Serial killers are like aliens among us. They think and act in ways that most of us cannot begin to comprehend, which in turn makes them fascinating. When we turn on the news and see headlines describing the deeds of a serial killer, we immediately wonder “How could a human being do something like that?” and “What drove him over the edge?” When trying to unravel these mysteries, investigators often look to the person’s past. They search for an event or series of events that led this seemingly normal person to their ultimate fall from the realm of the socially acceptable into the world of the criminally insane. But then, we wonder if there is more at work behind these actions than a traumatic childhood or series of bad experiences. Was this person born broken? Are they evil? Most researchers accept that the deviant behavior of serial killers is a combination of many factors. When questioned about nature vs nurture, one psychologist asked, “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?” And yet, there is no simple answer, and some maintain that the circumstances into which a person is born determines their personality.
In my novels, The Shepherd and The Prophet, I touch upon the concept of nature vs nurture as I place the reader into the mind of a twisted psychopath named Francis Ackerman. Ackerman’s father was a psychologist who wanted to prove that he could create a monster by subjecting his seemingly normal son to every known traumatic event that had occurred in the lives of modern day serial killers. His thinking is obviously flawed because by trying to prove his theories, he establishes that there must be something broken within himself that he could have passed onto his son, giving credence to the very concept he set out to disprove. While this is only a small piece in the grand tapestry of the novel, it’s still an important factor in understanding the twisted thoughts and character of a man like Ackerman.
In a study conducted by the FBI, researchers found that 74% of the killers surveyed experienced some type of abuse, whether physical or psychological, during their childhood. 43% reported that they experienced sexual abuse firsthand. The abused child growing up to become a serial killer has become a cliche within our society, and yet there is a definite link between abuse at a young age and violent behavior later in life. However, the fact remains that most people who were abused as a child don’t grow up to become Ted Bundy, and there are many killers that had a normal childhood. So, while abuse and circumstance is definitely a factor, there must be more behind the madness.
We like to think that we are the masters of our own fate, but the truth is that much of who we are was determined before we spoke our first word or even took our first breath. The intricate make-up of our genes had already laid out a certain path before us. We can overcome this and change our fate, but that doesn’t negate the fact that certain barriers or advantages exist from the moment of our births. A five-foot-four man can play professional basketball, but he has a much greater barrier than someone born to be seven-foot-one. And beyond the physical characteristics, there are certain mannerisms and behaviors that we seem to inherit as well. Since my daughter was a tiny baby, she has tucked her thumb into her palm and held it with the rest of her fingers. The gesture seemed strange to me at first, until I realized that I do that constantly. She obviously didn’t learn this behavior from me, and it’s fascinating to think that such a small action could be coded within her genetic sequence. It stands to reason that a person could be born with an inherited pre-disposition to violent behavior, but is there even more than genetics and circumstance at work?
There are also certain religious or philosophical issues to consider. Is there an evil or negative force at work in the universe beyond what we can see and easily quantify? These factors are often dismissed by the psychiatric community, but since most of us believe in some sort of higher power, we can’t help but wonder at the existence of evil. Although this is an area that is even more difficult to study and classify, I believe it’s where the true key to deviant behavior may be found. I believe that all serial killers, regardless of varying circumstance and genetics, share one common trait. They all harbor a darkness inside themselves, a darkness that shines through in their terrible deeds. But the truly scary thing is that I believe we all carry this darkness or capacity for evil to some degree, and this is where genetics, knowledge, and the events of our pasts come into play. These factors contribute to our ability to hold the darkness at bay. We’ve all learned from a very young age how to manage our impulses. Otherwise, we would allow that sudden animal instinct of anger or lust to elevate into rape or murder and our society would quickly crumble.
I’ve always found this concept of darkness and the questions that go along with it to be fascinating. Can the worst killer overcome the darkness and find some form of redemption? Can they learn to control the darkness despite the barriers working against them? What happens to a good man who embraces the darkness with the best of intentions and under a banner of righteousness? It’s these concepts, along with others, that I explore within the pages of my novels.
International bestselling author Ethan Cross is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month, which means we are offering sensational deals on his work. You can read more about the program here.