Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture
Everyday one can turn on the television and find anything that either has sex or violence involved. From shows such as “Law and Order: SVU” to “Sex and the City”, we as viewers get hooked to the television screen. We memorize when our favorite shows come on and even go as far as schedule our school work and/or social life around those times. The best thing that has happened for viewers is the fact that we can now get our favorite series on DVD. I can now borrow “House M.D” on DVD from the Swarthmore College Library and no longer have to create a schedule to watch television. Many episodes in both “Law and Order” and “House M.D” tend to always lean towards their audience and/or characters to make ethical choices about life and death. The murderers presented in “Law and Order” tend to have a motive, or some psychological problem for their acts. In one episode of “House M.D”, a murderer on death row had a tumor in his brain. These episodes had me thinking about mass murderers and/or serial killers: Why do some kill with no remorse? Is there a medical reason for their acts? Or are they just ‘natural born’ killers?
There are tons of different theories throughout the criminal world for the reasons why serial killers do what they do. They all surround the basic concepts of nature vs. nurture. Are they born to be serial killers? Or are they serial killers through circumstances? Scientists have yet to come to a consensus on what they believe in the real cause. Many believe that brain damage to the frontal lobe and/or limbic system may be the true cause of their killing sprees. Doctors as well as detectives consider a profile, where they assume the killings are due to the killers’ past physical and/or mental abuse. Differentiating nature vs. nurture can be very difficult, due to the simple fact that one’s environment (nurture) can impact one’s behavior (nature). In fact a serial killer tends to begin their killing due to some change or impact of their environment. For example, the serial killer Bobby Joe Long was abused by his mother (a prostitute) and her ‘clients’. When he was twenty years old, he got into a motorcycle accident that caused some brain damage. After this accident, he became more aggressive and his sexual desires increased.
Before continuing with the nature vs. nurture theories, one has to define a serial killer. According to wikipedia.org, “a serial killer is someone who murders three or more people with a 'cooling off' period between each murder (largely psychological gratification).” The Oxford Dictionary states that it is “a person who murders several people one after the other in a similar way”. Both definitions give us the understanding that a serial killer have a ‘motive’ and chose when and how they which to kill. The key word for me is that they all have a ‘choice’ in how and when to kill, which in turn makes them guilty. But first we must look into the excellent ‘stories’ that have been developed in the criminology world to explain their acts.
First I will start with the nature theories, where many scientists believe brain damage, genetic disorders and/or other disorders/diseases create the problem. The frontal lobe is considered to be responsible for human behavior that makes us stable and have adequate social relations. “Evolutionary biologists point that the frontal lobe evolved in tandem with the evolution of man from beast to purveyor of civilization.” Damage to the limbic system can also be a cause of serial killers’ ‘dysfunction’. The “limbic system controls one’s emotion as well as motivation; some serial killers are missing the limbic system in the brain.” When the limbic brain is damaged, it may account for uncontrollable aggression. “Among the many serial killers who had suffered head injuries are Leonard Lake, David Berkowitz, Kenneth Bianchi, John Gacy and Carl Panzram, who as a child, had some sort of head infection.”
Many serial killers were raised in homes, where they were physically and/or mentally abused for years. Some were orphaned and moved around from home to home, and others were abused by a close relative. Henry Lee Lucas was beaten by his prostitute mother for years with broom handles. His mother would dress him as a girl to attend school as well as force him to watch her have sex with men. These men were usually violent and in turn Henry Lee Lucas became the aggressor. The majority of researchers believe that environment alone cannot explain the behaviors of serial killers. Although many of them have been neglected in their childhood, there are many others just like them, that turn out to be law abiding citizens.
So where do we go from here, do we agree that it is a combination of things that create a serial killer? Or do we continue to look for this trait? Trying to search for the nature impact is a little troubling for me. If scientists do come to a conclusion about what is possibly wrong in the brain of serial killers, what would happen then? Do we scan every human brain or babies for this particular trait or gene? Do we set these members of society aside or monitor them as “terrorist” or title them as having the “kill gene”? The ethical questions can go on forever. Shirley Lynn Scott writes in her conclusion that “…serial killers are human black holes… they are so normal, so generic, so invisible [that] they terrify us because they mirror us.” She continues to say that “[a serial killer] is an embodiment of the darkness, desire, and power that we must repress within ourselves.” She ended her book with some very puzzling thoughts. These thoughts lead me to ask myself: what is repressing us from partaking in these gruesome acts? Some of the most organized killers were very educated and had more knowledge about the world than the average person, so what is stopping us from acting?
The questions can go on forever. The research on serial killers has yet to find a consensus on the cause of the problem. Maybe we will never know the answer to why they do what they do but we could still continue to create and listen to new ‘stories’ of why. “We recoil at their bloody antics, but we remain transfixed,” which is why we love to watch violence on television. It is our way of connecting to that power that we repressed within us.
If you want to know about the murders committed by the serial killers I listed in my paper, please visit this site: http://ajas29.tripod.com/massbio.html and/or the sites in my footnotes.
 Predestined Serial Killers, A. Rutigliano: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/nuero03/web1/arutigliano.html
 What Makes Serial Killers Tick? Shirley Lynn Scott, Chapter 15+16, www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/notorious/tick/psych_6.html
 Serial Killers: http://www.deathreference.com/Py-Se/Serial-Killers.html
 What Makes Serial Killers Tick? Shirley Lynn Scott, Conclusion