Dead strange: A brief psychological overview of necrophilia
In a previous blog, I briefly examined paraphilias. One of the rarest of known paraphilias is necrophilia in which a person obtains sexual gratification by viewing or having intercourse with a corpse. Given the rarity of necrophilia, there is a lack of systematicaly reported empirical data with almost all knowledge emanating from published case studies.
Based on the case study data, necrophilia almost exclusively involves males who are driven to remove freshly buried bodies or seek employment in funeral parlours or morgues (in fact, in the biggest study of necrophilic behaviour found that 57% of necrophiliacs were employed in a profession that gave then access to dead bodies). However, rare cases of female necrophilia have been documented including the high profile case of Karen Greenlee.
Arguably, the most comprehensive study in the area was published in 1989 by Dr Jonathan Rosman and Dr Phillip Resnick (psychiatrists who were working at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital, USA). Their review examined 122 cases (comprising 88 from the world literature and 34 unpublished cases of their own). The motivation for engaging in necrophilic behaviour was examined and the results showed that two-thirds of the necrophiliacs reported the desire to possess an unresisting and unrejecting partner (68%). Other lesser motivations reported included wanting to be reunited with their dead romantic partner (21%), being sexually attracted to corpses (15%), comfort or overcoming feelings of isolation (15%), and/or seeking self-esteem by expressing power over a homicide victim (12%). They also classified the behaviour into three sub-types: (i) necrophilic homicide, (ii) “regular” necrophilia, and (iii) necrophilic fantasy. Some British research has also suggested that some necrophiles may opt for a non-living mate through a consistent failure to create normal romantic attachments with people that are alive.
Rosman and Resnick also theorized about the situational antecedents leading to necrophilic behaviour. Their theory was that necrophiliacs develop poor self-esteem that may be due to a significant loss. Furthermore, they suggested that necrophiliacs may be fearful of rejection by others and that they desire a sexual partner who is incapable of rejecting them. Here, necrophiliacs may be socially and/or sexually inept and may hate and/or fear the opposite sex. This causes them to seek out non-threatening, subjugated sexual partners (i.e. non-living people). Alternatively, they also suggested that necrophiliacs may be fearful of dead people, and that they transform their fear into a sexual desire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, necrophiliacs almost always manifest severe emotional disorders.
Dr Martin Kafka (McLean Hospital in Belmont, USA), one of the world’s leading paraphilia experts, argues that necrophilia could technically be considered as a fetish variant because the sexualized object of desire is ‘‘nonliving’’ although there are insufficient data to empirically support the argument. Necrophilia can be accompanied by ‘‘sadistic acts’’ and sexually motivated murder, certainly not behaviors associated with fetishism (as currently defined).
The sadistic side of necrophilia has certainly been reported in some of the more extreme case studies. For instance, Edwin Ehrlich and colleagues (at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany) presented the case of a young man twice convicted on charges of defiling female corpses and who had undergone a long course of psychiatric treatment. All his necrophilic acts were committed over a 15-year period. In three cases, the necrophiliac skinned the trunk of the dead victims, placed the skin on his naked body and then stimulated himself sexually. In several cases, he kept mementos from the victims at his home (e.g., used burial clothes that he had removed from the coffins).
According to Professor Anil Aggrawal (Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi), cases like the one above indicate that necrophilia exists in many variations. Aggrawal argued that because so many related necrophilic behaviours are used differently by different people, a new classification was needed. Based on case studies in the literature, Aggrawal argued there were ten different types of necrophiliac. These comprised (i) role players, (ii) romantic necrophiles, (iii) necrophilic fantasizers (people having a necrophilic fantasy), (iv) tactile necrophiles, (v) fetishistic necrophiles (i.e., people having a sexual fetish for the dead), (vi) necromutilomaniacs (i.e., people having a necromutilomania), (vii) opportunistic necrophiles, (viii) regular necrophiles, (ix) homicidal necrophiles, and (x) exclusive necrophiles.
Homicidal necrophilia certainly seems to be a distinct sub-category of necrophilia. A recently published study by Michelle Stein (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, USA) and colleagues reviewed 211 sexual homicides. Nearly 8% involved necrophilia (i.e., 16 cases). Their findings suggested that the most common explanation for necrophilia (i.e., the offender’s desire to have an unresisting partner) may not always be applicable in cases where necrophilia is connected to sexual murder.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal, A. (2009). A new classification of necrophilia. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 16, 316-320.
Burg, B.R. (1982). The sick and the dead: The development of psychological theory on necrophilia from Krafft-Ebing to the present. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 18, 242-254.
Ehrlich, E., Rothschild, M.A., Pluisch, F. & Schneider, V. (2000). An extreme case of necrophilia. Legal Medicine, 2, 224-226.
Kafka, M.P. (2010). The DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 373-376.
Rosman, J.P. & Resnick, P.J. (1989). Sexual attraction to corpses: A psychiatric review of necrophilia. Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 17, 153-163.
Stein, M.L., Schlesinger, L.B. & Pinizzotto, A.J. (2010). Necrophilia and sexual homicide. Journal of Forensic Science, 55, 443-446.