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"Imagine Your Last Name Being Gacy:” Psychologist Breaks Down Myths Of Serial Killer Gene
A licensed psychologist featured in Oxygen’s “Killer Siblings” separates fact from fiction regarding the MAOA gene mutation, sometimes referred to as the serial killer gene.
This article was modified in November 2021 to reflect the new season of "Killer Siblings."
Despite serial killers making up less than one percent of homicides each year, the fear and fascination they instill can keep many up at night.
Psychologist and Associate Professor at Clark Atlanta University Dr. Kanika Bell told Oxygen.com most people are not interested in the everyday scenarios that make up the bulk of murders that occur like a road rage incident.
“We are fascinated by the one person who is committing ritualistic acts, who is planning, who is returning to daily life as a husband, as a parent, going to work in between kills,” Bell said.
But what if that ritualistic killer is in your own family?
Bell, whose expertise has been featured in Oxygen's series, “Killer Siblings," which returns for new episodes on Friday, December 3 at 8/7c on Oxygen and looks into cases dealing with relatives going down a darker path that often leads to destruction and death, explained whether the "serial killer gene" is a real thing.
In fictional shows like “Riverdale” and even a real murder case in Italy, the MAOA gene mutation, commonly called the “warrior gene,” is sometimes used as a precursor or scapegoat for violent actions. The gene can cause a deficiency, mostly seen in males, that might show risk for aggressive or antisocial behavior.
However, we may be overly transfixed by the gene because of a desire to be able to explain what motivates a killer, Bell said.
“We don’t understand why someone would ritualistically choose innocent persons and butcher them, sexually assault them, and maim them in the ways that serial killers do,” Bell said. “I think we are thirsty and looking for something to explain that phenomenon.”
In reality, Bell is skeptical the gene explains all of the violent behaviors attributed to murderers. There may be some genetic predispositions to certain psychological problems or disorders, but in most cases there are clear environmental factors that we should keep in mind like family relationships or experiences growing up, according to Bell.
“When we do this type of work, we are normally looking at the environmental triggers,” Bell said. “We are normally looking at psycho-social, familial dynamics that contribute to, you know, someone developing the capacity to commit acts like those.”
Still, the fear of passing down a genetic trait of violence is something some people grapple with.
“Imagine your last name being Gacy, Bundy, Dahmer…” Bell said. “And people making an off-color joke by saying you’re not related to the Dahmer and you have to say yes I actually am.”
Sadly, some clients she’s worked with in the past with violent relatives swore off having children out of fear of passing along aggressive traits, Bell said.
“It’s difficult to try to reassure someone, when someone has a violent parent and a violent sibling that, you know, hey…there’s a possibility you’ll have really great kids, that this won’t come down as a genetic pathway,” Bell said. “It’s difficult for people to make that assumption.”
However, research does not currently show passing down predispositions to violence is as common as passing down traits like eye color, Bell adds.
“I do think that sometimes people believe that it has that level of genetic power and I just don’t think we’ve had studies that show that kind of genetic marker at this time,” Bell said.