Okay, you’ve written your first, or maybe your thirty-first, shoot-’em-up, cut-’em-up serial killer novel. You’re proud of the book and of all your hard work. After all, your sister’s husband’s best friend’s mother’s uncle who used to be a security guard at the mall says the bad guy in your latest book is so realistic that he makes Gacy and Bundy look like Cub Scouts. Now that’s an expert opinion!
But, did you do your homework? Are you sure you’ve written the character properly? Or, did you get your information from Dexter reruns?
Maybe we should take a moment to see how well you did by having a quick look at our mini serial killer checklist.
Number One – All serial killers absolutely LOVE Jodie Foster…
Oops, wrong list.
Hang on a second…it’s…here, somewhere. I saw it just a moment ago…
Ah, yes. Here we go…
Serial Killer Fact Checker
1. For the most part, serial killers are NOT loners. They don’t hang out in dark alleys hoping a potential victim will soon pass by. In fact, serial killers normally live everyday lives, working steady jobs and hanging out with everyday people.
2. Sex is NOT the only motivator behind serial killings. Greed, anger, money, the thrill of the kill, and wanting attention could all be considered as motivation for serial killings.
3. Serial killers are generally NOT wanderers who travel the highways and byways searching for their victims. Instead, they normally choose to stay within a comfortable region that’s relatively close to the center of their world (home, work, etc.).
4. Serial killers are generally NOT the super-smart geniuses we sometimes see on TV and in film. They’re also NOT normally insane as defined by law. Sure, they’re usually psychopathic, but not fruitcake crazy.
5. Serial killers can and often do stop killing. There’s no serial killer handbook rule stating they must find and kill a new victim every day for the rest of their lives.
6. Not all serial killers are white males.
7. Serial killers, as a rule, do NOT want to get caught. Instead, they become complacent and careless, making it easier to be caught by police.
8. Not all serial killers are alike. There is no standard. Each serial killer has his/her own motivation and personality.
9. Serial killers are NOT limited to any specific race, age group, or gender.
10. Serial killers may have multiple motivations.
Finally, to help with your research…
“A serial killer murders at least two people in distinctly separate incidents, with a psychological rest period between, which could be considered a time of predatory preparation. He, she, or they also choose the murder activity, such as stabbing, strangulation, shooting, or bombing, and may move around to different places or lure successive victims to a single locale. They view victims as objects needed for their ultimate goals, and manifest as addictive quality to their behavior, so that choosing murder is a satisfying act rather than merely a reaction or instrumental goal.” Dr. Katherine Ramsland
Hangings have been a staple in mysteries for as long as we can remember. The Wild West featured them at high noon, and even the United States government used hanging as a means to execute condemned prisoners—the last being a fellow from the state of Delaware named Bill Bailey, which finally answers the never-ending question from that song. He’s not coming home, so feel free to stop singing.
Most writers who attempt to pen death by rope or other “twisted” cord, have never seen a victim of strangulation, or hanging (sometimes they’re the same). That lack of first-hand experience, of course, makes describing a strangulation a bit more difficult, leaving authors to rely on books, TV, film, and the word of experts. So, before we look at an actual photo straight from the morgue (I snapped the image), let’s take a moment to discuss why something as small as a shoelace has the ability to end a life.
*Warning – graphic images below.
The human neck, although sturdily perched on a set of nicely toned shoulders, is actually quite vulnerable to life-threatening injury.
After all, there’s a lot of important stuff packed into a fairly small space—spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels. And, unfortunately for murder victims, there’s not a lot of extra protection surrounding those vital body parts.
Hangings are either complete (the entire weight of the body is suspended by the neck), or incomplete (a portion of the body is touching the ground/floor).
A judicial hanging (execution) is normally a death by internal decapitation, where the weight of the body combined with the fall causes the neck to break, separating the skull from the spine (a separation at C2 is the classic hangman fracture).
The muscles of the neck, such as the sternocleidomastoid muscle, remain intact during an incomplete decapitation.
Rarely, as I’ve often read in novels, does a complete external decapitation occur. However, it is possible to see an external decapitation (the head completely separates from the body—two individual pieces) in cases where the drop is much further than the length of the victim’s body. For example, the victim is 6′ tall and is dropped from a height of 30 feet, or more, before the rope tightens.
Strangulation by ligature, tool, or mechanism is a little different, however. Death is normally caused by obstruction of blood flow to the brain, which first causes loss of consciousness followed by arterial and possible airway obstruction.
However, pressure applied to the neck for mere moments doesn’t always cause death. Martial arts “strangle holds” often involve a compression of the major neck arteries, causing a temporary unconsciousness.
The trachea (windpipe) is generally not compromised during the application of choke-hold techniques.
The above post-autopsy photo (note the stitching used to close the “Y” incision) shows a deep ligature mark on the neck (upper left). The murder weapon was an extension cord, the kind typically found in many homes.
Other items used to strangle include, but are not limited to, shoestrings, belts, bedsheets and pillow cases, speaker wire, lawn mower pull cords, t-shirts, underwear, draw strings, phone cords, window blind cords, curtains, Christmas tree light strings, flex cuffs/cable ties, twine, wire of various types, drip irrigation tubing, computer bag and luggage straps, purse straps, bras, stockings and socks, and if all else fails, rope.
Another form of execution in days long ago was to hang a man by his ribs. The hangman first made an incision between condemned person’s ribs, on either side. Next, he inserted an iron hook between the exposed ribs. A chain attached to the hook was used to hoist the soon-to-be-dead man, who was left hanging until he died. A process that could take several days.