Serial Killers Play a Role on the Public Stage (2023)

According to the functionalist theoretical perspective of sociology introduced by Emile Durkheim in the nineteenth century, society is held together by social consensus, or cohesion, in which members of society agree upon—and work together to achieve—what is best for all of society.

This perspective states that everyone in society has a role and a purpose. From a functionalist point of view, all types of behavior, whether good or bad, are to be expected. That includes serial murder. Emile Durkheim believed that crime and deviance are inevitable in any society and, in limited amounts, are actually functional and necessary.

He claimed that some crime is necessary because it promotes clarification of the moral boundaries that define a society and establish its social order. According to Durkheim, the bonds that unite a society are strengthened when moral boundaries are clarified and reinforced.

The social construction of the serial killer identity

Typically, language is insufficient to frame the problematic behavior of those who are considered to be deviant, so society by way of its policing agents constructs symbols and images to demonstrate the dangers allegedly posed by the “other” to the community.

From a functionalist perspective, the social construction of the serial killer identity is symbolic and it helps to clarify the moral boundary that separates good and evil in society. It defines the actions of the serial killer as inhuman and beyond reason. By accepting the framing of serial killers as evil, the public is given moral clarity.

Such clarity can be both reassuring and comforting. By framing the serial killer as evil, the public has an explanation for the actions of the criminal and it also has a reason to feel better about itself. Why? The serial killer identity provides the public with a reference point for judging the acceptability of its own behavior. The actions of the serial killer clearly set the bar for acceptable behavior very low, so it is easy for the public to minimize its own moral failings by comparison.

For example, a person might think, “I may not be a saint but at least I don’t kill or eat people!” In addition to providing moral clarity, the framing of serial killers as evil is functional because it provides the public with a point of reference and a way to put its own negative behavior in perspective. It suggests that despite all of our faults, compared to serial killers, the rest of us are not so bad.

Serial killers do horrible things to innocent people. Ted Bundy and Ed Kemper, for example, raped, tortured, and killed their victims, and then engaged in necrophilia and dismembered the corpses. I would argue that such actions do establish the outer limits of human depravity. Is there anything worse one person can do to another than what Bundy, Kemper, Ramirez, and their ilk do to their victims?

When the crimes of serial killers are reported by the news media, they are typically framed as the inhuman acts of vampires or monsters. The killers are almost always depicted as being pure evil in order to distinguish them from decent people. From a functionalist perspective, such media framing suggests that if you want to know what evil is and what evil does, then you need to look no further than Ted Bundy and other serial killers.

In the social construction of serial killers, law enforcement authorities and the news media generally compare the actions of the perpetrator to the average person in society. Because the so-called normal person is the point of reference in the social construction process, the serial killer identity can be seen as a reflection of the public. The serial killer identity is like a mirror that permits society to consider how the perpetrator is both different from and similar to itself.

The mirror reveals that the serial killer is different from the public in many ways, but it also reveals that the serial killer is very much like the public in certain ways. The serial killer identity contains many human characteristics that are valued such as drive, fortitude, persistence, and reliability. As a result, I believe that the serial killer identity blurs the boundary between good and evil. Moreover, it sends a subliminal message that the public may not be that different from the serial killer after all.

Society’s attempt to understand and explain what created the serial killer leads to the possibility that something within the human condition—that is, something from within the world we do understand—created the serial killer.

If evil comes from within the human world and not outside it, then the boundary between normal and abnormal is far more ambiguous than suggested by the stark black-and-white images presented in the news and entertainment media. If evil is created from something within the human condition, then even so-called normal people in society—those considered good—are not entirely immune to its influence.

If the serial killer was not born that way, then the distance between the killer and the normal person is much shorter than we thought. To the extent that evil emerges from within society, we are all closer to the serial killer than we might imagine and more capable of abnormality than we would like to think. From a functionalist perspective, therefore, the horrors perpetrated by the serial killer enable society to consider both the source and limitations of its own violent tendencies.

I believe that the serial killer identity represents a collapse of the boundary between human and monster. As a social construction, the serial killer identity involves a merging or integration of man and monster. This serves an unexpected purpose. Most everyone in society has dangerous urges and thoughts lurking in their minds and the person who behaves like a monster helps the public to exercise them vicariously.

The late Gary Gilmore, who was executed for committing multiple murders once said, “The mind needs monsters. Monsters embody all that is dangerous and horrible in the human imagination.” The late Richard Ramirez famously told a reporter that “we are all evil” when asked if he was evil. David Berkowitz said that inside everyone lies the “desire to take out one’s anger and frustration upon someone else… Man can become violent in a moment’s time… Everyone has the potential to do terrible things.”

Arguably, society needs serial killers because they are like emotional lightning rods that protect people from their own violent tendencies. The socially constructed serial killer identity gives society an outlet to experience the darker side of the human condition that otherwise it cannot or will not consider. The actions of the serial killer offer society a taste of madness and blood in a controlled environment and, most importantly, they provide a catharsis for the public’s primal urges.

Moreover, the serial killer allows society to act out its darkest fantasies. In a sense, the serial killer allows people to go safely insane. How does this serve society? It provides an escape valve for the public’s pent-up anger and frustration as people observe the carnage perpetrated by the serial killer and participate vicariously in his crimes. From a functionalist perspective, the moral boundaries of society are clarified and reinforced when the serial killer acts on his monstrous impulses while the rest of society sits back and observes the spectacle.

The appeal and functionality of serial killers

Strangely enough, part of the appeal and functionality of serial killers has to do with empathy. I believe that people are driven by an innate and spontaneous tendency to empathize with everything around them. My research in this area suggests that not only do people blur the line between real and fictional serial killers, they genuinely identify with both serial killers and monsters in Hollywood depictions of them (1).

The public secretly pulls for the misunderstood monster in the 1931 classic horror film Frankenstein, as well as the cunningly brilliant Hannibal Lecter in the more modern classic The Silence of the Lambs. Another classic example is the fictional movie monster King Kong, the giant gorilla, who struggled valiantly to locate and protect his lost love after he was captured and taken to New York City. King Kong has become a frightening but lovable anti-hero in popular culture.

From a functionalist perspective, the ability to empathize with a monster or serial killer makes it more predictable and less scary. The public needs to understand things that are baffling and scary in order to make them less frightening. I believe that people do this to make sense out of everything foreign they encounter and, thereby, reduce their fear. Simply stated, empathetic understanding reduces fear of the unknown.

Therefore, the more one can relate to, or humanize a monster or serial killer, the less scary it becomes. Although empathizing with a monster helps us to identify with its purpose, it also exposes one of our most primal fears—that is, the fear that we could become monsters ourselves.

Humanization and dehumanization

Applying this logic to the social construction of the serial killer identity, a dual process of humanization and dehumanization seems to be in effect. That is, we try to humanize the serial killer in order to make him less scary but we also try to dehumanize and separate him from the rest of us in order to create a moral boundary between good and evil.

Thus, there are contradictory processes of humanization and dehumanization occurring simultaneously in the social construction of serial killers. I believe that this results in further ambiguity regarding these predators in the minds of many people.


What role do serial killers play in society? ›

The actions of the serial killer offer society a taste of madness and blood in a controlled environment and, most importantly, they provide a catharsis for the public's primal urges. Moreover, the serial killer allows society to act out its darkest fantasies.

What is the main reason serial killers give for their murders? ›

When asked why, serial killers often give a wide range of answers regarding the reasons for their murders. The most common belief is that the killer wants to feel complete control over another person. They thrive on the fear their victims display and see murder as the ultimate form of dominance over a human being.

What is the social psychology behind serial killers? ›

Most serial killers demonstrate antisocial tendencies—including a lack of empathy, a disregard for laws and the rights of others, and a lack of remorse—and many meet the criteria for either psychopathy or sociopathy.

What are 3 common things in serial killers? ›

Serial killers differ in many ways, including their motivations for killing and their behavior at the crime scene. However, attendees did identify certain traits common to some serial murderers, including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control, and predatory behavior.

Why is society obsessed with serial killers? ›

It's driven by psychological curiosity and the urge to comprehend the reality of gruesome acts that we cannot begin to imagine. However, it's also fueled by the thrill of the dramatic, intense, and shocking, which by human nature continues to draw us back in with each new release.

Why are serial killers important to learn about? ›

The study of serial killers can help shed light on issues such as mental illness, and psychopathy, which can be important for developing strategies to prevent and address violent crime. Not only has more research been done about them, but society has become more interested in them.

Who is the biggest serial killer of all time? ›

Serial killers with the highest known victim count. The most prolific modern serial killer is arguably doctor Harold Shipman, with 218 probable murders and possibly as many as 250 (see "Medical professionals", below). However, he was actually convicted of a sample of 15 murders.

Who was the first serial killer in history? ›

Today, though, those achievements can only be seen in the shadow of the secret life he led as the perpetrator of more than a hundred gruesome child murders, a rampage which made him arguably the first serial killer in recorded history. The early life of Gilles de Rais was marked by tragedy.

What state has the most serial killers? ›

New York is the state with the most serial killers, with a total of 18 serial killers born in the state. California comes in as the second state with the most serial killers, with 15, followed by Texas with 8, and Illinois and Ohio with 7 each.

What is the mindset of a serial killer? ›

Serial killers often lack empathy and guilt, and most often become egocentric individuals; these characteristics classify certain serial killers as psychopaths. Serial killers often employ a “mask of sanity” to hide their true psychopathic tendencies and appear normal, even charming.

How are serial killers manipulative? ›

Deceitful and Manipulative

Other forms of control can include deceit and manipulation. Some killers, like Ted Bundy, manipulate their victims by pretending to have a disability or an injury requiring a cast. Once Bundy had manipulated his victims into a vulnerable situation, he would rape and murder them.

What social disorder do most serial killers have? ›

People who are diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder show no guilt or remorse when it comes to the law or receiving some sort of punishment. This is one of the reasons why serial killers are so commonly diagnosed with it.

Who is the most common serial killer target? ›

As mentioned, most serial killers target vulnerable people. These are often young people who have high-risk lifestyles, especially sex workers.

What is the most common form of serial killing? ›

Hedonistic-oriented type murderers are the most common form of serial murderers. They can be divided into three sub-categories: lust, thrill, and comfort. All three sub-categories can be either organized or disorganized.

What are the 14 traits of a serial killer? ›

Fourteen Characteristics of a Serial Killer
  • Over 90 percent of serial killers are male.
  • They tend to be intelligent, with IQ's in the "bright normal" range.
  • They do poorly in school, have trouble holding down jobs, and often work as unskilled laborers.
  • They tend to come from markedly unstable families.
Sep 22, 2004

How are serial killers portrayed in the media? ›

The media's portrayal of serial killers often glorifies and gives serial killers the attention or fame they may seek. About 0.5% of all serial killers kill for attention and a majority of serial killers remain in constant contact with the global press (FGCU).

What is the point of being a serial killer? ›

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) states that the motives of serial killers can include anger, thrill-seeking, financial gain, and attention seeking, and killings may be executed as such.

What is the profile of most serial killers? ›

While each of these types and their crimes have distinguishing characteristics, a general profile of serial killers indicates they are generally white males from 25 to 34 years old. They are charismatic, intelligent, and mobile. They generally kill in ways that involve contact with the victim.

What is the lifestyle of a serial killer? ›

Often, serial killers exhibit three behaviors in childhood known as the MacDonald triad: bed-wetting, arson and cruelty to animals. They are also likely to have come from broken homes and been abused or neglected. Although some are shy and introverted, others are gregarious and outgoing but actually feel very isolated.


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