Why are female serial killers mythologised?

5 Mins read

Its true female serial killers are rare in comparison to their male counterparts, but they exist and are just as deadly. Most of them tend to fall back into the mist, overshadowed by decades of bloodshed caused by men throughout history.

Here we are, years later, still trying to figure out how Jack the Ripper killed his victims but aren’t the slightest bit concerned about the women out there who were much more skilled, clever, seductive, delusional and who manage to stay completely hidden.

Popular mythology creates strong stereotypes that we can’t seem to shake as they tend to dismiss crimes committed by females and heighten the ones committed by men. The media’s focus is on sensationalising the acts of abuse and violence committed by male perpetrators. The motivation for this lies in the fact that this can feed a large consumer market, creating countless movies and books based on male serial killers which further maintains the image that all serial-killers are psychopathic men.

Artefact spoke to American psychologist Dr Marissa Harrison, an evolutionary psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg. Dr Harrison conducted a study which appeared in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology: Female serial killers in the United States: means, motives, and makings, where she analyses the behavioural patterns of female serial killers.

She says, “Researchers believe that about one out over every six serial killers is female. It seems that society is not ready to believe that women are capable of such heinous crimes.”

It’s not that society is ignorant of the fact that female serial killers can be a possibility, it’s more to do with the fact that they haven’t been popularized by the media. It seems as if there is a preference to see the evil in women only through fiction, from Disney cartoons like Snow White to Hollywood blockbusters like Gone Girl. Women have been portrayed as conniving, vengeful and manipulative yet we tend to pity them.

[pullquote align=”right”]“They tend to kill people they know, even relatives, including their own children. Male serial killers tend to kill strangers.”[/pullquote]One Hollywood movie that contradicted the concept of female serial killers being the ‘weaker sex’ was the movie Monster based on the killer Aileen Wuornos. She was a road-side sex worker who was notorious for killing seven men in Florida between 1989 to 1990. She claimed it was self-defence but the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and she was sentenced her to death by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.

Wuornos was labelled as ‘America’s first female serial killer’, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Dr. Harrison states, “If we go by the number of victims, Martha Patty Cannon (also in the US) killed so many people it is impossible to count.  She was reported to have thrown a child into a fire just because the child sneezed by her.”

And there have been others: “Also, ‘Jolly’ Jane Toppan was a nurse in the US who confessed to killing more than 30 people and was believed to have killed perhaps 100 people. She is quoted as saying she wanted to kill more helpless people than anyone who ever lived.  Other sources say she conveyed that she liked to climb into bed with her victims to feel them die.”

Perhaps the reason why Wuornos stood out was that her method and behaviour of killing wasn’t one that was common in female serial killers. Wuornos’s murder was fueled by vengeance and retaliation for a lifetime of abuse by males. Her weapon against her victims was a gun, which is atypical of a female serial killer.

According to the media, if a woman has killed, it is typically viewed as a reactive homicide – a murder committed in the spur of the moment in the act of self-defence. The possibility of it being an instrumental homicide – a calculated murder done in cold blood – is considered unfathomable.

Most of the time that is the case, Dr Harrison reveals: “Wuornos’s pattern of killing does not match that of the typical female serial killer. They tend to kill people they know, even relatives, including their own children. Male serial killers tend to kill strangers. Females seemingly kill for money or to gain resources. Males typically kill for sexual reasons.”

Research indicates that female serial killers are masterminds at camouflage, they often walk among us looking like wives, mothers, and grandmothers. A reason why they seem to attract such little attention to themselves is their discreet methods of killing. Usually targeting those close to them and most vulnerable, like relatives, elderly people, infants and using indistinct weapons such as poison.

This is in stark contrast to male serial killers who tend to render their victims and engage in stalking, torturing or mutilating them.

[pullquote align=”right”]“It seems that society is not ready to believe that women are capable of such heinous crimes.”[/pullquote]Dr. Harrison has compiled a list of American female serial killers, which consisted of women who had killed three or more people within a time period of a week. Through this, she identified sixty-four women perpetrators who were active between 1821 and 2008. After collecting the research, they noticed a frequent pattern when it came to these women.

The common suspect is “Likely to be in her twenties or thirties, middle-class, probably married, probably Christian, probably average intelligence,” Dr Harrison said.

The most frightening aspect of all of this is just how ordinary these women are and could just be your average next door neighbour. “Although murder is disturbing at any time, what we found particularly alarming was that nearly 40 per cent of female serial killers worked in health care professions, for example, as a nurse. Another 21 per cent worked in direct caregiver roles, like a babysitter and stay-at-home mother. The other professions we noted were a farmer, gang leader, custodian, prostitute, psychic, drug dealer, and waitress.”

The question that is apparent here is, why do women kill, but really, why does anyone kill? Around 40 per cent of female serial killers that were researched by Harrison seemed to have a history of some sort of abuse, from addiction to drugs and alcohol, to physical and sexual abuse, to childhood trauma. Although there are a lot of people who experience trauma throughout their life, not many become a serial killer and Dr Harrison has not yet come to a conclusion on why the minority do.

“Bearing in mind this is just the US, I am sure there global statistics around the world but for now I don’t have an explanation as to why. Nonetheless, I am glad not to have been one of Jolly Jane’s patients.”

Recognising that females, just like males can have some twisted type of release for their aggression is important. The media tends to soften the violence by women, trying to portray them as some sort of an immortal species, a dominatrix, a vampire, a witch until it doesn’t become a real problem anymore. It sends a false message that ‘real women’ are passive, don’t let that fool you.

Female serial killers are out there, they always have been, they always will be and they need to be watched for.




Featured Image by Val Kerry via Flickr CC

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