7 Fascinating Habits Serial Killers Often Display When They’re Young
It's interesting to consider what makes a serial killer, and whether or not they show early warning signs as kids. In many cases, "serial killers show traits of psychopathy, or what clinicians term Antisocial Personality, when young (before the age of 18)," Dr. Judy Ho, a clinical and forensic psychologist, tells Bustle. And there does seem to be a connection between sociopathy and serial killers. But that doesn't mean all serial killers have a mental health issue, or that all people with antisocial personalities will be serial killers.
There are, however, a few similarities between the characteristics of well-known serial killers. For instance, if someone grew up in a toxic home environment, it can all come together to push them over the edge as adults. "Particularly, many serial killers come from abusive homes and have traumatic childhoods," Dr. Ho says. "And/or they are raised by parents or other adults who reward criminality, encourage it in their children, [and] don’t properly reprimand them when they do things to encroach on others and their property. It appears to be this biological plus environmental combination that leads to individuals who commit serial crimes."
Here are some early habits — as well as a few personality traits — that many serial killers have in common when they're young, according to experts.
1. An Obsession With Starting Fires
Serial killers often show signs of psychopathy when they're young. And one habit that's common among young psychopaths is pyromania, or an obsession with setting things on fire.
Some signature signs include a lack of empathy, or a propensity to damage property, sometimes by setting fires, Dr. Ho says.
According to the Crime Museum in Tennessee, the "Son of Sam" killer, David Berkowitz, was so infatuated with fires as a child that his friends nicknamed him "Pyro." After he was arrested, some sources say he admitted to setting up to 1,400 fires in New York.
2. Stealing & Fighting
Similarly, many psychopaths have intense behavioral problems as kids. As Dr. Ho says, "Behavioral problems [such as] fighting, truancy, stealing, and other crimes with the progression from petty crimes to bigger ones," can occur.
3. Thrill-Seeking Behaviors
Due to the way their brains are structured, some serial killers show early thrill-seeking behaviors — whether they're a psychopath or not.
"It appears that serial killers may have certain biological predispositions," Dr. Ho says. "For example, we find that many of them have very low brain reactivity, so that they are very difficult to stimulate, which may partially explain their thrill-seeking behavior in order just to feel a little something."
But remember, just because someone is a thrill-seeker doesn't mean they'll grow up to be a serial killer.
4. Substance Abuse
As Dr. Ho says, psychopaths sometimes show early substance abuse, sometimes as a preteen. This goes along with other early behavioral problems often seen with antisocial personality disorder.
That doesn't, of course, mean that all kids who use substances go on to commit violent crimes. This habit is, however, more common among psychopaths when they're young.
Take the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, for example. According to the Crime Museum, he began drinking as a teenager and was an alcoholic by the time he graduated high school.
5. Excessive Lying & Trickery
Many kids try to get away with things by lying. So all on its own, this is definitely not a sign someone will grow up to be a serial killer. But when the lying is excessive, it can be a sign of psychopathy.
As Dr. Ho says, many psychopaths display "excessive lying and delighting in tricking others (sometimes seemingly for no reason at all, just to see if they can get away with it)."
6. Lack Of Empathy Towards Animals
Many serial killers display a lack of remorse as kids when it comes to hurting animals. For example, Dahmer was known to dissect dead animals he found in the woods, and even dismembered his own dog. And he wasn't alone.
This is one habit that's common among many serial killers, and is due to a lack of empathy plus a desire for control. And, Dr. Cara Tucker, psychologist and forensics specialist, tells Bustle, it can spiral out of control from there. "A thought like 'let me dismember an ant' starts small and may seem harmless, but for the development of a psychopath, depending on what raises their cortisol levels and adrenaline is different for each 'MO' of a killer," she says.
It doesn't take much for a serial killer to go from killing bugs, to killing cats, to killing people. "I have worked with a couple of serial killers and they are smart," Dr. Tucker says. "They can be charming and master manipulators and this is how they become good at what they do... And it's true they objectify their victims."
7. Late Bed-Wetting
Many experts point to the MacDonald Triad as a set of guidelines often used by forensic practitioners to analyze the likelihood that someone may be a serial killer. While the jury is still out as to whether or not it's accurate, these three traits of the Triad include fire setting, cruelty to animals, and late-in-life bed-wetting.
Just like lying, though, many kids wet the bed — and some do so well past the "acceptable" age. "However, this does not mean all kids who have late bedwetting turn into a psychopath," Dr. Tucker says. "Let's be very clear about that."
Usually, late bed-wetting is due to a medical condition, or the result of emotional abuse. But there may be some connection between late bed-wetting and psychopathy. And, as mentioned above, the environment in which a child is raised can be a factor in how violent they become later in life.
There are so many factors that go into whether or not someone will become a serial killer[s]. Sociopathy may play a role, as well as environment. It's important not to label anyone, or assume the worst. But it is interesting to think about the various habits experts say some serial killers have had in common.