The Fantasy Life Of The Female Multiple Murderer
Copyright Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, Ph.D. Violent Crimes Institute, Reprint
Though there is ample research into the minds of male multiple murderers, researchers know very little about female multiple killers. This study is an examination of the fantasy life of female multiple murderers based on in-depth interviews conducted by this author. This research is an attempt to determine if female multiple killers, like their male counterparts, enjoy violent fantasies which drive their homicidal behavior. Fantasy life and premeditation issues are discussed.
In the frightening world of serial and mass murder, there is an ever-increasing spotlight on the female multiple murderer. Whether she blasts her way through a crowded shopping mall on a lazy Sunday or presses a pillow over a helpless victim’s face, it would appear as if the number of female multiple murderers is growing (Holmes & Holmes, 1998). Their numbers have escalated in the last fifty years. For example, three-quarters of documented cases involving female serial killers occurred after 1950. Furthermore, over one-third of the total number of recorded female multiple murderers began killing after 1970 (Hickey, 1997). In the perspective of time, this is a large percentage of offenders in the locus of the late twentieth century.
Strangely, though this phenomenon is increasing, there is a paucity of research concerning the female multiple killer (Cluff et al., 1997). The media that thrives on high multicide body count has essentially forgotten the female (Kelleher, 1998). And even the Federal Bureau of Investigation initially ignored the female multiple murderer. For example, in the early 1980’s when the F.B.I. was doing research into the minds of multiple killers, the agency failed to include females in its studies. In fact, the book which discusses the F.B.I.’s research findings never mentions a female serial or mass murderer (Ressler et al., 1988). However, at the very time the F.B.I. was doing research in 1980, a female serial killer was asphyxiating six victims in a Southern state (author’s files).
With the increasing numbers of female perpetrators and the escalating violence, why have researchers relegated female multicide to a seemingly secondary and unimportant status? The most well known explanation suggests that the female typically uses a different method to kill than the male multiple murderer. That is, women don’t kill in a manly way (Hickey, 1997: 205). The male serial killer is often a sexual predator, and the male mass murderer uses ultra-commando type weapons (Kelleher, 1998; Kelleher; 1997). In this way, it appears as if multicide has been defined in terms of sexuality and weapons.
Unlike their male counterparts, women are more likely to use poison or suffocation to kill their victims (Cluff et al., 1997). Furthermore, females rarely rape or torture when they kill (Holmes & Holmes, 1998). Therefore, many researchers disregard the female multiple murderer because she, to their knowledge, lacks a sexually sadistic motivation (Seagrave, 1992). So it would appear that researchers and the media have been using a primarily sexual dynamic to define serial murder. But this dynamic defies the definition of the words themselves.
The word serial is defined as “forming a series,” (Patterson, 1989). The word murder is defined as “killing a human being with premeditated malice,” (Patterson, 1989). Therefore, the literal meaning of ‘serial murder’ is a series of killings (of human beings) with premeditated malice. Even though the method of murder seems to be a point of contention, the literal meaning of the words exclude this dynamic. Within the true definition of the words, females should have been examined side by side with their male counterparts from the beginning.
A second reason that females have been ignored centers on societal expectations. In summary, females are typically viewed as being non-violent (Kelleher, 1998). Thus it is difficult for many to accept the thought that females could commit serial acts of murder (Holmes et. al., 1991). Additionally, most females who commit murder do so within the confines of a domestic dispute (Hickey, 1997). That is, females typically kill those they know (Jurik & Winn, (1990). Add gender role expectation with statistical resources which point to female homicide in domestic situations, and it is not too surprising that many researchers have failed to recognize the female multiple murderer.
What little research has been done relies heavily on secondary sources of information, such as legal records and newspaper accounts. These efforts have been important and have provided an insight into how the female kills her victims and what types of victims she seeks (Keeney & Heide, 1994). Specifically, prior research has discovered that female serial killers tend to kill with poisons and asphyxia, are geographically stable, have menial jobs, and they always choose victims who are weak and defenseless (Kelleher, 1998). Furthermore, body disposal is not a problem for the female serial killer because authorities are usually unaware that a homicide has taken place. Using poisons and asphyxiating the helpless makes murder virtually undetectable (Cluff et al., 1997).
Though this prior research has provided valuable information regarding female killers, it does not provide an insight into the female multiple killers’ mind. Specifically, research into the minds of male multiple murderers has brought forth a plethora of information concerning the thoughts involved in repetitive homicide. It is known that males enjoy a rich and violent fantasy life that drives their horrific behavior (Ressler et. al., 1988). However, it has not been determined whether the female multiple murderess enjoys the same thought processes.
Does the female multiple murderess fantasize about hurting people? Does a fantasy life drive her murderous behavior? Discovering what lies within the female’s devious mind can aid those who work with children, police, parents of murdered children, and researchers alike. This research addresses these questions, and the hope is that an understanding of female multiple murderers’ fantasies will serve as a springboard for further research into this most least understood killer. This research is an attempt to create a snapshot of the workings within the minds of female multicide.
The concept of fantasy is well-known as it pertains to male serial killers. Fantasy is said to be “an elaborate thought with great preoccupation, anchored in emotion and having origins in daydreams” (Ressler et al., 1988). As they pertain to sexual predators, researchers are most concerned with fantasies that are interoceptive, intrusive and reiterative (Burgess et al., 1991: 242). That is, researchers must focus on those fantasies that are developed within the individual, persist, and finally reoccur within this person’s life to the point of distraction.
Within the realm of serial killers, it has been established that male offenders enjoy a rich and perverse fantasy life (Hazelwood & Douglas, 1980; Holmes & Holmes, 1998; Prentky et al., 1989; Ressler et. al., 1988). Violence and domination involving a helpless victim rule these fantasies, for in their fantasy worlds, the male serial killers are all-powerful creatures. The killer fantasizes about humiliating and dominating a victim because he feels powerless within his real life. In this fantasy world, they are powerful beings who dominate everyone, and this quells reality which is far too harsh for these narcissistic-like beings to accept. The fantasy serves as an escape from the powerlessness, which either in his mind or in reality, plagues the killer (Ressler et al., 1988: 71). In other words, the serial killer has such a low self-concept that he dreams of hurting and torturing another human, so he can feel better (Hickey, 1997).
Furthermore, these fantasies are incredibly vivid to the offender. Research has shown that the more vivid the fantasy, the more heightened the sexual response to the individual (Smither & Over, 1987). As time passes, the serial killer creates more vivid and more grotesque fantasies that become more and more like a narcotic. The tolerance increases thereby allowing the offender to create ever-more heinous acts within his mind (Holmes & Holmes, 1998). Thus it logically follows that the serial murderer will fantasize with graphic details to heighten his sexual stimulation.
This fantasy life of male multiple murderers develops in early childhood and can encompass a killer’s life (Hazelwood, R. and Douglas, J., 1980; Prentky et al., 1989: 890; Ressler et al., 1988: 35; Reinhardt, J.J., 1957; Schlesinger & Revictch, 1980). It is through this fantasy world that the serial killer incorporates and accepts his views about sexuality. At puberty, the serial killer becomes “entrenched” in a fantasy life in which sex is twisted until within the fantasy, there is no possibility that he could ever be rejected. The one way to ensure no rejection is to kill in the fantasy (Sears, 1991: 123).
In other words, male serial killers fantasize repeatedly about hurting others in order to reduce their high tension levels. When they do so, they feel more isolated with the knowledge that what they are feeling and thinking is so different and unacceptable to society. And so, the male serial killer becomes more entrenched in his fantasy life because he is more comfortable within that setting. He can control it. He owns it. And therefore, he is god-like.
Within the mind of the female who kills one time, a rich fantasy life has been established as well. Specifically, the female who kills her child or her husband in a one-time act of violence is often an isolated individual who is left with ‘bottled emotions.’ These internalized emotions then emerge in the forms of elaborate and violent fantasies (Pearson, 1946:10). Women who kill one time typically find themselves lonely and frustrated, so in order to compensate for the feelings of emptiness and withdraw, they begin to objectify their future victim by creating visions of destruction in their minds. In other words, the women fantasize about murdering their victim. These fantasies begin with different types of homicide and progress through post-murder actions. Typically, these fantasies only begin after the female has entered adulthood (Pearson, 1946:42).
So it has been established that male multiple murderers and females who kill one time both have a fantasy life that entails acts of domination and murder. Thus, it would follow that female multiple murderers enjoy the same types of violent fantasies, but such thought patterns had not been studied. Therefore researchers have been left to speculate as to whether the female multiple killer fantasizes about killing.
Objectives Of The Study
Seven females convicted of multiple murder were interviewed by this author for a study which examined homicide type as well as background behavior and thought patterns associated with multiple murder. The subjects consisted of 4 serial killers and 3 mass murderers who were located in California, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio. Serial murder as defined for this study is the killing of two or more individuals over a period of greater than thirty days. Mass murder is defined as the killing of 5 or more individuals in one process. That is, mass murder involves killing where there is no emotional ‘cooling off’ period between homicides. Together, these 7 women were responsible for 41 documented homicides. However, during the interviews, these murderers admitted to killing 67 victims. Thus, the impact of violence from these female predators is substantial.
Prison records, police records, trial transcripts, and other secondary sources were consulted prior to each interview. Each crime was examined for elements of planning or rehearsal which would indicate prior thought. Signs of planning included attempts to hide identity, elaborate body disposal, and preordained alibis. Single variable procedures were used to determine the significance of actions and thought patterns within this group of murderers.
The interviews supported the a priori hypothesis that suggested an all-encompassing fantasy life beginning in early childhood. Of the seven women interviewed, all admitted to a high level of introversion which led to an intrusive and reiterative thought pattern culminating in murder. These violent fantasies begin in early adolescence and become all-consuming to the female offender who reacts to the grotesque cognitions by erecting barriers to the outside world. In other words, the female multiple murderer retreats into an elaborate fantasy life which is maintained by infrequent interactions with other human beings.
As she becomes more entrenched into a rich and violent fantasy life, the female multiple murderer reports increased stress levels brought about by her realization that her thought patterns are divergent from mainstream thought. In response, the female multiple killer becomes ever-more isolated. As such, a tornado effect erupts. The female multiple murderer fantasizes about killing, and when she has contact with others, she realizes that her thought pattern is unique. So, in order to avoid the feelings of dissonance created by human interaction, she isolates herself and begins retreating further into her own mind.
As the female multiple murderer becomes more secluded, a unique change begins to take place. At first, her violent fantasies simply involve the act of murder. One woman reported fantasies involving killing with a gun, while five others stated that their fantasies entailed some form of asphyxia (suffocation or strangulation). Lastly, one woman abstained from this question.
Furthermore, the initial fantasy life of the female murderers is not directed at specific individuals. Six subjects stated that initially, their mental violence was directed at nameless bodies. Any person would be acceptable in the role of murder victim. Thus, the initial fantasies are directed at the elderly, men, women, and children. It was only after a period of several months that these women reported fixating their violent cognitions on a specific individual, usually someone they knew. Eerily, all but one of the subjects noted increasing violence within their fantasies.
The same six females reported that as they got closer to committing homicide, they experienced more intense and specific fantasies involving pre-crime, crime, and post-crime behaviors. Immediately prior to committing murder, the female multiple murderess experiences elaborate and obsessively detailed cognitions that invade every facet of her life. She becomes consumed with murderous intent and begins planning how she can kill without being detected. Every detail is thought out in her mind and incorporated into her fantasy. Once her cognitions become rote, she begins to prepare for murder.
Of the seven women interviewed, five admitted to reading materials to educate themselves about murder and forensic pathology. These five women reported going to their local libraries and reading books about poisons, autopsy procedures and police procedures. The admitted purpose was to learn how to kill without being detected. Simply, these women altered their fantasies to incorporate forensic knowledge into their fantasy lives. For instance, one serial killer who strangled one victim admitted to changing her murder method to suffocation upon learning that strangling leaves marks on the neck.
It is after the female multiple murderess begins educating herself that her murders begin. She is confident in her new-found expertise that she has infused into her mind. Since she has rehearsed this thought-pattern repeatedly and educated herself, she feels self-assured about her ability to carry out the violent acts which consume her mind. For the first time, she believes that she can do something that very few people can do, and she believes that she will be successful in eluding detection. Once she has attained this confidence, she chooses a victim who is close and defenseless, and she acts out her fantasy in precise detail.
Of the seven women involved in this research, two killed by using poison, two killed by asphyxiating their victims, one shot her victims, while the seventh stabbed her victims. Of the six women who admitted to a violent fantasy life, all used the murder method about which they had fantasized. For instance, the female mass murderer who enjoyed sadistic sex involving knives used a knife to stab her victims to death. Similarly, the female serial killer who fantasized about asphyxiating her victims actually smothered and strangled her six victims. The fantasy life did drive how these women committed their crimes.
For a brief time following the homicides, the females reported feelings of elation. They felt successful at making their dreams into reality, and six of the seven females stated that they felt all-powerful while committing the murders. However, this euphoria quickly dissipates leaving the female to feel lonely and isolated once more. And the violent fantasies continue in her mind and become ever-more incessant. She is faced with the prospect of getting caught for her action, yet she feels no remorse for her crime. Furthermore, she turns inward to seclude herself from the outside world, and the pattern of violence slowly establishes itself. Thus, the tornado begins again, and the path to murder becomes firmly entrenched.
In summary, the female multiple murderer begins experiencing violent fantasies in early adolescence. These fantasies are obtrusive and uncontrollable, and they interfere with the female’s daily functioning as she isolates herself in order to retreat to her mental comfort zone. With her unrealistic fantasy life, the female multiple murderer is more comfortable in her mind than with other people.
Her thoughts are violent, and the feelings of dissonance force her into a mental retreat. She erects mental barriers to keep those around her at a distance thus insulating herself from outside interference. Yet unlike her male counterpart, the female multiple murderess does not simply chose one victim-type in her initial fantasies. She is indiscriminate in her terror, killing children, adults, males, and females. In her fantasies, she kills whoever she desires. It is only after a period of several months that her fantasies begin to fixate on a certain person.
Method within the fantasy differs from woman to woman as some prefer guns, while the majority focused on using a hands-on murder method. Within their violent thoughts, the preferred technique to kill involved strangling a helpless victim, and initially, this helpless victim is not someone she knows. From their inception, her violent fantasies involve killing faceless bodies. It is only after several years of murderous mind-candy that the female multiple killer begins to incorporate specific individuals into her fantasy. But these individuals are not typically those who are causing the female stress. Instead she chooses to fantasize about killing a person who she can control.
But in order to truly act without getting caught, the female realizes that she must educate herself. She then acts to make her fantasy into reality by reading and making attempts to educate herself on police procedure, poisoning, and autopsy protocol. These efforts are aimed at eluding detection. And it does not take long for the female to move from education to annihilation as she uses her knowledge to plan and execute what she believes will be a perfect murder.
As she gains knowledge, she incorporates it into her fantasy world. In other words, she uses what she learned to plan a murder that minimizes her chances of being caught. And it is shortly thereafter that she actually kills. Though the murder brings initial happiness, the fantasies are strong and move the female serial killers forward into the cycle of violence once more, and their pattern of murder becomes established. For the mass murderer, the fantasies remain, but she is unable to act because she has likely been apprehended.
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