The Son of Sam killer was one of the world’s most prolific killers, evading police capture for a year. After shooting his victims, he would write cryptic letters to the police, signing them “Son of Sam.” David Berkowitz’s reign of terror spanned 13 months, resulting in six dead and others wounded. He struck fear into the hearts of the New York public from 1976 to 1977 — a timeframe later known as the “Summer of Sam.”
After an interview with the killer, reporters said David Berkowitz took every opportunity to promote himself and his crimes. His sense of grandiosity, ego and irrational thought patterns made him one of the most unpredictable and dangerous criminals of the seventies.
The first sign that Berkowitz had mental health issues was this egotism, as well as his motivation for killing. Berkowitz claimed a former neighbor, Sam Carr, owned a Labrador dog that was possessed by a demon. The demonic dog, among others in the neighborhood, would tell him to kill strangers.
Before he was caught, Berkowitz’s crimes were escalating in intensity, signaling that his mental state had spiraled out of control. Read on to delve into the Son of Sam’s psyche and learn how psychologists came to his paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis.
The Early Life of David Berkowitz
A traumatic event in childhood can trigger underlying mental health disorders, which can lead to catastrophic consequences if not diagnosed and treated. Berkowitz witnessed his adoptive mother dying of cancer, which had a severe impact on his stress levels. Seeing a young girl hit by a car and having major head injuries himself may also have contributed to his state of mind.
Still, despite their childhood traumas, most people don’t go on to become serial killers. Berkowitz did exhibit signs of deviant behavior as a child — for instance, he poisoned his mother’s parakeet because he felt she paid more attention to the bird than him. Unfortunately, he never got the help he needed during his formative years. Berkowitz became more of a loner as time passed and eventually joined the Army, where he became a marksman.
Berkowitz’s trauma, combined with his paranoid schizophrenia (diagnosed later), made for a lethal combination. At least 5% of criminals serving jail time have serious mental illnesses; according to reports, paranoid schizophrenia is the most common disorder among criminals.
The Son of Sam’s Killings
Most serial killers don’t start with murder — they tend to start with antisocial behaviors. Before the murders started, Berkowitz committed arson and eventually began hearing the demonic voices that motivated him to kill. Hearing voices and having delusions are key signs of paranoid schizophrenia, but at that stage, a diagnosis hadn’t been made. Due to his time in the Army, Berkowitz wielded a gun.
When he was young, Berkowitz was in a public shower with his mother and noticed women screamed when a man entered the room. He mentioned in an interview that this was the moment he realized men had a lot of power over women. The Son of Sam eventually went on to target women and girls 15 to 20 years old with long brown hair, which led a trend of women in the New York area dyeing their hair in the hopes it would keep them safe.
Prior to Berkowitz’s capture, prominent detective Harvey Schlossberg profiled the killer with the following traits:
- A loner
- A sexual deviant who feels sexually inadequate
- Sane, but suffers from schizophrenia
- Chaotic and messy
- Of above average intelligence
- Good with a gun and has access to one
- Between the ages of 20 and 35 years old
Berkowitz’s psychological profile was a close match to the profile. He was caught because of an unrelated incident: a traffic ticket. Neighbors had started to complain about his erratic behavior after he shot one of the dogs in his community.
When he was caught, a team of detectives and psychologists set out to find out his motivation for his crimes and make a potential diagnosis.
The Son of Sam’s Diagnosis
After Berkowitz was interviewed by psychiatrists, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. According to Mayo Clinic, paranoid schizophrenia is marked by the following behaviors.
- Delusions: Experiencing illogical thought patterns and becoming convinced of untrue ideas
- Auditory hallucinations: Hearing voices and seeing things that “control” you
- Racing speech: Irrational speech and rambling words
- Abnormal behavior: Agitation, childlike behavior, strange postures and uncanny movements
- Lack of hygiene: Unwillingness to clean yourself or your environment, neglecting living spaces and losing interest in everyday activities
It’s important to note that not all schizophrenics exhibit the levels of antisocial behavior that Berkowitz did. In conducting further interviews after his conviction, including a public statement where Berkowitz admitted to fabricating the demon dog story, Dr. David Abramson dismissed the diagnosis, claiming that Berkowitz was sane.
The Son of Sam is serving six life sentences for his crimes but hasn’t ever taken medication for his diagnosis. A leading crime reporter went to visit David Berkowitz years later in prison, where Berkowitz opened up about his crimes. He admitted he felt more like he was on an Army mission to kill rather than voices guiding him.
Ultimately, Berkowitz struggled with loneliness after he returned from the service, which led to him joining a Satanic cult and becoming embroiled in Satanic culture. He believes these influences ultimately guided his motivation to kill and not symptoms of schizophrenia — which can be comorbid with PTSD.
Whether it was a mental health disorder, Satanic influence or post-traumatic stress, the very act of killing to fill a void proves a degree of abnormal behavior that was ignored until it was too late.
Live a Safe and Sociable Life
Feeling threatened by a loved one or experiencing irrational thought patterns and unwanted feelings of your own is a difficult and deeply stressful situation. If you’re worried for your safety or that of someone you care about, it’s time to get help.
Restore Mental Health is staffed with an understanding, compassionate team of counselors available 24/7 to help navigate complicated feelings and urges. Contact Restore to get started today.