I made my fantasy life more powerful than my real one.

— Jeffrey Dahmer
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Psychological Phases Serial Killers Experience


In 1988 the psychologist Joel Norris described the psychological phases that serial killers experience. Norris worked on the defense teams of several convicted killers from Georgia and completed 500 interviews with such individuals, during which he identified the following phases.

The killer begins with an aura phase, in which there is a withdrawal from reality and a heightening of the senses. This phase may last anywhere from several moments to several months and can begin as a prolonged fantasy, which may have been active for a short time or for years. The killer may attempt to medicate himself with alcohol or drugs.

The trolling phase consists of the behavior patterns that a particular killer uses to identify and stalk his victim. Norris described how Ted Bundy strapped his arm in a sling and asked for help with books, packages, or even the hull of a sailboat to lure the victim into his car. Some victims escaped and said he never seemed out of control until the moment he actually attacked them.

The wooing phase is that time period when most killers win the confidence of victims before luring them into a trap. The capture phase may include the locking of a door or a blow that renders the victim helpless. The killer savors this moment. Norris described the murder phase as the ritual reenactment of the disastrous experiences of the killer’s childhood, but this time he reverses the roles.

The next phase Norris described is the totem phase. After the kill, murderers sink into a depression, so many develop a ritual to preserve their “success.” This is why some killers keep news clippings, photographs, and parts of the victims’ bodies, or eat parts of the victims, wear their skin, or show parts of victims’ bodies to later victims. The trophy is meant to give the murderer the same feelings of power he experienced at the time of the kill.

The last phase is the depression phase. A victim, now killed, no longer represents what the killer thought he or she represented, and the memory of the individual that tortured the murderer in the past is still there. Ressler compares the murder to a television serial with no satisfactory ending because the serial killer experiences the tension of a fantasy incompletely fulfilled. In each subsequent murder, he attempts to make the scene of the crime equal to the fantasy. Norris notes that there is an absence of the killer’s sense of self and, during this phase, the killer may confess to the police before the fantasies start once more. However, because victims are not seen as people, recollections of murders may be vague or viewed as the killer having watched someone else. They may have a memory for tiny details about the murder, which is dissociated from the event as a whole.

Norris writes that when depression sets in, it triggers the phases into beginning again. Bundy said he never really got what he had hoped for out of the murders, and always felt emptiness and hopelessness after. Joel Norris aptly describes the “post-homicidal depression” the serial killer experiences: “The killer is simply acting out a ritualistic fantasy … but, once sacrificed, the victim’s identity within the murderer’s own fantasy is lost. The victim no longer represents what the killer thought he or she represented. The image of a fiancee who rejected the killer, the echo of the voice of the hated mother, or the taunting of the distant father; all remain vividly in the killer’s mind after the crime. Murder has not erased or changed the past because the killer hates himself even more than he did before the climax of emotion … it is only his own past that is acted out. He has failed again. … Instead of reversing the roles of his childhood, the killer has just reinforced them, and by torturing and killing a defenseless victim, the killer has restated his most intimate tragedies.”