Richard Worth 2nd October 2018
*This article was originally posted on 22 February 2018 — we’re republishing it in our “Best of The Overtake” as part of our first birthday celebrations!*
People are a little obsessive. As a group, we can become fascinated by all sorts of things; avocados, Korean comedy pop songs and, basically, anything Beyoncé does, says or even glances at.
But, we have darker passions too. There are hundreds of books, movies, TV show and podcasts all focused on serial killers. We can’t get enough — figuratively speaking.
But, what are serial killers obsessed with, apart from the obvious? Well, themselves, apparently. Many serial killers demand attention. Going back to Jack the Ripper, killers will often send trophies and letters to the press, boasting about their grisly work and how they’ll easily beat the police on their trails.
There is a psychological basis for this attention seeking. Many killers have tragic backgrounds, with neglectful and abusive parents. They grow up as outsiders, with low self-esteem and no social influence. Their crimes are a means by which they can be seen and demonstrate their power.
It seems contradictory to claim that someone with low self-esteem could be obsessed with themselves, but narcissism falls into two categories: The “grandiose”, those who wholeheartedly believe that they are great, and the “vulnerable”, who overcompensate for their own failures.
But, isn’t there a little vulnerable narcissism in us all? Isn’t our latest obsession with social media a way of showing off our intelligence, good looks and just how fulfilling our lives are? Don’t we all have that one attention seeking friend we secretly follow — the one you’re certain has something really wrong with them, who will post anything just to get likes? Even if we can’t admit that we crave the admiration of others, we’re certain we know somebody who does.
Social media and millennials might be responsible for our “look at me” generation and the highest rates of selfies taken since the invention of photography, but at least we have fewer serial killers. The number of serial killers as we imagine them — calculating, methodical, superficially charming — has dropped significantly in recent years. Social media has changed our world, could it have changed our serial killers too?
While serial killers are one of the major downsides that meatspace has to offer, internet trolls are the cyber equivalent, albeit less deadly and more frequently encountered. It isn’t a revelation to learn that trolls are attention seeking dickheads, but a study from a research team at the University of Winnipeg in Canada revealed that trolls display the four characteristics of the “Dark Tetrad” — psychopathy (an absence of empathy), narcissism (self-obsession), Machiavellianism (detached, calculating manipulativeness) and sadism (deriving pleasure from others’ pain).
Further, attention seeking behaviour has been linked to having an underdeveloped anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC acts a sort of behavioural screening board, making sure that all those weird and disturbing thoughts we all have don’t become our weird and disturbing behaviour. Studies investigating crime, impulse control and violence found that that ACC activity was lower in participants more likely to act violently.
This does necessarily mean that trolls are serial killers; they’re mostly just utter cocks. But, perhaps the ability for us to construct a virtual persona, that is better than our actual selves, and to reach an audience of peers from across the planet means that we’re able to get the attention that we crave.
Maybe, the ability to broadcast their faces, their beliefs and their manifestos to the world fulfils the desire for attention that killers crave, acting as a substitute for their addiction.
Have we traded outbursts of extreme violence for sustained narcissism and online bullying? It’s an interesting theory, and it’s a little satisfying to think that trolls are demented idiots with no place in society, but it needs more investigating. The relationship between narcissism, social media and abhorrent behaviour is messy, but intriguing. And, as with all aspects of studying the criminally insane, there is no constant, definitive answer.
The advances in police methods and technology, as well as an increased acceptance of psychology, psychiatry and mental health awareness, means that serial killers can be identified and caught much quicker than in the past. And, whilst it might not be the case that potential killers are getting their kicks from unfunny and poorly written comments, social media does and will continue to play a role in criminology.
The internet has already played an important part. Web sleuths have helped solve a number of cold cases, and are a potential force for good, while the likes of spree-killer Elliot Rodger used social media to espouse his manifesto and motives, as he drove to his victim’s home. Luka Magnotta uploaded the video of himself murdering Lin Jun, and was known for having multiple social media accounts and using them to make false claims about his personal life. He was captured by authorities in an internet cafe, while reading news about himself.
Social media might be a double-edged sword. In some cases, it may help individuals seek the social and professional support they need, but in other cases, it may act as a platform. Dr Adam Lynes, a senior lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham University, says there are definite links between the traits of serial killers and online trolls.
[If you want] to get people’s attention, you can do it straight away online, and people will watch. It’s a dark part of our society
”There is definitely something going on with ego and the attention seeking. It’s definitely a driving factor. You don’t really need to write a letter, anymore, when you can upload a video and get thousands of views. If what you want is to get people’s attention, you can do it straight away online and people will watcht. It’s a dark part of our society.”
Dr Lynes describes the case of Stephen Griffiths, who is currently serving life imprisonment for murdering three women. Griffiths was studying for PhD in Homicide Studies at the time (“He made us look quite bad,” Dr Lynes jokes), who fantasised about becoming a serial killer, going so far as to construct his identity The Crossbow Cannibal, as a sort of public persona to present to the media. He even posed for the CCTV camera that his final murder was captured on, all an attempt to achieve some kind of fame.
[Social media is] going to be important, but how, exactly, is something that needs looking into
On the future of serial killing, Dr Lynes adds: “[Social media] will definitely play a more central role. It’s a new technology, and police are chasing to catch up. It’s going to be important, but how, exactly, is something that needs looking into.”
And, while authorities are able to use internet surveillance and social media to find clues in cases, it’s deeply unsettling to think that a serial killer could have been looking at your profile whilst searching for his next victim. Almost makes you thankful for Google constantly keeping an eye on us.
Dr Lynes adds that there is a difficulty even classifying what a serial killer is. While it’s true that loosely-defined serial killings have decreased, mass and spree-killings have increased. Perhaps, the instant infamy and media attention of these tragedies garner have become more appealing to the warped mind of killers, or perhaps the root causes of this type of murder are something entirely different.
The violent conclusions of these events mean that, sometimes, it’s impossible to interview the culprits. Knowing this, what they leave behind on the internet is sometimes our only means of trying to understand their underlying motives and psychology.
The internet mixed bag. It is as amazing as it is infuriating. It’s still so new and young that we’re still trying to find its place in our society. How we interact with it, and how it affects us on a day to day basis, still needs much more research.
Given that, we can only begin to theorise about how it interacts with the most extreme and most disturbed in society, and we may never understand what pushed an individual across the line of damaged to dangerous.
What we should try to understand is one of the truest and saddest parts of murder. That, despite our cultural obsession, the Villains are getting what they want, stopping us from thinking about ourselves and making us think about them, their names, their faces and their lives. We, inevitably, don’t do the same for the victims.
Richard Worth 2nd October 2018