Shame and the Serial Killer

Humiliation’s influence on criminal behavior needs more attention.

I recently watched a special on the ID Network about South Carolina serial killer Todd Kohlhepp. He pleaded guilty to the mass murder of four people at a motorcycle shop in 2003, as well as the murders of three more people whom he buried on his 95-acre property. He also kept the girlfriend of one victim chained in a shipping container for two months.

Upon his arrest, he was allowed to speak to his mother about his crimes. She was shocked—but in a later interview, she excused him by claiming that his victims had treated him badly. “They embarrassed him,” she said. “No one likes being embarrassed.”

It’s no excuse for murder, but for some people, humiliation runs deep—depriving them of self-esteem, a sense of control, and feelings of accomplishment. They don’t get past it. Instead, the humiliation festers, feeding their view of a hostile world that hinders them and justifies payback.

Dennis Rader, the “BTK Killer” in Wichita, Kansas, from 1974 to 1991, identified incidents in his childhood when his mother shamed or humiliated him as motivators for his fantasies of controlling and punishing women. With no trauma or abuse in his background, criminologists were at first mystified by what provoked his series of murders. But in interviews with me that spanned several years, Rader kept returning to his experience of anger and helplessness at the hands of females. During adolescence, he began envisioning “girl traps” and ways of binding women that later shaped his acts as a serial killer.   

Florida rapist and serial killer Bobby Joe Long confessed to ten murders, and said he’d started killing his rape victims after a woman reported him. Long was a “power assertive rapist,” according to the FBI’s classification system, which means he acted out to assert his manhood. He’d been born with an extra X chromosome that had produced abnormal amounts of estrogen during puberty, along with enlarged breasts.

Defense expert Dr. John Money testified about the negative impact of this condition, including shame over having breasts as a teenage boy. He said that, with Long’s fragile ego, the combination had created a Jekyll/Hyde syndrome. Given his developmental issues and the fact that the woman who’d reported him had undermined his control, his subsequent brutality to his murder victims might well have reassured him of his dominance.

John Wayne Gacy, the killer of 33 (or more) young men in Illinois during the 1970s, likewise experienced early traumatic shame. A high school friend recalled several instances in which Gacy’s father ridiculed or beat him without provocation. When Gacy became involved in politics, working as an assistant precinct captain for a candidate in his neighborhood, his father called him a patsy. It seemed he could never please this man.

Hale (1994) discussed the role of humiliation in serial murder. Victims are symbolic, he states. They trigger embarrassing internalized memories about being taunted, threatened or abused that continue to enrage the killer. He strikes out in an attempt to decrease the impact—but since the victim is not the offending person, there is no resolution, so the murders continue. The killer does not make the association between his past and what he’s currently doing. He’s just trying to feel empowered within a familiar context.article continues after advertisement

Serial killers, Hale adds, do not progress through normal stages of development, in which one learns to distinguish between what’s controllable and what’s not. They remain frustrated. Some develop an exaggerated sense of what they must control and feel shame when they fail. When they use mastery as the basis for their self-esteem, they set themselves up for pervasive feelings of inadequacy. They might mature in other areas—an ability to get a job and support a family, for example—but not in the social-sexual area.

Knight (2006) also pinpoints dysfunctional early experiences as significant in the “narcissistic dynamics” of personal power. She describes deficient feedback from mirroring and support by a primary nurturer as a factor in adult grandiosity. These individuals ensure their visibility and significance by having victims witness their power. But the reward is transient and they still feel inadequate, so they repeat the act. Essentially, Knight says, they are trying to defend against feelings of shame and failure. Brutality gives them a sense that they have an impact on their environment, which affirms their power.    

I would add that victims do not have to remind killers of past humiliating episodes to trigger such violence. Murder can also be a response to current frustrations, such as a job loss, conflict in a domestic situation, or other humiliating situations; the killers want to regain control. We see this with many healthcare serial killers. In other words, any disempowering situation (as perceived by the killer) can trigger violence. If the end result feels good to them, mechanisms are in place, psychologically and biologically, for repetition.

The most forceful aspect of this equation is perception; they decide the impact of the humiliation or loss of esteem, just as they decide what will lessen it. No one else can judge whether a specific incident feels so terrible they can recover only with destructive acts. For some killers, the perceived “wrong” becomes their justification for retaliating.article continues after advertisement

I don’t think humiliation is necessarily a trigger for all serial killers, but given the details about it in some narratives, the dearth of research in this area surprises me. If we’re seeking to understand developmental dynamics in serial murder, we can’t neglect this motivator.


Hale, R. (1994). The role of humiliation and embarrassment in serial murder. Psychology: A Journal of Human Behavior, 31(2), 17-23.

Knight, Z. (2006). Some thoughts on the psychological roots of the behavior of serial killers as narcissists: An object relations perspective. Social Behavior and Personality, 34(10), 1189-1206.

About the Author

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and the author of 60 books.

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