The science of serial killers is changing | Popular Science
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The science of serial killers is changing

In-depth analysis of murderers might help the rest of us, too.

a woman stands in front of a wall covered in photos of male serial killers

Sasha Reid with a few of her infamous subjects

Sasha Reid

The wall of Sasha Reid’s office is covered with serial killers. The collection of black-and-white photographs of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and notable others is not, however, just an unusual choice of decoration.

“It’s very intentional,” says Reid. As a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Toronto, she is trying to demystify the circumstances that lead people to commit multiple murders. That means poring over their own words from journals and media interviews. The viewpoints they express often share uncanny similarities, to the point where diary entries penned by different people begin to bleed together. On one occasion, Reid was brought up short by the words of Edmund Kemper (popularly known as the “Co-ed Killer”). Kemper spoke often of domineering female relatives, and in one interview referred to “my grandmother who thought she had more balls than any man and was constantly emasculating me and my grandfather to prove it.” Lines like this reminded Reid powerfully of Gary Ridgway, (the “Green River Killer”), who had issues with his mother.

“I thought, ‘I literally just read this!’” she says. “Then I flipped over the page and I saw that actually this is somebody entirely different—but isn’t that interesting that they’re thinking the exact same thing.”

It was at that point that Reid decided to pin up the photographs. “Their individuality needed to be retained,” she says. Though the serial killers she studies think along very similar lines, Reid sees them as distinct people—people who are very poorly understood. Reid, who is due to finish her dissertation in May, has so far analyzed about 70 serial killers with her colleagues. Her hope is to reveal when their warped perspectives take root and how this kind of damage can be reversed when it shows up in children. “How can we help their development to unfold in a way that’s healthy as opposed to in a way that is completely catastrophic and harmful to society?” Reid says.

Little is actually known about how serial killers think and why they develop the way they do. Reid is among a small number of researchers who believe the time has come to probe their minds in exhaustive depth.

An unexpected case

The thought of six-dozen serial killers is an unsettling one. But for Reid, this sample is just the tip of the homicidal iceberg. She is creating a massive database filled with information on 6,000 serial killers from around the world. This involves searching for documentation about 600 different key details—such as being bullied or having a father with a history of criminal behavior—that may have influenced a person’s path to serial murder. She is also compiling a separate database of people who have gone missing in Canada. Her hope is to create a picture of who these people are and to understand who might have harmed them. On one memorable occasion, Reid unexpectedly found herself comparing her insights with the reality of an active serial killer.

It started when, one day in the summer of 2017, she noticed something bizarre. Three men with ties to the Church and Wellesley neighborhood of Toronto, also known as the city’s Gay Village, had disappeared several years previously. It’s not uncommon for clusters of people to disappear around the same time, often for reasons such as accidents, gang violence, overdoses, or becoming lost. But these men had gone missing under strikingly similar circumstances. All had vanished from a very small area, were men of color of similar ages, and had close ties to friends, family, or work that made an intentional vanishing act seem implausible. “It didn’t make sense, and that was the thing that united them the most,” Reid says. “My immediate thought was, ‘it’s probably a serial killer.’”

Reid consulted her database and used the patterns she observed in serial killers who targeted gay men to draw up a brief profile of the kind of person who might be responsible. She then called to share her findings with the police. As Reid expected, they did not end up using the information. However, in January 2018 the police arrested a 66-year-old landscaper named Bruce McArthur, who has since pleaded guilty to murdering eight men—including the three Reid had noticed.

The profile Reid created had erred on some details, such as the suspect’s age; given that most serial killers are under 40 years old, she had expected a man in his thirties. Other predictions were on the mark. Serial killers often bury their victims in sites over which they have control or easy access. And sure enough, the remains of multiple people were found in planters at a home where McArthur stored tools. Seeing the similarities between pieces of her analysis and the actual features of the crimes gave Reid reason to hope that her databases might have practical use in the future.

She is quick to point out that the widespread notion that police rely on profiles to solve cases is a romanticized one. “Police officers work on the foundation of forensic evidence, not Excel files,” Reid says. “But [the database] is something valuable to have on hand—especially as we start to develop it more and take the art out of it and make it more scientific.”

Embracing the art

Understanding serial killers, however, is as much an art as a science. “Experience is one thing, but the way in which those experiences are perceived across the lifetime is much more telling,” Reid says. “I’m kind of in both worlds, remove the art but embrace the art at the same time.”

Her particular focus is male serial killers whose crimes have a sexual element. While analyzing one of these people, Reid and a team of several other researchers each spend a week to a month digging through a trove of information. Among these sources are diary entries, home videos, interviews with the killer and people who knew him, police files, and medical or psychiatric records released into the public domain. The team looks for recurring themes and discusses the interpretations they each arrive at. Reid then tries to extrapolate a sense of how her subject sees the world and his place in it. “This can then give us a better indication of who they are victimizing, how, and why,” she says.

Reid and her team have honed in on a few core ways in which this group differs from most other people. Notably, serial killers feel they are constantly being pushed around, mistreated, and emasculated. “These people really go through their lives looking at everything that happens to them through the lens of a victim; they’re ultimate victims,” Reid says.

This is not to say that certain behaviors or cultural shifts are to blame for mass murder. Some serial killers did, in fact, survive horrific abuse as children. Others weathered much milder situations, but still believe their entire world is filled with abuse. For Gary Ridgway, one such intolerable experience was his mother’s command that he do his homework (Ridgway went on to murder at least 49 women in the state of Washington).

In fact, these people often yearn for connection with others. But in some cases love is not forthcoming, while in others they may be unable to understand or accept it as such. Often, these people misinterpret relatively gentle social cues as threats, and blame others for their problems.

“They fundamentally isolate themselves because they feel that they’re not accepted,” Reid says. “So they create these little worlds wherein they have ultimate power and control and authority.” But for people who believe the entire world is set against them, these fantasies can end up reinforcing unhealthy ways of engaging with others.

These tendencies are already well documented in serial killers. Reid, however, wants to reveal how such beliefs evolve over time. From what she’s observed so far, these elements seem to germinate during particular critical time periods, and may emerge in children as young as seven years old. By the age of 11 to 13, their violent fantasies begin to take on a life of their own, Reid says, becoming powerful and potent.

Each serial killer’s trajectory is unique; genetic predisposition may play a larger role for some, while life circumstances may be more important for others. However, none of these characteristics or experiences amount to destiny; development is a process that unfolds across the lifetime. Attributes such as resiliency and the ability to adapt to one’s circumstances are important as well.

Reid believes that knowing how and when this development occurs will allow us to better reach children who show signs of maladjusted thinking and ultimately put them on another path. This doesn’t mean all or even most of the kids who display these patterns would have grown up to become serial killers, which are extraordinarily rare. It might be more common for them to become depressed, struggle to form relationships with other people, or engage in domestic violence.

“The thing with development is that you just can never say anything for certain,” Reid says. But she feels there is much to learn from the people for whom these disturbing thoughts blossomed into their most extreme form.

“We can reverse some of the ways in which unhealthy thought patterns impact people’s lives. We can teach people to think healthy as opposed to unhealthy,” Reid says. “It’s not just generalizable to serial killers, it’s very much generalizable to all of human pathology.”

The neo-alienist

In some respects, Reid’s work represents a new take on an approach with old roots.

Lee Mellor, a Toronto-based criminologist and chair of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases academic committee, feels that Reid’s style harkens back to the early psychiatrists and psychologists, or “alienists,” of the 19th Century. But while alienists created detailed life histories to understand mental illness, these efforts were stymied by the fact that scholars at the time didn’t have access to nearly as many records as those today do. This means that researchers like Reid can dive much deeper into a serial killer’s background and come to more meaningful conclusions, Mellor believes. “Sasha is almost like a neo-alienist, and we need more of that,” he says.

Reid’s work also echoes that of the first pioneers who tried to decipher serial killers, the FBI agents whose work has recently been chronicled on the Netflix show “Mindhunter.” Though an important first step, their original work is considered flawed by academics today, in part because it focused on a small group of only 36 criminals who were not all serial killers, says Robert Schug, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at California State University, Long Beach and forensic psychologist.

“I don’t know that anyone has collected as much data on serial killers [as Sasha has], ever,” says Schug, who also studies how serial killers develop. “The potential for kind of unraveling the mysteries of the serial killer, if you will, I think is very high.”

Mellor, who like Schug plans to collaborate with Reid on future projects, feels similarly. “Rather than rejecting the work that these initial trailblazers had done, we’re kind of returning to it and we’re seeing the value in it,” says Mellor, whose own work has focused on necrophilia and murderers who communicate with the police or media before or during their crimes.

That said, this approach does have its limitations. One challenge for Reid’s venture is that there are only so many serial killers whose lives are extensively documented, or for whom these records are easily accessible, Mellor points out. Another hurdle, Reid feels, is the fact that she has not yet spoken with serial killers in person. As a student, she could not muster the funds to fly back and forth and conduct interviews. The project also presented certain liabilities. “I think it [would be] very irresponsible for a university to say, ‘okay, we’re going to send you into the prison and let you interview all of these people who have killed women who looked just like you,’” she reflects.

Once she finishes her dissertation, however, Reid plans to visit prisons and finally begin to conduct her own interviews. “I haven’t spoken to the people that I’m trying to give voice to, and I think that’s awful,” she says. For now, she tries to capture their voices as best she can in her research, and plans for the day when she will be able to ask them questions about her interpretation.

Beyond the zoo

As a child growing up in Dryden, Ontario in the 1990s, Reid wrote “murder stories” and roamed the woods hunting for werewolves, vampires, and other murderous creatures. The decision to study serial killers felt like an inevitable next step on that path. “I don’t think there was anything else ever that I was supposed to do; it’s always been this,” she says. She doubts that any other job could hold her attention.

“I learn something about people every single day,” she says. “It’s like I’m living at the zoo… and I’m looking at a predator and every day I learn something different about their walk, their stride.”

Serial killers hold an enduring fascination for those of us who don’t study them as well.

“I think people are actually craving new information about this topic; that’s why we see the proliferation of these televisions shows and movies and whatnot,” Schug says. “It’s beyond just a morbid curiosity… I think people want to know why.”

Often, we imagine these people are criminal masterminds, Reid noted last year in Contexts, a journal published by the American Sociological Association. They have a certain mystique; although their victims are often forgotten, serial killers are granted fame and flashy nicknames such as the “Night Stalker”, the “West Mesa Bone Collector,” and “Jack the Ripper.” In reality, serial killers are more often opportunists, wrote Reid and coauthor Jooyoung Lee, also of the University of Toronto. Many target vulnerable groups such as sex workers, “who become ‘easy prey’ because of their precarious legal status.”

But there may be change on the horizon. Efforts by sex workers and groups such as the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform to advocate for legal protections and awareness are becoming more visible. And organizations like Street Safe New Mexico take immediate steps such as handing out “bad guy lists” to alert sex workers to dangerous men in the area.

Meanwhile, Reid and other researchers are journeying ever deeper into the minds of the people who have harmed these communities and so many others. “They are people whose behavior is at the far end of the continuum of abnormality, but they are human,” Reid says. “And because they are human they can be understood.”

And whether or not these people would want to be understood, this knowledge may prove valuable to the rest of society.

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