The symbolism of serial killing


This is yet another article about symbolism from self-styled social detective. Me. In previous posts the importance of symbolism in everyday interactions was stressed again and again. In this post I want to tentatively extend this analytical approach to profiling of serial killers. I have read a good deal about psychoanalysis and the symbolism of therapy. Before we get to applying this approach to serial killer profiling it would do well to revisit the basics of symbolism.

Let us return first of all to psychoanalyst Karen Maroda. She writes extensively about the value of countertransference. Countertransference being the therapists version of transference and transference relating to the projection of features of childhood relationships onto the relationship and the person of the therapist.Within her book The Power of Counter Transference she talks about what she has learned through her practise over the years.

As with Yalom and Langs she places a great emphasis on the remarks that the patient begins the session with. She points out that as Langs (1974) indicated negative references to doctors or other authority figures may well be thinly veiled negative comments about the therapist. Maroda also notes something that her supervisor also noted. She realized that whenever her patients would ask whether something in her office was new that this actually means that some change has occurred internally.

In Yalom’s book on the theory and practise of psychotherapy something along the same lines is related. He talks about issues precipitating the resistance in a group being discussed symbolically. He says that uneasiness about observers might be discussed metaphorically as conversations about confidentiality violations: for example, public posting of grades for a school course, or family members opening one another’s mail, or invasive credit company computers. The discomfort over the absence of the therapist may spawn conversations about parental inaccessibility or death or illness.

Therapy lends itself to symbolic situations. I would argue that life also presents many symbolic situations. I would further argue that this symbolic way of viewing things can be applied to serial killing.The first dream related in therapy is usually the most thematically unguarded. I would suggest that the first murder could perhaps be viewed as Yalom views the first dream related in therapy. It lays bare all of the issues of the dreamer/ murderer.


The art of profiling, more generally, similarly seems to me to be open to symbolic analysis. It seems to me that while the FBI suggests that the main investigative tool is the organized/ disorganized split that the real investigative tools are a whole range of symbolic cues and understandings based on experience.

Organized and Disorganized killers

The organized/ disorganized split is touted as the main taxonomic distinction of profiling.  It is the beginning of profiling as a science. It does not, however, hold up. In Robert Ressler’s book he alludes to Jeffrey Dahmer as a ‘mixed case’. It is not clear what exactly distinguishes between the organized and disorganized behaviour.

The distinction is not as useful as it at first seems when Ressler introduces it. The first serial killer Ressler talks about in his book is Trenton Chase. Trenton Chase is described as being a disorganized serial killer. This label is useful because it tells us that the serial killer probably did not live far from the place where the crimes were committed. He is not concerned with concealing his crimes or competent enough to plan things through. Although it turns out that most serial killers, organized or disorganized, kill close to their homes.

David Canter

Additionally, David Canter of the University of Surrey devotes a whole paper to savaging the distinction. His IP approach to profiling seems to capture maybe a bit more of what profiling is about. Damon A Muller in his discussion of profiling lays out some of the ideas of Canter’s approach. He says that Canter postulated five broad approaches with psychology can be used to profile offenders.

  • The first is interpersonal coherence, which proposes that actions performed by criminals make sense within the criminal’s own psychology.This might manifest as the offender selecting victims that are consistent with the important characteristics of the people who are important to the offender.
  • The Second approach attaches significance to the place and time of the murder.
  • The Fifth approach is termed forensic awareness. Some elements of covering up a crime scene indicate previous contact with the police.

These are some interesting and useful ways to examine serial killing symbolically. This might capture more of what profiling is actually about but it does not get the whole picture. The core of profiling comes across from Ressler’s book. At bottom it is an imaginative process that involves entering into the umwelt of serial killers. There is a reason why Ressler’s team experienced psychological difficulties, weight loss and panic attacks that aped heart attacks. It is because profiling involves entering into the world of the serial killer. It involves attuning oneself to the symbolic cues and emotional contagion of murderers.




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