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Delaney Austin

Professor Hellmers

Eng 1201

7 April 2019

Are Serial Killers born or made?

Ever since I was younger, I have always been so interested in watching crime

shows like Criminal Minds and Law & Order, or even random documentaries about notorious

killers, or just crime in general. I grew up watching CSI Miami once a week with my family, so

this is where the mind and behavior of criminals really started to spark my interest. The ways

that they thought out their plans and did the crazy things that they did really intrigued me to learn

more about their brains and how they became that way, or even if they were “born” that way.

Although I’ve never felt like someone can be born completely evil, I’ve never taken the time into

researching about serial killers to see how they become who they are. At the beginning of this

semester we were posed with the assignment of a ten to twelve page argumentative paper and

were to take a stance on a certain side, and I felt very lost with what to write about. I went from

topic to topic, and even thought to possibly stick with the topic I used in english 1101, but

nothing sparked my interest enough to want to write this long of a paper about. A few weeks

later Netflix put out a mini series of The Ted Bundy Tapes, a documentary all about Ted Bundy. I

started to watch this and remember how interested I’ve always been in the mind’s of serial

killers, and I knew exactly what to write my paper about.

The age old question of nature vs. nurture has had our society debating about it for

decades now. Although murderers and criminals have been around since the beginning of time,

serial killers were not even given a title or name until the 1970’s by an FBI agent who worked as
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a psychological profiler. Since the term is still relatively new, researchers and society in general

have been trying to figure out whether or not serial killers are born a certain way with

psychological differences, or they are changed by experiences in their childhood and young

adulthood. The extensive research I have done on this topic will be used to identify how serial

killers have came to be, and whether they are born or made.

Every single person in this world is born with certain qualities or traits that make them

who they are. They can be born with a charming personality, be compassionate and loving, have

aggressive tendencies, and the list could go on forever. But some only let the outside world see

what they want to see about them and can portray a completely different person than who they

really are. For example, some notorious serial killers that portrayed themselves as loving, family

men were the famous John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. Ted Bundy came off as an attractive,

charming man and many people had no suspicion about him at all. He grew up with a loving

family and even got a college education. In his childhood he soon grew up to be violent with

different tendencies and hobbies than the other kids in school. But was he born different or did

his childhood shape him into who he became? No one is born completely evil. Everyone is born

with characteristics, whether they be good or bad, that could lead them into being something

wicked, but childhood shapes a person into who they soon become.

Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator and writer of the Sherlock Holmes novels once said, “A

man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as

you choose”. As you are born an infant and grow into a toddler, you start to pick up certain traits

or opinions, for example children’s taste buds really start to pick up which can affect them to

either love a certain food or hate it even when they grow up. This supports the main claim of

how childhood and one’s surrounding affect them the most, and how negative experiences could
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make them turn for the worse. Specifically in serial killers, research done by Ellison Cooper

shows that at least 68% of serial killers faced some type of childhood abuse. Mind you that this

percentage comes from a list of convicted killers, this number does not account for the amount of

undetected killers. Ellison Cooper was a graduate from UCLA with a Ph.D. in anthropology.

After she found a new interest in the minds of serial killers, she decided she would take a deeper

look into their specific neurology.

Although abuse is abuse, no matter to what extent, it is important to identify what types

were most commonly seen in childhood backgrounds of these killers. Researchers Heather

Mitchell and Michael G. Aamodt of Radford University decided to take a deeper analysis into

the different types of abuse these serial killers endured as children. They found these results

“some type of maltreatment, regardless of abuse type (68%), physical abuse (36%), sexual abuse

(26%), psychological abuse (50%), neglect (18%)” and only about 32% of serial killers faced no

abuse at all. Although these are the percentages of serial killers that reported abuse or opened up

about it, the percentages could potentially be wrong or slightly off due to some keeping quiet

about their abuse.

To really be able to go deeper in the mind of a serial killer, you must first understand

what exactly they “are” by definition. According to Ilie Magdalena Ioana definition in her paper

No one is born a Serial Killer, she defines a serial murder as “one or more individuals (men, in

most of the cases) commit a second murder and / or another subsequent homicide; it is not

predetermined (there is no prior relationship between the author and victim); it comes at a

distinct time and apparently it is unrelated to the original murder, being generally committed in a

different geographical area” (Ioana, 324). She also later mentions how serial killers have sadistic

and psychopathic behavior. Another key point that she makes is serial killers are rarely actually
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psychotic, they are mostly sexual psychopaths and kill because they enjoy the thrill and rush it

gives them. Since there are so many different serial killers in our nation and our world today, it is

important to be able to know exactly what they are defined as because although one may have

killed before, serial killers are a different type human and should be examined and learned about

because of their intriguing qualities of their personality and brains.

Adrian Raine, a british psychologist who has devoted his work to investigating human

minds and actions to figure out more about the cause of violence, made very important claims in

his research article of 2013 “Are Criminals Born or Made?”. All of his key points in his research

support the claim that humans can be born with certain characteristics, but it is the serial killers

surrounding, actions, environment, and childhood that really create the “monsters” they become.

First, Raine states his claim that ‘“biology” is not destiny”. He mentions “while it is true that

there really are genetic biases for criminality and violence, it is also true that these genetic biases

are not dictatorial and immutable: because our characters are the product of many complex

factors” (Raine, 64). The complex factors that he mentions are the relationships between the

parents and the children in young adulthood or if the child is observing wrongful behavior, like

abuse of one parent to another and such situations like that. He believes that with every

experience, emotion, action, and situation we are put, there is a possibility that it can alter us and

our personality in certain ways. For example, if you grow up in a house suffering poverty, are

surrounding by drug and alcohol abuse, and witness lots of crime and violence, it is the most

common face that you become of a product of what you saw and/or what you have been through.

This example can also be used in a positive light too. It is usually common that if you grew up in

in a fortunate household with loving parents and a good relationship with them, you would value

that special relationship and bond even more if you had children also. This is a great illustration
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of the famous line “Monkey see, Monkey do”. If a child who becomes a serial killer is abused or

enclosed by violence, they do these same actions to animals or humans to help them cope with

what they faced as young children, or act out. As some children face abuse, they often start to

isolate themselves from the world, or even their family which can create unusual behavior for

children of their age. As they are isolated, many start to create violent fantasies and even might

start to act out these fantasies. Their childhood is the start of defining their life as serial killers.

Although it is vital to be able to find data and opinions that support that serial killers are

made into the person they become, it is also important to show how some serial killers are born

slightly different than the regular human psychologically. When the first functioning brain scan

was used in the 1980’s, it become a game changer to the way that we study brains and the

functions of them. The first scan on a murderer's brain was done by Professor Adrian Raine in a

California lab. Research was chosen to first be done in California because of “the large numbers

of very violent and homicidal individuals" (Mosley, 4). Mosley’s report was that “there was

reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain which controls emotional impulses,

and over activation of the amygdala, the area which generates our emotions” (Mosley, 6).

Michael Mosley first studied medicine in London and became a doctor, then soon decided he

wanted to become a documentary maker for BBC news and took quite the interest in the minds

of serial killers and their psychology. He then goes on about how the prefrontal cortex is an

imperative part to how the brain functions and creates important human emotions. For example,

damage done to the prefrontal cortex could cause a loss of sympathy or cause one to act out

irrationally because of how vulnerable that area is as the brain grows and matures.

Joe Vesey-Byrne is a certified neurologist who worked with many different newspapers

and television channels relaying his information about the minds of serial killers. Joe has been
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studying them for over 35 years now and even went on Ted Talk to explain his findings and

research data. He first mentions how majority of serial killers had to of had some traumatic

experience like violence happen to them in their childhood, usually before they hit puberty. He

found that for children that were born with the MAOA gene, which is a major violence gene, and

were faced with a major traumatic experience could potentially lead to a messy situation.

Although Dr Byrne does not go into detail about whether or not he thinks serial killers are born

or made, he does establish four main factors that are common among serial killers and possible

ways they have came to be who they are today. After his extensive years of research, he found

that majority of serial killers suffer from some type of brain damage, specifically to their

orbitofrontal cortex and inside their temporal cortex. According to Neuroscientifically

Challenged Magazine, the orbitofrontal cortex “inspires a great deal of interest for some of the

roles it is hypothesized to play in higher-order cognition like decision-making… the prefrontal

cortex and frontal lobes in general are considered essential for rational thought, reasoning, and

even the full expression of personality” (Neuroscientifically Challenged, 2). The second factor of

many serial killers is that they are male. Due to the sex linked gene MAOA, Fallon states that

“As such it comes from mothers, and Fallon believes this is why most psychopaths are boys

because the X chromosome comes solely from their mother, whereas daughters have one from

their father and one from their mother” (Fallon, 8). The next factor is due to the production of

too much serotonin. Just like everything in life, things are good in rations, but having too much

of one thing can be dangerous. Due to serotonin being a neurotransmitter used to calm the body

and the brain, an overproduction as a child can teach the body to become immune to it, which

can cause one to act out due to anger. The last key factor that could make a serial killer is

witnessing violence. Like already mentioned before, witnessing or being involved in violence at
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a young age can be a possible threat to their personality as they grow up. Also stated in the

article “Fallon believes that war zones produce generations of children exposed to violence, and

that the violent genes are concentrated as more aggressive or violent people who are more likely

to survive, reproduce with one another” (Fallon, 12). Since there are so many factors people are

born with that could possibly lead them into being a serial killer, Dr. Fallon believes that being

born with these traits and having some type of exposure to violence can potentially make a serial


Since the opinions on “Are serial killers born or made?’ are mostly split almost

completely in half, it is almost impossible to identify which side to believe in because both sides

are backed up by various amounts of research and data done by some of the most intelligent

profilers, psychologists, and doctors. Last year, Netflix put out a miniseries called Inside the

Criminal Mind which went into depth all about notorious killers lives and childhood, what makes

a serial killer who they are, and possible ways that led them to become who they are today. In the

first episode, they go into depth about serial killers only though. Patrick J. Mullany was a special

guest speaker on this show and first got his name famous by becoming the co-founder of the

psychological profiling division within the FBI, which without today would be a struggle to

identify motives, types of killers, possible connections, and so on. He has been involved with

psychological profiling since about the 1970’s working with the FBI and was even involved in

headlining cases in the United States. Dr. Kostas A. Katsavdakis, an intelligent forensic

psychologist noted that “There’s no one course that makes an individual turn into or become a

criminal. There’s no one individual path. There’s different things you want to look at, and one’s

the family dynamics, the relationship with the family, the mother, the father. Or the relationship

the mother and the father have with themselves” (Katsavdakis, 6 mins 17 seconds). Mullany then
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buds in to mention how serial killers often times come from “broken homes” with dominant

mothers and fathers who show no real interest into the family or the child itself. Most of these

children grow old and hold some type of grudge or resentment against their mother, which would

later lead into their aggressive and dangerous behavior towards women, which are usually their

victims. He also mentioned how research show that often times these serial killers faced different

types of abuse in their childhood like psychological, physical, and even sexual abuse. Most of

these children started off with some type of criminal behavior or different behavior than usual

kids their age. This documentary mentions how in the mid 1960’s the famous forensic

psychologist J.M. MacDonald created a triangular chart of red flags of behavioral issues that

were often show in the childhood of serial killers. The Macdonald triangle had components

of fire setting, enuresis (bed wetting), and animal cruelty. All of these elements were first acted

out in their childhood which left them with altered personalities and routines. Many studies also

have shown that childhood Figure 1 shows the Macdonald Triangle

experiences like being violent and having aggressive temper-tantrums led them to grow up with a

lack of empathy for others feelings and emotions and difficulty with feeling remorse. Dr.

Katsavdakis also thoroughly explains how “lack of empathy is a primary characteristic of a

psychopath; this absence of concern for others and the effects of their actions on them”. Since

learning empathy and remorse is a basic feeling you learn to feel as a child, if you grow up

without the ability to feel these emotions, chances are you will have difficulties being able to

build relationships with others as you grow up, which many serial killers struggle with. Since the
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family dynamic is so vitally important for one’s well being, it it clear to see that relationships

surrounding a “young serial killer’s” life have a major effect on them in the long run.

Since nature versus nurture has been an ancient question for decades now, my research

found the most reasonable conclusion to that question when dealing with serial killers. Serial

killers are a very interesting topic because of the countless ways that make them they way they

are, whether that be because they are born a certain way or pick up on certain personality traits

which change their behavior as they mature. Every single person in this world is born a certain

way, they can be tall, short, pale, have brown eyes and the list goes on, but what really starts to

define who they are is the way they act as children. Most people start catching onto certain habits

when they are a child due to their surroundings. If you are born into a family that is dedicated to

religion and follows it strictly, chances are you start to act like the rest of your family picking up

on their behavior. This situation applies to the opposing side also. For example, a child that is

born in a broken family where the adults or parent figures abuse alcohol and drugs and show

some type of violence, whether that be between parents or to the child, there are higher chances

that the child in this home will grow up with the same characteristics their parents did. This can

either be because the child simply grew into these personality traits or uses violence or alcohol

abuse to cope with certain situations they were faced with as children. Since so many serial

killers were born being abused or with violence in their family, many became violent to cope

with their childhood. Since so many people, specifically serial killers are majorly affected by

their childhood, it is safe to say that although serial killers

may be born with different traits than the regular person, it is

the nurturing and environment that truly shapes a person into

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who they are, serial killers are made a certain way by experiences in their childhood and early


Works Cited

Cooper, Ellison. “Are Serial Killers Born Bad or Man-Made Monsters? - Ellison Cooper on the

History & Neurology of Psychopathic Killers.” CrimeReads, 6 July 2018,



Ioana, Ilie Magdalena. No One Is Born a Serial Killer. Vol. 81, SciVerse ScienceDirect, 2013.
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Mitchell, Heather, and Michael G Aamodt. “The Incidence of Child Abuse in Serial Killers.”

Police and Criminal Psychology, vol. 20, no. 1, 2005, pp. 40–47.

Mosley, Michael. “Are Murderers Born or Made?” BBC News, BBC, 9 Mar. 2015,


Raine, Adrian. “Are Criminals Born or Made?” The Anatomy of Violence, May 2013, pp. 64–68.

Ramsland, Katherine. Triad of Evil. 16 Mar. 2012.

“Serial Killers.” Inside the Criminal Mind, season 1, episode 1, Netflix Original, Max Serio,





Stalnaker, T. “Know Your Brain: Orbitofrontal Cortex.” Neuroscientifically Challenged,

Neuroscientifically Challenged, 13 May 2015, neuroscientificallychallenged.com/blog/know-


Vesey-Byrne, Joe. “This Man Spent 35 Years Studying the Brains of Serial Killers. This Is What

He Found Out.” indy100, indy100, 11 Oct. 2016