Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at, and website at, The Character Therapist, at

Serial Killers 101

Welcome to Serial Killers 101. This class will focus on the roots of psychosis and some generally agreed-upon traits common among serial killers.

Psychosis truly does have its roots in childhood. I spent a lot of time this month watching documentaries on YouTube about serial killers, and this fact is glaringly in common with all of them.

Further research led to me the concept of the Macdonald Triad, which is also known as the Triad of Psychopathy (pronounced sigh-KOP-athy for those who like to say it the other way!). It’s named for J.M. Macdonald, a forensic psychiatrist who wrote “The Threat to Kill” in 1963, a paper that appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

In this paper, he detailed a set of three behavioral characteristics he claimed that if they were present together in a person, they would be associated with later violent tendencies. It should be noted that Macdonald focused on hospitalized patients who had threatened to kill, not patients who had actually killed. The patients who had threatened the most violence often did have these three traits in their background. Other studies have found statistical significance to the triad, and some studies have not.

The traits, in no particular order, are:

1) Bed Wetting

Macdonald found that bed wetting past the age of five to be significant. Two psychiatrists (Hellman and Blackman) claimed that enuresis―the act of voiding urine while asleep―was a form of sadism or hostility, because it “in fantasy was equated with damaging and destroying.”

Research had subsequently discounted associating bed wetting with violent tendencies but makes the point that bed wetting past the age of five can be humiliating for the child, depending on how the child is treated by parental figures for the act. If belittled or treated cruelly, the child might then be more inclined to engage in the other aspects of the triad as an outlet for their frustration.

2) Animal Cruelty

Torturing animals can be seen as a precursor or rehearsal for killing humans. Torturing any animal is bad, but messing with dogs and cats is particularly so, because they are seen as more humanlike due to being pets. Toads, turtles, worms, and the like are less like pets and killing or torturing them doesn’t violate that connection between humans and pets as much.

Some psychopaths engage in animal cruelty as a way to vent frustrations, since in childhood the child could not retaliate toward those who humiliated them. So they selected vulnerable animals, seeing them as weaker . . . its future victim selection at a young age. Studies prove that killers who engaged in animal cruelty often used the same method on their victims.

3) Fire Setting

Fire setting is seen as a less severe or “first shot” at releasing aggression. Since extensive humiliation is found in the backgrounds of many serial killers, it’s theorized that setting fire and venting frustration and anger by doing so helps return the child to a normal state of self-worth.

It doesn’t have to be huge fires to be an outlet for aggression. Trash cans, small flame throwers, homemade “bombs”―they all serve their purpose, just as setting fire to a building or car does.

Join me next month for the advanced level class, Serial Killers 201, where we will look at the types of serial killers.


The Character Thrapist