Last week I talked about the serial killers who had a strong influence on me and on John; they also get mentioned fairly often in the book, so I hope it helped clarify who they were for people who, because they are not weirdos like me, don’t already know everything about serial killers. In that same vein, this week’s post is about the other three serial killers mentioned in the book: Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Rader, and Edmund Kemper. These killers don’t have the character influence the others did, but they might be able to shed more light on the state of John’s head. I apologize in advance; if you’re easily spooked, you might want to join me next week when I speak of happier things.
Jeffrey Dahmer was fascinated by death from a very early age, collecting dead animals and dissecting them at home (one of the classic Macdonald Triad behaviors). In hindsight it’s easy to look at that and say, “well of course he ended up doing the same thing to people,” but at the time it was overshadowed by more pressing factors: his parents fought constantly, home life was terrible, and Jeffrey was a full-blown alcoholic while still in high school. His parents divorced during his Junior year, and he killed his first victim, a hitchhiker, just one year later. As time went on Dahmer began killing more frequently, first one a decade, then one a year, and as many as one a week when he was finally arrested in 1991. At that time his apartment was filled with human remains, he had several heads in his freezer, and he was not only eating his victims but delusionally attempting to turn them into zombies.
Dahmer’s progress is incredibly typical of a serial killer: he started with early warning signs and unhealthy obsessions, culminating in a botched sexual encounter that became an accidental murder. Most serial killers’ first kills are accidental: this event connects all the dots in their skewed perspective and shows them that they are free to actively pursue their obsessions. The next few kills are experiments, often with long gaps between them, as they find a method that works, and then their compulsions take full hold and they start to escalate, killing more people more quickly until they grow so frenzied that they get careless, and they make a mistake and get caught. The evidence against Dahmer was so powerful that his trial was a lightning-fast two weeks long, sentencing him to 957 consecutive years in prison. Over the next two years many other inmates attacked him, and in 1994 he was beaten to death in a prison weight room.
Dennis Rader was a mystery until very recently, killing 10 people under the name BTK (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) and sending long, taunting letters to the police. He stopped killing in 1991 and the trail went completely cold, but eventually his pride resurfaced and he started sending letters to the police again in 2004; he wasn’t killing new people, he just wanted the old thrills back and tried to spark a new investigation on himself. Unfortunately for him, forensic technology had advanced greatly in the intervening years, and Rader was unprepared for the new methods. He was very quickly found and arrested, and is currently serving 10 consecutive life sentences (he will be eligible for parole in the year 2180).
Unlike most serial killers, who confess to more attacks after being caught, there is no evidence that Rader was ever involved in any other deaths—he was far more thrilled by his own terrifying legend than by the killings themselves. He taunted police, he sent letters to local papers and TV stations, and in some cases he even sent letters to his intended victims, telling them exactly how he planned to kill them. He wrote poems, he wrote a false autobiography, and he left crime scene photos and toy dolls (bound at the hands and feet, with plastic bags over their heads) all over the county. More than anything else, Rader loved the spotlight and the sense of “serial killer culture,” creating propaganda for his own boogieman status and even going so far as to suggest cool names for himself.
Edmund Kemper is a remarkable case, because he is the only serial killer I know of who actually fulfilled his need. Serial killers are driven to kill by some kind of need, but in most cases that need becomes secondary to the pure thrill of the killings themselves. Dahmer killed because he wanted to be close to death, and Rader killer because he wanted to evoke and manipulate fear, and the more they killed the more intensely they were able to satisfy those needs. No amount of killing would ever sate their appetites. Kemper, at the risk of oversimplification, killed because he hated his mother, and when he finally stopped killing college students and just killed her, he was done; he called the police and turned himself in.
Kemper was known primarily as “The Co-Ed Killer,” he’s one of the main reasons people tell you not to hitchhike—almost all of his victims were Santa Cruz college students hitching their way to and from school. His early development, as with Dahmer, was classic sociopath: he tortured animals, had a bad home life and few friends, and eventually shot his grandmother because he “just wanted to see what it felt like to kill grandma.” During his active killing phase he hung out with the local police and helped in the investigation, and the cops didn’t believe him at first when he confessed and asked to be arrested. He pleaded insanity, as most serial killers do, but the courts found him to be not only sane but remarkably intelligent—he knew enough about psychology that he could turn his sociopathic indicators on and off almost at will when talking to therapists in prison.
Next week we’ll leave the real killers behind and get back to the fiction, where I’ll talk about the process of writing my book.