Physical abuse throughout childhood had been one of the most common factors in stunting childhood development and shaping the child’s later violent fantasies.
    • It was discovered physical abuse mingled with neglect and sexual abuse served as the greatest catalyst for some of the more violent serial killers such as married couple, and convicted serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West who repeatedly suffered both as children.
    • Roy Norris, one of the convicted serial killers who teamed up with Lawrence Bittaker and became the Toolbox Killers, had suffered severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect before he went on a torture and murder spree with Bittaker.

Traits of a Serial Killer

  1. Torturing animals – They may continue this sadistic habit from childhood to adulthood before practicing on human prey
  2. Antisocial behavior – Psychopaths tend to be loners, unable to communicate effectively or make friendships.
    • Although this is a common factor, it is not always true. There have been serial killers with entire families (wives, children, siblings) who were somewhat close with friends and co-workers.
    • Example: Paul Bernardo, a serial rapist and later murderer, maintained close friendships, and a wife, and was known to be incredibly social and charming. Jerry Brudos who murdered women and collected their feet and heels had a wife and children.
  3. Inability to maintain a job – They can’t maintain a job due to their after-hours activities or have trouble with authority
  4. Substance abuse – The books have stated substance abuse though I could not locate any prominent serial killers who abused any substances except for Jeffrey Dahmer who was an alcoholic

Organized Killer

  1. Organized killers reveal their formulated strategies through the crime scene (Think of Dexter Morgan!)
  2. Neat, Controlled, and Meticulous
  3. They take care of clues, intentionally leaving them or carefully removing them to avoid being caught
  4. Victims are carefully sought out to carry out a specific purpose, either symbolizing a figure of their hatred (such as Ed Kemper’s hatred for his mother)
    • Dean Corrl, a well-accomplished serial killer, may have been the inspiration for Dexter Morgan as he methodically planned his murders, his victims, and always carried plastic sheets wherever he went to gather the body, blood, and any lingering DNA

Disorganized Killer

  1. Disorganized killers reveal their lack of strategy and often impulsive decision making through the crime scene
  2. Opportunistic, taking any opportunity of an individual, (man/woman/child) walking alone and grabbing them immediately
  3. Spur of the moment killers and often sloppy leaving behind a trail of clues such as weapons
  4. Scene of the crime reflects their personality and it is the disorganized killer who is eventually, and sometimes quickly, caught


  1. Exhibit both organized and disorganized characteristics
  2. Disorganized characteristics are often found towards the end of their murder spree as they descend closer to complete and utter madness

Cooling-Off Period

  1. After a murder, killers feel a deep sense of excitement and euphoria, one similar to drug and alcohol use. The high can last a while leading them to take a break for a few weeks to a few years, making it difficult for investigators to find them.

Why was there a surge of serial killers in the 1970’s – 1990’s? Where are they now?

Between the 1960’s – late 1990’s, there was an uptick in violent crimes and a surge in serial killers. A few theories suggest that the men who returned home to their families from WWII were highly traumatized from their experiences on the battlefield. Many developed hair-trigger temperaments and severe substance abuse disorders, neglecting their spouses and children, or often beating them from frustration and anger. The children of these traumatized men were stunted in their development and started to play out violent fantasies of their own.

Another theory suggests the rise of divorces. Wives divorced their husbands for infidelity, loneliness, or abuse, or husbands straightforwardly abandoned their families. Raised in a single-parent home sometimes placed the children in harms way. Single mothers suffered from clinical depression or substance abuse, leading them to neglect or abuse their children. Or, much worse, the mothers would bring around new boyfriends who would intentionally seduce the mothers in hopes of gaining access to her children.

Where are they now?

The organization of law enforcement and development of techniques and science lead to murderers being apprehended somewhat quicker. This resulted in the mass incarceration of serial killers between that time frame. And, in that time frame, the FBI, law enforcement, and researchers have gathered enough information to create a profile for serial killers found above. Advanced science, research, and education have led to finding murderers before they become mass serial killers, placing them in prison before they can go out again.