There are a lot of really sick people in the world, but serial killers tend to emerge in our public consciousness as the most appalling.
In media, they’re featured, observed, and loathed at a rate that seems to expose a regrettable—though unavoidable—prurience for the macabre. And while lay conceptions of serial killers are often uninformed and sensationalized, these individuals are also subject to some of the most focused forensic scrutiny of any class of offender. Academic criminologist and true crime author Dr. Lee Mellor has studied serial killers at great length; it’s unlikely you know more about the topic than he does.
Banter: You study something that a lot of people think they’re experts on, thanks to Hollywood. What is the biggest misconception about serial killers?
Dr. Mellor: That they all share any common characteristics beyond meeting the FBI criteria of committing "the unlawful killing of two or more people by the same offender(s), in separate events." We've only been studying serial killers in any kind of systematic manner since the late-Seventies/early-Eighties, starting with offenders from the Baby Boom generation (1946-64). In hindsight, we should have waited for that generation to finish its cycle before drawing any conclusions about serial murderers, but that's not what happened. Fortunately, I stepped into the game as a serious player when the youngest serial killing Boomers were in their Fifties and the oldest were nearing their Seventies. So, we are currently re-examining all of our previous conclusions regarding race, gender, age of onset, motive, and prevalence. To make a long story short: (1) it appears that there are far more African-American serial killers per capita than previously proposed, (2) the prevalence of female serial killers has wildly fluctuated from a high percentage in the 19th century to levels of between 8-16% in the 20th and 21st centuries, (3) a precursory look seems to reveal that their may be many more serial killers who begin in their Forties and Fifties than previously imagined, (4) they are motivated by a combination of interrelating reasons, and a killer's motive may not even be consistent from victim to victim, (5) academics and law enforcement have wildly divergent ideas about their prevalence.
Each is a special little snowflake.
Banter: You’ve studied hundreds of them. Who is the most disturbing serial killer?
Dr. Mellor: It could be argued that the only answer I can give is subjective, however, if you accept the premises that
(1) suffering is worse than non-suffering,
(2) prolonged suffering is worse than brief suffering, and
(3) more people suffering is worse than less people suffering,
then the answer would seem to be the offender who inflicted prolonged, intense suffering on the largest number of victims.
To my knowledge that would be 'La Bestia' Luis Garavito who raped, tortured, and sexually mutilated between 138-300+ male children and teens alive during a sustained ordeal, in Colombia from 1992-99.
Banter: These past few weeks, an old TED Talk resurfaced in the news cycle wherein a German medical student (Mirjam Heine) challenges her audience to view paedophilia as more of a pathological illness than a grave moral deficiency. As society becomes less constrained by traditional conceptions of morality, and more clinical in its appreciation of ‘evil’, how do you think the legal treatment of people with criminally paraphilic psychological profiles will change?
Dr. Mellor: First of all, it's important to distinguish between 'pedophilia', a sexual desire, and 'child molestation', an act. There is a substantial overlap between the two, but not all pedophiles molest children, and not all child molesters are pedophiles. Obviously, it is better for everyone involved if a pedophile who does not molest children receives adequate treatment and isn't subjected to unnecessary stress through stigmatization, social exclusion, and/or harassment. Before everyone gets angry and starts tweeting, realize that I'm not a bleeding heart - stressors increase the likelihood that a pedophile will act upon his desires. Child molesters, those who do the deed, should be incarcerated, regardless if they are pedophilic or non-pedophilic. It's important for the legal system to focus on what individuals do, rather than what they desire.
Now, I think what you're alluding to here is that the way forensic professionals conceptualize paraphilia and articulate these concepts may serve as mitigating factors in criminal prosecution or skew risk assessments towards being too lenient. Law is not my strong point, but I think if we hold mens rea to a strict, lean definition, then no reconceptualization of paraphilia, in itself, should be able to breach that wall. Politically, I propose that we appoint judges who are tough on sex crime. I'm more concerned about having weak judges decide the fate of a rapist than mental health professionals and social scientists arguing their respective epistemological positions.
The degree to which a jury is educated is important, but less so than how they are educated. That's where the public understanding of paraphilia becomes important, and where we need to be most cautious about the influence of misguided educators and professionals. By the way, pedophilia is a paraphilic disorder and needs to be treated. End of analysis.
Banter: You’re the host of Murder Was The Case, a podcast that, in your own words “discusses the darkest, most perverse, bestial crimes known to man.” Is your audience just a classic manifestation of our primal psychological impulses, or do you think this love of the lurid has a more complicated sociological explanation?
Dr. Mellor: I'll take number one, Banter. We're levelled-up chimps driven to procreate through hierarchical competition, rightfully obsessed with our own impending deaths and those of the people we love. This naturally leads us to fixate on dominance and control. These impulses throb in our basil ganglia - an ancient part of our brain. True crime merely offers a window into the realization of man's violent urges when filtered through culture. But the cultural layer is arguably most fascinating.
Banter: Aside from your academic career, you are also quite a seasoned alternative country musician. As someone whose professional life revolves around understanding the depths of human depravity, how important is it to have some sort of creative outlet?
Dr. Mellor: Answering this is going to be necessarily self-indulgent, for which I apologise. I don't have 'outlets', compartmentalize, or wear masks. I'm a unified self/conscience compulsively absorbing, processing, and rendering culture and information, in some vane pursuit of a dragon named 'peace'. The days roll into each other and I tumble with them, making as much happen as I can. Things have got to stay interesting. All I've ever done was read, think, travel, and create artistic and scholarly works. It's the only way I know how to exist meaningfully. To give you some psychological context, I have an Openness score of 100 in the Five-Factor Model of Personality.
Before I was investigating murders, I was telling stories through song. It's no accident I wrote and performed Outlaw Country.
My first album Ghost Town Heart addressed propaganda, militarism, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, deindustrialization, MMIWG, life passing us by, romanticizing the dead, alternate dimensions, Prohibition, alienation, alcoholism, criminality, redemption, precarious authority, depression, and murder.
So, I was singing criminology before I was studying it. But I've always been drawn to the world of the human. An artist rather than a scientist. Murder is an expression, a layer of symbols, so I listen to it as if it were music. That's how I understand it.