Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on John Bunting, an Australian serial killer currently serving 11 consecutive sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for his role in the 11 Snowtown Murders. Out in the 21stJune 2012 edition, I supplied the following psychological insight.
Harming animals during childhood is a classic warning sign of psychopathology in later life and is often reported in serial killers. It is an early warning of the need to overpower those who are weaker. Early traumatic experiences, such as being subject to violence or rape are also often found in serial killers. In other words, they were once overpowered by someone stronger than them and they repeat the behaviour in order to get their own sense of control.
Neither harming animals nor being sexually abused are precursors to turning into a monstrous adult, but they could be the final straw, so to speak, in a person who is already capable of such atrocities. The anger and need for power and control combine with a predisposition to cause harm in a way that has dire and dangerous consequences in adulthood. John didn’t just harm animals, but he made it a huge part of his childhood, moving to more extreme methods of releasing his anger on them. The way he moved from hurting insects to skinning cats to working in an abattoir indicates that he always needed to increase the severity of his acts in order to meet his needs.
Given the psychological knowledge and profiling measures we have on serial killers today, it is almost predictable that John would go on to release his anger on humans. Yet there is more to these murders than merely ridding the world of paedophiles and ‘undesirables.’ John wanted these people to suffer and his acts were more about his thirst to hurt people than to dispense of evil people. Indeed, it could be argued that John was one of these ‘evil’ people, even if he had persuaded himself otherwise.
The editor required some more specific answers, as follows:
So do you think that he was simply born with a propensity to be evil? Could you explain that a little more – was he born a psychopath and if so how can that happen?
There is no simple answer to this, but evidence does now suggest that, yes, people can be born with a propensity for evil. Whether this propensity is ever triggered, however, is likely to do with nurture as opposed to nature. In other words, John might have been born with genes related to aggression, violence and, sadism, but it is likely that these genes alone would not have led to him becoming a serial killer without environmental influences in John’s childhood and adult experiences. Some psychologists believe that you can identify psychopathic traits in toddlers, but to label them this would be unethical and, indeed, they might not go on to act on these psychopathic tendencies.
Also, could you say a little more about the psychology of his crimes themselves. Do you think it was a drive for revenge?
John’s crimes seem to be a mixture of revenge and sheer pleasure in torturing people. While revenge might have played a role in John’s actions, his story suggests that the notion of revenge came later rather than sooner within his serial killing ‘career.’ It is therefore more likely that he created this notion of revenge to justify his actions.
Do you think he genuinely believed he was doing good, when he was torturing and murdering?
In psychology, this is termed ‘cognitive dissonance’ – in other words, self-deception. John convinced himself that he was doing good in order to justify the atrocities of his crimes. What makes John a ‘monster’ is that unlike some serial killers, he is well aware of the pain and suffering he is causing and therefore has the capacity to feel guilt about what he is doing. By convincing himself that what he is doing is good, John is able to make his thoughts and behaviours consistent and thus prevent any feelings of guilt.
If so, how can he convince himself of that?
See above. We all do this every day. If our actions don’t fit our thoughts, we change one of them to reduce the discomfort that comes from this ‘cognitive dissonance.’ It is amazing what we can make ourselves genuinely believe in order to protect ourselves from negative thoughts and emotions.
In the show, Dexter, the lead character certainly feels that he’s doing a public service, while also sating his desire to torture and kill. Do you see any similarities between the show and this case?
Although there are similarities, the difference lies in intention. Dexter was brainwashed by his father to murder criminals and ‘bad’ people. John might have brainwashed himself into thinking that he only murders those who deserve it, but his history and the psychology behind these murders suggests that if the world was filled with only good people, John would still find a reason to kill.
He managed to convince a lot of friends to join his killing crusade, which is pretty astonishing! What does this say about him as a person?
This is very astonishing and indicates that he was a very charismatic and manipulative character. It is also another sign of his need for power and control – not over only those he murdered, but also over those he ‘chose’ as being deserving of life.