The Pseudo Serial Killer
Attention-seekers who imitate a culture’s icons might miscalculate the effect.
Posted Sep 22, 2020
While researching serial murder, I ran across an article about a man who claimed to be a sexually sadistic serial killer. His tale was fake, and the case was written up in clinical literature as a factitious disorder. This I had to see. It wasn't quite what I expected.
Here’s the case: “Mr. S” was a middle-aged single white male from the Pacific Northwest (Bundy territory). He had an alcoholic authoritative father and a depressed mother whom he thought was “overly intrusive.” Mr. S described his childhood social anxiety but offered no other notable issues. He preferred to be alone. He’d served in the military and bragged that he was a war hero. Later, he’d worked as a security guard and lived out of his van, which he parked at his mother’s house, supposedly to take care of her. Seeking help for depression and substance abuse, he’d entered psychotherapy. A young female psychology intern met with him while a psychiatrist started him on antidepressants.
To the intern, Mr. S had eventually confided that over two decades, he’d stalked, raped, and murdered numerous women. He’d fashioned his strangling technique based on famous killers he’d read about, and he was currently stalking a woman he’d seen at a library. When the frightened intern told her supervisor, he took over. Mr. S. described hearing voices and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Police were notified to look at their case files of unsolved murders. Mr. S also mentioned a vendetta against his sergeant in the Army and the girlfriend of a man he considered his only friend. In addition, he said he wanted to amputate his own leg, which got him into emergency treatment.
Mr. S’s story unraveled when no evidence linked him to a crime and his lies about his military career came to light (he'd seen no combat). Psych testing turned up narcissism and a variety of traits consistent with several personality disorders. Soon, he admitted he’d made it all up to get the intern's attention. “An impulse came over me,” he said, “and I acted on it.” He wanted to be more interesting to her and when things grew more serious with the intervention of her supervisor, he’d been too embarrassed to admit the truth.
There’s no mystery about a motive like this, but his choice of persona raised questions. The psychiatrists who composed the case report attributed his fabrications to his various disorders, but posing as a serial killer to “be more interesting” suggests a degree of cultural influence. They didn't seem to consider this.
In the 1980s, coverage of serial killers became its own industry, inspiring groupies, wannabes, and entrepreneurs. Serial killers became superstars on talk TV, as both perpetrators and sufferers. Details of their crimes were fabricated or exaggerated as they described their lack of self-esteem, their abuse, and their unrestrained compulsions to erase others' lives. They’d seen how Ted Bundy had played up media coverage and gained international celebrity. The same degree of public fascination with serial killers has surged over the past decade, as has interest from researchers.
It seems likely that Mr. S had noted the celebrity status of serial killers and believed that posing as one could attract his therapist’s interest. He could be a "specimen," as Ted Bundy had aspired to be. Instead, he scared her away and found himself with a different sort of attention: a six-month stint in a psychiatric facility. He was diagnosed with a factitious disorder. In addition, he became the subject of a clinical report that offered the case as a unique manifestation.
Factitious disorders are characterized by physical or psychological symptoms that are feigned, exaggerated, or self-induced. The core motivation is getting attention. The most commonly known factitious disorder is Munchausen syndrome. Dr. Marc Feldman, a psychiatrist at the University of Alabama and a renowned expert, says that Munchausen sufferers generally present dramatic symptoms, including serious self-mutilation or injecting themselves with a toxin. Often, they return to a health-care facility over and over. They mostly just want attention and care, although some want to feel superior by baffling a physician.
The report's authors considered and excluded malingering for Mr. S because they saw no external gain. They thought he lacked “readily recognizable incentives for his behavior.” Yet the gain was attention from a specific person, the female intern. Her stint was ending and the persona of a serial killer seemed to him intriguing enough to ensure her continued interest. He didn’t expect her to pull away and tell her supervisor, so he didn't anticipate the negative impact. Thus, he'd exercised poor judgment, but he'd definitely had a goal, with gain. In addition, there was no documented pattern of similar behavior in his history, as is often the case with factitious disorders.
The reasons for the diagnosis are clearly listed, and the objective of publishing this case is to alert other clinicians to unique feigned symptoms in a factitious disorder that seem counter-intuitive. “While patients with factitious disorders typically simulate conditions or injuries that arouse feelings of sympathy, nurturance and empathy in their caregivers, in this case the patient simulated a very unsympathetic and frightening condition … but still require the same clinical consideration and treatment.”
I concede that if gaining interest from his therapist doesn’t qualify as external gain, he fits the criteria of factitious disorder. However, it seems possible that Mr. S just got into a tricky situation for a plausible reason from which he couldn’t easily extract himself. In the context of our culture’s fixation on serial murder, his pose seems less bizarre than his official diagnosis allows.
Fischer, C. A. Beckson, M., & Dietz, P. (2017). Factitious disorder in a patient claiming to be a sexually sadistic serial killer. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 62(3). 822-826.
Feldman, M. & Yates, G. (2018). Dying to be ill. True stories of medical deception. Routledge.