The entertainment industry has put forward many inaccurate depictions of psychopathic killers in film, television, theater, and books. Psychopaths are often incorrectly presented as ghoulish predators or monsters who readily stand out in a crowd.

In reality, a psychopathic killer like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy or Gary Ridgway (the “Green River Killer”), can be anyone — a neighbor, co-worker, lover, or a homeless person on the street. Any one of these seemingly harmless people may in reality be a stone-cold killer who preys on others. Psychopaths are social chameleons who rarely stand out in a crowd. This characteristic makes them unobtrusive and, therefore, difficult to apprehend (1).

    Scott A. Bonn Ph.D.   Scott A. Bonn Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University, media commentator, public speaker and author. He is an expert on the behavior and the motivations of criminals. He offers insights into various types of crime, including white-collar, state crime, bullying, domestic violence, sexual assault and serial homicide. His expert commentary frequently appears in the popular news media.

Editor:  Nadeem Noor

Many of the most infamous and prolific serial killers in U.S. history have exhibited key traits of psychopathy, and many have been diagnosed as psychopaths by forensicpsychologists following their capture. A cool and unemotional demeanor, combined with a keen intellect and a charming personality, make the psychopath a very effective predator.

A lack of interpersonal empathy and an inability to feel pity or remorse also characterize psychopathic serial killers. They do not value human life, and do not care about the consequences of their crimes. They are callous, indifferent, and extremely brutal in their interactions with their victims.

This is particularly evident in so-called power/control serial killers, such as Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) and Ted Bundy. They may kidnap, torture, and/or rape and murder their prey without any outward signs of remorse.

Increased attention has been given to the connection between psychopathy and serial murder in recent years both by researchers and criminal justice professionals. Attendees at a 2005 symposium on serial murder conducted by the FBI concluded that psychopathy is manifested in a specific cluster of interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and antisocial traits and behaviors frequently found among serial killers (2).

As reported by the FBI, these traits and behaviors involve deception, manipulation, irresponsibility, impulsivity, stimulation seeking, poor behavioral controls, shallow affect, lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse, a callous disregard for the rights of others, and unethical and antisocial behaviors. These traits define adult psychopathy, but they begin to manifest in early childhood. 

It is important to recognize that psychopathic serial killers know right from wrong, and are able to comprehend criminal law. In particular, they know that murder violates the laws and mores of society. They do understand that they are subject to society’s rules, but they disregard them to satisfy their own selfish interests and desires (3).

In court, psychopathic serial killers are rarely found not guilty by reason of insanity, simply because psychopathy does not qualify as insanity in the criminal justice system. But contrary to popular mythology, psychopathic serial killers are not out of touch with reality and, as such, are not mentally ill in either a clinical or a legal sense (4). They rarely suffer from delusions (unless they also have a separate mental illness such as psychosis); nor do they tend to abuse drugs such as amphetamines or cocaine.

In the criminal courts, psychotic delusions are occasionally presented as a defense by the attorney of a psychopathic serial killer. Normally, such claims are easily challenged by prosecutors, because psychotic delusions are not a characteristic of psychopathy.

A lack of interpersonal empathy and disregard for the suffering of their victims are key characteristics of psychopathic serial killers (5). They generally do not feel anger toward their victims. Instead, they are more likely to feel cool indifference toward them. Many serial killers seem to go into a trance when they are stalking and killing a victim, and the violence they commit often has a dissociative effect on them emotionally.

As explained by Dr. J. Reid Meloy, author of The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment, psychopathic serial killers are emotionally disconnected from their actions and, therefore, indifferent to the suffering of their victims. Their ability to dissociate themselves emotionally from their actions and their denial of responsibility effectively neutralizes any guilt or remorse that other people would feel in similar circumstances (6). 

Do you think you would recognize a psychopathic predator if one crossed your path?