A couple of days ago I watched the 2007 US psychological thriller Mr. Brooks. The film is about a celebrated businessman (Mr. Earl Brooks played by Kevin Costner) who also happens to be serial killer (known as the ‘thumbprint killer’). The reason I mention all this is that the explanation given in the film by Earl for the serial killing is that it was an addiction. A number of times in the film he is seem attending Alcoholics Anonymous and quoting from the 12-step recovery program to help him ‘beat his addiction’. With the help of the AA Fellowship, he had managed not to kill anyone for two years but at the start of the film, Earl’s psychological alter-ego (‘Marshall’ played by William Hurt) manages to coerce Earl into killing once again. I won’t spoil the plot for people who have not seen the film but the underlying theme that serial killing is an addiction that Earl is constantly fighting against, is embedded in an implicit narrative that addiction somehow ‘explains’ his behaviour and that he is not really responsible for it. This is not a view I hold myself as all addicts have to take some responsibility for their behaviour.
The idea of serial killing being conceptualized as an addiction in popular culture is not new. For instance, Brian Masters book about British serial killer Dennis Nilsen (who killed at least 12 young men and was also a necrophile) was entitled Killing for Company: The Story of a Man Addicted to Murder, and Mikaela Sitford’s book about Harold Shipman, the British GP (aka ‘Dr. Death’) who killed over 200 people, was entitled Addicted to Murder: The True Story of Dr. Harold Shipman.
One of the things that I have always argued throughout my career, is that someone cannot become addicted to an activity or a substance unless they are constantly being rewarded (either by continual positive and/or negative reinforcement). Given that serial killing is a discontinuous activity (i.e., it happens relatively infrequently rather than every hour or day) how could killing be an addiction? One answer is that the act of killing is part of the wider behaviour in that the preoccupation with killing can also include the re-enacting of past kills and the keeping of ‘trophies’ from the victims (which I overviewed in a previous blog). As the author of the book Freud, Profiled: Serial Killer noted:
“The serial killer is most often described as a kind of addict. Murder is his addiction, the thrill achieved in murder his ‘kick.’ This addiction requires a maintenance ‘fix.’ At first, the experience is wonderfully exhilarating, later the fix is needed to just feel normal again. It is a hard habit to break, the hungering sensation to consume another life returns. Between murders, they often play back video or sound recordings or look at photos made of their previous murders. This voyeurism provides a surrogate death-meal until their next feeding”.
In Eric Hickey’s 2010 book Serial Murderers and Their Victims, Dr. Hickey makes reference to an unpublished 1990 monograph by Dr. Victor Cline who outlined a four-factor addiction syndrome in relation to sexual serial killers who (so-called ‘lust murderers’ that I also examined in a previous blog). More specifically:
“The offender first experiences ‘addiction’ similar to the physiological/psychological addiction to drugs, which then generates stress in his or her everyday activities. The person then enters a stage of ‘escalation’, in which the appetite for more deviant, bizarre, and explicit sexual material is fostered. Third, the person gradually becomes ‘desensitized’ to that which was once revolting and taboo-breaking. Finally, the person begins to ‘act out’ the things that he or she has seen”.
This four-stage model is arguably applicable to serial killing more generally. It also appears to be backed up by one of the most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy. In an interview with psychologist Dr. James Dobson (found in Harold Schecter’s 2003 book The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers), Bundy claimed:
“Once you become addicted to [pornography], and I look at this as a kind of addiction, you look for more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material. Like an addiction, you keep craving something which is harder and gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far – that jumping-off point where you begin to think maybe actually doing it will give you that which is just beyond reading about it and looking at it”.
Dr. Hickey claims that such urges to kill are fuelled by fantasies that have become well-developed and killers to vicariously gain control of other individual. He also believes that fantasies for lust killers are far greater than an escape, and becomes the focal point of all behaviour. He concludes by saying that “even though the killer is able to maintain contact with reality, the world of fantasy becomes as addictive as an escape into drugs”. In the book The Serial Killer Files, Harold Schechter notes that:
“For homicidal psychopaths, lust-killing often becomes an addiction. Like heroin users, they not only become dependent on the thrilling sensation – the rush – of torture, rape, and murder; they come to require ever greater and more frequent fixes. After a while, merely stabbing a co-ed to death every few months isn’t enough. They have to kill every few weeks, then every few days. And to achieve the highest pitch of arousal, they have to torture the victim before putting her to death. This kind of escalation can easily lead to the killer’s own destruction. Like a junkie who ODs in his urgent quest to satisfy his cravings, serial killers are often undone by their increasingly unbridled sadism, which drives them to such reckless extremes that they are finally caught. Monsters tend to be sadists, deriving sexual gratification from imposing pain on others. Their secret perversions, at first sporadic, often trap them in a pattern as the intervals between indulgences become briefer: it is a pattern whose repetitions develop into a hysterical crescendo, as if from one outrage to another the monster were seeking as a climax his own annihilation”.
Schecter uses the ‘addiction’ explanation for serial killing throughout his writings even for serial killers from the past including American nurse Jane Toppan (the ‘Angel of Death’) who confessed to 33 murders in 1901 and died in 1938 (“she became addicted to murder”), cannibalistic child serial killers Gilles Garnier (died in 1573) and Peter Stubbe (died 1589) (“both became addicted to murder and cannibalism, both preferred to prey upon children”), and Lydia Sherman (died 1878) who killed 8 children including six of her own (“confirmed predator, addicted to cruelty and death”).
In a recent 2012 paper on mental disorders in serial killers in the Iranian Journal of Medical Law, Dr. N. Mehra and A.S. Pirouz quoted the literary academic Akira Lippit who argued that in films, the “completion of each serial murder lays the foundation for the next act which in turn precipitates future acts, leaving the serial subject always wanting more, always hungry, addicted”. They then go on to conclude that:
“Once a killer has tasted the success of a kill, and is not apprehended, it will ultimately mean he will strike again. He put it simply, that once something good has happened, something that made the killer feel good, and powerful, and then they will not hesitate to try it again. The first attempt may leave them with a feeling of fear but at the same time, it is like an addictive drug. Some killers revisit the crime scene or take trophies, such as jewelry or body parts, or video tape the scenario so as to be able to re-live the actual feeling of power at a later date”.
Although I haven’t done an extensive review of the literature, I do think it’s possible – even on the slimmest of empirical bases presented here – to conceptualize serial killing as a potential behavioural addiction for some individuals. However, it will always depend upon how addiction is defined in the first place.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Brophy, J. (1967). The Meaning of Murder. London: Crowell.
Hickey, E.W. (2010). Serial Murderers and Their Victims (Fifth Edition). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Lippit, A.M. (1996). The infinite series: Fathers, cannibals, chemists. Criticism, Summer, 1-18.
Masters, B. (1986). Killing for Company: The Story of a Man Addicted to Murder. New York: Stein and Day.
Mehra, N., & Pirouz, A. S. (2012). A study on mental disorder in serial killers. Iranian Journal of Medical Law, 1(1), 38-51.
Miller, E. (2014). Freud, Profiled: Serial Killer. San Diego: New Directions Publishing.
Schecter, H. (2003). The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers. New York: Ballantine Books
Sitford, M. (2000). Addicted to Murder: The True Story of Dr. Harold Shipman. London: Virgin Publishing.
Taylor, T. (2014). Is serial killing an addiction? IOL, April 9. Located at: http://www.iol.co.za/news/crime-courts/is-serial-killing-an-addiction-1673542
The nine people murdered in Munich a couple of days ago by 18-year-old German-Iranian gunman David Ali Sonboly made headlines around the world. It has been claimed that Sonboly (who subsequently killed himself) was “obsessed with mass shootings” and that the police found lots of material in his room about mass killings including the massacre by Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik. Whether the murders by Sonboly are ‘copycat’ killings remains to be determined but there are dozens of other cases where copycat killings have been proven.
Back in 2014, the gruesome killing of two prostitutes in Hong King by British banking trader Rurik Jutting drew comparisons with the fictional character Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street investment banker and serial killer in the film American Psycho (based on the Bret Easton Ellis book of the same name).
As you might expect, a copycat murder is defined as a murder that has been modelled, motivated and/or inspired either by a real life murderer that has been reported by the print or broadcast media, or is based on a murderer portrayed in books, television or film. The term ‘copycat killer’ has been in use for almost 100 years and was first used in relation to murders that mimicked those of Jack the Ripper. Early research by criminologists began to speculate that the sensationalist publicity in the print media about the Ripper murders was the inspiration for Ripper-like copycat killings.
In addition to murder, copycat crimes have been shown to occur in many other equally destructive acts including suicides, murder-suicides, familicides, and rampage killings. Arguably the most well known writing on the topic was Loren Coleman’s 2004 book The Copycat Effect. Coleman believes that because shocking crimes receive widespread media publicity it makes the perpetrators infamous. He argues that the notoriety and ‘fame’ that serial killers receive is one of the main reasons why copycats commit similar crimes. Put more simply, copycats may believe that by committing heinous crimes, they may end up being the subject of a book or film themselves. The Copycat Effect is so well known that it was even the subject of a Hollywood film – the 1995 psychological thriller Copycat starring Sigourney Weaver as a criminal psychologist involved in a case where each murder in the film is made by a serial killer meticulously copying previous high profile murderers such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer (the ‘Milwaukie Cannibal’), David Berkowitz (the ‘Son of Sam’), and the Hillside Strangler (actually two men, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono).
But is the media to blame for copycat murders? Well, partly – but not totally. Research has shown that although most people convicted of copycat murders admit to being motivated by something they had seen on the news or in a film, they already had a criminal record (often violent crime) and/or were mentally ill before they began killing. What this suggests is that media coverage and fictionalized accounts of serial killers tend to affect those that already have a criminal predisposition and/or mental health issues rather than have a more widespread effect on people more generally. In such extreme and minority cases, it does appear that watching or reading about high profile murderers (e.g., Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein) or infamous fictionalised killers (e.g., Dexter Morgan in Dexter or Patrick Batemen in American Psycho) does at the very least give emotionally undeveloped people ideas on how they could kill someone.
Copycat murderers do appear to realise that the more shocking and heinous the killing, the more newsworthy it will be. This also appears to have had an impact on films too. It appears some cinema-going audience want to see more depraved, deranged and twisted ways in which people can be killed (as evidenced by the so-called ‘torture porn’ franchises of Saw and Hostel). The more blood and pain, the better. Methods to kill in such films may be the inspiration of copycat killers to come.
Although there is a relationship between copycat killers and what they have seen or read about in the media, there are many other risk factors that have been associated with (and have an interplay with) copycat killings. Men are more likely to be copycat killers than females, and many copycat killers are young adults (below the age of 30 years). Copycat killers are more likely to suffer from personality (and other mental health) disorders, come from socially dysfunctional and alienating family backgrounds, be emotionally vulnerable, be trusting of the media, and – as noted above – a previous criminal history (as well as self-identifying with criminals they have watched or seen in fact and/or fiction).
Psychologists have also noted there appears to be a natural human inhibition against killing (even in acts of lawful killing such as fighting in a war). However, if individuals adopt some kind of a persona, such inhibitions can be reduced (often referred to by psychologists as ‘depersonalization’). If copycat killers temporarily take on the persona of the person they are copying in addition to the act of killing, this may also play a contributory role in some of their actions. American evolutionary psychologist Dr.Nigel Barber has also noted in relation to rampage killing that: “Most copycats have their private agenda in a rampage killing but seek to tie it in to other events that received a lot of publicity. In this way, they bask in the reflected publicity, so to speak. In many cases, the rampage killer wants to commit suicide but opts to take others with him”.
Although there are many reasons as to how and why an individual becomes a copycat killer, the evidence does seem to suggest that the media perhaps need to take a more cautionary approach when reporting the details of murders, and also suggests that the police and other criminal agencies should not go into every detail about how the murders were committed. Such actions alone will not stop copycat killings, but it may help reduce the overall number occurring in the first place.
(Material in this blog first appeared in an article I wrote for The Independent in November 2014 – see ‘Further reading’ below)
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Barber, N. (2012). Copycat killings: Making sense of the senseless. Psychology Today, July 27. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201207/copycat-killings
Boyle, K. (2001). What’s natural about killing? Gender, copycat violence and Natural Born Killers. Journal of Gender Studies, 10(3), 311-321.
Coleman, L. (2004). The copycat effect: How the media and popular culture trigger the mayhem in tomorrow’s headlines. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Fox, J.A., & Levin, J. (2014). Extreme killing: Understanding serial and mass murder. London: Sage.
Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Hong Kong murder: Why do people commit copycat killings? The Independent, November 4. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/hong-kong-murder-why-do-people-commit-copycat-killings-9838892.html
Kunich, J.C. (2000). Natural born copycat killers and the law of shock torts. Washington University Law Quarterly, 78(4), 1157-1270.
Surette, R. (2002). Self-reported copycat crime among a population of serious and violent juvenile offenders. Crime and Delinquency, 48(1), 46-69.
Wikipedia (2016). Copycat crime. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copycat_crime