Some serial killers violate their victims’ bodies after they’re dead. Nobody can explain these grisly deeds, but a Longwood University sociologist has catalogued the methods and the motivation of their madness.
Dr. Virginia Beard’s recent study of nearly 1,700 serial murders between the early 1800s and 2012 focused on the ways in which, how frequently and why some serial killers engaged in post-mortem activities, called thanatological crimes. The statistics she compiled, with the help of three students, are not your typical sociological fare.
In 16 percent of the cases, the body was mutilated, and it was desecrated 9 percent of the time. Necrophilia occurred 4 percent of the time, cannibalism 3 percent of the time and posing of the body also 3 percent of the time. Any surprises?
"I was surprised that necrophilia was so low, since many serial killers are motivated by sexual homicide," said Beard, whose research interests include serial homicide. "I also thought the figure for desecration of the bodies, as well as for the killer contacting the media, police or family [less than 1 percent], would have been higher."
In another interesting number, nearly 34 percent of serial killers killed for profit. "The vast majority of female serial killers kill to collect insurance money," said Beard, listing one of several differences between male and female serial killers.
"Female serial killers are more likely to kill a family member; males are more likely to kill strangers. Also, women tend to choose poison, while men often choose strangulation, a knife or a blunt instrument."
In the study, Beard categorized serial killers’ thanatological crimes into eight types developed by the late Clifton Bryant, a Virginia Tech sociologist who was an expert on military crime, deviance and death. The model developed by Bryant, with whom she worked in graduate school, consists of four motivational categories intersected by two "patterns of victimization."
"Bryant’s paradigm of thanatological crime focused on the military context, such as soldiers violating the corpses of their enemy. I expanded that paradigm into serial homicide," said Beard, coordinator of Longwood’s criminal justice area.
In Beard’s study, the motivation of most serial killers fell into the categories of profit/economic advantage, malicious mischief/amusement or pathological/compulsive. In the far more common pattern of victimization, the killer targeted the body of the deceased rather than using the dead to victimize the living, usually through acts such as extortion, intimidation or emotional harm.
Beard wanted to do research on this topic because of what she called "our society’s fascination with serial killers. They make up less than 1 percent of the homicide rate in any given year, but if you go to a bookstore and browse the true crime section, it is all about them. And if you flip through television shows, most of them feature the true or fictional stories of serial killers."
Interestingly, considering Beard’s interest in serial killers’ crimes against their victims’ bodies, her husband manages a funeral home. "I’m surrounded by death all the time," she said with a laugh.
An article on Beard’s research, "Death Related Crime: Applying Bryant’s Conceptual Paradigm of Thanatological Crime to Serial Homicide," has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Deviant Behavior.
Her co-authors are Shay Hunter, who received a bachelor’s degree last December and is in Longwood’s master’s program in criminal justice; 2013 graduate Laura Kern, now in graduate school at the University of Kentucky; and senior Brooklynne Kiley.