Way back in 1988, counselling psychologist Joel Norris described for us the typical experience of carrying out a murder from the perspective of a serial killer. He suggested that the experience can be broken down into seven distinct phases: aura, trolling, wooing, capture, murder, totem and depression.
The study: Norris carried out 500 in-depth interviews with convicted killers in Georgia, USA. He found that serial murder is an addictive behaviour, following a cyclical pattern of seven phases on repeat.
These seven phases are described below. Scroll to the bottom to save a handy infographic of the phases for reference!
The Aura Phase
Right at the beginning we see a withdrawal from reality, which differs in severity. Some may experience a heightening of the senses, many experience fantasies, and most become anti-social over time as their withdrawal affects their ability to function normally with society. Fantasies are generally sexual in nature and many tie in with childhood traumas.
Time period-wise we’re looking at anywhere between mere moments to an experience drawn out over several months.
The Trolling Phase
Having experienced perverse fantasies, the killer begins to compulsively seek out a victim – perhaps linked to the specific fantasy they have been experiencing. The search for a victim is akin to hunting prey, and usually occurs within the killers comfort zone. This could mean close to the killer’s home or routes to work (see more about crime zones and geographical profiling here).
The trolling phase could take hours or months depending on how specific the victim must be and how much time is spent dedicated to hunting. The killer may also identify a suitable murder location or dump site during this phase whilst out looking for their victim.
The Wooing Phase (Optional)
The killer has now found a suitable victim and during this phase, sets about luring in the victim in some way. This phase is optional in that generally only confident, organised killers have the charm or patience required to win the trust of the victim. An organised killer will take the time to carry out this phase because it reduces the likelihood of the victim struggling. If the killer fails to suitably ‘woo’ a victim, he may start back at phase two.
Again the wooing phase could take anywhere between minutes or weeks depending on how successfully the killer manages to win the trust of the victim.
The Capture Phase
This is the phase in which the killer apprehends the chosen victim.
For some killers this is the most exciting phase and is drawn out, perhaps because during this phase the killer has all of the control.
The Murder Phase
The killer carries out the task of murdering the victim, and the fantasies experienced since phase one are finally realised. Depending on the specific fantasy this phase may be drawn out (perhaps by torture) or could be done quickly.
The Totem Phase
Most killers want to relive the experience of the murder in some way. Some will steal tokens from their victims such as jewellery, locks of hair or other personal items. Others may collect details of the event from newspapers or by way of videos, photos or written accounts. These are seen as ‘trophies’ for their conquests.
Read about the seven creepiest real-life serial killer trophies here.
The Depression Phase
Sometime after the murder, the ‘high’ wears off and the killer begins back at phase one, the aura phase. This last phase is inevitable because the victim, once dead, no longer represents what they did during the fantasy e.g. something to be captured and owned.
The time between murder and eventual depression differs between killers.
This phase is also referred to as post-homicidal depression.
The Seven Phases and Crime Fiction – Some Thoughts
These descriptions help us to understand the process a serial-killing character might go through in our stories. For what reason will your character commit murder and how will this have a knock on effect on the other phases?
Take a look at the different types of killer motivation here.
How and where does your killer find their victim? Do they closely match the fantasies experienced in phase one? Is this when a suitable location is found?
Have a think about how your character will relive the experience – do they take something from the victim? Do they revisit the scene of the crime?
Finally – after the murder is committed how does your killer feel? How long does it take to fall back into the aura phase?
Over to you
Can you think of some fictional examples where authors twisted their approach to one of these phases? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!