The Split Reality of Murder


For many serial killers, their fantasies of murder are as real as their acts of murder.

Their existence is split into two realities:

1)      The social reality of the “normal” world where people do not murder.

2)      The psychological vitality of the fantasy that is the drive for the killer to commit his crime. 

I.          Structure of motives for murder

A.    Conscious fantasies

                                                              i.      Information gathered from 36 men interviewed who were aware of their active fantasy life

                                                            ii.      Fantasies that evolved after the first murder often focused on perfecting various stages of the murder

                                                          iii.      Conscious awareness of the motive to kill

                                                          iv.      Preconscious – much of the motive in the form of fantasies are loosely formulated until the killing, then becomes more structured

                                                            v.      Motivation comes from a variety of sources

1.      Sadistic behavior toward animals      

2.      Example: one murderer connected his murderous acts to dismembering his sister’s dolls.

                                                          vi.      After childhood, the offender’s fantasy life reflects itself in his social behavior – the line between fantasy and reality blurs

1.      He may become isolated or socially aloof to try to inhibit his desire to act on the sadistic behavior

2.      The men interviews said something happened externally to them that moved them to act out the fantasy

3.      Many factors can trigger the offender to act on his fantasy

a.       Example: “Remember nothing except waking up and her dead in bed”

4.      Others are completely aware of their fantasy to rape and motive to kill

a.       Example: Control over women – mad at the judge who sentenced him to a residential facility, and he continued to rape when on leave from it; the rape fantasy escalated to include murder when there was a threat to his power and control

B.     Unaware of fantasies

                                                              i.      Some of the murderers in the study did not report fantasies in a conscious way

1.      Often described states of dysphoria, were depressed, or had been drinking

2.      These offenders may be preoccupied with a kind of internal dialog that sustained anger, discontent, irritability, or depression. Drinking or drugs are attempts at moderating the internal stress (Dahmer), but the fantasy continues

3.      These offenders are unaware of how much internal dialog they experience

4.      Believe they are the passive victim – they are consciously aware of something in their heads, but believe it is in the control of someone else

II.                Fantasy of murder is played out through various phases

A.    Phase 1: Antecedent behavior

                                                              i.      Motivations for the behavior include a conscious fantasy, or a triggering environmental cue that activates an unconscious fantasy for murder

                                                            ii.      Murderers with a conscious motivational level usually remember their thoughts prior to the murder

                                                          iii.      Those triggered by an environmental cue usually can’t remember their pre-crime behavior, but remember how they murdered

B.     Phase 2: Committing the murder

                                                              i.      Selecting the victim is the start of the acting-out level for those with a conscious fantasy

1.      May have a list of criteria, seek out the “right” victim

                                                            ii.      Delay of killing the victim implies conscious planning and rehearsing of the fantasy.

                                                          iii.      No conscious fantasy – a certain person or situation might cue in a strong belief of an unjust world; he feels unfairly treated and this is his justification to kill

                                                          iv.      Killing moves the offender to another level of the fantasy, the reality of murder comes into play

C.     Phase 3: Disposing of the body

                                                              i.      If the confrontation of dealing with the body wasn’t anticipated, he may turn himself in

                                                            ii.      New fantasies can develop in prison – one man rehearsed and mastered the body disposal phase and killed eight more women after his release

D.    Phase 4: Postcrime behavior

                                                              i.      Discovery of the body is often included in the fantasy

                                                            ii.      May write or call the police, or be in a crowd when body is discovered, or even confess so he can go with police to the location

                                                          iii.      May not be satisfied with the murder

1.      “The fantasy that accompanies and generates the anticipation that precedes the crime is always more stimulating than the immediate aftermath of the crime itself”  – Ted Bundy

III.             Conclusion

A.    The interviews provided info about their fantasies, which helped provide partial answers to murders that seem motiveless

                                                              i.      They are committed, in part, as a result of the acting out of a psychological fantasy

                                                            ii.      Important for law enforcement officers to be aware of these fantasies and the types of people who have them

                                                          iii.      As law enforcement officers become more aware of this phenomenon and seek out clues that imply that a fantasy is present, it will help in profiling and catching the offender




Ressler, R. K., & Burgess, A.W. (1985). The split reality of murder. In Holmes, R. M., & Holmes, S. T. (2002), Profiling violent crimes: An investigative tool (3rd ed.) (pp. 83–90). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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