Jeffrey Dahmer was intelligent

theme - truth

The psychiatrist Borwin Bandelow is the author of the book "Who is Afraid of the Evil Man" about uncanny fascinations. He is also researching the special abilities of psychopaths at the University of Göttingen. A conversation about unscrupulous murderers, their attraction to women and the fascination of evil. Psychopaths and serial killers appear in countless novels, films and series. What is it about them that fascinates us?

Borwin Bandelow: A good crime thriller lives from the ups and downs of emotions. From the first appearance of the murderer, our fear is systematically built up. When the handcuffs snap shut, the body releases endorphins. The rule of thumb for crime writers is: the greater the fear, the greater the feelings of happiness of the audience and readers, and that requires a brutal murder with pathologists, forensics and a portion of maggots in the corpse. That explains the trend towards particularly brutal serial offenders on the screen or in the novel.

Are serial offenders just as fascinating in real life?

A good example of this was the murderer Jack Unterweger. He was very attracted to people during his lifetime. His imprisonment novels became bestsellers, even made into films (for example "Purgatory"), and he was respected in the cultural scene. Perpetrators like him are highly intelligent, controlled, charismatic and can win over their victims. The contradiction between a bourgeois life and evil certainly makes up another fascination. Serial offenders in particular have to be able to live inconspicuously among other people in order to be able to commit their crimes over a longer period of time and not to be caught at the first murder.

Are there parallels in the biographies of serial offenders?

Yes there is. There are numerous studies on the development of anti-social personalities, i.e. people who disregard social norms. Genetic inheritance accounts for 60 percent of this, 40 percent influence environmental factors. If the mother shows antisocial tendencies, the home environment is not the best either. But there are serial offenders who grew up in an orderly home, such as Jeffrey Dahmer, an American serial killer of the 80s and 90s. His parents got divorced, but by then he was of legal age and had already committed several murders.

Do the perpetrators attract attention through their behavior in childhood and adolescence?

50 percent of prison inmates with antisocial personality disorder (APS) ** had ADHD syndrome in early childhood. As children, they were first noticed in everyday life through violence towards other children. Later on, there was often sexual harassment of classmates. Cruelty to animals is also a typical phenomenon. People are out of the question as victims for them so early.

When does the first torment turn into a lust for murder?

These people are primarily concerned with exercising power. For example, Jack Unterweger had consensual sex with befriended women several times a day - he never murdered any of them. His victims were prostitutes who were completely strangers to him and with whom he had not slept. He probably only chose prostitutes because they were easy to drive into a lonely forest. It was all about the final power kick. The sight of defenseless victims on the ground has given him satisfaction. The murderer Jeffrey Dahmer wanted to turn his male victims into mindless zombies and in the end ate them up. At first, such crimes are mostly fantasies. After the first act, however, there is such a great sense of wellbeing that the desire for more arises. There are probably some people who carry such fantasies for a lifetime, but never put them into practice.

Can the need for more murders be compared to drug addiction?

Yes, it is comparable on a neurobiological level. A murderer once said that killing was like cutting toenails. At first you do it reluctantly, later you don't want to stop. The feeling of power over a defenseless victim is so strong that serial perpetrators can hardly hold back.

Is there something evil slumbering in each of us?

In human history, dominance, power and aggressiveness have always been rewarded by the release of endorphins in the brain. Those who were particularly brave in the mammoth hunt became leaders faster, got the most beautiful women and were thus able to spread their genes in the world. Being anti-social was associated with a survival and reproductive benefit. Little has changed about that to this day. Still, I don't think that each of us has something bad in us. It takes extreme situations like wars or serious illnesses to turn "normal" people into murderers.

How high is the quota of women among serial killers?

Women only commit six to ten percent of all violent crimes. The quota of women among serial killers also moves within this framework. This small proportion can be explained in terms of development history. The tasks of the women were rather to look after the children, to collect and process the food. The ability to hunt or kill people, on the other hand, was of secondary importance.

What is it that fascinates women about the perpetrators? Serial killers in particular get an unusually large number of declarations of love in prison.

There are different explanations for this. One of them is the so-called "Little Red Riding Hood Syndrome": These women have a pathological fascination for the animal world. Their love overrides the intelligent brain, and women are only looking for strong alpha males. Another explanation is the "Amiga syndrome" ("But mine is completely different"). The women attribute the cruel deeds of the murderer to unfortunate circumstances. They are convinced that love or faith could save him and make him a righteous being again.

Victims of psychopaths who have been imprisoned sometimes speak of "invisible handcuffs" that prevented any escape. Why does this attachment to the tormentor remain?

The victims suffer from the constant torture of psychopaths. This daily fear for one's own life causes a drastic shift in perception. Strong feelings of attachment to the perpetrator arise, comparable to the relationship between the infant and mother. Even a baby is angry when the mother walks away - the baby cannot know that she just wants to warm the milk bottle. At the same time, she remains an important person who cares for the food and thus for survival. The victims' fear of death also turns the perpetrator into a provider who brings them food. Put simply, the victims' strategy is: You can survive torture, not starvation.

* Individuals with Dissocial or Antisocial Personality Disorders "are characterized by harming both themselves and their loved ones. Due to their tendency towards violence and delinquent behavior, they also pose a danger to society." (Source: Forensic-Psychiatric Service of the University of Bern)

** Being anti-social means that one behaves "not conforming to general social norms". (Source: Duden)

Birk Grüling lives and works as a freelance journalist on the outskirts of Hamburg. His focus is on reports and interviews about science, society and pop culture.


On the question of whether one's own behavior is predisposed or shaped by the environment: in the fluter booklet "Family"
An APuZ on the subject of socialization
A "Planet Wissen" show on serial killers
The show "scobel" on 3sat about the fascination of evil
Information portal about the most famous serial killer Jack The Ripper