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Differentiating between serial murderers, spree murderers, and mass murderers can be...

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Differentiating between serial murderers, spree murderers, and mass murderers can be difficult, as some individuals fit into two or more categories. Compare and contrast the characteristics of a serial murderer, spree murderer, and mass murderer. What is the role of psychiatry in each category of murderer?

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Definitions of spree, serial, and mass murderers can be unreliable. There is no more reliable source of information on these types of crimes than the data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which defines a spree killing as involving “two or more locations with almost no time break between murders.” This definition, while authoritative, is wrong. One of the most deadly spree killers in U.S. history was Charles Whitman, a former U.S. Marine and engineering student at the University of Texas. In August 1956, Whitman hauled an arsenal of firearms and ammunition to the observation deck of a tower on the university campus. By the time he was killed by police, Whitman had murdered 17 people, and wounded another 32. All from one location.

Defining the distinctions between categories of multiple murderers is actually quite simple. A spree murderer is basically an individual who, whether from a physical malady that destroys his routine thought process, or through an accumulation of real or perceived slights, takes it upon himself to kill as many people as possible, without an interruption. Well-known spree murderers (focusing on the United States; there have been spree murderers in other countries, especially China) have been, in addition to Whitman, Patrick Henry Sherill, a postal worker who murdered 14; Nidal Malik Hassan, who killed 13 and wounded another 30 in a 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas; Eric Bennet and Dylan Klebold, the teenagers who murdered 13 of their fellow students and wounded another 21 at Columbine High School in Colorado; and James Holmes, who killed 12 and wounded another 58 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. Sadly, this is a partial list.

Serial murderers, in contrast, are not individuals who simply “snap” and begin shooting up a location in one great spasmodic rampage. Rather, they are seriously mentally-ill individuals who have a psychological predisposition to kill and maim, and do so methodically over a protracted period of time. Often, serial killers partake in ritualistic rape, torture and dismemberment of their victims, and conceal the remains for many years. Well-known serial killers in U.S. history include Jeffrey Dahlmer, John Wayne Gacy, Edward Gein (alleged to be the inspiration for the serial killer in Alfred Hitchcock‘s film “Psycho“), Richard Trenton Chase, David Berkowitz (the so-called “Son of Sam”), Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Bruno, the duo who strangled at least 12 women, and Ted Bundy, who raped and murdered dozens of women and was executed in 1989. Again, this is a partial list. A particularly prominent foreign serial killer was Andrei Chikatilo, a Russian known as the “Butcher of Rostov” for his murder of 52 women and children between the late 1970s and 1990.

Finally, mass murderers are individuals who simply kill multiple victims, and can fall into either the spree or serial killer categories.

In all of these cases, psychiatric disorders were a factor, as mentioned either from an underlying physical or mental illness or from the accumulation of grievances that pushed the individual over the edge.  Unlike spree killers, who exhibit no particular mental trait indicating intellectual superiority, serial killers, some of them anyway, were found to be of above average intelligence.  

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