Psychological Phases of a Serial Killer

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When I started this true crime blog, I promised you we’d go into the mind of a serial killer. So far we’ve looked at psychopathy and sociopathy. Now it’s time to go deeper.

Interview with Death

In the 1980’s, psychologist and author Joel Norris was researching psychopathy and his theory that violence is a disease that should be treated rather than punished. The largest part of his research came from hundreds of interviews he conducted with 5 notorious serial killers to include Leonard Lake, Henry Lee Lucas, Carlton Gary, and Ted Bundy.

Though much of Dr. Norris’s original research has now been superseded by newer studies, his most enduring revelation was a cycle that many serial killers go through during their killings. You can see the cycle in the graphic above (made by yours truly). It follows through 7 phases: the Aura phase, the Trolling phase, the Wooing phase, Capture, Murder, the Totem phase, and finally Depression. The length of each phase varies greatly from killer to killer, but they will repeat the cycle indefinitely until “retirement” (as was the case with The Golden State Killer), or until caught or killed.

Aura

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Most serial killers fantasize about their violent and twisted behavior for some time before finally acting upon those fantasies. This period of fantasizing is known as the Aura Phase. During this phase, the serial killer retreats deeper and deeper into his dark thoughts. He begins to lose touch with reality as his fantasies become more and more real to him. He may become withdrawn and isolated as he increasingly spends time feeding his fantasy. As the serial killer’s urges intensify, his personality may even noticeably change as he begins to transform into the person he imagines himself to be.

All of this serves to build the killer’s nerve to act out in the real world what is going on in his mind. This phase may last anywhere from very short – a few minutes, to a year or more.

Trolling

Eventually the serial killer’s fantasies no longer satisfy his urges, and he moves to the next stage where he begins to formulate a plan to kill. This is known as the Trolling Phase. During this 2nd phase, the serial killer is accomplishing two goals: 1. selecting a victim, and 2. if he’s an organized serial killer, then choosing a dumping location for the body post-crime.

Many serial killers have a victim profile when choosing who they will target. They may target victims that have physical characteristics that remind them of someone specific (mother, ex-girlfriend, etc.) — usually someone they have fantasized about killing during the Aura Phase. Some serial killers have targeted prostitutes or college girls. Others simply looked for victims they felt they could easily overpower or who were vulnerable.

Once a potential victim is selected, there is usually a period of stalking and planning — learning their victim’s routine: when they come and go from home; bus routes; where they are often alone. If home invasion is planned as part of their crime, they may check windows and other security features ahead of time. Serial killer Joseph DeAngelo (the Golden State Killer) pre-planted ligatures for binding victims and for strangulation at the homes of his victims. He also made menacing phone calls to his victims ahead of time.

If the killer plans to dispose of their victims’ body afterwards, they will also scout out a dumping ground during this Trolling Phase.

Wooing

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Once the serial killer decides he is sufficiently prepared, he moves to a 3rd phase known as the Wooing Phase where he attempts to gain the trust of his victim so he can strike. One common feature that investigators often find among serial killer victims is a lack of signs of a struggle. Normally this would lead investigators to believe that the victims knew their attacker, yet in most cases that was not true. Ted Bundy, for instance, stated that he made a point of choosing victims that he was sure he had never met. Through charm or rouse or both, serial killers gain the trust of their victims.

Take the case of Shawn Michael Grate, he wooed his victims in a number of ways: his 1st victim entered his car believing he wanted to buy magazine subscriptions; with another victim, Grate stopped to change a flat tire; and with yet another victim, he feigned interest in Bible study. Bundy was notorious for faking some kind of injury, and asking young women to help him. Rodney Alcala developed skills as a photographer and then approached young women to invite them back to his home to photograph them.

These types of deceptions serve one purpose: to gain their victim’s trust and get them to a preplanned, secluded place to kill them.

Capture

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Once a serial killer has gained the trust of their victim, they transition to the Capture Phase. The superficial charm displayed during the previous Wooing Phase now disappears as the killer turns violent. The trust so carefully earned is betrayed. It may be a handcuff snapped to a wrist or an incapacitating blow to the head — but the killer’s true intentions are revealed.

Murder

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The Murder Phase actually encompasses more than just the taking of a life. The killer now acts out in real life the fantasy he had replayed countless times in his head. With no chance of escape, the victim is at the mercy of their captor. A disorganized serial killer will usually bring a swift end to their victim’s life. However an organized serial killer will draw out this phrase either for as long as he feels he safely can or until his fantasies have been satisfied. As was seen with the serial killer cousins Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi, torture may be implemented — whatever it takes to fulfill the killer’s dark desires.

Serial killers have been known to dress up their victims in prearranged outfits. Sexual assault is unfortunately common. And then at the last, once the killer is satisfied, they murder.

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Totem

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Almost universally, serial killers take some kind of trophy from their victims. During this 6th stage, called the Totem Phase, the killer takes mementos of their crimes to help them relive the experience — and to fuel the Aura Stage during the next cycle. Rodney Alcala took photographs of his victims and also stole their earrings, sometimes even wearing them. Serial killer Jerry Brudos stole his victim’s shoes. Cannibal Jeffery Dahmer kept body parts.

Not only do these trophies help the killer relive the experience, but it’s also a desperate attempt to stave off the almost-immediate loss of excitement.

Depression

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The adrenaline high wears off, and with the killer’s fantasy fully carried out, he enters into the final psychological stage: the Depression Phase. Some serial killers are disgusted by their crimes. Others fall into despair when they realize that acting out their fantasy didn’t bring a feeling of resolution, but rather one of emptiness. The killer may also feel he didn’t do something perfectly according to his fantasy. Whatever the reason, the serial killer falls into a deep depression that sometimes results in his own suicide. Other killers have confessed to police. Joseph DeAngelo called a mental health crisis line asking for help to stop killing.

If the serial killer survives this Depression Phase, which may last days, weeks, or months, he will soon return to the Aura Phase. With the aid of his new trinkets from his last victim, he begins to fantasize all over again, starting the cycle that will eventually lead to another murder.

My Thoughts

I’m no psychologist, but I’m not particularly surprised that such a defined cycle is carried out by serial killers. And neither was I surprised to find that Dr. Norris described serial killing as a sort of “addiction.” Serial murder is nearly always associated with a desire to feel powerful over others. And power is intoxicating. And fantasies can at times feel very real and magnetic.

I suppose all of us in one way or another go through a similar cycle — though obviously on a lesser scale. Most people have or have had some sort of addictive pattern in their life; some sort of bad habit or self-destructive behavior that they struggle to break out of.

The alcoholic or drug addict obsess over their next fix. Thoughts of it consume their mind — an Aura Phase, if you will. The alcoholic may drive past their old beer joint or bar — not going in, just Trolling. He may then go inside, while promising himself he won’t drink. He’s “just going to play some pool” — a Wooing Phase of sorts. But then it’s not long before the temptation is too great; the desire is too strong, and he’s drinking again. And though he tells himself he had a good time, that night or the next morning, he will likely feel Depressed at having given into the urges once again.

My point is, that though I’ve never committed one murder, much less serial murder, I have gone through a similar cycle of phases with other behaviors while struggling to break free. Indeed once we get on that hamster wheel, it can be hard to get back off.

The Process

There is a process,
it doesn’t happen overnight,
when you depersonalize another person
and view them as just an object.
an object for pleasure
and not a living breathing human being
It seems to make it easier to do things you shouldn’t do.
Jeffrey Dahmer

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2 thoughts on “Psychological Phases of a Serial Killer”

  1. Pingback: What is a Serial Killer? - stephenzimmerman.com

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