Do serial killers collect trophies from their victims so that they can intentionally trigger their own ptsd-like flashbacks?

Photo courtesy of

Jason Brien.

Serial killers have an overwhelming desire to collect trophies from their victims. Serial killers often take personal mementos from their victims such as jewellery or clothing and either wear the mementos themselves or hand them out as gifts to people close to them. They may even take hair, fingernails, teeth or larger body parts as souvenirs. Many researchers and theorists believe that serial killers collect trophies from the victims so as to maintain control over their victim in the afterlife or to obtain some degree of object permanence which the serial killer cannot achieve internally. What if though, serial killers were collecting trophies so as to intentionally induce their own ptsd-like flashbacks? 

The vast majority of serial killers have commented that they enjoy reliving the killing as much as possible. Serial killers like Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgeway would often revisit either the scenes of the killing or the corpses themselves. Bundy for example used to spend the night in the forests with his victims deceased and rotting corpses. Various serial killers would comment that they would use the trophies collected from their victims to ‘enhance’ their memories of the killings. Many serial killers would also state that they use the trophies as masturbatory aids which again, enhances their reliving of the killings. Again, are these serial killers actually inducing ptsd-like flashbacks? Is this why they often comment that the collected trophy ‘enhances’ their memories and ‘enhances’ the reliving experience? 

This is a radical suggestion and to better understand this proposal it is important to understand both the mind and emotions of serial killers and the nature of ptsd flashbacks and intrusive memories. Flashbacks and intrusive memories are the result of an environmental, auditory, tactile, olfactory, visual or vocal trigger which transports a person, cognitively, to the time and place of the traumatising event. In a very real sense the individual, at the time of a flashback or trigger, is re-living the traumatic event as it originally occurred. The sights, sounds, smells, thoughts and emotions are all experienced just as they occurred the first time. 

Think of a flashback or a trigger as being a mix between a virtual reality headset and being automatically and involuntarily transported directly into your worst dream or nightmare. The dreamer experiences their dream not as a dream but as reality and they can experience a range of sensations, thoughts and emotions. For virtual reality headsets, the aim is to project to the viewer a scene, such as a rollercoaster for example, which appears to the viewer to be real and authentic. The viewer, although they are personally experiencing a different reality, still exist in the same reality as those around them. 

The difference is however, with a PTSD flashback, the flashback is projected onto, and integrated into, current reality not a dreamscape or a virtual landscape. What I mean by this is, if an individual is experiencing a flashback, which was perhaps triggered by hearing a car backfiring for example (which is a credible trigger for war veterans) then the individual perceives their surroundings not as it truly is in reality (i.e., a neighbourhood street, inside a shopping mall) but as it was at the time of the traumatic event (i.e., in the jungle or the desert fighting enemy soldiers). The traumatic memory and experiences superimpose themselves onto reality. The noise of the backfiring car becomes the noise of a gun firing. The husband or wife standing in front of the PTSD individual in reality becomes the enemy combatant standing in front of them in a flashback. 

The vital difference between ‘normal’ people and serial killers is emotions. When ‘normal’ people experience flashbacks and intrusive memories, they experience strong emotional responses which causes stress and distress. Serial killers however, lack genuine emotions. Serial killers often say that during the time of the killing, they felt no emotions only an intense adrenaline rush. They also rarely experience remorse, guilt or shame. This could explain why a serial killer is not stressed or distressed by flashbacks and intrusive memories. They might experience an intense adrenaline rush akin to the time of the murder but not emotions. In a way, the serial killer gets to enjoy all of the reliving experiences of the flashbacks and intrusive memories without any of the hassles of emotions. 

The serial killers lack of emotions actually works against them though. When ‘normal’ people experience flashbacks and intrusive memories, the associated negative emotions will cause them to engage in escape and avoidance behaviours so as not to feel stressed and distressed. The problem with escape and avoidance behaviours is that it strengthens the intensity and duration of the flashbacks and intrusive memories. It negatively reinforces the trauma. This is where the serial killer gets it all wrong. By consistently and persistently using the victims’ trophies to ‘enhance’ their memories of the killing, the serial killer is actually weakening the potency and persistency of the flashbacks and intrusive memories. That is, the more that the serial killer relives the murder, the weaker the reliving experience becomes.

Masturbation and orgasmic conditioning may serve to positively reinforce the flashbacks and intrusive memories for a while but this too will eventually desensitise the serial killer from the memories. This could explain why serial killers have an overwhelming urge to kill more people and collect more trophies. This is also where the suggestions of object permanence may come in. The intense memories may help the serial killer to remain ‘connected’ to their victim. When their memories of the victims’ final moments weaken, so too does their sense of object permanence. To continue feeling connected to others, they must continue to kill. 

The suggestion that serial killers intentionally induce their own ptsd-like flashbacks is exactly that… a suggestion. To the best of my knowledge, there is no research evidence backing up this assertion. It is possible that serial killers collect trophies in an effort to trigger intense memories of the murder akin to the way flashbacks and intrusive memories trigger intense responses in ‘normal’ people. The serial killers consistent and persistent use of trophies to trigger flashbacks and intrusive memories also makes a lot of sense. After all, this is the basis of exposure therapy which is highly effective in the treatment of ptsd and associated conditions. Exposure therapy suggests that the more the client becomes accustomed to their trauma, through exposure rather than escape and avoidance, the less intensely they will experience their traumas.