Countess Erszebet Bathory was a breathtakingly beautiful, unusually well-educated woman, married to a descendant of Vlad Dracula of Bram Stoker fame. In 1611, she was tried - though, being a noblewoman, not convicted - in Hungary for slaughtering 612 young girls. The true figure may have been 40-100, though Countess recorded in her diary more than 610 girls and 50 bodies were found in her estate when it was raided.
The Countess was notorious as an inhuman sadist long before her hygienic fixation. She once ordered mouth of a talkative servant sewn. It is rumoured that in her childhood she witnessed a gypsy being sewn into a horse's stomach and left to die.
The girls were not killed outright. They were kept in a dungeon and repeatedly pierced, prodded, pricked, and cut. The Countess may have bitten chunks of flesh off their bodies while alive. She is said to have bathed and showered in their blood in mistaken belief that she could thus slow down aging process.
Her servants were executed, their bodies burnt and their ashes scattered. Being royalty, she was merely confined to her bedroom until she died in 1614. For a hundred years after her death, by royal decree, mentioning her name in Hungary was a crime.
Cases like Barothy's give lie to assumption that serial killers are a modern - or even post-modern - phenomenon, a cultural-societal construct, a by-product of urban alienation, Althusserian interpellation, and media glamorization. Serial killers are, indeed, largely made, not born. But they are spawned by every culture and society, molded by idiosyncrasies of every period as well as by their personal circumstances and genetic makeup.
Still, every crop of serial killers mirrors and reifies pathologies of milieu, depravity of Zeitgeist, and malignancies of Leitkultur. The choice of weapons, identity and range of victims, methodology of murder, disposal of bodies, geography, sexual perversions and paraphilias - are all informed and inspired by slayer's environment, upbringing, community, socialization, education, peer group, sexual orientation, religious convictions, and personal narrative. Movies like "Born Killers", "Man Bites Dog", "Copycat", and Hannibal Lecter series captured this truth.
Serial killers are quiddity and quintessence of malignant narcissism.
Yet, to some degree, we all are narcissists. Primary narcissism is a universal and inescapable developmental phase. Narcissistic traits are common and often culturally condoned. To this extent, serial killers are merely our reflection through a glass darkly.
In their book "Personality Disorders in Modern Life", Theodore Millon and Roger Davis attribute pathological narcissism to "a society that stresses individualism and self-gratification at expense of community ... In an individualistic culture, narcissist is 'God's gift to world'. In a collectivist society, narcissist is 'God's gift to collective'". Lasch described narcissistic landscape thus (in "The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an age of Diminishing Expectations", 1979):
"The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life. Liberated from superstitions of past, he doubts even reality of his own existence ... His sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace.
Fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and acclaim, he distrusts competition because he associates it unconsciously with an unbridled urge to destroy ... He (harbours) deeply antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in sense that his cravings have no limits, he ... demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire."
The narcissist's pronounced lack of empathy, off-handed exploitativeness, grandiose fantasies and uncompromising sense of entitlement make him treat all people as though they were objects (he "objectifies" people). The narcissist regards others as either useful conduits for and sources of narcissistic supply (attention, adulation, etc.) - or as extensions of himself.
Similarly, serial killers often mutilate their victims and abscond with trophies - usually, body parts. Some of them have been known to eat organs they have ripped - an act of merging with dead and assimilating them through digestion. They treat their victims as some children do their rag dolls.
Killing victim - often capturing him or her on film before murder - is a form of exerting unmitigated, absolute, and irreversible control over it. The serial killer aspires to "freeze time" in still perfection that he has choreographed. The victim is motionless and defenseless. The killer attains long sought "object permanence". The victim is unlikely to run on serial assassin, or vanish as earlier objects in killer's life (e.g., his parents) have done.
In malignant narcissism, true self of narcissist is replaced by a false construct, imbued with omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. The narcissist's thinking is magical and infantile. He feels immune to consequences of his own actions. Yet, this very source of apparently superhuman fortitude is also narcissist's Achilles heel.
The narcissist's personality is chaotic. His defense mechanisms are primitive. The whole edifice is precariously balanced on pillars of denial, splitting, projection, rationalization, and projective identification. Narcissistic injuries - life crises, such as abandonment, divorce, financial difficulties, incarceration, public opprobrium - can bring whole thing tumbling down. The narcissist cannot afford to be rejected, spurned, insulted, hurt, resisted, criticized, or disagreed with.
Likewise, serial killer is trying desperately to avoid a painful relationship with his object of desire. He is terrified of being abandoned or humiliated, exposed for what he is and then discarded. Many killers often have sex - ultimate form of intimacy - with corpses of their victims. Objectification and mutilation allow for unchallenged possession.