One persistent myth about serial killers is that their modus operandi will always stay the same.
However, this is untrue. A killer’s M.O. can change for a number of different reasons.
For instance, he may learn from his mistakes and become more experienced as time goes on. Or he might go through various changes in his mental state.
Humans are not that rigid. Although we all have our own habits and ways of doing things, these habits can morph over time. They can also change abruptly due to external factors.
What is a serial killer’s M.O.?
A serial killer’s M.O. describes their method of operating. It is the steps they take in order to achieve their goal.
In this case, that “goal” is the fulfillment of a fantasy.
For example, a killer might fantasize about raping and strangling women.
This is what drives him to commit his crimes. It is his purpose.
However, the steps that he takes to reach that “goal” can change because they are not a vital part of the fantasy.
The modus operandi can change.
Take the following example.
For his first murder, an offender breaks into someone’s home.
However, after the first killing, he decides that breaking and entering is too risky.
Perhaps he had a close call on his second attempt and was forced to back off. Maybe a security alarm went off on one occasion. Or maybe he just realized that there are just too many variables that are outside of his control.
As a result, the serial killer switches up his M.O.
He thinks of a “better” and “easier” way to fulfill his fantasy.
Instead of breaking into people’s homes, the killer decides to target sex workers instead. From his perspective, he will have far more control over the situation.
Furthermore, he knows that crimes against sex workers tend to garner less attention.
Sex workers are often transient in nature. As a result, many people will presume that a missing sex worker has simply “run off” or moved to another city.
In this case, the offender has changed his M.O.
However, his fantasy remains the same.
At some stage, he might switch back to breaking and entering. For instance, one night, he might get so drunk that he decides to throw caution to the wind.
It is also possible that the killer will add a third method to his “playbook”. For example, he might kidnap a woman from the side of a road if the opportunity presents itself.
If it’s late at night, nobody else is around, and he is feeling desperate enough, then there is nothing to say that he won’t try something new.
All in all, it depends on the situation and what the offender is thinking at that exact moment in time.
The method of murder can change too.
Even the method of murder can change if it is not a part of the actual fantasy.
For example, a serial killer might fantasize about raping, torturing and dominating women. However, the murder itself might not be a central part of that fantasy. Instead, he might view it as a “tool” to help him cover up his crimes.
In his mind, a victim cannot identify him later on if they are dead.
This is why certain serial killers will sometimes kill their victims in different ways. They may switch between strangulation, stabbing and blunt-force trauma depending on the situation.
Ted Bundy changed his M.O.
Serial killer Ted Bundy is a good example of this.
- In his first two attacks, he broke into women’s houses.
- After that, he began to lure women into his car and then abduct them. For example, a month after his first kill, he abducted Donna Gail Manson as she was walking to a concert.
- Then, in 1978, Bundy regressed back to breaking and entering.
Bundy also switched between strangling his victims and bludgeoning them.
Carl Eugene Watts.
“The Sunday Morning Slasher” Carl Eugene Watts is another good example of a serial killer who frequently changed his modus operandi.
- Watts switched between strangulation, blunt force, drownings and stabbings.
- He used multiple weapons. Sometimes, he used his hands.
- He ambushed women in parking lots.
- His victims ranged from 14 to 63.
- On one occasion, Watts followed a woman in his car, blinded her until she hit the curb and then beat her to death.
- He often attacked women close to their homes.
- Although he usually did not sexually assault his victims, he did so on at least one occasion.
Be careful about ruling out links between murders.
As you can see, the offender’s M.O. can change for a number of different reasons.
Risk, opportunity and his state of mind at the time can all influence how he goes about achieving his goal.
As a result, we should always be careful about using M.O. to rule out links between murders.
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