Psychopaths know pity, have no conscience and show no remorse. Not when they kill repeatedly. Not when they deceive you to get exactly what they want from you. And, worst of all, they may be your boss, your friend, even your spouse. The question is, would you recognise one if you saw one?
The work of a monster
Some crimes are so chillingly horrific and committed in such a cold-blooded way we instinctively feel they can only be the work of a monster.
We're talking about the kind of person who appears normal on the surface but who can kill and then have a braai afterwards. Or the serial killer who keeps the decomposing remains of his victims in his clinically neat flat. Or the criminal who sets fire to a house or vehicle, then stands and watches as fellow human beings burn to death.
Only people with no conscience and no spark of compassion can be capable of such deeds. And this is exactly what makes psychopathic killers so terrifyingly efficient – on the surface they look and act like normal people but underneath they're coldly calculating and heartless.
What's even more frightening is that unless they commit a crime and get labelled as a psychopath they could be part of normal, everyday society. They may be one of your colleagues, a member of your lift club, an elder in your church or a PTA member at your kids’ school.
Psychopaths become lethal only if have something they want: a position at work, a standing in the community; a convenient marriage. Then they'll ruthlessly scheme to get what they want.
Read: Psychopaths wired for reward
Shallow sandy graves
To get an idea of what goes on in the mind of a psychopath we spoke to Professor John Watkins, a specialist psychiatrist from Cape Town. (John Watkins isn’t his real name – he prefers to use an alias because of legal and professional reasons.) Watkins has evaluated thousands of criminals and has gained an international reputation as a result of his work with police and the courts.
Within days of the second murder committed by the Station Strangler, a psychopathic serial killer who terrorised the Cape Flats between 1986 and 1994, he could tell the police what type of person to look for. The bodies of 22 boys were found face-down in shallow sandy graves, their hands tied behind their backs.
The killer you’re looking for, the professor told the police, could be a teacher, the nicest guy possible would have no trouble luring young boys from video shops and game arcades to train stations.
The 38-year-old Norman Simons, who was arrested on the eve of South Africa's first democratic elections and later found guilty on one count of murder, fitted this profile to a T – he seemed kind and friendly but was chillingly manipulative.
Psychopaths can be ever so charming. Like American Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibal murderer who was caught in 1991 after seducing and murdering 17 men and boys. Police found severed and decomposing body parts in his freezer and around his otherwise very tidy apartment.
Watkins interviewed Dahmer and said he looked exactly like the chocolate factory worker he was – someone you'd choose to sit next to on a bus.
No wonder this murderous psychopath was able to persuade police to return to him a naked young boy who had managed to escape his clutches. After the police left he strangled and dismembered the drugged youth. Who psychopaths really are
Does the law protect us against psychopaths?
How psychopaths get the way they are
Fear deficit is a harbinger for psychopaths
Assessment tools are useless in psychopaths
Reviewed by Professor Tuviah Zabow, former head of forensic psychiatry at the University of Cape Town and Valkenberg Hospital.
By Romi Boom
Image: Scary killer from Shutterstock