February 22, 2004
Countess Erszebet Bathory was a breathtakingly beautiful, unusually
well-educated woman, married to a descendant of Vlad
Dracula of Bram Stoker fame. In 1611, she was
tried - though, being a noblewoman, not convicted - in Hungary
for slaughtering 612 young girls. The true figure may have been 40-100,
though the Countess recorded in her diary more than 610 girls and 50 bodies
were found in her estate when it was raided.
was notorious as an inhuman sadist long before her hygienic fixation. She
once ordered the mouth of a talkative servant sewn. It is rumoured that in
her childhood she witnessed a gypsy being sewn into a horse's stomach and
left to die.
girls were not killed outright. They were kept in a dungeon and repeatedly
pierced, prodded, pricked, and cut. The Countess may have bitten chunks of
flesh off their bodies while alive. She is said to have bathed and showered
in their blood in the mistaken belief that she could thus slow down the
servants were executed, their bodies burnt and their ashes scattered. Being
royalty, she was merely confined to her bedroom until she died in 1614.
For a hundred years after her death, by royal decree,
mentioning her name in Hungary was a crime.
Cases like Barothy's give the lie to the assumption that
serial killers are a modern - or even post-modern - phenomenon, a
cultural-societal construct, a by-product of urban alienation,
interpellation, and media glamorization. Serial killers are, indeed,
largely made, not
born. But they are spawned by every culture and society, molded by the
idiosyncrasies of every period as well as by their personal circumstances
and genetic makeup.
Still, every crop of serial killers mirrors and reifies the
pathologies of the milieu, the depravity of the Zeitgeist, and the
malignancies of the Leitkultur. The choice of weapons, the identity and
range of the victims, the methodology of murder, the disposal of the
bodies, the geography, the sexual perversions and paraphilias - are all
informed and inspired by the slayer's environment, upbringing, community,
socialization, education, peer group, sexual orientation, religious
convictions, and personal narrative. Movies like "Born Killers", "Man Bites
Dog", "Copycat", and the Hannibal Lecter series captured this truth.
Serial killers are the quiddity and quintessence of
Yet, to some degree, we all are narcissists. Primary
narcissism is a universal and inescapable developmental phase. Narcissistic
traits are common and often culturally condoned. To this extent, serial
killers are merely our reflection through a glass darkly.
In their book "Personality Disorders in Modern Life",
Theodore Millon and Roger Davis attribute pathological narcissism to
"a society that stresses individualism and self-gratification at the
expense of community ... In an individualistic culture, the narcissist is
'God's gift to the world'. In a collectivist society, the narcissist is
'God's gift to the collective'".
Lasch described the narcissistic landscape thus (in "The Culture
of Narcissism: American Life in an age of Diminishing Expectations",
"The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by
anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find
a meaning in life. Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts
even the reality of his own existence ... His sexual attitudes are
permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from
ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace.
Fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and
acclaim, he distrusts competition because he associates it unconsciously
with an unbridled urge to destroy ... He (harbours) deeply antisocial
impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief
that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in the sense that his
cravings have no limits, he ... demands immediate gratification and lives
in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire."
The narcissist's pronounced lack of empathy, off-handed
exploitativeness, grandiose fantasies and uncompromising sense of
entitlement make him treat all people as though they were objects (he
"objectifies" people). The narcissist regards others as either useful
conduits for and sources of narcissistic supply (attention, adulation,
etc.) - or as extensions of himself.
Similarly, serial killers often mutilate their victims and
abscond with trophies - usually, body parts. Some of them have been known
to eat the organs they have ripped - an act of merging with the dead and
assimilating them through digestion. They treat their victims as some
children do their rag dolls.
Killing the victim - often capturing him or her on film
before the murder - is a form of exerting unmitigated, absolute, and
irreversible control over it. The serial killer aspires to "freeze time" in
the still perfection that he has choreographed. The victim is motionless
and defenseless. The killer attains long sought "object permanence". The
victim is unlikely to run on the serial assassin, or vanish as earlier
objects in the killer's life (e.g., his parents) have done.
In malignant narcissism, the true self of the narcissist is
replaced by a false construct, imbued with omnipotence, omniscience, and
omnipresence. The narcissist's thinking is magical and infantile. He feels
immune to the consequences of his own actions. Yet, this very source of
apparently superhuman fortitude is also the narcissist's Achilles heel.
The narcissist's personality is chaotic. His
defense mechanisms are primitive. The whole edifice is precariously
balanced on pillars of denial, splitting, projection, rationalization, and
projective identification. Narcissistic injuries - life crises, such as
abandonment, divorce, financial difficulties, incarceration, public
opprobrium - can bring the whole thing tumbling down. The narcissist cannot
afford to be rejected, spurned, insulted, hurt, resisted, criticized, or
Likewise, the serial killer is trying desperately to avoid
a painful relationship with his object of desire. He is terrified of being
abandoned or humiliated, exposed for what he is and then discarded. Many
killers often have sex - the ultimate form of intimacy - with the corpses
of their victims. Objectification and mutilation allow for unchallenged
Devoid of the ability to empathize, permeated by haughty
feelings of superiority and uniqueness, the narcissist cannot put himself
in someone else's shoes, or even imagine what it means. The very experience
of being human is alien to the narcissist whose invented False Self is
always to the fore, cutting him off from the rich panoply of human
Thus, the narcissist believes that all people are
narcissists. Many serial killers believe that killing is the way of the
world. Everyone would kill if they could or were given the chance to do so.
Such killers are convinced that they are more honest and open about their
desires and, thus, morally superior. They hold others in contempt for being
conforming hypocrites, cowed into submission by an overweening
establishment or society.
The narcissist seeks to adapt society in general - and
meaningful others in particular - to his needs. He regards himself as the
epitome of perfection, a yardstick against which he measures everyone, a
benchmark of excellence to be emulated. He acts the guru, the sage, the
"psychotherapist", the "expert", the objective observer of human affairs.
He diagnoses the "faults" and "pathologies" of people around him and
"helps" them "improve", "change", "evolve", and "succeed" - i.e., conform
to the narcissist's vision and wishes.
Serial killers also "improve" their victims - slain,
intimate objects - by "purifying" them, removing "imperfections",
depersonalizing and dehumanizing them. This type of killer saves its
victims from degeneration and degradation, from evil and from sin, in
short: from a fate worse than death.
The killer's megalomania manifests at this stage. He claims
to possess, or have access to, higher knowledge and morality. The killer is
a special being and the victim is "chosen" and should be grateful for it.
The killer often finds the victim's ingratitude irritating, though sadly
In his seminal work, "Aberrations of Sexual Life"
(originally: "Psychopathia Sexualis"), quoted in the book "Jack the Ripper"
by Donald Rumbelow, Kraft-Ebbing offers this observation:
"The perverse urge in murders for pleasure does not
solely aim at causing the victim pain and - most acute injury of all -
death, but that the real meaning of the action consists in, to a certain
extent, imitating, though perverted into a monstrous and ghastly form, the
act of defloration. It is for this reason that an essential component ...
is the employment of a sharp cutting weapon; the victim has to be pierced,
slit, even chopped up ... The chief wounds are inflicted in the stomach
region and, in many cases, the fatal cuts run from the vagina into the
abdomen. In boys an artificial vagina is even made ... One can connect a
fetishistic element too with this process of hacking ... inasmuch as parts
of the body are removed and ... made into a collection."
Yet, the sexuality of the serial, psychopathic, killer is
self-directed. His victims are props, extensions, aides, objects, and
symbols. He interacts with them ritually and, either before or after the
act, transforms his diseased inner dialog into a self-consistent extraneous
catechism. The narcissist is equally auto-erotic. In the sexual act, he
merely masturbates with other - living - people's bodies.
The narcissist's life is a giant repetition complex. In a
doomed attempt to resolve early conflicts with significant others, the
narcissist resorts to a restricted repertoire of coping strategies, defense
mechanisms, and behaviors. He seeks to recreate his past in each and every
new relationship and interaction. Inevitably, the narcissist is invariably
confronted with the same outcomes. This recurrence only reinforces the
narcissist's rigid reactive patterns and deep-set beliefs. It is a vicious,
Correspondingly, in some cases of serial killers, the
murder ritual seemed to have recreated earlier conflicts with meaningful
objects, such as parents, authority figures, or peers. The outcome of the
replay is different to the original, though. This time, the killer
dominates the situation.
The killings allow him to inflict abuse and trauma on
others rather than be abused and traumatized. He outwits and taunts figures
of authority - the police, for instance. As far as the killer is concerned,
he is merely "getting back" at society for what it did to him. It is a form
of poetic justice, a balancing of the books, and, therefore, a "good"
thing. The murder is cathartic and allows the killer to release hitherto
repressed and pathologically transformed aggression - in the form of hate,
rage, and envy.
But repeated acts of escalating gore fail to alleviate the
killer's overwhelming anxiety and depression. He seeks to vindicate his
negative introjects and sadistic superego by being caught and punished. The
serial killer tightens the proverbial noose around his neck by interacting
with law enforcement agencies and the media and thus providing them with
clues as to his identity and whereabouts. When apprehended, most serial
assassins experience a great sense of relief.
Serial killers are not the only objectifiers - people who
treat others as objects. To some extent, leaders of all sorts - political,
military, or corporate - do the same. In a range of demanding professions -
surgeons, medical doctors, judges, law enforcement agents - objectification
efficiently fends off attendant horror and anxiety.
Yet, serial killers are different. They represent a dual
failure - of their own development as full-fledged, productive individuals
- and of the culture and society they grow in. In a pathologically
narcissistic civilization - social anomies proliferate. Such societies
breed malignant objectifiers - people devoid of empathy - also known as
ADDITIONAL ONLINE RESOURCES
to read the DSM-IV-TR (2000) diagnostic criteria for the
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
here to read
my analysis of the
DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10 diagnostic criteria for the Narcissistic Personality
Read this for in-depth information -
Primer on Narcissism
Guntrip, Harry. Personality Structure
and Human Interaction. New York, International Universities Press, 1961
Horovitz M. J. Stress Response Syndromes: PTSD, Grief
and Adjustment Disorders. 3rd Ed. New York, NY University Press, 1998
Jacobson, Edith. The Self and the Object World. New York, International
Universities Press, 1964
Millon, Theodore. Personality Disorders in Modern Life. New York, John
Wiley and Sons, 2000
Vaknin, Sam. Malignant Self-Love – Narcissism Revisited. Skopje and
Prague, Narcissus Publications, 1999, 2001, 2003