Some studies support the idea that we can identify serial killers by looking at their facial features, while others say the opposite. So, how to identify a serial killer?
It’s often said that the eyes are windows to the soul. We can use them to say “I love you”, to express our sadness, or to convey the anger we’re feeling. But can they reveal the darkest desires of a twisted mind? Sometimes, when looking at mugshots of serial killers or images of them doing everyday things, I wonder whether I’d have the slightest suspicion of them being gruesome and cold-blooded killers just by looking at them. Because one thing is to look at their mugshot and all their pictures once they’ve been arrested, and another is to look at a random pic and realize, just by looking at their face, that they’re hiding dark secrets and desires.
David Berkowitz, also known as "Son of Sam." In the 1970s, he killed six people and wounded others. He became known for his eerie letters to the police.
Amelia Dyer. Her trial became well-known in the Victorian era, as she had murdered more than 250 babies that had been in her care.
For many years, criminologists have studied whether there are physical features that could help identify serial killers more easily and catch them before they commit more crimes. However, there are no definite findings because this type of study involves psychological and sociological research, as well as considering the background and motives behind the murders, which can vary depending on the killer. Moreover, according to the FBI, the prejudice that all psychopaths become serial killers might bias the understanding of a serial killer. Some of the traits that define psychopathy are, “glibness, superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and the manipulation of others,” as well as behaviors such as, “stimulation-seeking behavior, impulsivity, irresponsibility, parasitic orientation, and a lack of realistic life goals.” While these psychopathic features are often found in serial killers, that doesn’t mean that every psychopath or every person who has these behaviors is destined to become a murderer.
Serial killer Aileen Wuornos was convicted for killing seven men. During her trial she said the famous words, "I have hate crawling through my system... I'm competent, sane, and I'm trying to tell the truth. I'm one who seriously hates human life and would kill again."
Mugshots of Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins, a notorious serial killer whose brutality terrified South Carolina between 1953 and 1975.
So, does the answer lie in their physical features? Before answering this question, let’s look at some of the most important studies about it. First, among those who say we can identify a killer just by looking at them, there’s a study made by the Cornell University claiming that we can instinctively distinguish a criminal just by looking at them. In this study, researchers showed their subjects a series of photographs of Caucasian men between the ages of 20 and 29, and asked them to say on a scale of one to seven how likely they were to commit a crime, and in case they’ve done so, whether it would be violent or non-violent. Most of the subjects managed to identify criminals. However, many of them failed in terms of distinguishing the violent and non-violent crimes. In this sense, perhaps we might not identify a future serial killer just by looking at them, but we might sense that they’re up to no good (which still is a safe bet, I guess).
H.H. Holmes literally created a murder castle where we would lure his victims and kill them without leaving any trace.
Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, raped, murdered, and dismembered 17 men and boys.
Now, as for those who say we can’t really identify serial killers, this hypothesis can be backed up with a study from Princeton University stating that if a person’s facial features convey trustworthiness, in the worst cases they might use it for their own advantage. Trustworthy faces, according to this study, have “a U-shaped mouth and eyes that form an almost surprised look,” while an unstrustworthy face “is an angry one with the edges of the mouth curled down and eyebrows pointing down at the center.” If we look at Ted Bundy’s photos, for instance, we’ll see that he had trustworthy features. Perhaps that’s why he managed to lure his victims so easily.
Ted Bundy lured his victims with his charms or by pretending he was hurt, so his victims felt moved to help him.
Richard Ramírez, also known as the "The Night Stalker," was known for sneaking into his victims' homes to rob, rape, and murder them.
We can’t judge a book by its cover, and we can’t say definitively whether someone is capable of committing terrible crimes based on physical traits. However, an aspect that is still being thoroughly studied and being enriched with more studies is that of the criminal’s psyche. We’re still far from completely understanding the human mind and the reasons that would drive someone to commit heinous crimes. But there's a very accurate way to understand serial killers, and it's what psychologists and criminologists call the “Dark Triad of Personality”: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. These three features have been commonly found in most serial killers. After considering this, we might conclude that, rather than observing a person’s face, it’s better to focus on their actions to know what they’re capable of.
Of course, if you’re walking down the street at night and you see a strange person approaching you in a weird way, and just by looking at their face, you feel like they’re up to something, listen to your gut and run. There are cases where it’s safer to break the rule and judge a person by their looks.
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