The Disturbing Truth Of Serial Killer Joel Rifkin

For a span of four years in the early 1990s, serial killer Joel Rifkin left a string of terror across New York City as he satisfied his fixation on strangling sex workers to death. A routine traffic stop brought him to justice in 1993 and he eventually confessed to 17 murders, but his disturbing legacy continues to fuel questions about the nature of the murderous mind and its true origins.

Although Rifkin and his mother have asserted that there was no abuse in his childhood, there were still some signs of trouble. Despite an Intelligence Quotient of 128, Biography said Rifkin struggled in school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. As the learning disorder continued to go unnoticed and untreated, Rifkin suffered at the hands of bullies and was continuously pushed out of any social circle he tried to join.

The alienation and mental struggles eventually pushed Rifkin to turn inward for solace. Like another notorious serial killer Ed Kemper, Rifkin created a dark fantasy world to replace real human interaction and connection. For Rifkin, his ideal world was a macabre one that was defined by murdering and raping women.

The cause of Rifkin's violent urges remain unknown

Much about the psychology of serial killers is still up for debate. As noted by Psychology Today, the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI claims that serial killers are created via obsessive fantasies that gradually intensify until they become real. Yet like the research on the subject, the debate over how much nature and nurture contribute to the creation of murderers is hotly contended. Were Rifkin's murderous impulses created by childhood fantasy loops driven by alienation, or was he born with a murderous mind?

CNN's Chris Cuomo interviewed Rifkin for his Inside Evil series and unsurprisingly concluded that the answer is likely a complex combination of both. Nevertheless, the host did argue that Rifkin's nature was driven by his nurture and appeared to suggest that the killer's murderous impulses were at least partially innate. "In the case of Rifkin  who, as a serial strangler, employed a uniquely violent way to kill — he actually doesn't understand why he does what he does," the CNN anchor wrote in an op-ed, later noting the terrifying implications of this lack of self-awareness. 

As with other serial killers, the disturbing truth is that we will likely never know for certain why Rifkin is the way he is.