Psychology of a Serial Killer (the Jeffrey Dahmer Story)

“From about fifteen years (old) on, a great deal of my thoughts were basically un-shareable so I closed myself off and just put on a mask of normalcy.”  

-Jeffrey Dahmer

These words were spoken by Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer, sex offender, necrophiliac and cannibal who brutally murdered 17 Milwaukee young men throughout the late ‘70s,’80s and ’90s. Dahmer’s story makes for a chilling example of a psychopath whose appearance of normalcy played a huge part in his ability to get away with so many atrocities. 

Yet, it is also this facade that causes us to wonder how a person who seems perfectly normal on the outside could commit such outrageous acts of violence. We want to look into the eyes of these individuals to get a glimpse of why they are the way they are. We want to understand the psychology of a serial killer. As a society, we like to think we have psychopaths and serial killers figured out. And in some ways, we have. 

In 1980, a Canadian forensic psychologist named Robert Hare created a master list of 22 traits you can use to diagnose psychopathy, a list that is still the most widely used by experts to this day. The list includes things like superficial charm, grandiosity, pathological lying and deception, impulsivity, proneness to boredom, showing no remorse, a lack of realistic-long term plans, leading a parasitic lifestyle and being unable to accept responsibility. 

When most of us think of the term psychopath, these traits pretty much perfectly describe the image that comes to mind. A person who is full of themselves, unaware of the emotional reality of others, deceitful, manipulative and self-centered. Where things get a little complicated is when you discover that there is still a distinct difference between being a psychopath and being a serial killer, although the two distinctions often overlap. 

Unlike what a lot of us think, the fact that someone is a diagnosed psychopath doesn’t automatically mean they have the capacity to kill. And vice versa. Just because someone is a serial killer doesn’t automatically make them a psychopath. Dahmer is a perfect example of a person who is a serial killer but not necessarily a clear-cut psychopath. A revised, 40-point version of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist is used to evaluate individuals. Those that meet 25 to 35 of the criteria on the list are considered to be psychopathic.

While other notorious psychopaths like Richard Ramirez, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy all scored within the 25 to 35 range, Dahmer only matched 13 of the warning signs. And you can pick up on this even just by watching some of the interviews he gave after he was caught. In them, Dahmer comes across as startlingly soft-spoken, self-reflective, modest, remorseful and honest about what he did and why he thinks he may have done it. 

Other serial killers struggled to convey this level of apparent normalcy after their crimes were exposed. For years, Ted Bundy tried to lie and manipulate his way out of responsibility for his crimes. John Wayne Gacy admitted to his acts with absolutely no remorse, referring to his victims as “pieces of his property.” Richard Ramirez proclaimed proudly “I love to kill people. I love watching them die.”

Both displayed signs of obvious narcissism and psychopathy, traits that could pretty easily single them out in a crowd and make them appear obviously different from you or I. This is what makes Dahmer different and perhaps even more terrifying than other serial killers. At the time that he was committing the murders, Dahmer was able to fly under the radar more easily than others since he didn’t fit the image of the deranged, egotistical maniac that everyone was looking for. 

He spoke and looked just like you and I. He could’ve been your classmate, your close friend, your cousin or even your brother. And you never would have known. Jeffrey’s own father, Lionel Dahmer, wrote an entire memoir about how shocking it was for him to wrestle with the fact that his oldest son, who he remembers as being a sweet, playful, curious child, went on to inflict such horror on so many people. 

Whenever people hear of a story like Jeffrey Dahmer’s, the knee-jerk reaction is to focus on the perpetrator’s childhood, assuming that they must have been abused, neglected or psychologically damaged in some way. This approach is understandable. People want events to follow a linear, point A to point B, cause and effect, pattern. It makes evil easier to predict, identify and prevent. 

Unfortunately, the motivations, desires and urges of serial killers don’t usually operate that way, making these questions about the person’s childhood usually pretty unhelpful in explaining their behavior. While Dahmer didn’t have a picture perfect upbringing, by no accounts was he physically abused or taken advantage of in any way that even came close to the horrors that he went on to inflict on his victims. 

During his sentencing, Dahmer went up on the stand and said this to the judge. “This has never been a case about trying to get free. I never wanted freedom, frankly I wanted death for myself. This was a case to tell the world that I did what I did not for reasons of hate, I hated no one. I knew I was sick or evil or both. Now I believe I was sick. I know how much harm I have caused. I tried to do the best I could to make amends after the arrest but no matter what I did, I could not undo the terrible harm I have caused.”

This quote encapsulates the questions we’re all asking. What is this sickness that drives serial killers to do what they do? And how could someone who appears to be so stable commit such insidious violations of humanity? Experts have come to learn that the desire to inflict extreme harm on others is more often a mysterious dark urge that originates from deep within the individual, and not something external like we tend to think. 

Dahmer described this urge as a compulsion which he says started to stir in him at around the age of 9 or 10 when he became fascinated by the body of a lifeless crab he found on the beach. Over the next few years Dahmer's compulsion grew and he began to dissect other small animals including dogs and cats, saying that he was captivated with the way that the insides of their bodies looked. In his early teens, these desires switched from animals to humans. 

Dahmer didn’t hear voices in his head that told him what to do.. He was not a person who was acting on impulse or for revenge. He went out on secret, premeditated missions, honing in on strangers with the singular intent of committing vicious atrocities on them. After his first murder in 1978, Dahmer claims that he tried to get his urges in check and he did to an extent, going six years without blood on his hands. But he, as well as all others like him, could only keep the uncontrollable urge at bay for so long.

One framework that psychologists use to categorize personality traits is called the five-factor model. It divides the human personality into five main pillars. Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience. The combination of these traits that is most commonly used to describe a psychopath is a person who is low in agreeableness and conscientiousness, and high in neuroticism. 

This type of person has a low level of sensitivity toward the emotions of others, a low level of intelligence and ability to adhere to the rules, standards, and structures set by society, and a high potential to experience emotional instability or possess some kind of mood disturbance. It’s been theorized that the most noteworthy trait difference between functioning psychopaths who are able to become relatively successful based on our society’s normative standards of achievement and unsuccessful psychopaths, who are unable to amount to much of any quantifiable success, is conscientiousness.

Possessing high levels of conscientiousness makes a person dutiful, organized, deliberate and competent. For example, let's say that there is a diagnosed psychopath named Jimmy. Jimmy has low levels of empathy toward others, a tendency toward lying and deception, and a grandiose sense of self. In almost all professional settings, these psychopathic characteristics would make Jimmy an unlikeable and untrustworthy person in the eyes of his co-workers and employers, thus putting him at a disadvantage. 

However, let’s say that Jimmy also has a high level of conscientiousness. This conscientiousness would help him to self-identify the potential pitfalls of his cold-heartedness, lying and grandiosity and likely give him the motivation to adjust or hide his other negative behaviors enough so that he could still get ahead in the workplace. This measurement of conscientiousness can also be used to differentiate serial killers. Those who have higher levels of it are called organized killers. They tend to lead methodical lives, have skilled employment, be socially proficient and have high levels of intelligence.

Disorganized killers, on the other hand, possess low levels of conscientiousness. They're more likely to have lower levels of intelligence and are less concerned about leaving behind sloppier crime scenes. The difference between psychopaths and serial killers is that with psychopathy, conscientiousness can be a positive trait which can help them gain control over their negative psychopathic qualities. 

But with serial killers, there are no positives. It makes them even deadlier as it only seems to pair their murderous internal urges with organized, competent and deliberate plans of execution. This is what makes them better at finding strategic ways of getting away with their actions, at least for a while. As you would expect, Dahmer was one of these people. He committed heinous crimes in his apartment and had bodies hidden throughout in various stages of decomposition, yet anytime someone mentioned an odor or noticed anything that might seem out of the ordinary, he always had a meticulously crafted answer that made sense.

He methodically targeted racial minorities and homosexuals because he knew, sadly enough, that law enforcement at the time was simply less interested in pursuing crimes against people of those identity categories. Humans like Dahmer force us to ask questions, like “How can we identify killers who hide so skillfully behind these “\masks of normalcy?“ And I think this question is where so much of the intrigue about both psychopaths and serial killers comes from. The idea that anyone around us right now could be outed as the next murderous maniac.

As you’re watching this video you may be haunted by the possibility that one of your neighbors, close friends or even family members could be one of these people, harboring hidden fantasies about hurting others. For all we know, you could even be a psychopath, whose desire to inflict harm on someone for your own pleasure is just being suppressed underneath a mask of normalcy. 

In the words of Ted Bundy, “We are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere.”