Where did serial killers come from all of a sudden?
I’m not sure where this came from, but I’ll try to answer. You don’t give me a lot to work with.
First, we need to talk about time frames. “All of a sudden?” That’s assuming a lot. You’re probably referring to criminal investigations discovering serial killers for the first time in the 19th century.
This has more to do with the way history and the human minds works than the phenomena itself. We only became aware of them recently, and thanks to advances in human knowledge, we just ignored most of them before now (or the 19th century, whichever comes first).
The truth is, they didn’t come from anywhere. They have been with us for a long time.
Killing of people, or murder, is hard. It creates, or requires, a drastically different mental state. Soldiers need to be trained under agonizing conditions that push their physical limits so that they’re ego can be broken down. Unlike spiritual practice, the ego is not filled in with non-dualistic philosophy, but the mechanical need to follow orders, most importantly the order to murder whoever they’re told.
Most serial killers have what we now know to be called personality disorders. Sociopathy is the most common one referenced, and is typically found in the heads of the exceptionally cruel and bizarre murderers from recent decades. However, with the right mindset, any number of us can be convinced to support murder just as soldiers are. We just need the right justification. Like punishment for murder, sexual assault, and the nebulous self-defense. Sometimes just believing something different, such as women’s reproductive rights or that a different nation is the best nation, is enough. We may not be driven to murder ourselves in most of these cases, but we will let other people murder on our behalf.
Personality disorders did not suddenly happen, we just suddenly discovered they exist. They’ve been with us for a long time. Of course, now that there are 7 billion people on the planet, the variety of people increases too, and without much selective pressure, the extremity. We have more minds alive today that work on a different level. Some of these minds will be called genius, some of them will be called demonic, same as it ever was. But the fact is, we can’t judge which extreme is good or bad until we see action, then we make all sorts of assumptions.
Now, imagine it’s a couple thousand years ago and a sociopath is born. There are not police forces and criminology or psychology. There is the powerful taking what they can from the weak. There is no rule of law, just the rule of power. Violence and cruelty can help you seize power. In this environment, a sociopath, who is also a careful observer of human behavior that their lack of empathy turns into a kind of super-power, might thrive instead of being vilified.
Now, if this sociopath was born in Transylvania, far from the power centers that will write our histories, the powerful may recognize the monstrous nature of the person more easily, and perhaps create a legend about him. And if he’s born in the capitol of the world’s largest empire, you might ignore him until he’s killed so many prostitutes that people demand notice, then you make him into a famous monster.
So, what if your sociopath doesn’t kill prostitutes? What if he knows better than to kill anyone that would be missed? What if he’s observed very well, and learned that killing foreigners is not just acceptable, but celebrated and could make him a legend?
What if he’s named Alexander, and born in the center of Greek civilization?
What if he’s named Genghis and is born into the leadership of a powerful band of warriors?
What if he’s named Attila? Or Augustus? Or Caligula? Or Henry? Or Richard? Or John? Or Andrew? Or Adolf? Or Josef? Or Lyndon?
How mentally fit are you to wage war from Greece to India, slaughtering all who oppose you, and doing it all before you’re 33? What would it take for you to order the firebombing of thousands of innocent civilians in the forests of Cambodia? How much easier might it be if you didn’t have that pesky concern for even your closest friends, who might object (or be in your way)? If it was within your grasp, and everything in your mind told you that this was the Right Thing?
History is filled with men who glorified themselves in violence. We called many “Great” because they murdered thousands, if not millions, in order to create empires. We called them “Terrible” only when they were cruel to their own people. Sometimes we called them both, and it just depends on who is writing the history book.
Serial killers did not suddenly come into being. We just, suddenly, recognized that murder, death, and destruction do not build society up, but only tears it down.
Even now, we don’t place a high value on mental health. Soldiers are praised for killing in the name of duty, but reviled for coming home with post-traumatic stress. Parents who kill their children are cursed and spat on, instead of treated. We force people to live on the streets, so we can ignore them, instead of funding mental hospitals for them to learn how to live and cope with life. We blame video games and guns for violence, instead of finding ways to help broken children being raised by a broken culture and broken parents who were only doing the best they could.
Serial killers have been with us since the human mind has been with us. It’s just that in a history that celebrated war, violence, murder and death and so rarely celebrating life, compassion, healing, and forgiveness, it’s hard to figure out which ones were serial killers because they had mental illness and which were serial killers because that’s what you were supposed to do to become “Great.”