Types of Serial Killer Motivations

Back in 1988 Holmes and DeBerger theorised that, a serial killer does not simply go out and murder a bunch of people: there is ALWAYS a reason.

That reason may not make sense to us, and is certainly not justified by the following motivations, but the list helps us to understand the mind of a murderer a little better.

For the purposes of writing, this list of serial killer motivations may serve to spark some inspiration about why your killer has taken a life: are they psychotic? are they seeking revenge? are they being paid to do so?

Scroll to the end for a handy infographic you can keep to refer back to later!


The ‘Visionary Motive’ Serial Killer

This killer sees visions or hears messages (or both) that give them the rationale to commit murder. For example, they may hear a voice telling them to kill someone, believing that this voice is a ‘higher power’.

This type of motivation is very rare and the killer is often suffering from psychosis.


The ‘Mission Oriented Motive’ Serial Killer

This killer feels they are tasked with eliminating a specific social group or are seeking revenge in some way.

Unlike the visionary motive this killer is generally not psychotic.

The ‘Hedonistic Motive’ Serial Killer

This killer derives pleasure from killing in one of the following ways:

  • sexual/erotic pleasure
  • the ‘thrill’ of killing/ adrenaline rush
  • comfort
  • financial gain

This could also include ‘anger-excitation’ killers.

The most common type by far are those hedonistic types who kill for lust or sexual pleasure.


The ‘Power or Control Oriented’ Serial Killer

This killer seeks dominance over others, and there is no greater show of control over another human than controlling the way in which they die.


The ‘Opportunistic Motive’ Serial Killer

This killer may murder as a ‘means to an end’ for example in order to escape a situation.


Other Motivations

The ‘career criminal’ kills because of their links to organised crime. For example a person involved in the drug industry may kill a rival criminal to protect their position, to avoid detection or as instructed by a criminal higher up the food chain.

A professional serial killer, such as a hitman, kills purely for financial gain because to kill is their job.


Case Study: The Green River Killer

Obviously serial killers do not neatly fit into one category rather than another; motivations may be more complex.

To use a real-life example, the Green River killer Gary Leon Ridgway, killed approximately 70 women between 1982 and 1998. At first glance, his motivations were to overpower these women, though he also derived sexual pleasure from their deaths. It was also later discovered that all of the women were prostitutes who reminded him of his own mother. Which category should he then fit into – was he purging a specific group of women? was it sexual gratification? pure power play?


Over to you

Can you identify which type of killer your murder will be in your story? Is it a mixture?


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