No criminal excites and repulses the public more than a serial killer.
During the last annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, a panel on the topic of Ted Bundy clearly captured the most attention. An extra loudspeaker was hauled out into the hotel corridor so that folks could listen to the proceedings. I was among them, straining to hear about this man who murdered so many coeds in Florida.
I was a little embarrassed by my morbid interest, and most of us avoided glancing at one another, preferring to appear professionally detached and intent on the dialogue. One woman peacefully knit as she listened, Madame DeFarge-like.
But instead of uncovering any amazing truths about this killer, we only learned what we already knew. Bundy was far more valued as a murderer that he could ever have been as an ordinary citizen.
Most death-dealers are. Truman Capote elevated killers to literary levels in his book "In Cold Blood," then wept for them at their execution. In the movie "Badlands," Martin Sheen plays a serial killer on a crime spree. When he is finally caught, he is treated with bizarre respect, as if he were a hero.
Murder is big business, and murderers cash in on it. The so-called "Son of Sam" legislation was an attempt to prevent at least the commercial aspects of this inversion of fame.
I predict that the serial killer in Gainesville, Fla., who murdered five students over the past few weeks, will become a celebrity when he is caught. Actually, he already is -- although he has still not been identified.
Before Ted Bundy was executed, exquisite legal arguments had been rendered in his case, and psychiatrists had debated his insanities. In the end, no one really knew him, for he had ceased to be a person. He was a legal entity.
But not all criminals come to this fate. Many are intensively studied, for it is a mark of humans that we become preoccupied with learning about the motives our kind has for killing one another.
Thus we learn that a man murdered because his wife was unfaithful or that he killed someone who owed him money. Or he committed homicide out of self-defense. These motives are understandable and lead us to nod our head in the satisfaction of causality.
But then come the other kinds of killings: He killed for no reason, he killed because he liked to kill, he killed because he enjoyed inflicting pain on his victims.
Such behaviors are painfully incomprehensible. It cannot be that a man kills out of pleasure, we insist. There must be a better or greater reason, a root etiology. We become more anguished in our quest, thinking that the psychologists will surely find it through their tests. Perhaps the shrinks can be sent in to get the facts. A sodium amytal interview may uncover the truth. Maybe his brain waves will reveal electrical abnormalities, as if paper tracings would finally put matters to rest.
All people kill for a reason, but the reasons may be twisted beyond recognition into a phenomenology similar to that of love. Killing and loving are, in fact, an inextricable duality.
A murderer may kill because he has never been loved. A woman may love so desperately that she wants to kill her mate. I have seen tattoos about loving and killing on opposite extremities and have interviewed a killer who lovingly raised vegetables, and another who loved the fish in his aquarium. I've met avid hunters who loved to kill yet dearly loved the ani
mals they used to flush out their prey. Lovers and killers can both commit suicide.
I saw a forensic case in which a man prepared to shoot himself. When the wife he hated appeared in the doorway, he removed the gun from his head and killed her instead. He loved her too much, he said. If others had been at home, would he have become a multiple murderer? What prevented him from gunning down a group of people on the street? Who can explain these forces and their vectors?
Civilization has seen many multiple and mass murderers, but the worst are those who have engineered genocide rather than personally delivering "hands-on" death. Hitler ordered more deaths than all the serial murderers we will ever know, yet there is something different about him since he, like other despots in history, distanced himself from his terrible machinery of destruction.
Modern mass murderers have used assault rifles against restaurant patrons or children. Serial murderers are different. A true serial murderer stalks, plans, relishes, fondles and tortures. He breathes on his victims and cherishes their gurgles of fear. Blood becomes vital, as do the respiratory sounds of death.
These elements of murder are crucial to mystery thrillers and horror movies, and the sights and sounds of personal death are the gridwork of suspense and horror. While hearts beat and hairs stand on end, we look on, terrified and hypnotized, revolted and thrilled, disgusted and sated.
Such is the regressive pull of murder, its prohibition and urge yoked in the strangest harmony of fascination. It is no small wonder that a murderer generates so much awe. We all can think of someone we once wanted to kill. The serial murderer takes the forbidden to the highest levels of unconscious resonance.
Serial murder is not increasing in frequency, but I doubt that it will ever decrease in frequency, either. It is a statistically rare crime, but one that generates a publicity which easily obscures the individual murders on an ordinary urban day. Street-corner drug shootouts, for instance, have risen sharply, but we pay less attention, relegating them to randomness.
Many serial murderers have been studied and described in literature.The most active research on serial murderers is currently undertaken by the FBI in Quantico, Va. Profiles of serial murderers have been assembled from computer-generated lists of personality and demographic variables.
These profiles help in apprehension, but they do not satisfy psychologically. Sadistic murderers, for example, drive macho vehicles. But what are we to make of this finding? It may help a policeman narrow his chase, but does it tell us about motive and intent?
Yet there is some clinical progress. Within the psychiatric diagnostic nomenclature there are some newer terms for various acts of sexual violence. These reflect some understanding of syndromes, albeit in a limited way. Not many such patients come to clinical attention. Few clinicians wish to study them. But most go to hear lectures about them.
Once, when I was asked to evaluate one of these murderers, I hesitated, appalled by the heinousness of events. After all, this did not fit into my caseload, and I was not one of those beings who gape at accidents on the highway. But I yielded.
Then, in a turnaround of my revulsion, I became completely engrossed in the criminal acts. The crimes changed before my very eyes, from motiveless sins to pathology and symptom. I recall emerging from one particularly revealing interview with a feeling of joyful discovery. I had made the diagnosis that was hidden from everyone else.
Smugly, with pleasure, I walked from the prison gate. But then some young boys walked by, and they reminded me of my murderer's victims. Suddenly, the gravity of my role as an alchemist became apparent.
In my zest, I had succumbed to the dark side, trading in outrage for novelty and horror for intrigue. Like the voyeur of whom I had been disdainful, I, too, had peeked at the corpse. And, to my dismay, I had found it as enthralling as it was evil.
John Lion practices psychiatry in Baltimore and is clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.