Category Archives: Science

Female Serial Killers: Building a Profile

Dagmar-Overbye

In describing a new profile of the archetypal female serial killer published by Penn State, Sarah Kaplan writes for the The Washington Post, “[She’s a] young, middle-class woman, a married Christian of average intelligence and upbringing. She works as a nurse, or nanny, or Sunday School teacher — anything that involves being around people more helpless than herself.” These women, in order to qualify for the study, must have killed at least three people with a “cooling off period” of a week or more following each murder.

The Penn State profile reports that female serial killers tend to fit the description above, but the truth is that our sample size of data on female murderers is very small. The Penn State researchers, in compiling “every recorded instance of a female serial killer” were only able to derive their conclusions using the actions of 64 women who lived (and killed) between 1821 and 2008. That’s 64 women, around the world, in 187 years!

The Penn State report says 40% of the women had been diagnosed with and/or treated for mental illness of some kind, and the most popular motive for their killing sprees was financial gain. Poison was the most popular method used by the killers (which the reports calls FSKs). Most shockingly, in ALL cases, the FSK had at least one target who was a child, an elderly person, or an otherwise incapacitated or weakened individual. Most women killed people they knew, a pattern which defies the behavior of male serial killers, who tend to kill strangers.

The lives of male serial killers are often marked by social isolation. Based on the limited data available to us, we can conclude reasonably that most female serial killers are caretakers and ingrained members of their surrounding communities. While our society celebrates the male “lone wolf,” encouraging him to avoid the “ball and chain” of partnership and remain a bachelor as long as possible, we also honor the martyred woman: the devoted wife, church member, mother, teacher or social worker. It seems both social profiles of gendered success do not negate the serial killer profile.

A 1995 study conducted by affiliates of the NYPD found that the motives of male murders tend to involve humiliation, manipulation, or sexual stimulation. Female murderers tend to be motivated by financial gain or power. One of the researchers was quoted making the generalization, “men kill for sex, and women kill for resources.”

Are we less likely to define female murderers as “monsters,” then? What makes a human killer into a societal “monster,” if not the very act of murdering another person? Does this mean we are less fascinated by, terrified by, and less challenged by murderers who seem to have a good, or reasonable, motive for killing?


The Washington Post article does pause to describe Aileen Carol Wuornos, perhaps the most famous female serial killer in American history. During her trial for the murderer of six men, Wuornos said, “I robbed them, and I killed them as cold as ice, and I would do it again, and I know I would kill another person because I’ve hated humans for a long time.” Wuornos herself defines herself as not-human, or at least quasi-human in saying this, which is actually a common theme in the legal confessions of serial killers, who often set themselves apart from society. Most serial killers are aware that their behavior is not considered “normal,” which recalls the following quote from John Gardner’s Grendel, in which the titular character realizes he is not human but something else entirely:

“My sudden awareness of my foolishness made me calm. I looked up through the treetops, ludicrously hopeful. I think I was half prepared, in my dark, demented state, to see God, bearded and grey as geometry, scowling down at me, shaking his bloodless finger. ‘Why can’t I have someone to talk to?’ I said. The stars said nothing, but I pretended to ignore the rudeness.”

For a more exhaustive list of female murderers which defines “serial killers” differently than Penn State, check out The Unknown History of Misandry. I’ll be using their database to inform my FSK Friday posts, which start next week. I’m excited to profile and describe a new female serial killer from history on a weekly basis! Let’s figure out what made them tick.

Out Here: morality and conjecture in the contemporary space drama

A friend of mine once made a statement about space films on her Twitter account, and I’ve been mulling it around in my mind ever since. She said, “All I want is a space movie that doesn’t ask any larger questions,” which calls to mind all the outer space morality plays we’ve witnessed in the last couple decades.

elysium16

Elysium, or “Why Was Jodie Foster’s Bad Accent Necessary To Make Her a Villain?”, didn’t so much pose a larger question as it answered one question over and over, really loudly. Class warfare is really hard, everybody! Also everyone deserves access to healthcare!

I thought the most interesting part of Elysium was the enigmatic Wagner Moura’s tattooed, lame-legged character Spider, because his role in the VERY straight-forward morality play wasn’t as boring as the unapologetically cruel Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) or the unapologetically good-hearted Max (Matt Damon). Without characters like Spider gumming up the works with their conflicting, selfish objectives, a space drama like Elysium ends up so simplistically rendered that it acts as a disservice to its setting. I mean, it’s deep space for crying out loud! If ever there was room for a grey area, space is it!

Continue reading

Spike Jonze’s “Her” and Other Human-Computer Stories

artificial_intelligence_002
Robot:
mechanical or virtual agent, usually an electro-mechanical machine that is guided by a computer program or electronic circuitry

Cyborg: (short for cybernetic organism) being with both organic and mechanical parts

Android: robot or synthetic organism designed to look and act like a human, especially one with a body having a flesh-like resemblance
her-film-02

2013’s “Her” is a softly-spoken, gently filmed look at artificial intelligence set in a post-Macbook-empire LA. The operating system Samantha (referred to colloquially in the film as an “OS”) is voiced with great care by Scarlett Johansson. This is one of Johansson’s most engrossing performances, rivaled by her turn in 2013’s “Don Jon,” as a fake-fingernailed Jersey princess. Both Samantha and Barbara, Jonhanssen’s character in “Don Jon” are female love interests for their soul-searching, confused male counterparts. The only difference is, Samantha is a computer program designed to facilitate and enhance a human life.

Continue reading

Angels We Have Heard On High: Cherubim and Seraphim

fig3

Genesis 3 reads, “So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” I love the image of a hybrid creature guarding the gates to a lost paradise, maybe rearing its head to howl after Adam and Eve as they run for their lives. Ezekiel reads, “As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle.” This description jived with me as a fan of the all versions of The Thing. Multiple faces on one head, man. That’s some trippy mama jama…

2011splitface

Submitted for your consideration as nightmare fuel

There are cultural distinctions made between angels, seraphim, cherubim and fallen mythological beings like Lucifer. Some speculate that seraphim and cherubim, not usually given names or described as humanoid, represent some higher order of God’s otherworldly host. Angels are part human, part God, but cherubim and seraphim are part God, part animal, part angel, and part…Other.

Continue reading

Solid Souls: What We Talk About When We Talk About Bein’ Dead

It’s a human tendency to desire tangible and physical things where there are none. Our brains look for faces in inanimate objects, and atheists often say religion is a constructed attempt to make sense of an otherwise random world.

People have attempted to personify and make physical the concepts in life which they find most distressing. There are countless examples of Death personified in classic art, sometimes as a skeleton, and sometimes as a cloaked figure. My favorite depictions of Death are devoid of malice, as if Death is just doing his solemn job in taking our loved ones away.

santa_muerte_01

Mexican culture venerates Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, as an agent of God.

Continue reading