Serial killers don’t just come out of nowhere. They often have a history of antisocial behavior throughout infancy and early adolescence. Psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis of New York University concluded that a murderer is made through a lethal combination of childhood abuse, neurological disturbances, and psychiatric illness.
As FBI profiler Jim Clemente explained, “Genetics loads the gun, their personality and psychology aim it, and their experiences pull the trigger.”
The following early warning signs are all attributed to some of the most cold-blooded and heartless serial killers ever known. If only someone would have seen it coming.
The Macdonald triad was first suggested by psychiatrist J.M. Macdonald in his 1963 paper, “The Threat to Kill.” Macdonald had compared 48 psychotic patients with 52 nonpsychotic patients who all displayed violent tendencies. The research suggested that three particular behaviors in early childhood “figure prominently in the ranks of serial murderers.”
One of those behaviors was enuresis (bed-wetting). Although this is common in childhood, it would become a concern if the bed-wetting continued twice a week for at least three consecutive months after age 5. The child might become humiliated or frustrated by his constant bed-wetting as many parents would ridicule a child for this behavior.
Serial killer Albert Fish, who was responsible for three child murders in the early 1900s, was a known bed-wetter until age 11. Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins Jr., who claims to have killed more than 100 people although he was only convicted of nine murders, also was a persistent bed-wetter throughout his childhood.
Macdonald also theorized that arson, or fire-setting, was another early behavioral trait that could be linked to violent tendencies later in life. Fire-setting is a potential warning sign that you have a murderer in the making on your hands as he is looking to destroy anything he can.
Serial killer Ottis Toole, who was convicted of six counts of murder, was also a serial arsonist from a young age and admitted to being sexually aroused by fire. The sinister American drifter claimed that he drew a sense of excitement from seeing the flames—the bigger the flames, the bigger the thrill.
Toole had a troubled childhood. He has often spoken about suffering sexual abuse at a young age. His Satanist grandmother also exposed him to many dark rituals, including self-mutilation.
The setting of fires is linked to a mixture of emotions, including power, excitement, and revenge. Toole might have enjoyed experiencing all three when he was a helpless child.
The third behavior in the Macdonald triad is harming small animals. Young children who pull on a dog’s tail or yank at a cat’s whiskers are not necessarily out to harm the animal. They are more likely acting out of curiosity.
Mistreatment of animals, including repeated violence without remorse, is linked to troubled children who later become serious offenders in their adult lives. Sixty percent of children who have suffered previous abuse themselves have turned to mistreating animals.
Serial killer Edmund Kemper—who butchered his own mother, his mother’s best friend, six female students, and his own paternal grandparents—started torturing animals from a young age. At 10 years old, he buried his cat alive. Then he dug it up and displayed the head on a spike as a “trophy.” At age 13, he used a machete to chop off the head of his replacement cat.
Writer Harold Schechter noted, “Animal torture isn’t a stage. It’s a rehearsal.”
A study found that the majority of notorious serial killers had suffered head injuries in childhood. Elaine Whitfield Sharp, defense attorney and expert in head trauma cases, said that these early injuries are connected to a lack of empathy in later life. She explained, “It doesn’t matter whether the frontal lobe damage is psychiatric or traumatic. The result is the same. Gross lack of empathy.”
Richard Ramirez (aka the “Night Stalker”) had a dresser fall on his head, and he needed 30 stitches when he was just five. John Wayne Gacy Jr. (aka the “Killer Clown”) suffered from blackouts when his head was struck by a swing at age 11.
When David Berkowitz (aka “Son of Sam”) was eight, he was hit on the head with a pipe, causing a 10-centimeter (4 in) gash. Albert Fish (aka the “Boogeyman”) suffered a severe head trauma when he fell from a tree at age seven. Dennis Rader (aka the “BTK Killer”) also stated that his mother had accidentally dropped him on his head as an infant.
One of the first signs of psychopathy in adolescence is extreme antisocial behavior such as persistent aggression. The Institute of Psychiatry stated that about 5 percent of children have a severe level of antisocial behavior which later develops into psychopathy. For 30 percent of children displaying this behavior, it can be attributed to genetics. For others, it’s due to a difficult, traumatic, or neglectful upbringing.
One example of early psychopathy occurred when Ted Bundy was three years old. He had already begun to show an interest in knives. His aunt recalled a young Bundy pulling back her bedsheets as she slept and slipping three butchers knives beside her.
Serial killer Carroll Cole committed his first murder when he drowned a school friend in a lake. He later confessed to the killing, which was believed to have been an accident until then.
Children who witness violence, either as victims or as observers, can become desensitized in the long term. Those who are affected can adopt the perception that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems.
Criminologist Dr. Adrian Raine explained that both biological and social factors surrounding violence in childhood contribute to antisocial behavior in adolescence. In his book, The Anatomy of Violence, he explained, “Genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behavior.”
Most notable was the severe violence witnessed in childhood by serial killer Richard Ramirez. His older cousin, Miguel Ramirez, had returned from the Vietnam War and told a young Richard details of the torture and mutilation of Vietnamese women. Miguel even showed him photographic evidence of what the victims endured.
When Richard was 13 years old, he witnessed Miguel murder his wife. Before Richard Ramirez was captured in 1985, he murdered at least 13 people and tortured dozens more, earning him the name “The Night Stalker.”
Five psychiatric disorders are believed to have genetic links—autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Looking at the DNA of more than 30,000 people who had been diagnosed with one of these mental or behavioral conditions, researchers found specific variations in the genetic code that were significantly associated with these conditions.
Many notorious serial killers have a history of mental illness within the family. Aileen Wuornos’s father, who was behind bars for sexually molesting a minor, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and hanged himself when Wuornos was 13 years old.
Albert Fish also came from a family with severe mental illness. His uncle suffered from mania, his two siblings were incarcerated in mental institutions, and his mother suffered from visual hallucinations.
The mother of child torturer and murderer Rose West underwent electroconvulsive therapy following a struggle with depression while she was pregnant with West. Rose’s father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which made him prone to violent attacks.
Childhood voyeurism and early promiscuity are common traits among notorious serial killers. Engaging intimately with others, behavior that included undressing in public or being a “Peeping Tom,” are also traits connected to antisocial behavior.
Criminologist Eric Hickey stated in Serial Killers and their Victims, “The fact [that] certain serial murderers have insisted that pornography was a major factor in their killing young women and children cannot be ignored.” He explained that the four steps are addiction to the images, an increased appetite for those images, desensitization to the violence, and acting out the images.
Ted Bundy confessed that he would look through the windows of neighbors who might be caught undressing when he was a young boy. In his final interviews, he admitted that pornography had an impact on his violent tendencies: “Pornography can reach in and snatch the kid out of any house today. It snatched me out of my home.”
Parents who are manipulated by their children are often locked in a power struggle, much like a tug-of-war. The more the parents attempt to control the child, the more the child will act up.
Behavior such as compulsive lying, destruction of toys, emotional blackmail, or violent tantrums are tactics an antisocial child might apply as a means to control his parents. Psychologist Robert D. Hare, who created the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, notes that cunning and manipulative behavior are one of the signs of psychopathy.
In another study, researchers focused on callous-unemotional (CU) pre-psychopathic behavior and asked parents questions about their child’s deceitful-callous (DC) behavior. The five items considered DC behavior are: The child doesn’t seem guilty after misbehaving, punishment doesn’t change behavior, the child is selfish/won’t share, the child lies, and the child is sneaky and tries to get around his parents.
The study found that toddlers who rated high on the DC scale developed significant behavior problems later in life.
When a child is told that he “always has his head in the clouds,” it’s often just a harmless jibe. Yet what might go unnoticed is just how far the child is willing to delve into his fictional world.
Fantasy can relieve fear and anxiety. But other compulsive forms of escapism are often seen among children who have suffered abuse, neglect, or trauma. The fantasy will play like a loop—which the child will happily return to for his own satisfaction—much like a serial killer’s desire to claim victim after victim.
Serial killer Edmund Kemper confessed, “I knew long before I started killing that I was going to be killing; that it was going to end up like that. The fantasies were too strong. They were going on for too long and were too elaborate.”
Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz also revealed that they had periods of intense fantasies throughout their youth. Most serial killers have already imagined their first murder in great detail long before they’ve fully committed to the idea.
Cheish Merryweather is a true crime fan and an oddities fanatic. Can either be found at house parties telling everyone that Charles Manson was only 157 centimeters (5’2″) or at home reading true crime magazines. Twitter: @thecheish