What is this unexplained fascination with serial killers sprinkling our interests lately? You only have to look at the onslaught of programmes being commissioned on Netflix to really get a sense of the world’s viewing appetite. I don’t know if epidemic is the right word, but that’s how I see it.
I guess another way of explaining this is when you pass a traffic accident on the motorway – do you look? Yes, you know you do. It’s the intrigue and the frankly curious nature of human beings, we like knowing about the unexplained.
So, what if you could go part way into understanding the mind of a serial killer? It’s like flashing a glance over that motorway. You don’t quite know what you’ll see, but you’ve got a good idea it’s not going to be nice, but you do it anyway. Meet Dr Robert Schug, a criminal and forensic psychologist ranked the world’s 8th most influential forensic psychologists*. It’s his job to understand the inner most twisted workings of some of the most notorious serial killers in the world… Amazingly, he’s allowed me to ask some unprecedented questions, and sneak a glimpse into his world.
Meeting a murderer
Schug was asked to interview a high-profile serial killer for a television documentary on the brain which aired on a major cable television network globally. The programme specialises in exploring different types of brain, they might look into a military brain and interview someone from the army, or perhaps a sporty or disciplined brain and speak with an athlete etc. This particular segment of the programme focused on the criminal brain.
“It’s the dark side of humanity that we’re all fascinated with”
Schug explains upon meeting him that this individual came across as a well mannered and tame man, and it didn’t reflect a man who had committed such hideous crimes. He actually murdered 17 women, and holds a prison sentence of 203 years; the interview was conducted within the prison he resides in America.
There was a juncture during the interview when the camera crew filming had to swap the film roll, Schug discusses these few unscripted minutes… “I hadn’t anticipated this momentary blip, I’ve spoke with so many killers since, but there was something about that time that felt overly intense. It was earlier in my career, and panicked… and I remember saying ‘So, the likes of Ted Bundy apparently got loads of fan mail from different women wanting to marry them… you must have received some mail like this’ to which he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘no, I have not received one piece of mail like this.” Schug remarks to me, “Small talk with serial killers is awkward… who knew?”
Crime in the media
In an age when crime is more documented than ever before, not only do the police convey their side, but you’ve now got it from the perspective of journalists, documentary and film makers each telling their own version – we have never been as close to the action and been given this many viewpoints, allowing viewers to feel involved rather than far removed.
“Can the dark and the light exist at the same time?”
I then asked him about the growing global fascination with real crime, and in particular the Netflix original Making A Murderer. “The sensationalism around the whole thing did heighten curiosity” he said. Schug fears it’s becoming a new form of entertainment rather than genuine interest which he says is ‘extremely worrying’. He continues: “ I think it’s the dark side of humanity that we’re all fascinated with – maybe it makes people feel better about themselves when they see how bad life could be. For me, I can’t speak for all humans but I think there is an intrigue around – what keeps me from doing that? What’s the difference between me and that guy on Netflix right now?”
Remorse is always an area of intrigue as it is such a natural feeling for those who possess an equal and balanced array of emotions, feeling guilt is acknowledging you’ve done wrong and trying to move forward. I wanted to know whether (the aforementioned serial killer) felt remorse for his actions; “I feel like he is sorry he got caught, but I personally don’t feel like he fully appreciates how much harm he’s done.” Schug then compared a ‘normal’ person to a serial killer, he explains: “What prevents someone like me from committing murder? Hypothetically speaking, if I were to get angry enough—even to the point of wanting to hurt someone—I wouldn’t dare… because firstly I would feel empathy for them, and secondly I don’t want to get caught and go to prison. These two feelings are lacking predominantly in many serial killers, the fear is non-existent.”
Being a psychologist who works with some of the most extreme cases including the criminally insane, and serial killers I wanted to know how Schug manages to get past what these people have done and treat them as equals. “It’s difficult, and I don’t expect many people to understand. I speak with people who have chosen to do bad, horrific, and sometimes unexplainable things to others. They are still people. I don’t believe there are ‘monsters’ at least I’ve never met one. Most of these folks committed these acts for a reason, even if the rest of us don’t understand that reason. More often than not I am able to see and connect with the humanity in all of these people, sometimes I can’t, and sometimes they are just mean-spirited or challenging in other ways. I still want to understand why they are the way they are, and help them along on their journey if possible, if that is my role in the moment.” He continues “I think working in this profession you develop an appreciation for complexity for human existence and how the dark and the light can co-exist in the same person. That makes it interesting to me, I want to know why these things happen and it’s surprising just how original some of these stories can be.”
Schug points out that anyone can read about specific crimes on the internet and be disgusted, he continues; “My job is to understand and determine why they did it, I’m a scientist and I want to know the rational behind the crime therefore I can’t get wrapped up in the judgement.”
Schug discusses some of his most disturbing cases; he wasn’t able to give masses of detail because of patient confidentiality. He told me about a criminally insane patient who had previously stabbed his victim several dozen times, severed his victim’s penis and testicles and then put them in the rubbish bin. “It’s disturbing, but I have a curiosity about this specific patient. I would say for me, it’s understanding the ‘why’ I’ve found that more often than not, there is a reason why, and I’m wondering what this man is going to say about it. The more violent cases are always very disturbing and especially when any cases involve children. They are the worst.”
As if Schug didn’t have enough on, he is also an Associate Professor of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Forensic Psychology at California State University, Long Beach, we spoke about the challenging aspects of teaching it, he explains: “Students are usually coming at this subject after watching their 100th episode of Criminal Minds assuming they can anticipate what it’ll be like, but I think what people don’t realise how much is required.”
“You absolutely have to have the curiosity, fight off feeling jaded and ultimately deal with the intensity and heaviness of the subject.”