Different Monsters: Mass vs. Spree vs. Serial

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A brief article defining the difference between the different types of murderers.

Submitted: February 12, 2019

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Submitted: February 12, 2019



There are a lot of terms out there…some are psychological, some are legal, and others are purely laymen’s words to describe this big subject known as “murder.”So let me take a moment to break down some of the major categories:

“Serial Killer” – Believe it or not, this is a pretty specific term with fairly narrow criteria.  This is an individual who murders three or more persons (usually with the motive of gratifying an abnormal psychological urge) with a period of cooling off between the killings.  Both the first and second point are important here.While there may be more than three victims in a given crime, if there is no cooling off period between the murders, the perpetrator would not be labeled a serial killer (e.g. a school shooting).  Additionally, the count must be three or greater.  So, if a budding Jeffrey Dahmer is caught after killing one person in September, and another in December, he isn’t yet a serial killer.  Notably, the term “serial killer” is something that was coined by law enforcement agencies. Some attribute the first use of it to Robert Ressler, a long-time FBI profiler.  It is not a psychological diagnosis or “illness,” as serial killers vary in their psychological make-ups and motives.


“Mass Murderer” – This term is used to define a perpetrator who kills a number of people simultaneously over a short period of time. There is no cooling off period, and the location is typically restricted.  Thus, school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would fall into this category.  Their body-count was greater than three, the time period was very short, and the location was restricted to the school and immediate vicinity.  This term is also law enforcement generated – not a psychological diagnosis.  However, mass murderers seem to vary a bit less in their psychological make-up than serial killers do. Their motives seem to be primarily revenge and power and they’re fueled by rage.  Yet, there is usually some simmering self-hatred going on there too, as many types of mass murderers (school shooters, family annihilators, etc) are notorious for committing suicide prior to capture (with the notable exception of cult leaders or war criminals, who would also qualify as “Mass Murderers” – of the more narcissistic variety, of course).

(FILES) James Holmes appears in court at the Arapahoe County Justice Center in this July 23, 2012 file photo in Centennial, Colorado. Holmes, 24, is accused of shooting dead 12 people and wounding 58 others at a cinema Friday in Aurora, outside Denver, as young moviegoers packed the midnight screening of the latest Batman film, [James Holmes]

“Spree Killer” – This term is reserved for defining perpetrators who kill a number of people (two or more) within a short time-frame in multiple locations.  For example, a team of bank robbers who hit five banks and kill four people in one month would qualify as spree killers.  In America, one of the most notorious spree killer duos was Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather. They murdered ten people (and two dogs) on a spree extending from Nebraska to Wyoming. The movie “Natural Born Killers” is based upon their relationship and the terror they caused.  Again, the term “Spree Killer” is a law enforcement designation. In psychological terms, spree killers are definitely not ‘one size fits all.’ In fact, this category appears to have the widest variety of murderers in terms of their psychological issues.

hqdefault [Fugate and Starkweather]



One of the reasons I decided to create this post is because I’m often asked, “How do you diagnose a serial killer?”

The answer is:  “I don’t.”

The aforementioned terms aren’t used for diagnosis – they’re simply categories used by law enforcement to help define a set of behaviors.  So, when I walk into a room with a serial killer (or mass murderer or spree killer), I’m thinking less about the person’s law enforcement label, and I’m focusing on the person’s internal motivation. I’m looking for thought/emotion patterns, distortions in cognition/reality-testing, and other markers to assist me in the long process of diagnosing.

My hope is that, by sharing some of my thoughts and experiences, you’ll be able to look more deeply into the darkness too – and realize that not all monsters are created equal.

© Copyright 2019 Clarissa Cole. All rights reserved.

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