The Examination Of The Psyche Behind Serial Killers

Tayler Salvatore

Tayler Salvatore

The nature versus nurture of a serial killer is a hot topic of debate in the psychological community, and in fact, serial killers are the best targets for study in this area. This is because they are so unnatural in their behaviour and it is common for individuals to want to comprehend why they are who they are, and their natural progression from childhood to adulthood. Here that question will attempt to be answered.

The discussion dealing with nature versus nurture has been ongoing since the beginning of psychology with no definitive answer as to which one plays the largest role. Remarkable psychologists claim that nature is the deciding factor in how an individual turns out. Some say it is nurture that is the crucial factor, while others still claim that it is a hybrid of each. This article will examine nature versus nurture in some of the most intense cases that certain specialists have studied in length to endeavour to pinpoint which factor played the most crucial role. Three cases will be reviewed. One that points mostly to nature; another that points mostly to nurture; and finally, one that points to a fusion between the two. There will still be no definitive answer as to which one plays the prominent role. That will be for the reader to decide as even scientists are clueless.

The discussion of nature versus nurture is an ageless debate among the psychological community. Is it one or the other? Or, is it a blend of the two? Nature is defined by the genetic code of the individual. It takes into consideration DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid) and biological connections. “Theories that base their understanding of human behaviour on nature, focus on characteristics that we are born with, like our genetic makeup, stable personality traits, and physical predispositions.” Nurture is really the opposite. Individuals on the side of nurture are of the belief that it is the environment that determines who an individual is and becomes. “Theories that base their understanding of human behavior on nurture, emphasize those experiences that shape and change us throughout our lives, such as how our progenitors raised us, what we were taught at school, and our culture.” Nature and nurture can be studied in various ways on many different types of people. The extreme classification though is when these theories are applied to a group of individuals who are hard to research at best. Serial killers, for example, are so complex that the nature versus nurture discussion seems to have just gravitated towards them in the hopes of answering the age old question; do they kill because of nature or because of nurture?

All serial killers are murderers but not all murderers are serial killers. There are key distinctions between murderers and serial killers. “A serial killer is someone who kills at least three victims one by one in a series of consecutive murders, with a form of psychological gratification as the primary motive.” Therein lies the key difference. A serial killer is chiefly motivated by the psychological gratification of the act while an average murder may be committed for reasons such as revenge or robbery. The average serial killer profile is that of a white male between the ages of twenty and thirty who ordinarily target their victims within proximity of their living space.

There is normally a standstill period before another killing occurs but as the crimes get closer together then it is ostensible that the killer has reached a zenith and needs more to fuel his psychological cravings. While this is the standard profile there are exceptions to the rules as will be seen in this article. Not all serial killers fit this profile and this is obvious through history as women have been known to become serial killers themselves. No matter what sex, age, or race a serial killer is, is it feasible to think that it can be determined how they became serial killers? Was it nature or was it nurture? Maybe it was both.

When scanning for a serial killer whose profile leans mainly towards nature, David Richard Berkowitz — known also as the Son of Sam and the .44 Caliber Killer — is one that stands out above most others. He was depicted as peaceful and respectful by all who knew him, yet is one of New York’s most infamous serial killers to date. Going by the alias Son of Sam, David Richard Berkowitz went on a killing spree that lasted from July 1976 till July 1977 murdering six and wounding at least eight, causing one to be paralysed for life. It was later found that the attacks were random rather than intended. The important question is what caused this gentle and calm youthful man to become a vicious and murdering monster? Evidence points to nature.

Nature allots with genetics, and this makes genuine sense in David Richard Berkowitz case as the nurturing that he received, by all appearances, seemed to be fitting. David Richard Berkowitz was raised by his adopted parents, Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz. “He had a normal childhood in the Bronx with no clear warning signs of what was yet to come.” By all accounts, even by David Richard Berkowitz himself, his adoptive parents were caring and generous to him, supporting him each step of the way. Though they were not a wealthy family, they gave him what he needed and treated him with the love of a real parent. Growing up in an environment that was conducive to mental health and an overall exuberance was not enough to override his natural propensity for savagery and it began to be noticeable by friends and neighbours that David Richard Berkowitz had a violent streak. Because his nurturing was of standard quality the nature of his inner self must be examined.

When Pearl Berkowitz died his mental health seemed to swiftly degenerate. Not comprehending who he was or where to shift, he sought out and discovered his birth mother. He found that she had conceived him with her married lover who forced her to put him up for adoption using the threat of leaving her for good. While this writer could find no record of his biological family’s mental health conditions or criminal history, it is deemed — for the purpose of this article — that there were biological factors from his real family that contributed greatly to his condition and behaviour. While it is a leap to make such a hypothesis, it is clear that the nurturing he received from his adopted parents could not have perhaps played a role in the killer he came to be.

While there are countless cases where nurture represents an obvious role in the making of a serial killer, Nannie Doss stood out greatly to this writer. Nannie Doss was, even as an infant, infatuated with the idea of love and it was the one thing she craved her entire life. Her childhood was a very unfortunate one where she was forced to do heavy and laborious work and play time was not allowed. Her father was not the perfect loving parent who doted on his small girls. It was said of him that “after all, James Hazle was the boss and, if rumours are correct, he would not spare the switch — on his daughters or his wife — to get what he wanted.” By most reports, her father was sadistic and loveless. This is one theory on why Nannie Doss was so troubled with the idea of being loved. When she did eventually found a man to marry, she quickly found that in losing her demanding and sadistic father she had earned the same in her new mother-in-law. Sorrowful with her new situation of having to live with a woman like her father and a husband who cringed at her very presence, Nannie Doss had many affairs. She was not promiscuous for the sake of sexual gratification but in the quest to find the feeling of being loved even if only for a brief time.

The marital relationship steadily declined and when two of their children died (the deaths were ruled accidental but there was little doubt that they were poisoned by Nannie Doss) her husband left with their remaining children except for their newborn daughter. Nannie Doss was abandoned with the newborn and her mother-in-law (who died of natural causes before her son returned). Upon his return, he brought with him a new companion and her offspring. Nannie Doss packed herself up and her children and left vilifying her husband for what he had done to her life. Still hounded by the quest for love and never wanting to be alone, Nannie Doss began her search for another husband and found him in 1929. This time she thought she had the perfect gentleman just to find out that he was a heavy drinker with a criminal record.

Though her new husband physically abused her and her children, she remained with him for sixteen years. The marriage only ended because her husband died. Nannie Doss, taking his liquor jar, poured in some rat poison and he died quickly. Nannie Doss married once again in 1947, again thinking she had found the perfect man. However, once again she had married a man who liked woman and drinking too much. Her affairs began once again and it would not be long until her current husband would meet the same fate as her first. This occurred again with a third husband who also met his death after marrying Nannie Doss. After killing all these husbands (it is still not understood what motivated her to kill her children) it became self-evident that she was moved by nurture to commit these crimes. Her father showed no love, only coldness, hardness, and abuse. The men she married gave her more of the same. Being treated terribly sent her over the edge of sanity. Perhaps she was predisposed to these traits and her nurturing just triggered her behaviour. Perhaps she only killed out of sheer anger at the hand life dealt her. Either way, the case of Nannie Doss points more towards nurture than anything else.

Of all the serial killers documented throughout history, Carl Panzram is quite likely the most troublesome to study. This man was, as history tells us, as close to inhuman as one can get. His crimes began at the age of eight and carried on throughout his entire autonomous life. Nothing was off limits to this killer as he raped, burned, and brutally battered men, women, and children. Because of these heinous crimes, he was denominated by the world as too evil to live. He even agreed with this statement himself being quoted as saying “I was so full of hate that there was no room in me for such feelings as love, pity, kindness or honour or decency,” he said, “my only regret is that I was not born dead or not at all.” What induced a human being to not only harm others in such horrible ways but to also despise themselves with such a burning passion? Was it nature or nurture? With Carl Panzram it was clearly a blend of the two.

As far as childhood went, it seemed to be a typical upbringing for young Carl Panzram. Born in 1951 on a farm in Minnesota, hard work and little play were common for children. “His parents were of German descent, hard-working, stern and like most other immigrants of that era, dirt poor. Carl Panzram eventually had five brothers and one sister.” Though this was the life they all led, his brothers and sisters were grasped to have grown up, to be honest, and decent people, the very traits that passed Carl Panzram by completely. At the age of eleven, his parents could no longer handle his violent and criminal behaviour and sent him to a boarding school, which in those days, was more like a prison for adults. In this facility, he was horribly mistreated, sexually, physically, and verbally. This treatment had a profound effect on Carl Panzram. “The more beatings he endured, the more hateful he became. He was hit with wooden planks, thick leather straps, whips and heavy paddles. But during all that time, Carl Panzram was planning revenge.”

Once he was released from the school and went back to his home, his mother tried to make things healthier for him and the family as a whole, but Carl Panzram was past saving having incurred too much damage in his short life. “He knew nothing else in his brief life except suffering, beatings and torture. His youthful mind dwelled on things of which most children knew little.” There was to be no cheery family reconciliation and it would not be long before Carl Panzram would abandon his family home for good. He has been quoted as saying “I fully decided when I left there just how I would live my life. I made up my mind that I would rob, burn, destroy and kill everywhere I went and everybody I could as long as I lived.” Carl Panzram lived up to this statement very well. He went to his death with a taunting smile on his lips and never once showed any remorse or regret for any choices he made during his life.

This is nature and nurture mixing at its most clear. From his own accounts, Carl Panzram was born wicked. He had always known that he would be a monstrosity. Once he was put in boarding school and the abuse and torture began, those genetic traits within him were further triggered. No matter how much his mother tried to love him, Carl Panzram would be a serial killer. Between his nature (propensity to violence) and his nurturing (the abuse he suffered at the boarding school), Carl Panzram’s fate was sealed.

There will never be an end to the discussion over nature and nurture or the adversity in between. Having studied the three cases of distinctive serial killers it does however become clear that in certain cases one take over more than the other. For David Richard Berkowitz, nature was stronger than nurture. For Nannie Doss, nurture was stronger than nature. And for Carl Panzram, both were equally powerful. It is this writer’s conclusion that both nature and nurture play a significant role in whom we become, through the pull may be stronger on one end or the other. There are no rules here. Whom we become due to genetics and environment can only be decided on a case by case basis. That is clear by the studies on serial killers.

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