One thing we know for sure.  No one wakes up one day and decides to be a serial killer.  Long before the serial murderer(link is external) takes action, s/he begins to think about it; how it would happen, who the victim would be, how to get away with it.  In fact, for the troubled or traumatized child with a genetic bent for violence, what starts out as daydreams about how to get away from pain turn into dark obsessive thoughts about how to cause it.

Creating the Escape Hatch  

Most (but certainly not all) children who grow up to be serial killers start out behind the eight ball.  For a myriad of reasons, they have parents who are either unable or unwilling to take good care of them; as such, they grow up with a history of abandonment, abuse or instability.  Because they can’t physically escape, fantasy becomes a way for them to mentally check out.

Perhaps s/he creates an imaginary family who lavishes him or her with daily affection.  Perhaps s/he fantasizes about the perfect future or creates an alternative reality in which s/he is older, happier, in charge.   Whatever the specific fantasy, it starts out as an adaptive way to mentally escape from pain at a time when there is no physical way to get away.

From Escape to Revenge

However, although some fantasy in childhood is normal, it can become a compulsive form of escapism in children who are abused, neglected or otherwise traumatized.  Because the fantasies are pleasant, they are increasingly preferred to the harshness of reality. Indulging in these daydreams increasingly means spending time away from other people, starting a vicious cycle that feeds upon itself; isolation breeds fantasy which breeds more isolation.

And then adolescence starts.   The normal turmoil of the teenage years – hormonesraging, identities fluctuating, peer relations shifting – is especially problematic for teens who do not have a solid support system to guide them and who have not developed the internal resources to weather the storm.  Anger and resentment are channeled into fantasies of power and control – and violence.

At this point, many budding serial killers become aware that their thoughts and fantasies are not “normal;” they do not “fit in.” As a result, they become even more isolated, keep their disturbing fantasies to themselves and think more and more often of how to fulfill them. When these fantasies are combined with masturbation(link is external), a sexual component is added to the mix, providing an additional avenue of reinforcement and a greater reliance on fantasy for pleasure and satisfaction.  Budding serial killers often fantasize about murder and sexual violence for years before killing their first victim.

The Bottom Line

In the first Harry Potter movie, Harry stumbles upon the Mirror of Erised(link is external) which, according to Albus Dumbledore, “shows the deepest, most desperate desire of our heart.”  Harry is initially paralyzed with joy when he encounters his dead parents in the reflection.  Over the next few days, Harry visits the mirror as often as he can to see his parents’ face.  However, after Dumbledore finds Harry once again fixated by the mirror, ignoring his schoolwork and the friends around him, he tells Harry that the mirror is to be moved and instructs Harry to stay away from it.  “Men have wasted away before it, not knowing if what they have seen is real, or even possible.”

For budding serial killers, fantasy can also be a way to escape a painful reality.  However, escape fantasies eventually become preoccupation with violence or revenge, and thoughts and plans lead to murder. Unfortunately, the brutal and messy reality of murder never completely fulfills the promise of a serial’s killer’s fantasy – leaving him/her destined to do it again.

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