The term “serial killer” conjures up a terrifying combination of crazed rage, violence, and worse in our collective consciousness. But what if some of the most notorious names in this bloodied history are also victims of their own mind – and can we ever truly understand them?

Mad, bad, and incredibly dangerous to run into on a dark and stormy night, serial killers occupy a dark part of the American psyche – and remain a perennial favorite of true crime serials, TV shows, and twisted thriller writers.

Our morbid fascination leaves us with a lingering feeling of guilt, but the eternal desire to know just why keeps us coming back for more. Origin stories are a staple in the world of comic book supervillains, but when it comes to reality, the truth is often a lot more mundane – and terrifyingly so.

But what if it’s all in the head?

According to some of the latest research into just what creates a serial killer – after all, they just can’t just be born like this! – they could just as well be victims themselves. Brain injuries, such as tumors and lesions, can alter the subtle pathways of a brain later in life.

The result: a once-normal person starts to commit aberrant crimes – but can they truly be held responsible?

Take James Fallon, a leading neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine who has made a career of studying the brains of serial killers. According to him, their orbital cortex (which regulates things such as ethical behavior and decision making) is simply an ominously void on PET scans.

Put a shrunken amygdala (which controls emotion and represses common emotions such as guilt and empathy) with a practically non-existent orbital cortex and a psychopathic brain is born, but not always a serial killer.

Fallon is cautiously happy to admit that he has a psychopathic brain, making him a “natural born killer” – but believes that nurture is just as important as nature in the creation of a serial killer. In other words, he had a happy childhood and has gone on to enjoy a happy adult life with a good career, many serial killers simply do not have any of these luxuries.

John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, and Albert Fish, some of the 20th century’s most reviled serial killers, all sustained head injuries in childhood, as did others. Whether a simple childhood accident or abuse at the hand of a terrifying parent, the deadly outcome only became apparent decades later; but by that time, it was too late.

Could the difference simply be a roll of the dice from an indifferent universe, where a toxic marriage of a missing orbital cortex and abusive childhood is all that’s needed? We can all sympathize with a victim – but what happens when the victim grows up to become a monster?

In my new book, Combustible Punch, I explore the mind of a fictitious serial killer, Harriet Bristol Wheeler, who is as smart, vicious, and manipulative as they come. Now, she wants to tell her story to the world; and who better than an increasingly down-and-out school shooting survivor, Rick, who is also trapped in his own life story?

This is a story about the tightrope that so many people walk – perhaps not even realizing it – that has the potential to explode at any time. Harriet is, on the face of it, not so different from the rest of us; someone you might throw a forgotten glance at on the street, only to realize, years later….

Only readers can decide whether Harriet is a monster or a victim. Rick also needs to find his own answers as he goes on his own journey with the very kind of person that should, by all rights, absolutely repulse him; but his necessary fascination, like ours, must be sated.

In a society that wants justice – or at least, something – there are no easy answers to this question of what makes a serial killer. By the time a serial killer is apprehended, the damage has already unraveled the lives of other innocents, continuing the thin lines of destruction and misery where the fringes of society clash with civilization.

Perhaps this is the simple underlying reason behind our grisly interest into the dark world of serial killers. Their horrific acts may make for titillating, occasionally gory, TV but at heart, we’re all searching for answers in a world that often makes little sense.

Even – and especially – the serial killers.

Paul Michael Peters Top-selling author Paul Michael Peters is an American writer best known for his take on the quirky tangents and morals of contemporary life and his recent novel, Insensible Loss.

His upcoming novel, Combustible Punch, is a thriller scheduled for release in 2019 that explores the psychological dance between that most unlikely of odd couples: a serial killer and a high school shooting survivor.

Stay up to date with Peters’ latest book releases and author news by visiting his website, where you can sign up for the newsletter as well as find more short stories and other online content.