What is a visionary serial killer? Unpredictable behavior. Murderous sprees inspired by grandiose delusions of saving the world. When we say ‘visionary’, we’re not talking about a murderer who has a great vision that will change the world. We’re also not necessarily insinuating that they have an extreme talent for planning, logic, or goal achievement.
What sets this classification from other sub-types? What motivates them to carry out their vicious crimes against humanity? Are there any examples in pop culture? If you want to have all those questions (and more) answered, you came to the right place!
Before we cover a few real-life examples, we think it’s important that you understand the basics as well as the most common motivating factors! If you’ve never head of the Son of Sam, you’re in for a killer education! Journey with us into the darker side of humanity!
What Is A Visionary Serial Killer?
In the grand scheme of things, very few human beings on the planet are at risk for developing a severe mental illness like schizophrenia. According to the official stats, only 1% of the population will develop schizophrenia in their lifetime. Even fewer end up becoming consumed with metaphysical delusion that drives them to murder.
We don’t think it’s healthy to lump an entire group of people into the same category based on a mental health diagnosis. Which is why we’ll be as specific as possible when we refer to the real life examples. Although any number of factors play a role in the development of us as human beings, there will always be debate surrounding ‘nurture vs. nature’.
Is there any specific event, hereditary factor, or neurochemical make-up that creates the perfect storm of instability and murderous intent?
Theories On Possible Causes
When it comes to diagnosing a mental illness like schizophrenia, there are 2 symptom categories that a psychiatrist/psychologist will base their decision on.
- Positive symptoms
- Negative symptoms
Positive symptoms include both visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions (sometimes associated with the metaphysical realm), and disorganized thinking.
Negative symptoms include a flat affect (which usually manifests as a blank expression), general apathy, motor impairment, difficulty in developing and maintaining relationships, and cognitive impairment.
It’s somewhat common for the delusions to have a religious or spiritual element. In extremely rare cases, someone with schizophrenia can start to believe that they’re being commanded or controlled by god or demons. Often times, when they experience a severe break from reality, the psychosis deepens and they may feel the need to carry out physical acts of violence.
Killers of this type represent the most extreme end of psychosis and mental illness. In these cases, shocking violence and a deadly outcome further the already present stigma surrounding mental health issues. We realize that the majority of people suffering from schizophrenia do not become physically violent. It just so happens that most of the notorious examples were diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Does Childhood Trauma Play A Role?
It’s not very surprising that many experts in the field of psychology, psychiatry, and forensics believe that childhood trauma can contribute to a violent future. There is still quite a bit of debate about why it affects some, but not others moving into adulthood.
It’s hard to speculate about what causes one person (who was abused as a child) to commit violent crimes, while another person (often raised in the same household) to appear ‘normal’ or more well-adjusted. The harsh reality is that there isn’t any one factor we can pinpoint to explain the behavior of such horrific offenders.
Chances are, it’s most likely that some people are born with a certain chemical make-up that makes them either more (or less) prone to violence. The lines between cause and effect start to get pretty blurry when you add an abusive childhood, heavy drinking or substance abuse, and a psychotic mental illness on top of that.
5 of The Most Common Motivating Factors
Although there isn’t any one motivating factor you can point at to explain such erratic and dangerous behavior – many of the symptoms that drive someone to kill in this manner are directly related to illnesses like schizophrenia.
Take a look at the list below to see some of the most common reasons this sub-type commits multiple murders:
- Deep psychosis
- Psychotic delusions
- Believe they are a god or demon
- Commanded to kill by god or demons
- Experience regular breaks from reality
Someone who constantly hears voices commanding them to murder someone in the name of god may believe that the only way to muffle the voices is to obey their wish. The same can also apply to someone who believes they are being told to commit murder by a demon (or demons).
Is It Really That Black And White?
That being said, it isn’t necessarily that black and white. Their psychotic delusions may convince them to kill for another reason. Here’s a quote from David Berkowitz (aka Son of Sam) that he used to justify his behavior:
The demons wanted girls. Sugar and Spice and everything nice.
As delusional as it sounds, there is some very convincing evidence that suggests the Son of Sam used demons as an excuse for his behavior. Many experts believe that he wasn’t truly psychotic. At his hearing, he was found ‘fit to stand trial’ and later confessed that his ‘demon excuse’ was a complete fabrication.
Are They Cold & Calculated or Sloppy & Erratic?
One of the most terrifying qualities these criminals exhibit is their almost completely random choice of victims. On the flip side of the coin, their erratic and often disorganized behavior usually leads to a quicker arrest and investigation.
Since they are rarely as coldly-calculated and precise as other sub-types, they tend to leave ample evidence leading directly back to them. Unlike notorious lust killers like Ted Bundy or Ed Kemper, they aren’t always as careful about covering their tracks. Then again, can you name more than one or two offender of this type who’s never been caught?
Aside from Jack The Ripper and The Zodiac Killer, the majority of cases in this arena are usually solved (even if it’s after they’ve already taken multiple innocent lives). If you’re a hardcore fan of true crime, you might recognize at least one of of the most notorious offenders listed below!
3 of The Most Notorious Offenders
Since this sub-type tends to be more rare than thrill, black widow, or angel of death killers, there isn’t a very big pool to draw from. Once again, this is why we keep reiterating the fact that most people who are diagnosed with a mental illness like schizophrenia do not become serial offenders.
Here are 3 of the most notorious offenders of this sub-type:
- David Berkowitz (diagnosed with schizophrenia, 6 victims total, 7 wounded)
- Herbert Mullin (diagnosed with schizophrenia, 13 victims total)
- Joseph Kallinger (diagnosed with schizophrenia, 3 victims total)
David Berkowitz was given up for adoption by his mother only a few days after his birth. Although he did have a somewhat turbulent childhood, there is very little mention of him suffering any extreme physical abuse.
Watch the short clip from his first-ever interview since his capture over 40 years ago below:
According to the official statements, Herbert Mullin did not have an abusive childhood. Although his parents were ‘strict’, he wasn’t physically beaten or abused. If Herbert Mullin wasn’t physically abused, why did he turn out the way he did? Is mental illness to blame?
Joseph Kallinger, on the other hand, suffered pretty severe abuse at the hands of his adoptive parents. On several occasions, he was locked inside a closet, forced to eat excrement, burned, whipped, and starved. (It’s no wonder he perceived violence as a possible solution.) When kids are treated that poorly at such a young age, their brains can become hardwired in one of two ways.
Internalized vs. Externalized Aggression – Chicken or the Egg?
Generally speaking, they can start to internalize the abuse and instead take it out on themselves by self-harming, substance abuse, or (in the worst case) suicide. Alternatively, they can continue the cycle of abuse and carry out acts of violence against other people in the future.
In the same way that mental illness doesn’t necessarily determine antisocial behavior, neither does childhood abuse. The popular ‘chicken vs. egg’ or ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument definitely applies to offenders like the ones listed above. If they weren’t abused as children, would they have continued on to become notorious murderers?
What plays a bigger role in their development – mental illness, or childhood trauma? What about the environment they were raised in? Before we dive too deep down the philosophical rabbit hole, take a look at how they’re portrayed in popular culture!
Examples In Popular Culture – Movie Recommendations!
In our mind, it’s a little bit surprising that there haven’t been very many movies or TV series based around this topic. (Maybe it’s because Hollywood knows that superhero movies sell 10 times as many tickets.) Also, it probably isn’t exactly easy to accurately portray what it’s like to hear voices.
In 1999, a movie titled Summer of Sam was released. Instead of focusing on portraying Berkowitz, they chose to take a different approach. Instead, the film depicts the way his sporadic actions affected the local residents. It follows the lives of two local residents (played by John Leguizamo and Adrien Brody) as the historic events unfold around them.
Another movie titled Frailty (2001) was loosely based on the crimes of Joseph Kallinger. It stars Matthew McConaughey as the son who confesses to the crimes committed by his father (played by Bill Paxton). Both movies are very highly-rated on IMDb, although we recommend watching both.
It’s also rumored that David Berkowitz will make an appearance in the second season of the Netflix series Mindhunter. If you haven’t already seen the first season, clear your schedule and prepare for a 13 hour binge! (It’s really that good.)
What’s The Likelihood Of Encountering One?
Since the visionary serial killer sub-type is still much more rare compared to other murderers, the likelihood of running into one at some point in your life is extremely low. According to the National Safety Council, our odds of dying from kidney disease or accidental poisoning are much more likely.
One of the best ways you can help prevent the future possibility of violence like this is to keep a close eye on your loved ones. If they’re exhibiting any of the symptoms we mentioned above (and aren’t currently receiving any treatment), do your best to make sure they get the help they need!
Even though there is still quite a bit of stigma surrounding mental health, the least we can do is make sure the people around us are doing okay. That being said, we don’t recommend diagnosing someone just because they exhibit a few of the symptoms you read on WebMD. Asking them to meet with a therapist or psychiatrist is the best way to get the proper diagnosis (if necessary).
What do you think? Were you expecting mental health to play such a major role? Do you think David Berkowitz’s interview offers any new insight into the mind of a murderer?