Does the media accurately portray the psychology of serial killing?

The following report aims to be accurate, compact and concise, locating and summarizing available sources of information, scholarly and otherwise, relevant to the question: "Does the media accurately portray the psychology of serial killing?". Articles of interest have been organized intuitively, beginning with introductions into both the psychology of serial killing and media distortion. The main body of our work incorporates a comparative analysis of several media models and their depictions of popular serial killers contrasted with academic impressions of the same murders. Our report concludes with two additional sections which briefly examine both murder as a social construction and its cultural impact.

Serial Killing vs Mass Murder:

As per your request, our team of researchers began by exploring the differences between serial killing and mass murder and the relative viability of each option in regard to your forthcoming publication.

“Murders… are generally defined by the number of victims involved, the number of locations in which these killings occur, and the time periods over which these events [occur]” (Fox and Levin, 2012, p. 1).

Serial murders involve more than four killings done over a span of days, months or years (Fox and Levin, 1998, p. 410), “committed by strangers for random motives” (Fox and Levin, 1998, p. 411).

Mass murders are a single event done over a span of few minutes or hours and contain more than four slaughters, by one or few murders (Fox and Levin, 1998, p. 429).

Mass murders receive less attention (Fox and Levin, 1998, p. 430-431):
1. Do not cause any challenge in terms of authority figures whereas serial killers are hard to identify.
2. Do not create the same level of fear and unease within the public
3. Less primary data, serial killers twist the truth and give media more information
4. Serial killers have more characteristic along with sexual and brutal motives

We conclude that serial killings present more opportunity for psychological scrutiny, specifically in the media, and it is our recommendation that your article adopt that focus.

Fox, J. A., & Levin, J. (1998). Multiple homicide: Patterns of serial and mass murder. Crime & Just., 23, 407.

Serial Killing in Psychological Focus:

Serial killers are mostly men who target on strangers to fulfill sexual desires and keep them under control. Whereas, female serial killers end up having previous relationships with the victim “in which the victim is dependent on them” (Fox and Levin, 1998, p. 414). There are many motives for serial killers whether it be psychological, emotional or physical. Serial killers tend to be “power and control-the thrill, sexual satisfaction, or dominance that serial killers achieve by controlling the lives and the deaths of their victims” (Fox and Levin, 1998, p. 415). The killers enjoy the reaction of their victims and feel superior (Fox and Levin, 1998, p. 415). Such psychopathic offenders are driven by fantasy and are capable of ignoring their victims responses (Waller, 2010, p. 12). They repeat their crimes in a ritual approach to satisfy sexual urges ad fulfill their pleasures (Kocsis, 2008, p. 16).Serial killers also need and desire media publicity and attention in order to depict themselves equal to celebrities. They like to keep the public under their control through fear or terror (Fox and Levin, 1998, p. 415). They are also compelled to kill due to “deep personal hatred” (Waller, 2010, p. 12). In contrast to "normal people" who are capable of denying their inner violence are able to control such urges (Waller, 2010, p. 12).

Serial killers are “… detail-oriented, and precise” (Waller, 2010, p. 4) people. There are four types of serial killers (Waller, 2010, p. 5):

  • Visionary type: they see psychotic hallucinations/visions or even hear voices and directions from gods or demons.
  • Mission-oriented type: Their duty is to get rid of worthless people and they are grounded in reality.
  • Hedonistic type:They kill for the thrill and mere pleasure of it.
  • Power/control-oriented type: They receive pleasure from having full power and control over a helpless victim and takes part in sexual rape/harassment. This person is aware of rule and avoids them.

Serial Killers suffer from personality disorders known as sociopathy and/or psychopathy/antisocial personality (Kocsis, 2008, p. 4). Sociopathy is a “disorder of personality or character…” and not mind (Kocsis, 2008, p. 4). Serial killers with sociopathy lack conscience, remorse or empathy and only feels pleasure using people as tools (Kocsis, 2008, p. 4).They appear very innocent and use this innocence to lure their victims (Kocsis, 2008, p. 5) and remain innocent after being accused for murder (Kocsis, 2008, p. 8). They are skillful of presenting themselves (Kocsis, 2008, p. 5) and employing their tactics (Kocsis, 2008, p. 6). Psychopaths are characterized as people with “implusive, reckless, and selfish disregard of others” (Kocsis, 2008, p. 4). Serial killers labeled as psychopaths disregards society’s values (Kocsis, 2008, p. 87) and are egocentric people who take advantage of the world for his/her own needs (Kocsis, 2008, p. 87). Psychopath serial killers can be lonely, distant, marginalized, and brutal in violence (Kocsis, 2008, p. 87). People who tend to be lonely can pay close attention to their inner issues, and withdrawing from people decreases their ability to express love. This absence is filled by their sexual fantasies in their mind (Kocsis, 2008, p. 91). These are violent sexual fantasies and urges developed from a lack of psychosexual development (Kocsis, 2008, p. 88). In conclusion “…[w]e judge killing to be morally wrong only when it is framed in an impersonal way for us” (Waller, 2010, p. 11).

Fox, J. A., & Levin, J. (1998). Multiple homicide: Patterns of serial and mass murder. Crime & Just., 23, 407.

Kocsis, R. N., (2008). Serial murder and the psychology of violent crimes. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press

Waller, S., (2010). Serial killers - philosophy for everyone: Being and killing. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Distortion in the Media

Wimmer, R., & Dominick, J. (2013). Mass media research. Cengage Learning.

What is media? Media is defined as a mass communication through mediums which will reach a large capacity of people. Mass communications are then carried through channels called mass media (Wimmer and Dominick, 2013, p. 2). Mass media can be “…radio, TV, newspaper, magazines, billboards, films, recordings, books, and the Internet” (Wimmer and Dominick, 2013, p. 2).

Mullainathan, S., Shleifer, A., NBER Working Papers - York University., & National Bureau of Economic Research. (2002). Media Bias. Cambridge, Mass: National Bureau of Economic Research.

In the paper Media Bias Mullainathan explores what he describes as the two main ways the media applies its bias: ideology and spin. The former refers to an attempt to sway an audience's opinion, the latter points to changes made to a story to increase audience interest. Mullainathan is concerned with "whether the reader… obtains unbiased information." (Mullainathan, 2002, p12) in an average news story. Familiarity with Mullainathan's approach to media bias will assist in understanding the ways in which media can alter perceptions, both in general and when applied to serial killing.

Bissler, D. L., Conners, J. L., & Ebrary - York University. (2012). The harms of crime media: Essays on the perpetuation of racism, sexism and class stereotypes. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

This collection of scholarly works examines the negative aspects of distorted perceptions of crime in the media. Focusing on constructs of social inequality, this work casts light on the media's tendency to sensationalize crime. This collection offers solid evidence of misrepresentation and inaccuracy in the media's coverage of crime and leaves "no doubt that media representations of crime… has exaggerated public fears about crime" (Bissler & Conners, 2012, p.3).

MacDonald, A., & Ebrary - York University. (2013). Murders and acquisitions: Representations of the serial killer in popular culture. New York: Bloomsbury.

In her book Murders and acquisitions: Representations of the serial killer in popular culture MacDonald investigates how the media portrays serial killers in movies and other popular forms of media. MacDonald asserts that the media assembles depictions of serial killers in an erratic manner, servicing the popular public perspective it created itself. MacDonald contends that serial killing is a "shifting cultural form whose nuances, offered via popular representations, beg to be evaluated for what they bring to light about our transient culture" (MacDonald, 2013, p.7). MacDonald also believes that "Serial killing is discursively produced by and within a media-managed culture that is simultaneously hyperreal and aesthetic" (MacDonald, 2013, p.5).

Comparative Analysis

Jefferey Dahmer

Documentary: Jeffrey Dahmer ; The Milwaukee Cannibal

The documentary The Milwaukee Cannibal, examines how "environmental trauma, early antisocial behavior and problematic sexual deviance" possibly contribute to the portrayal of a serial killer( Giannangelo,1996,p. 69-71).Dahmer`s childhood was not especially different than that of the average child, he was a happy child with a loving family, and did not experience any physical abuse. As a child, he was always seen as very shy and showed a general lack of self-confidence. From an early age, he started to develop a real interest for dead animals which lead to the growth of an aggressive attitude toward people and animals. In addition to this, his parent`s divorce and their abandonment contributed to his affective instability which prompted him to commit crimes.

Ewing, C. P., McCann, J. T., Oxford University Press E-books (CRKN) - York University., & ebrary, I. (2006). Minds on trial: Great cases in law and psychology. Oxford; New York: Oxford University

In contrast with the documentary, the article Serial Murder,Necrophilia and Cannibalism puts emphasis on the psychological factors which direct Jeffery Dahmer to commit the murder of 17 young men between 1978 and 1991. Here, Dahmer`s acts of cannibalism represent the principal aspect which qualifies him as a mentally ill person. His sadism was revealed through his actions. For example, he wanted his victims to forever be a part of him and he liked to lay with unconscious bodies. On the other hand, another important causal factor which created many controversies among this case is his awareness of his wrong actions. According to Dr Kenneit Smail, a Milkwaukee court psychologist Dahmer understood the wrongness of his actions and he did not suffer from either a mental or a personality disorder. On the contrary, the majority of the psychiatrists that worked on this case concluded that “Dahmer had killed as a result of a mental illness he was unable to control” (Ewing, 2006, p.148 ).

By including all of these aspects, both sources present a relevant approach of Jeffrey Dahmer`s case.

Aileen Wuornos

Hollywood film: Monster (2003)

The film Monster attempts to personalize the story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Encouraging the viewer to see beyond the horrific consequences, Monster explores the psycho-social factors that led to so many murders. The film emphasizes the struggle of maintaining morality in the face of absolute poverty and depravity. Some mention is made of childhood trauma, but the film focuses more on Wuornos' abuse at the hands of the men that pay her for sex later in life. The result is a somewhat relatable character, sacrificing an accurate psychological profile in the name of an interesting and empathetic viewing experience.

Shipley, S. L., & Arrigo, B. A. (2004). The female homicide offender: serial murder and the case of Aileen Wuornos. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.

In their book "The female homicide offender: serial murder and the case of Aileen Wuornos" Shipley and Arrigo assess the psychological precursors to Wuornos' brutal serial murders. In contrast to the film Monster, Shipley and Arrigo's focus is on childhood trauma, pointing to abusive treatment by her grandfather, Lauri Wurnuos, who treated her "worse than anybody would treat an animal.” (Shipley & Arrigo, 2004, p. 96). Aileen was often subjected to verbal abuse in her youth, told she was “evil, wicked, worthless, and that she should have never been born. She wasn’t even worthy of the air she breathed.” (Shipley & Arrigo, 2004, p. 97) which Shipley and Arrigo would argue laid the groundwork for mental instability later in life.

Morrissey, B. (2003). When women kill: questions of agency and subjectivity. London: Routledge.

Morrissey explores Wurnuos' murders and their media portrayal from a different perspective entirely. Morrissey argues that because "Wurnuos demonstrates no remorse for her crimes, arguing instead that sexual abuse is an occupational hazard for prostitutes, and that murder was merely her solution to the problem" (Morrissey, 2003, p.30), Wurnuos should not be seen as a victim of circumstance or a monster created by psycho-social factors as the media presents it. Instead, Morrissey argues, Wurnuos was "possessed of context-dependent agency" (Morrissey, 2003, p.32) and her actions should be viewed from this perspective.

Ted Bundy

Wiki page: "Murderpedia"

The information on this website deals vastly with the history and background of Ted Bundy as well as his specific victim profile and strategies. The articles dig into his past and the possible environmental triggers for his beahavior and decline into murder, rape and necrophilia. His dysfunctional family life and break-up with his long-time girlfriend are thought to be the events in his life that led to his disregard for women and obsession with slim brunettes. His patterns and habits were also analyzed thoroughly. According to psychologists and criminologists, he called upon a variety of tools and tricks that were characteristic of at least a dozen different mass murderer profiles.

A psychological evaluation of Bundy was also included:

What were your impressions of Mr. Bundy when you examined him on May eighteenth, 1979?

Dr. Emanuel Tanay: My impressions were that he was an individual who was indeed rather intelligent - who was well informed about a variety of matters - but, just as I indicated in my preliminary report, based on documents only, namely April twenty-seventh, 1979, he showed a typical picture of someone who suffers from a lifelong personality disorder. Someone who was, what we would call in psychiatry, an impulse-ridden indivdual, prone to acting out and more involved with immediate gratification than any long-term concerns. He was what in the literature has been described in the past as a typical psychopathic type of personality. This is an old term that is no longer used outside of textbooks, but nevertheless I found it quite descriptive of Mr. Bundy.

Samuel, D. B., & Widiger, T. A. (2007). Describing ted bundy’s personality and working towards dsm-v. Independent Practitioner, 27(1), 20-22.

In the case that this article talked extensively about, over 70 psychologists were given a chance to analyze the personality of Ted Bundy in relation to the "normal" person and in relation to other serial killers.

"The most commonly diagnosed personality disorder was antisocial, which was endorsed by almost 96% of the sample. In fact, nearly 80% of the respondents described Bundy as a prototypic case of antisocial personality disorder. Considering the history of brutal rapes and violent murders perpetrated by Bundy, this diagnosis is not particularly surprising. However, it is also worth noting that nearly 95% of the sample also saw Bundy as meeting sufficient criteria to be given the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. Over 50% of the psychologists also viewed Bundy as being above the diagnostic threshold for the borderline and schizoid diagnoses."

Murder as a Social Construction

Jenkins, P. (1994). Using murder: The social construction of serial homicide. Transaction Publishers.

A majority of people believe that such acts of crimes are wrong but they fail to address how such crimes represent a “wider social problem” (Jenkins, 1994, p. 1). One might address the serial killer’s personality developments, the faults of police and official agencies, poverty or social issues from the killer’s birthplace, default in moral standards (Jenkins, 1994, p. 1). But it is also based on “deeper social tensions, often arising from conflicts based on class, race, age, or gender” (Jenkins, 1994, p. 4). Criminal acts are linked to an event and placed in different frames/ contexts which allows a selected phenomena to be in focus (Jenkins, 1994, p. 6). “For example, …the [Jeffrey] Dahmer case might be seen as a part of the problem of racial conflicts and injustice…” (Jenkins, 1994, p. 6). Putting a case into a specific cultural domain allows the solution to be constructed. Another person may see this criminal offence fitting within another framework and find a better solution for the act (Jenkins, 1994, p. 6). Therefore, “…issue x is significant because it can be portrayed as a part of known problem y, and therefore requires the package of responses and reactions that have already been felt appropriate for problem y” (Jenkins, 1994, p. 6). This is known as convergence, linking two activities together and drawing a parallel between them (Jenkins, 1994, p. 6). There is also linking an act with a more dangerous act, mapping together (Jenkins, 1994, p. 7).

Serial Killers in Popular Culture

Schmid, D. (2005). Natural born celebrities: Serial killers in American culture. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Serial killers in current culture bring forth: “stardom and violence”. Medias such as films portray serial killers as celebrities and focus on representing the acts of violence, which “is due partly to the way they inspire feelings of fascination, perhaps even admiration, as well as revulsion in many people (Schmid, 2005). This representation has become the main focus in films, in which the consequences of such features are always debated (Schmid, 2005). “Although the serial killer undoubtedly plays a dominant role in today's…cinema culture, he is by no means an anomalous figure….Rather, the serial killer takes his place alongside such figures as gangsters, vigilantes, and cyborgs in the heavily populated pantheon of contemporary film's violent protagonists” (Schmid, 2005). Stardom has also played an equal role in film, which allow particular actors to do recurring roles from such an image portrayed as serial killers. This became an economic coherence allowing the films and related circulations to be a marketable service (Schmid, 2005). As stated previously, audiences become fascinated in the representation of serial killer through films, in which they may even want to imitate them. This is partially done by films being able to portray serial killings in an effective medium and even exaggerating it (Schmid, 2005).

Final Thoughts

Our initial question was to distinguish a mass murder, how they are portrayed amongst the media, who they actually are as individuals and the creation of their qualities. However, as you may now know, we have improved the question by involving serial killers instead of mass murderer. Within this wiki page we have included numerous reasons as to why we chose serial killers, mostly because they’re more fascinating overall and media coverage. We then went on to giving brief examples of serial killers and various types of media used to portray each individual. For each serial killer we associated them with an aspect of media that they were most known for. For instance, Dahmer was known for the documentary by the Biography channel, secondly the motion picture Monster which was intended for the serial killer Aileen Wurnos. Finally for Ted Bundy we collected famous media in his time, articles, newspaper and magazine articles. The idea of doing this was to show how the media portrayed each individual. Not only that but we wanted to give brief background information on each killer as well. We noticed that each one of these killers had similar childhood issues and instead of combining it with the medias portrayal, we decided to separate the topics, background information/media's portrayal, cultural, and social issues. We noticed that each individual had their own social tension whether it was a race issue, age, class or gender issue. The impact on culture emphasizes serial killers through stardom roles and replicates the violence.

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