WonderCon 2012: Detecting Deviants in the Dark Knight: Profiling Gotham City’s Serial Killers

While at Wondercon I attended several panels and I enjoyed all of them. I did, however, do a write up for Fanboy Comics on the panel titling this post. This panel covered a pretty dark subject but in a highly fascinating light. In case you missed it on FBCs, here it is:

Detecting Deviants

In this WonderCon panel, the forensic psychiatrists of Broadcast Thought, H. Eric Bender, M.D., Praveen R. Kambam, M.D., and Vasilis K. Pozios, M.D., joined forces with Mark E. Safarik, M.S., V.S.M., one of the senior (retired) members of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, to explain the pathology found in the dark world of Gotham City’s serial killers. These panelists compared and contrasted some of the deadliest real-life killers with some of Gotham’s most notorious.

In actuality, less than 1% of all murders in a year are related to serial murder, and 80% of serial murder on record emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century. Robert K. Ressler, a former FBI agent active in the 1970s, worked on many cases of serial homicide including those of Jeffrey Dahmer and Richard Chase. He is credited with coining the term serial killer.

Within the 1% of serial murder, there are different types of classification: organized (methodical) vs. disorganized (psychotic) and instrumental (receiving something in return for the action) vs. expressive (meeting some kind of psychological need). Ted Bundy is a classic example of an organized and methodical killer while delusional killer Richard Chase is an example of a disorganized killer. Although not focused on as widely, hit men can be considered instrumental serial killers. Richard Leonard “The Iceman” Kuklinski claims to have killed over 250 victims while acting as a contract killer for the Decalvalcante crime family. This contrasts with an expressive killer who may, for example, feel the urge to kill to fulfill a perceived sexual need.

Motive, the reason for killing, is also a big factor when profiling a killer. Three types of motive classification are 1.) Act Focused (focused on the act itself), 2.) Process Focused (a drawn out process, focused on arousal), 3.) Power/Control. For example, in horror films, Jason from Friday the 13th would be classified as an Act Focused killer. Jigsaw from Saw would be considered a Power/Control killer.

Let’s get even more specific: within the three types of motive listed above, there are further classifications. A Visionary Act Focused killer believes they are forced to commit murders because of an outside force. They may also be considered psychotic. A real-life example: convicted killer James Edward Swan thought voices told him to kill random people who he thought were responsible for the death of Malcom X. In contrast, a Mission Oriented Act Focused killer has some sort of general mission in mind as a reason for their murders. A real life example: Joseph Paul Franklin killed twenty innocent African American, Jewish, and mixed race people because of a “mission” he had internalized.  Lastly, a Power/Control Act Focused killer wants to be the master of a situation, even extending past the death of the victim.

In Gotham City, Clyde Harris killed unsuspecting strangers, because he convinced himself he was Batman, which is psychotic behavior. Onomatopoeia keeps trophies as a reminder of his conquests, much like real-life killer Ed Gein. Gotham’s Doll Maker creates “dolls” out of the skin and limbs of his victims and keeps them as reminders of his victims. But, unlike real serial killers, the Doll Maker sends members of his “family” out to do his killings. He also sells trophies from his victims. Both of these actions are not consistent with real-life serial killers. Real life perpetrators would have a need to commit the murders themselves, and they would have a need to keep their trophies.

When it comes to the crime itself, the crime scene becomes the canvas in which the killer leaves his signature and the clues investigators need in order to catch him or her. The crime scene becomes the perpetrator’s calling card and every crime scene tells a story. Based on details found at the crime scene, detectives can profile the type of killer they are looking for. The idea here is to decide what is probable, instead of what is possible. Anything is possible, but when trying to catch a killer, detectives need to ask themselves: what is probable?

Dichotomies to examine at crime scenes: consistent vs. inconsistent, expected vs. excessive, imposition vs. exposition. The modus operandi of a killer is their expected behavior. It is that which the offender perceives necessary to successfully commit the crime. On the other hand, ritualistic, need-based behavior is unnecessary to commit the crime and may even result in their capture, but this behavior is why the perpetrator kills. It fulfills a need. In the 1990s Charles Albright was charged with murdering three women. In each case, the women’s eyes were removed. That behavior is excessive, but it fulfilled some sort of need in Albright.

In the Batman universe, the limited comic book series The Long Halloween profiles an unknown killer named Holiday who murders people on holidays, one each month. During the panel we examined different illustrations of various Holiday crime scenes. In each one this killer left behind one specific object. In one crime scene there was a pistol, in another a pumpkin, in another, a snow globe, and then, a pistol again. Here, it appears the killer leaves a calling card, but he or she may also be attempting to redirect investigators. Leaving behind a gun could be an attempt to to stage the crime scene.

In real life, recently convicted killer Stephanie Lazarus was convicted of killing her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. At the time of the murder, however, police concluded that the murder resulted from a robbery gone bad. In both this example and the Holiday example, the killer tried to outthink police by applying what they thought was expected of the killer. The key to uncovering deception such as this is to a.) not impose a preconceived idea of how the crime was committed until all facts are examined and b.) look closer for inconsistencies before drawing a conclusion.

In another Gotham City example, Sofia Giante Falcone, the Hangman, kills mostly law enforcement officers. Her motive is revenge; however, she leaves behind a version of the children’s wordgame “Hang man” spelled in the victims’ blood but with letters missing. Additionally, Hangman uses copycat elements in her killings. In reality, with a motive like revenge, the killer is unlikely to leave calling cards, or to use copycat tactics. The psychological needs of a killer who would do either of those things, does not fit the profile of Sofia Giante Falcone.

Dissecting Gotham’s killers was an engaging exercise. The members of Broadcast Thought are here to offer their expertise both in comic books and psychiatry. I’d recommend attending any panel they host. Behavioral analysis and its application to the fictional world is a fascinating topic to explore.

You can visit broadcastthought.com for more information.

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