Mass Murderers, Spree and Serial Killers

Defining the Differences

Crime scene in forest sealed off with police tape
Steven Puetzer/Photographer's Choice RF

Multiple murderers are people who have killed more than one victim. Based on the patterns of their murders, multiple killers are classified into three basic categories -- mass murderers, spree killers, and serial killers. Rampage killers is a relatively new name given to both mass murderers and spree killers.

Here is the definition of each category of multiple victim killers:

Mass Murderers 

A mass murderer kills four or more people at one location during one continuous period of time, whether it is done within a few minutes or over a period of days.

 Mass murderers usually commit murder at one location. Mass murders can be committed by a single individual or a group of people. Killers who murder several members of their family also fall into the mass murderer category.

An example of a mass murderer would be Richard Speck. On July 14, 1966, Speck systematically tortured, raped and killed eight student nurses from  South Chicago Community Hospital. All of the murders were committed in a single night in the nurse's south Chicago townhouse which had been converted to a student dormitory.

Terry Lynn Nichols is a mass murderer convicted of conspiring with Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The bombing resulted in the deaths of 168 people, including children. Nichols was given a life sentence after the jury deadlocked on the death penalty. He then received 162 consecutive life terms on federal charges of murder.

McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001, after being found guilty of detonating the bomb that in the truck that was parked in the front of the building.

Spree Killers

Spree killers (sometimes referred to as rampage killers) murder two or more victims, but at more than one location. Although their murders occur in separate locations, their spree is considered a single event because there is no "cooling-off period" between the murders.

Differentiating between mass murderers, spree killers, and serial killers is the source for ongoing debates among criminologists. While many experts agree with the general description of a spree killer, the term is often dropped and mass or serial murder is used in its place.

Robert Polin is an example of a spree killer. In October 1975 he killed one student and wounded five others at an Ottawa high school after earlier raping and stabbing a 17-year-old friend to death.

Charles Starkweather was a spree killer. Between December 1957 and January 1958, Starkweather, with his 14-year-old girlfriend by his side, killed 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming. Starkweather was executed by electrocution 17 months after his conviction.

Serial Killers

Serial killers murder three or more victims, but each victim is killed on separate occasions. Unlike mass murderers and spree killers, serial killers usually select their victims, have cooling-off periods between murders, and plan their crimes carefully. Some serial killers travel widely to find their victims, such as Ted Bundy, but others remain in the same general geographic area.

Serial killers often demonstrate specific patterns that can be easily identified by police investigators.

What motivates serial killers remains a mystery, however, their behavior often fits into specific sub-types.

In 1988, Ronald Holmes, a criminologist at the University of Louisville, who specializes in the study of serial killers, identified four subtypes of serial killers.

  • The Visionary -- Usually psychotic, the visionary is compelled to murder because they hear voices or sees visions ordering them to kill certain kinds of people.
  • Mission-Oriented -- Targets a specific group of people who they believe are unworthy to live and without whom the world would be a better place.
  • Hedonistic Killer -- Kills for the thrill of it because they enjoy the act of killing and sometimes becomes sexually aroused during the act of murder.
  • Power-Oriented -- Kills to exert ultimate control over their victims. These murderers are not psychotic, but they are obsessed with capturing and controlling their victims and forcing them to obey their every command.

    In a report issued by the F.B.I., the definition of a serial killer is that "there is no single identifiable cause or factor that leads to the development of a serial killer. Rather, there is a multitude of factors that contribute to their development. The most significant factor is the serial killer’s personal decision in choosing to pursue their crimes."