Pick Me Up! magazine asked me some questions on the psychology behind Dennis Rader, also known as the Bind, Torture, Kill (BTK) Murderer, an American serial killer who murdered ten people in Sedgwick County (in and around Wichita, Kansas), between 1974 and 1991.
I provided the following answers:
Why might a person such as Dennis Rader (DR) be interested in bondage from such an early age?
Dennis Rader admits that he became interested in bondage at a very young age. How such an interest can develop in childhood continues to baffle psychologists. However, links have been made between feelings of inferiority and bondage. A person such as Rader can become ‘turned on’ by the sense of power and superiority that comes from bondage. There has also been links found between early childhood experiences of being physically beaten by an otherwise distant mother and ‘enjoying’ the attention – even if it is painful. Pain, torture, and positive feelings become entangled, resulting in a dangerous concoction that leave the person unable to gain physical pleasure without the associated factor of distress – either in themselves or, in the case of Rader, in his victims.
How does this interest become unhealthy?
An interest in bondage becomes unhealthy when it dominates a person’s thoughts to the extent that they feel they have to enact their fantasises, even with unwilling participants.
DR nicknamed his victims PJs (stands for ProJects). Why would a killer give such a jokey name to his victims?
The nickname ‘ProJects’ is far from jokey, but more so represents the seriousness with which Rader took his ‘work.’ Indeed, his victims weren’t merely his victims but a mission – they were a plan that he would see through from beginning to end, via the method of Bind, Torture, Kill.
He seemed to masturbate over the dead bodies of his victims. Why are some people sexually aroused by death in this way?
It isn’t necessarily death that sexually arouses people like Rader, but more so the control possessed by serial killers. They are in complete control of their victims, psychologically and physically. They can do what they want to their victims; it is this that Rader is likely to have found sexually arousing.
Why would anyone take photos and draw sketches of the murder scene?
Some serial killers take photos and draw sketches of the murder scene so that they can make the pleasure last. By taking photos, Rader was ensuring that the pleasure gained from the event could be experienced over and over again after he left the scene of the crime.
DR was upset when he found out a local lawyer was writing a book about the crimes he’s committed back in the 70s, prompting him to commit more crimes. Why was he so upset by the idea of someone writing his story?
Now that his story was in the hands of a writer, Rader no longer felt in control. From the beginning, he had been creating his own image through the police and media. He even chose his own nickname – BTK. The only way he could regain control was to bring his crimes back into the present rather than allowing them to be told in retrospect by someone else.
He was able to live a life of immense respectability, being heavily involved in his church and the scouts. Yet he was a murderer. How can someone live in two such different worlds?
It is much easier for a respectable, religious person to get away with having another, psychopathic persona; think Jekyll and Hyde. Being a church going family man provided Rader with a cloak of disguise, a way to hide his dreadful deeds from others. This is why serial killers often get away with their crimes for so long.
What is a psychopath? And is DR a psychopath?
The term ‘psychopath’ makes us think of Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs, who was clearly damaged psychologically. In reality, psychopaths are not all serial killers. Indeed, many psychopaths are subtle manipulators who use other people to boost their own self-esteem. They lack the empathy required to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and therefore are unaffected in any negative way by the distress or harm they cause to others. Is Rader a psychopath? He certainly has some of the key characteristics, such as on the surface leading a respectable life. Indeed, he has managed to charm a number of friends and acquaintances into seeing him as anything but the man portrayed in the media. The way he responded to questions in court, in a manner that demonstrated no remorse for what he had done, would suggest that, yes, Dennis Rader is a psychopath.