Mass Murder Murder Typologies Serial Killers Spree Killings

Defining Murder: Serial, Mass, And Spree

The precise definitions of serial, mass, and spree murders are a common misconception among those not versed in the technical terminology. Once I mentioned how James Holmes, the Aurora theatre shooter was not a serial killer and got a confused look. I don’t remember who I said this too. Without trying to sound like a know it all, I explained the difference. I probably did come across as a know it all *blushing, embarrassed emoji*.

Here’s a quick breakdown…

Serial Murder

-The FBI defines a serial homicide offender as having committed 3 or more homicides over a period of time.

-Killings occur at separate events and places.

-Experiences a “cooling off” phase between crimes, unlike mass and spree homicides. This phase varies between 3 months to several years.

The “cooling off period” is one of the most important and defining characteristics of serial murders. This is what separates serial killings from spree and mass killings and is potentially what makes serial killings so difficult to solve because of the period of inactivity.

-All crimes have the same or a similar modus operandi. This includes weapons used, type of victim (sex, age, physical characteristics), and similar crime scene.

-Motives include revenge, sexual gratification, power/control, anger, criminal enterprise, and financial gain.

-Potential causes of serial homicide offending: mental illness (sociopathic and antisocial personality disorders), abuse, sexual dysfunction, past criminal behavior, biological, social, and environmental influences.

Mass Murder

Before the term serial killer was coined in the 1970s, they were referred to as mass murderers. Now, the term has a different meaning and sadly something we are all too familiar with.

-Four or more murders at a single event at one time. Can include more than one assailant. Event lasts from a few minutes to several hours.

-Assailant usually commits suicide, is shot by police, or easily surrenders.

-Motivations include anger, frustration, mental illness, religion, gang activity, and cult associations.

-The offender usually commits a mass murder in order to complete a “mission”.

-The “mission” the mass homicide offender is carried out or “completed” based on one of the motives.

-Mass homicide offenders easily surrender due to the fact they view their killings as the completion of their “mission”.

-Victims can be random, family members, or members of a certain group, religion, ethnicity, or sex.

Spree Killings

I explained this in my last post about Charles Manson and how the Manson Murders are actually spree killings instead of serial killings. Spree killings are completed at two or more locations with almost no time in between. However, killings that last for several days, hence the word spree, are still considered spree killings. Those who engage in spree killings are often motivated by rage and revenge. They often tend to target someone who betrayed them such as a former lover, boss, classmate, etc.


Fox, J. A., & Levin, J. (1998). Multiple homicide: Patterns of serial and mass murder. Crime and Justice, 407-455.