Exploring Morbid Fascination and the Psychology of Serial Killers
‘One side of me says, I’d like to talk to her, date her. The other side of me says, I wonder what her head would look like on a stick.’ ~ Ed Kemper
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Aside from editing and writing, one of the things I do is deliver forensic workshops. My eldest daughter writes murder-mystery tabletop games. If you were to check the search histories on our computers, you could be forgiven for thinking we were very bad people indeed.
To develop the things we offer, we attend various talks across the North on the subject of serial killers and psychopaths. It’s research on one hand, but on the other, it’s also a morbid interest of ours.
Much of the information we gather from these events concern high-profile murder cases that are already in the public domain; we therefore know a lot of what we hear at these talks already (that’s not to say it’s not interesting to hear it again). Now and again, however, there will be the odd snippet of information that we’re not already aware of. This happened when we went to see psychologist Emma Kenney on her recent ‘Serial Killer Next Door’ tour. (I fully recommend this, by the way.)
Among other serial killers, she talked about Ed Kemper and Ted Bundy. I’m less familiar with the former, but there are various films, books and documentaries on the latter. Painted as quite the charmer, Bundy tends not to be seen as grisly and gruesome. (Vicious and violent, maybe.)
I may have read that Bundy returned to the bodies of the women he killed and indulged in necrophilia, though you must admit that this isn’t the aspect of his crimes that’s talked about often. This practice is disgusting and despicable enough, but what I didn’t know was that he didn’t just return to them once.
My visualisation of this necrophilia is that Bundy had intercourse with his victims almost the minute he took their life, when one could be forgiven for thinking the victim was simply sleeping. But no, that wasn’t the case at all. Bundy returned to his victims again and again, at various stages of their decomposition, to the point he would sexually interfere with jellified remains or just specific parts of their anatomy left behind by animals.
So, why do we not associate this depraved activity with Bundy? Is it because the charmer is a better, more palatable angle to tell his story, or is it that the actions mentioned above are just too much for the general public’s brain to comprehend?
Ed Kemper is another whose most depraved actions are rarely talked about. Following a troubled childhood where his mother kept him locked up and often belittled him, his first murder was that of his grandparents when he was 15. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Kemper wasn’t a social outcast—he actually managed to convince his parole board that he wouldn’t reoffend, which saw him released from prison just six years later.
He murdered 10 people in total, his mother amongst his victims. What’s not so widely known is that he decapitated his mother and often interacted with her head afterwards. This involved throwing darts at it, cutting out her larynx and tongue, and sexual activity. On the defiling, Kemper said that his mother never stopped berating him, and ‘sticking his dick in her mouth was one way to shut her up’ (completely missing the point that she was dead by then). It was actually a pattern for Kemper, to have sex with the heads and bodies of his victims, all of whom were female. He said that he’d learned as a child that, if you cut off a person’s head, the body dies. He added, ‘That’s not quite true. There’s a lot left in the girl’s body without the head.’
I’m quite sure that the vast majority of people reading have recoiled at that sentence. It’s how any sane, moral person would react.
Maybe these vile killers can’t feel this same disgust; after all, logic would tell you that this must be the case, given what they get off on. There has been a lot of research carried out on the brains of serial killers in comparison with the man on the street. Studies show that people like Bundy and Kemper lack empathy. The activity in their prefrontal cortex—which forms our personalities and regulates our impulsivity and cognitive behaviours—is much, much lower than in the average person. When we say that serial killers ‘aren’t wired up right’, there really is some truth in that; their thought processes are very different.
With a serial killer, there’s clearly a loss of life and violence involved. But let’s consider someone like Matt Hancock. He made decisions during the pandemic that resulted in many lives lost. Decisions that even now, draw little empathy from Hancock and his colleagues. Take away the violence, and the result is the same between the actions of serial killers and the actions of government. Another example: underfunding mental health services as part of their austerity measures has resulted in higher-than-average suicide rates, compared to those under the previous party’s cabinet. That they get paid to make such decisions with so little empathy, care or comeback…isn’t that a different but still a definite kind of depravity?