Just as these killers rip open their victims to “see how they run” (as Ed Kemper put it), forensic psychiatrists and FBI agents have tried to get inside the killer’s mind. Traditional explanations include childhood abuse, genetics, chemical imbalances, brain injuries, exposure to traumatic events, and perceived societal injustices. The frightening implication is that a huge population has been exposed to one or more of these traumas. Is there some sort of lethal concoction that sets serial killers apart from the rest of the population?
We believe that we have control over our impulses — no matter how angry we get, there is something that stops us from taking our aggressions out on others. Do serial killers lack a moral safety latch? Or are they being controlled by something unfathomable? “I wished I could stop but I could not. I had no other thrill or happiness,” said Dennis Nilsen, who wondered if he was truly evil. Serial killers are undeniably sick, and their numbers seem to be growing. Are we in the midst of a serial killer “epidemic,” as Joel Norris describes it? If this is a disease, what is the cure?