Maybe They’re Born with It, Maybe It’s a Crappy Childhood

What Makes a Serial Killer?


Charles Manson

Olivia Wauer, Cactus Writer

Warning: This article contains graphic language and disturbing content.  

It’s the question as old as time: What makes a serial killer?  People have an unusual obsession with serial killers; the shows “Dexter” and “Hannibal” prove that much.  Serial killers are on our mind even more as of late because of the recent death of the notorious Charles Manson, whose evil nature has resulted in his very name being a metaphor for evil.

It might be obvious that our obsession stems from a lack of understanding, so what does cause someone to become a serial killer?  Is it biological, or does it come from traumatic abuse?  A mixture of both?  What made Charles Manson?

Charles Manson is particularly fascinating, for lack of a better word, as he was an actual cult leader.  Encyclopedia Britannica and the book “Helter Skelter,” written by Vincent Bugliosi, Charles Manson’s prosecutor, detail the gruesome details of his childhood.   It is almost like he was never given a chance to be normal.  His childhood was that of nightmares.

Manson’s life started with immediate rejection by his own mother; when asked for a name for his birth certificate, she cared so little that she didn’t have one to give.  His birth certificate says, “No Name.” His mother was a prostitute and drug addict, and the men that she brought to the house physically and sexually abused Manson.

By the time he was twelve, he’d spent very little time in school, going from one seedy hotel to another, accompanied by a string of abusive men his mother was dating at the time.  One night, Manson heard his mother’s current boyfriend say to his mother, “I’m telling you, I’m moving on.  You and I could make it just fine, but I can’t stand that sneaky kid of yours.”  Choosing her lover over her son, she attempted to put him into foster care.  There were no foster homes available, so she sent him to a juvenile facility for troubled boys, where he was abused.

After ten months in the facility, he broke out and found his mother, who immediately rejected him.  Manson began his life as a criminal by committing burglaries and armed robberies in an attempt to survive on the streets.  He was caught and eventually sent to a reform school at thirteen where the brutal abuse by students and staff continued.

These experiences may have taught Manson that no one was going to protect him but himself, so he became more brutal and more violent than his attackers, beginning his career as a professional predator and a master manipulator.

On the other hand, we have Ted Bundy, the one whom no one expected to turn into a serial killer.  His infamous quotes are documented on and

“We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.”

“You feel the last bit of breath leaving their body. You’re looking into their eyes. A person in that situation is God!”

For Ted Bundy, his childhood life, at least what we know of it, was relatively normal.  The one thing that sticks out is that Bundy’s “one true love” left him, leaving him devastated.  Many of his later victims resembled his college girlfriend—attractive students with long, dark hair, specifically parted in the middle. His killings also usually followed a gruesome pattern: he often sexually abused his victims before beating them to death.  Could someone be so weak as to allow a break up to ignite the serial killer spark within them?

His early dark tendencies, however, suggest otherwise.  Ted Bundy appears to be a simple case of genetic psychopathy.

In a study at University of Wisconsin, Madison, brain scans revealed that psychopathy in criminals was associated with decreased connectivity between the amygdala, a subcortical structure of the brain that processes negative stimuli, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a cortical region in the front of the brain that interprets the response from the amygdala. When the connectivity between these two regions is low, processing of negative stimuli in the amygdala does not translate into any strongly felt negative emotions.

The following quote attributed to Ted Bundy seems to support this theory, “I don’t feel guilty for anything. I feel sorry for people who feel guilt.”

Finally, we have Jeffrey Dahmer, another well-known serial killer who both experienced a horrible childhood and, at the same time, exhibited other signs that could not be explained by his upbringing. From an early age, Dahmer was fascinated with bones.  He would capture insects and later animals, dismember them, and preserve their bones; according to the various online sources, he loved the sounds bones could make.  Killing animals was possibly a precursor to his later crimes.

So what makes a serial killer?  Is it a terrible childhood?  Psychopathic tendencies?  A toxic combination of both?  You decide.