Doc Bonn Explains: The Difference Between Serial Killers, Spree Killers and Mass Murderers

Dr. Scott Bonn,Doc Bonn,Serial Killer Expert

Serial killers hold the fascination of the public whether in real crime news accounts of individuals such as Ted Bundy and the “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy or fictional characters such as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.” Serial killers seem so purely predatory and unremorseful that the general public simply cannot help but display a macabre interest in them.  Although they account for no more than 2% of the approximately 17,000 homicides in the U.S. annually, serial killers receive a disproportionately high level of media attention due to the incomprehensible savagery of their deeds.

Significantly, serial killers differ from mass murderers and spree killers. A mass murder involves the killing of multiple people at a single location where the victims may be either randomly selected or targeted.  A mass murder often occurs when the perpetrator who is usually deeply troubled suffers a psychotic break from reality and strikes out at his perceived tormentors.  A mass murderer is often killed at the scene of the crime; sometimes by his/her own hand.

A spree killing involves the murder of multiple people at different locations over a short period of time (the maximum duration is usually seven days).  The perpetrator in spree killings often but not always knows his/her victims and frequently targets family members or romantic partners.  There is no emotional cooling off period between murders on the part of the killer.

The most commonly accepted definition of serial killers was created by the FBI, which identifies a serial killer by three criteria:

1. The perpetrator kills at least three people.
2. The murders take place in separate events and locations.
3. The killer has an emotional cooling off period between the murders.

The key distinction between serial killers and mass or spree killers is the emotional cooling off period between murders in which the killer blends back into his/her seemingly normal life. The predator reemerges to strike again when the urge to kill becomes overwhelming. The duration of the cooling off period can vary from weeks to months or even years, and varies by killer. For example, Dennis Rader, a.k.a. “Bind, Torture, Kill” (BTK) confessed to ten murders committed over a span of nearly 30 years upon his capture in 2005.  In between murders, he lived a remarkably normal outward life with a wife and two children.

There is some disagreement over the serial killer definition among experts, mostly about the number of killings required to be a serial killer. There is also debate as to whether organized crime hit-men should be considered serial killers.  Doc Bonn argues that they are not serial killers because their motivation is purely business and their murders fulfill no emotional needs on the part of the killer.

Serial killers are driven to murder by urges and fantasies they may not even comprehend but which are insatiable and undeniable.  Thus, the defining characteristic of serial killers which distinguishes them from other murderers who also have multiple victims is their disappearance from the public eye during an emotional cooling off period and their shocking reemergence when their desire to kill again becomes overwhelming and uncontrollable.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq.”  He is currently writing a book on the public’s fascination with serial killers.  Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter or email him directly at


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Posted on May 24, 2012, in Serial Killers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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