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Serial Killers and Abuse in Childhood

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In the making of a serial killer, case studies reveal that many serial killers share a common pattern of suffering physical abuse at the hands of a parent during childhood. Therefore, it is important to examine and build on the existing research in order to understand why certain people commit multiple, homicidal crimes.


Physical abuse will be defined as “causing or allowing non-accidental physical injury to a child” (Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005, p. 41). And a serial killer will be defined by in accordance with FBI standards as “including three or more murders that involve a fantasy component and are separated by an emotional cooling off period” (Miller, 2014, p.11). John Wayne Gacy was an American serial killer who murdered 34 young men between 1972-78 (Sullivan & Maiken, 2000, pg. 369), based on his “psychosexual aggressive fantasies towards young men,” (Knight, 2007, pg. 27), thereby fulfilling the FBI definition. As John Wayne Gacy suffered ‘physical abuse at the hands of his father during his childhood’ (Sullivan & Maiken, 2000, pg. 256), he will be used as a case study in this briefing note to examine the evidence for physical abuse during childhood as a trigger for serial killing in later life.


While serial killers fascinate and continue to dominate the landscape of pop culture, research into contributory factors surrounding multiple homicidal behaviour has been limited at best. However, recent research has found that “certain factors in a serial killer’s childhood can influence future criminal behaviour” (Keatley, Shephard, Golighty, Yaksic, Reid, 2018, pg. 3), with behavioral scientists finding that a significant portion of serial killers experienced physical abuse at the hands of a parent during childhood. One study stated that “over 40% of serial killers were beaten and abused during childhood” (Ressler & Shachtman, 1992, p.55). With another study concluding that out of “88 of the most psychopathic offenders, 93% suffered physical abuse in childhood” (Borja & Ostrosky, 2013, pg. 930). Therefore, while organizations such as the police and child protective services exist to intervene in abusive households, unfortunately “many cases of child abuse go undocumented,” (Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005, p.44) as authorities “are only able investigate and substantiate reports that they have received” (Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005, p.44). John Wayne Gacy is an example of a serial killer who was physically abused during childhood. From a young age he experienced severe physical abuse inflicted by his father, which included being “regularly whipped with a leather belt” (Cahill, 1986, pg. 18), as well as “numerous incidents of physical abuse that took place without provocation” (Cahill, 1986, pg. 33). While not every person who experiences physical violence during childhood becomes a serial killer later in life, another study found that that out of a sample of 25 lust-orientated serial killers, a sizable percentage of “36% had experienced physical abuse during childhood” (Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005, p.44). This lead researchers in the study to conclude that those who had experienced physical abuse in childhood were “six times more likely to commit serial murders in adulthood” (Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005, p.44). These findings have been linked and justified in another study which demonstrated a strong correlation between “parental physical abuse and extreme violent psychopathy that can potentially lead to serial killing” (Borja & Ostrosky, 2013, pg. 930). Behavioural Scientists have speculated that this link is due to abuse creating a ‘sexual sense of arousal in a subject towards behaving with aggressive motivations’ (Lachmann & Lachmann, 1995, 20). Another inference for this correlation is that “children who are physically abused grow up and may be driven to recreate the toxic attachment, to share the dread and torment they once experienced by finding victims of their own” (Stein, 2009, pg. 322). This theory is evident in the John Wayne Gacy case study, as due to his physically abusive father, Gacy sought out power and acceptance over others “to compensate for the abuse that had been inflicted upon him” (Cahill, 1986, pg. 31). Therefore, leading him to inflict the same violent behaviour he had received on young male victims.


  • Increased awareness among child protective services on the “need for intervention at an early age to prevent child victimisation” (Borja & Ostrosky, 2013, pg. 930) and “to break the toxic attachment between parental abuser and child” (Stein, 2009, pg.325).
  • Further research into physical abuse as a trigger factor is needed, to further examine “the prevalence of physical abuse in serial killers from different categories, not just lust killers ” (Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005, p.45).

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