Do you know how to stay safe from a serial killer? I have spent the last year discovering as much as I can about psychopathy. This was mainly as background for my books, so they are authentic. However, I did also learn a few things that might be useful in real life.
You probably know a psychopath. Have a think, do you know someone who’s fun to listen to, but tends to be a bit ‘glib’ – they’ll move on if someone more interesting comes along? Someone who might have been in trouble as a child – perhaps stealing or vandalising? Someone who sometimes speaks in quite a muddled manner, so if you ask them a question, you’re not always sure what their answer was? Someone who is mainly concerned with themselves – so they rarely comment, or ‘like’ other people’s posts on Facebook, unless it will benefit themselves. They won’t let you know whether or not they’ll be attending an event – and are very likely to not show up at the last minute. They like to be seen as a leader, but you’re not quite sure what they actually do. They’re often promiscuous, possibly having children from multiple partners. They lie, sometimes blatant, in your face, lies. They like excitement, and are never scared. They have grandiose ideas about their own capabilities. Do you know that person? Then possibly, you know a psychopath.
Psychopathy is a mental disorder – the brain does not respond like most people’s brains. It is thought to be a hereditary condition. When diagnosed as a psychopath, a person’s background often shows evidence that their ancestors also showed signs of psychopathy – traits like ruthlessness, multiple sexual partners, cruelty. They tend to have a smaller orbital frontal gyri (no, I didn’t know what that meant either! It means the front bit of their brain, the bit that controls empathy, is underdeveloped). They also have lower serotonin levels, so lack the ability to feel happy, to have emotional highs.
Now, most psychopaths are NOT serial killers. People tend to link the two because the reverse is not true – most serial killers probably ARE psychopaths. Robert Hare estimates that for every serial killer, there are 30,000 psychopaths who have never killed.
One trait of psychopathy is pathological lying. They will lie, even when it serves no purpose. If you suspect someone is a psychopath, think back to what they have told you – is it verifiable? Can you always prove what they have said is true, or do they tend to twist things slightly? It is thought that lots of politicians are psychopaths, as are the CEOs of many successful businesses.
It is difficult to detect lies though, especially as psychopaths tend to speak in a slightly confusing way. Sometimes they will contradict themselves within a sentence, so it is hard to be sure exactly what they have said. For example, Richard Kuklinski (Mafia hitman) said he “wasn’t a violent person,” he “only killed when it was necessary”. It is thought by some neuroscientists that they have two speech centres in the brain. For most people, everything relating to speech and words is located on the left side of the brain. However, there is some evidence that psychopaths have a second speech centre, on the right. Therefore, as they are deciding what to say, their words come from two different places within the brain, often conflicting. Dennis Radar was told he spoke in ‘word salad’ – a whole mix of phrases that barely linked. They also tend to use their hands, to emphasise a point they want to make.
You can watch psychopaths on YouTube, as trials and police interviews in the US are recorded, and are now available. I spent many hours listening to Ted Bundy (thought to have killed around 50 young women), Diane Downs (who shot her children), and Dennis Radar (the ‘Bind Torture Kill’ serial killer), learning their speech patterns and trying to understand how they think.
When I first started to watch video clips of convicted serial killers, I was shocked by how nice they were! I have always thought myself a good judge of character – and perhaps if I met them in real life it would be different – but they came across as nice people. Ted Bundy was an attractive, witty, intelligent man. If we knew him, we might have invited him round for dinner. He talks about coming from a ‘loving Christian family’ where he was ‘raised according to standards in the Bible’. However, my background reading indicates his mother fell pregnant when young, and some believe Ted’s father was his grandfather, who she lived with until she married another man. Ted Bundy for many years thought his mother was his sister.
They are often entertaining, very charismatic. Charles Manson (leader of the ‘Manson Family’ sect) was fascinating to watch, you couldn’t avoid listening to him.
Most of my research was conducted online, reading papers by neuroscientists. I did buy a few books. The most useful were ‘Without Conscience’ by Robert D. Hare PhD, and ‘Confessions of a Serial Killer’ by Katherine Ramsland PhD. (I will review those books in another post, or this will be too long.)
I also spoke to two women, one of whom was the mother of someone who fits the psychopath profile and the other was mother-in-law to one (though neither ‘psychopaths’ had been tested, so they might just be ‘bad’ people!)
Psychopathy is now diagnosed using Hare’s checklist – a list of traits. Most people have some of these traits, a psychopath will have most of them. Psychopathy is a spectrum, a bit like autism (though a very different disorder.) An autistic person will have emotional empathy, they will ‘feel’ how someone else feels, so detect anger or joy, but they will not understand why. A psychopath is the opposite, they will have neurological empathy, they understand how someone is feeling, and can even use this to manipulate people’s feelings, but they have no emotional empathy. A toddler laughing will not make them smile, they don’t pick up the ‘feelings’. You will probably appear somewhere on the psychopathic spectrum, perhaps you are selfish, or like to be in charge, or don’t often feel other’s emotions; but mostly, you will have the same responses as everyone else. You are only classified as a psychopath if you show most of the symptoms.
The neuroscientist James Fallon, was researching the changes in the brain under certain stimuli using an MRI scanner. He found he could detect psychopathy by the results of an MRI scan, he could actually see who was a psychopath.
This is getting long. I could write for pages and pages about this. While I was researching this, when my husband came home from work, I would say: “Hello, did you know…” and he would say: “Is this about psychopaths? If so, let me eat dinner first!” It is a hugely interesting condition.
Going back to my first paragraph, how can you avoid being the victim of a serial killer? It is, of course, extremely unlikely that you will ever encounter a serial killer. Even though you probably know a psychopath or two, they are not likely to be killers. However, in case you are the one in a million who’s unlucky, what should you do? Well, they are generally well planned, and will have observed a few possible victims first. So changing your routine helps, don’t always do the same things at the same time.
Also, psychopaths do not want trouble, they want an easy life. So the serial killers I researched would always choose a victim who did not have a dog. Dogs are unpredictable, they might bite the psychopath, so they would avoid those houses. (One of Dennis Radar’s first victims did have a dog, but it had been put into the garden.)
As psychopaths want things to be easy, they will think of a ploy to subdue the victim, so they don’t make a fuss until they have either been tied up or knocked unconscious. So, Ted Bundy pretended to have a broken arm and led his trusting victims to a secluded spot. When people found Dennis Radar in their homes, he told them he was ‘on the run from the police’, so instead of instantly panicking and fighting, they relaxed a bit, decided to be submissive until he had taken their money/car/food and had left. Which he never did. He used their compliance to over-power them. If those people had started fighting at the first sign of trouble, they would possibly have survived. If you suspect someone wants to hurt you, run or fight, don’t ‘play it safe’ and ‘wait and see.’ Be loud, make a fuss, fight.
Having said that, I think the odds of you being killed by a serial killer are much less than the odds of you winning a million pounds on the lottery or being a famous celebrity – so it’s not something you should worry about too much!
Thank you for reading. I used all my research when I wrote Joanna. Written partly in the first person, we see the world as Joanna views it. The novel also explores how her family feel, what it would be like to parent a psychopath. Every serial killer has a mum – how would that feel? However, not all psychopaths do bad things – so I have also written CLARA – the story of a psychopath who manages to achieve something amazing.