Mass Murder vs. Serial Killer: The Differences in Murder Typology

The most notable difference between mass killings and serial killings lies in the nature and timing of the crime. The action of murder will always be classified as murder but there are many different categories for which murder is defined. Although not the most common, mass murder and serial murder are the two most publicized types of murders. The fear of murder at random and the large scale media coverage of these events are what make them the most notorious and intriguing crimes.

Mass murderers are defined as those who kill three or more people within a time constraint of twenty-four hours. Most notably, mass murderers typically kill all of their victims at the same time or within seconds or minutes from each other. The mass murderer is typically a white male whose age ranges from 30s-40s. The victims of a mass murderer are, in most cases, strangers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The actions carried out by the killer are methodically planned out. The most common cause for these mass casualties are anger or revenge towards people or a certain location. Park Elliot Dietz in “Mass, serial, and sensational homicides” defines mass murder constraints by stating “surely a murderer who kills half the requisite number of victims at one site and then travels directly to another site where the other half are killed ought to qualify as a mass murderer, as would one who killed a sufficient number of victims while shooting from a moving vehicle or traveling aboard a train, ship or aircraft. I would therefore ignore location or distance in the definition of mass murder.” With these constraints in mind we are able to establish that although their is a time constraint to defining mass murder, the location or the amount of locations where the murders take place does not disqualify a string of murders from being defined as mass homicide.

Inside the classification of mass murders lies three defined types. All three types operate with a common goal, to inflict maximum damage on a specific group of people or a specific geographic location. For some mass murderers the specific group of people could be family members or coworkers. For other mass murders it could be to get revenge on a certain location that they experienced negative encounters at. For mass murders, these acts are carried out quickly and can wipe a large number of people out in a single incident. 

The first typology of mass murders is classified as family annihilators. The cause for this typically stems from marital problems and/or mental illness/addiction. This is the only type in which the victims are always people the murderer knows and has a personal relationship with. The nature of this crime is not often premeditated and occurs most when drugs/alcohol are mixed with a mental illness. The research paper, “Mass, serial, and sensational homicides” establishes family annihilators as “family annihilators, usually the senior man of the house, who is depressed, paranoid, intoxicated or a combination of these.” He typically eliminates every family member who is present and will even sometimes go as far as killing the family pet. The most notable case of a family annihilator is George Banks who was a former prison guard in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania that killed 12 of his family members and one bystander. These included his four baby mothers and nine children. Most family annihilators kill themselves at the end of their massacre or force the police to kill them but this was not the case for George Banks.

Psuedocommando mass murderers are those who commit the murders using a firearm and ammunition. These killings are typically carried out due to anger and wanting to extract revenge. He typically will execute his massacre in the daytime when the maximum amount of people are present. The article, “The “Pseudocommando” Mass Murderer: Part I, The Psychology of Revenge and Obliteration“, written by James L. Knoll concluded “research suggests that the pseudocommando is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated.” most common case of this we see in the news recently is school shooters. This crime is committed after a long period of planning and deliberation. The examples in the article “Mass, serial, and sensational homicides” explains ” James Huberty carried a rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.” James Huberty went on to murder twenty-one people at a McDonalds in 1984. Dietz stated most look to the police to kill them. After killing twenty-one victims, Huberty was shot dead by a police sharpshooter.

Set-and-run killers are arguably the cowards of these different classifications. The main cause for these types of killings are anger and revenge towards people or institutions. Set-and-run killers employ devices such as bombs to help them execute the kill without being physically present. They will typically set the bomb down and escape to a place where they can admire their work from a distance. Dietz also states other examples such as “those who bomb buildings or vehicles on which they are not traveling, who set arson fires, or who tamper with food or products, as in the Tylenol poisonings.”With this method the killer hopes to elude police. Set-and-run killers sometimes have a single victim in mind but consider the surrounding bystanders as collateral to be able to achieve the goal they were hoping to accomplish.

Unlike the mass murderer, a serial killer executes his victims over a period of time with gaps in time in between the kills. To define a series of murder there must be at least four victims. The article “Mass, serial, and sensational homicide” defines serial murder as “Serial murder involves a string of four or more homicides committed by one or a few perpetrators that spans a period of days, weeks, months, or even years.” The FBI Bulletin-August 1985 found that most serial killers are predominately white and are the eldest son. The motivation for serial killings are endless but some contributing factors are mental illness, physical/genetic abnormalities, childhood trauma and traumatic brain injury. “Mass, serial, and sensational homicide” states “while every serial killer is mentally disordered, nearly all are psychopathic sexual sadists, and few, if any, are psychotic. Psychotic offenders rarely have the wherewithal repeatedly to escape apprehension.” Most serial killers do not suffer from a serious mental disorder such as schizophrenia but many do suffer from antisocial personality disorder, ADHD, and bipolar. In the mentally unwell state, a serial killer stalks his victims until he decides to make his move. Most serial killers pick their victims based on a certain look. This could be because they find them attractive and do not feel as if they have a chance with them or because the victim reminds them of someone who has hurt them in the past such as an abusive parent.

There are about five defined types of serial killers. Within these types, the way they kill and the motive for the kill differ. All five typologies of serial killers pick their victims at random and kill overtime without being noticed by the police.

The Psychopathic sexual sadist killer murders for the mere gratification and pleasure of the kill. These murders are typically the most violent as the killer is aroused by the pain the victim is feeling. Many serial killers of this nature commit necrophelia which is having sexual intercourse with a dead body. “No one is born a serial killer” suggests “From Vernon J. Geberth experience, however, the killer is rarely psychotic. They are usually sexual psychopaths with a deep criminality and they clearly have a good connection with the reality.” This means that the killer is fully conscious of the crimes he has committed and is not suffering from a mental illness episode. The most notable serial killers of this kind are John Wayne Gacy and Jefferey Dahmer.

Crime spree killers are those who commit murder with other crimes such as robbery. These types of killers enjoy the thrill that they gain from the power exerted over their victims. The book “The People Behind Murderous Crime Sprees” states “There may also be different motives, such as the need to eliminate witnesses, killing to ensure getaway, or the need to kill for killings sake.” These killers kill in at least three locations and at three separate times. The most notable case of crime spree killers are Bonnie and Clyde. During the great depression, this couple traveled through the central united states while committing bank robberies and murdering those who stood in their way.

The organized crime functionaries are those who are contract killers. This means that they are hired to take out someone else’s opponent for money. Although their motive for killing is money, they also enjoy the power and thrill that the kill provides. The most common form of these killers are political assassins and rival gangs.

Custodial killers are often referred to as “angels of death”. These killers kill the person who are in their care. The article “Serial killers: I. Subtypes, patterns, and motives” gives the example of “The most common examples include “angel of death” cases involving nurses in hospitals or nursing homes who surreptitiously murder ill or elderly patients, usually by asphyxiation or medication overdose.” This type of serial killer contains the highest number of female serial killers which is uncommon. The serial killer believes they are helping the victim in these cases but they also enjoy the power that comes with holding someones life in their hands.

Psychotic killers are those who experience delusions that convince them to kill. These killers may sometimes believe they need to rid the world of a certain type of person. These killers may experience schizophrenia and or psychosis which is a severe mental disorder in which ones thoughts and emotions are so impaired that they lose touch with reality. “No one is born a serial killers” defines the context of psychotic or psychopathy as “this psychopath term is used when the psychological, biological and genetic factors as well as the social influences and childhood experiences helped to develop the syndrome.” Ed Gein is the most notorious psychotic killer. He killed two people and dug up over 30 graves and used human skin to make furniture, purses, and shoes.

There are many distinct differences between a mass murderer and a serial killer. The most significant difference between the two is the time constraint. Mass murderers commit their murders in large number within 24 hours of each other. Many are typically committed within seconds or minutes of each other. While, serial killers commit their murders over days, weeks or even years. It is not uncommon for serial killers to go through dormant periods where they contain their compulsions and do not kill. Typically the first murder after the dormant period is brutal overkill to make up for the lost time.

Serial killers are also much harder to capture. Mass murderers are typically present on scene at the time of the murders so it is easy to find him. Some mass murderer do get arrested but a large number commit suicide or force the police to kill them. In contrast, serial killers escape by the time the police learn of the crime. Different locations make it harder for the police to connect the string of murders and a serial killer can often go unnoticed for years before the police realize they have a problem.

Serial killers are more feared by the public and often cause the community unrest. “Mass, serial, and sensational homicide” claims “massacres do not tend to generate the same level of public fear and anxiety. Until a serial killer is caught, he may be on the loose for weeks, months, or years. Citizens are terrified; they want to protect themselves from becoming the next victim. Each newly discovered murder reenergizes the community’s state of alarm. However, a massacre, though catastrophic, is a single event. By the time the public is informed, the episode is over. There may be widespread horror, but little anxiety.” The general public has become fascinated and intrigued over the years thus making them more popular and more feared. As stated before, a serial killer on the loose terrorizes the public until he is caught but not many people fear a mass murder until it happens and after the murder people are more shocked than scared of another event.

Although serial killers and mass murderers are different, they target the innocent and find pleasure in exerting their power. The many different types of serial killers and mass murders represent all the causes and factors that make on kill. Studies are being made every day to try and figure out the reasoning behind these crimes. Not the most occurring murders, but serial killings and mass murder are found to be the most fascinating and mind boggling by the general public.

Works Cited

Dietz, Park. (1986). Mass, serial and sensational homicides. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 62. 477-91.

Ioana, Ilie Magdalena. “No One Is Born a Serial Killer!Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier, 20 July 2013.

Miller, Laurence. “Serial Killers: I. Subtypes, Patterns, and Motives.” Aggression and Violent Behavior, Pergamon, 14 Nov. 2013.

Ressler, R.K., Burgess, A.W., Douglas, J.E., & Depue, R.L. (1985). Violent crime. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 54 (8), 2 – 31.

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