The Creation of a Serial Killer: Nature vs. Nurture

by / 1 Comment / 20982 View / April 20, 2015

Dexter Moser was born on February 1st in 1971. Dexter lived most of his childhood life with his older brother, Brian, and Laura Moser, his mother. Unfortunately for this family, Laura Moser was a drug addict, but she never let her bad habits affect her love for her children. When Dexter was three, Laura Moser began acting as an informant in the Estrada drug cartel. She spent the remainder of her time trying to provide information that would help bring down the drug kingpin (“Dexter Morgan Early Life”).

On Wednesday, October 3rd, 1973, Laura Moser, her two sons, and three other drug users were found out to be informants and were forced into a shipping container by Estrada‘s henchmen. The three unnamed victims were all slain by a chainsaw, leaving Laura Moser for last. Laura begged Estrada not to kill her in front of her children, but the man had no mercy. The poor woman screamed and cried as he revved the chainsaw, but realized that for the sake of her children she had to put on a brave face. Laura turned to give a final smile to her son Brian and her three-year old son, Dexter. She calmly told her sons to close their eyes, and that she loved them. Estrada killed Laura and fled the scene, leaving the two brothers, Dexter and Brian, sitting in the blood of their mother and the other victims for two full days. This horrific event forever traumatized both boys. Brian, the older of the two boys, always remembered this experience and was never able to get over it. Dexter emotionally shut down for the next 30 years, even though he had no conscious recollection of the tragedy. These two childhoods ended tragically early, leading to the creation of two serial killers (“Dexter Morgan Early Life”).

This is the story of Dexter, a character from the popular cable television show Dexter.  His traumatic experience scarred him for life, permanently damaging him psychologically (“Dexter Morgan Early Life”). This is a fictional tale of how childhood trauma changed two young boys forever, causing them to both become serial killers. Unfortunately, the creation of serial killers due to childhood trauma is no fiction. Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer, Ted Ridgeway, and John Wayne Gacy are all serial killers that are unfortunately real. These killers never knew each other, these killers did not have the same killing style or the same reasons for killing, but they all do have one thing in common. Each of the killers listed have traumatic childhood experiences in their past, emotionally, psychologically and sometimes physically scarring them for the rest of their lives (“Are Serial Killers the Result of an Unstable Childhood?”). The first question that must be addressed is: what is a serial killer? And how are they different from murderers (“Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers”)?

All serial killers are murderers, but not all murderers are serial killers. “A serial killer is someone who kills at least three victims one by one in a series of sequential murders, with a form of psychological gratification as the primary motive” (“Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers”). An average murderer may kill someone for reasons such as revenge or robbery, but serial killers are different. So how are these monsters created?  The debate of nature versus nurture is an interminable one in the psychological professional community. Sociologists have been dealing with this issue for years, especially in the analysis of serial killers. The question is: does nature, nurture or a mixture of both make a serial killer (“Nature vs. Nurture”)?

The proponents of the nature side of the debate argue that we are born with all our traits decided. It takes into consideration DNA and biological connections. “Theories that base their understanding of human behavior on ‘nature,’ focus on characteristics that we are born with, like our genetic make-up, stable personality traits, and physical predispositions.”  Nurture is the opposite (“Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers”).

People on the side of nurture are of the opinion that our environment determines who a person is and becomes. “Theories that base their understanding of human behavior on ‘nurture,’ emphasize those experiences that mold and change us throughout our lives, such as how our parents raised us, what we were taught at school, and our culture” (“Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers”).  The way a child is raised can completely who the will become. The dangerous combination of genes and a traumatic upbringing can have catastrophic results on what a person becomes.

There is no conclusive answer to this debate. There is no way to truly tell what causes these human beings to become the monsters that they are (“Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers”; “Nature vs. Nurture”). Naturally, every person is born with different genetic make-ups, and many argue that differences in genetic code do not create a psycho killer (“Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture”). However, observations on the lives of serial killers and their experiences clearly shows that nurture takes the dominant role in the creation of a serial killer. This is still a hotly debated topic. Different criminologists point to different serial killers to support their theories on what creates these monsters.

One serial killer that is commonly referred to as being primarily created through nature was David Berkowitz, better known as the Son of Sam. As a child and young man, all who knew him described Berkowitz as quiet and polite.  His adoptive parents Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz raised David in a loving, supportive environment. The couple gave Berkowitz everything he needed and treated him with the love any real parent would give.  David grew up in an environment that was conducive to good mental health and overall happiness (“Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers”; Hasan).

Since Berkowitz lived in such a healthy environment without trauma, he is an excellent example of a killer created by nature. Nature deals with genetics, and according to the evidence, it appears that nature was the predominant cause of Berkowitz’s killing spree. The nurturing that Berkowitz received was, by all appearances, an appropriate and stable environment to grow up in. His upbringing was of standard, if not superb, quality; therefore, the nature of his inner self must be examined. Although there is no record of David’s biological family’s mental health conditions or criminal history, it is assumed that there were biological factors that contributed to his behavior. It is clear that the nurturing he received from his adoptive parents could not have possibly played a role in the killer he became. His positive childhood environment was not able to override his natural mental tendencies (“Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers”).

Berkowitz stated that his reason for killing was that to “keep the demons quiet.” He claimed that the demons in his head would not stop tormenting him; in order to get rid of them, he began doing what they wanted. This mental deterioration is only one sign of deep psychological disturbance. Along with this, Berkowitz also said that when dogs howled, he was convinced that these dogs were demons asking him to kill women. Another example of his mental disturbance affecting his life appeared when he was an adult. He was convinced that his house owners were part of the demon conspiracy. Berkowitz later moved into another apartment, but was still controlled by the demons in his mind (Hasan). Due to this evidence it is apparent that David Berkowitz suffered from deep psychological dysfunction, most likely embedded in his genes.

Despite cases like the Son of Sam, where nature takes the precedent role in the contribution of creating a serial killer, many times nature is not the sole or even the main factor. The way a child is raised can change their entire life; it can change their attitude and their personality and even cause major psychological disorders. Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffery Dahmer, and Ted Ridgway are five of the most well know serial killers in history. The only thing all these monsters, have in common is that each and every one of them had traumatic childhoods. (White)

Ed Gein was born in 1906 as the younger of two boys. Gein was a shy boy that grew up with a weak alcoholic father and a domineering, deeply religious mother who constantly taught her children the evils of women and discouraged all sexual desires. Gein was very attached to his mother – possibly unhealthily attached. This caused great jealousy and criticism from his older brother Henry, who died in a mysterious fire. It was not until later that Gein was suspected of killing his older brother. After his mother died there was no one to control him, and Gein started living out his dark fantasies and performing gruesome experiments on dead bodies. The trigger to his killing spree was that he desperately wanted to have a sex change and for that he believed that he would need fresh bodies to transform himself. Gein claims that his killing spree and disturbing psychological state was due to his love-hate relationship with his mother (Hasan).

Another killer created due to environmental conditions was one of the most infamous killers of all time, Ted Bundy. Bundy was born Theodore Robert Cowell in 1946 in Burlington, Vermont to an unmarried mother of 22. At the time, the fact that his mother had him out of wedlock was scandalous. To cover this up, Bundy was made to believe by his grandparents that he was their son and that his mother was his sister. After his mother married, his stepfather, known to him as his uncle, attempted to form a relationship with Bundy; however, the boy continued to be detached and distant. In his youth, Ted had an exceedingly low self-esteem and was socially awkward. Bundy was often teased and made the butt of pranks by bullies in middle school and, when analyzed, Ted’s behavior was declared to be “not like other children” (Bell).

Despite all of this, Bundy was a good student who was fascinated by politics and enjoyed skiing. As he grew up by all aspects he appeared to be a normal young man and, like most young people, he was devastated when his first love left him. However, Bundy didn’t deal with the grief as most people do (Hasan). At the same time that his heart was broken, he also discovered his true parentage. The late discovery had a serious impact on him. He became very nasty to his stepfather, as well as distant. After these life-changing events seemed to make his life increasingly better, but truthfully, this is when he started his killing spree (Bell). Bundy claimed that his addiction to pornography led him to do what he did (Hasan). This addiction, along with the trauma that took place in his life, most likely played a major contribution to his violent behavior and mental deterioration.

Even if these stories do not prove that nurture plays a dominant role in the creation of a serial killer, then research and data show how prevalent childhood trauma is in the lives of most serial killers. A three-year study was conducted with a sample of fifty serial killers. These killers were asked about their childhoods, along with their mental health, their criminal histories, any sexual abnormalities, and their drug abuse histories. In addition to this, the criminals were also asked about the history of any abuse they had received, their prior injuries, any past diseases, and sexually traumatic events in their lives. The data of this study showed that sixty eight percent of the fifty killers experienced some sort of childhood trauma. Thirty two percent of these killers suffered from no abuse, and fifty percent of the killers suffered from psychiatric issues. In the general population, thirty percent of people have been abused. Clearly, abuse is much more prevalent among serial killers, suggesting that it is a factor in making them who they are (Heather, and Aamodt).

In another study conducted by the FBI over the course of three years, thirty-six sexually motivated killers were asked about their childhoods, alcohol abuse, psychiatric problems, criminal histories, sexual problems, and drug abuse. It found that most had experienced a lot of familial dysfunction along with other traumatic events. These traumas included physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, medical histories of sexual injuries or diseases, and undisclosed sexually stressful events. The study results found that the common ground for these killers was that most of them had experienced trauma of either physical or sexual origin, resulting in a failure in their social and mental development. When this is combined with a caretaker’s failure to function as a positive role model, leaving them with no way to deal with the trauma, it causes them to act out in violent destructive ways (Cummins).

It is apparent that nurture takes the primary role in the creation of a serial killer. Nature does play a major role in their creation and is responsible for a good portion of the process, but not to the extent that nurture is responsible. No person is truly born evil; it takes traumatic experiences to turn them evil. Children raised in unhappy homes develop closed off and distant personalities. Some children in unhappy homes become violent and act out in drastic ways or fantasize about killing people. Each of the killers that were researched was mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically and sexually traumatized at a young age. In order to cope with these occurrences, they became bitter, anti-social, and violent. They then slowly developed into the serial killers they one day would become. These monsters live through extremely difficult childhoods that cause them to be closed off to the world and even resent humanity, making it easier for them to murder other human beings.

Works Cited

“Are Serial Killers the Result of an Unstable Childhood?” Yahoo! Contributor Network. Yahoo! Voices, 17 Mar. 2008. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <http://voices.yahoo.com/are-serial-killers-result-unstable-childhood-1288255.html>.

Bell, Rachel. “A Time of Change.” Ted Bundy, Notorious Serial Killer â Crime Library on TruTV.com. Web. 27 May 2012. <http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/bundy/3.html>.

Cummins, Shannon. “Serial Killing and Childhood Trauma.” Examiner.com. The Examiner, 13 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2012. <http://www.examiner.com/true-crime-in-washington-dc/serial-killing-and-childhood-trauma>.

“Dexter Morgan Early Life.” Dexterama. Wikia. Web. 27 May  2012.<http://dexter.wikia.com/wiki/Dexter_Morgan/Early_Life>.

“Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers.” Counseling & Therapy with Values. Marriage Counseling, Psychologist, Counselor, Family Therapist. Counseling Orlando, Counseling Seattle, Counseling Austin, Counseling New York, Therapist Denver, Counselor Philadelphia, Counseling Manhattan, Counseling Minneapolis. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.theravive.com/research/Examination_of_the_Psychology_of_Serial_Killers>.

Hasan. “America’s Famous Serial Killers!” DirJournal: Web Directory, Info Packed Blogs, Webmaster Tools. Info Blog, 7 Sept. 2008. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.dirjournal.com/info/americas-famous-serial-killers/>.

Mitchell, Heather, and Michael G. Aamodt. “The Incidence of Child Abuse in Serial Killers.” The Incidence of Child Abuse in   Serial Killers Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 20.1 (2005): 40-47. Maamodt.asp.radford.edu. Radford University. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://maamodt.asp.radford.edu/Research%20-%20Forensic/2005%2020-1-Mitchell-40-47.pdf>.

“Nature vs. Nurture.” Deviant Crimes. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.deviantcrimes.com/nature_nurture.htm>.

“Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture, How Serial Killers Are Born.” The National Center For Crisis Management. The National Center For Crisis Management. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.nc-cm.org/article213.htm>.

White, Sadie. “Making a Monster: The Biological, Social, and Artistic Construction of a Serial Killer From Psychosis to Sondheim.” 302 Found. Bryn Mar College, 2001. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro01/web3/White.html>.

  • Michelle

    This article was well written. However, on paragraph 11 you wrote Ted Ridgway instead of Gary Ridgway “The Green River” killer. Such a small mistake as this can lead the reader to believe misleading information. On the other hand, people who do catch the mistakes are more likely to believe your paper wasn’t edited, thus making your overall article less credible and your point invalid.