In Jo Nesbo’s novel The Leopard, two bodies of two women are discovered drowned in their own blood. Desperate to stop the monster responsible, the police are forced to locate Inspector Harry Hole, a brilliant detective traumatized by the horror of his last investigation. Hole traded his career iyears ago for the squalor of Hong Kong’s opium dens, but despite his desire for nothing short of oblivion, Harry is soon back on the trail of a psychopath.
Serial killers are a source of fascination and fear for most people. The light of modernity leaves little shadow in which traditional monsters like vampire, werewolves and ghosts might lurk but we still need our bogeyman. The serial killer suits the bill: he is a predator lurking among us, unrecognizable for what he is until he strikes. He’s like us, but not like us: a monster in the shape of a man.
Despite their popularity, a number of misconceptions exist about both serial killers and the people who hunt them. To clear some of these up, I spoke with Mark E. Safarik. Safarik is a 30 year law enforcement veteran, with 23 of those years spent with the FBI. For twelve years Safarik worked as a Senior Profiler in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, which readers will recognize as the unit portrayed in the film The Silence of the Lambs and the television program Criminal Minds. Safarik is a partner with Forensic Behavioral Services International, where he provides expert advice and testimony on a wide range of forensic matters, and is the host of his own television program on the Cloo Network, Killer Instinct. Safarik spoke with me by phone from his Virginia office.
Fiction depicts serial killers as geniuses and masters of manipulation When I asked Safarik about this, he told me that real serial murderers vary in intelligence just like the population as a whole. As far as the manipulation of law enforcement, media and victims – a staple of many movies – such behavior is actually rare. Safarik said that most serial killers don’t want to get caught and the extent of their interaction with victims is normally focused on successfully getting them into a position where the killer is in control. He said that he thinks of these as being cons or ruses because they’re so brief in nature.
High intelligence and an ability to manipulate others aren’t what make some serial killers successful. What may is a personality disorder known as psychopathy, a symptom of which is a complete lack of empathy for others.
“One of the attributes that make them successful in getting away with these crimes is not so much that they’re really smart – some are, but many are not – it’s that they’re psychopaths. They’re unaffected emotionally about the crime itself,” said Safarik. “Twenty minutes after murdering and raping somebody and dumping their body in a ditch they can act completely normal and be unaffected by the crime. It’s this appearance of normalcy that enables them to blend into society. It’s not that they’re really intelligent: it’s just that they make a plan and learn to be better killers from their mistakes”
In addition to psychopathy, Safarik said that there’s generally a sexual component, as well as a desire for power and control in most serial murder cases. However, it is always very important to look at each case and offender individually. Despite the depiction of serial killers as lonely, troubled white men, real serial killers may have a host of motives and are as diverse as the general population, ranging in age and ethnicity.
Misconceptions also exist about the role of behavior profilers in catching serial killers, according to Safarik. The veteran profiler said that most people think they’re profiling people, when actually they’re assessing the behavioral dynamics integrated in a crime scene. Receiving training in many different disciplines enable them to do this. Some of the skills of a successful profiler include blood spatter analysis, a knowledge of psychopathology and forensic pathology, plus many years of experience in working extremely violent crimes.
“The way that it’s conveyed in the media is that we can ‘see’ the killer or we can tell you who the killer is. Profiling behavioral assessment is really another tool that law enforcement has at its disposal,” said Safarik.
For more information about Mark E. Safarik, visit Forensic Behavioral Services International online. Individual episodes of Killer Instinct are available through iTunes. The Leopard is available now in print and eBook format from your favorite book retailer. For more information about author Jo Nesbo, visit his website.