Tag Archives: serial killer

Batman and psychopathy

Bat signalI have held off writing about my thoughts on this matter for a while, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to make sense. Clearly, Batman is a fictional character, and one that has appeared in many incarnations, but I believe his overall personality and history seems to make him a close candidate for a diagnosis of psychopath. I’m not a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist, but here is my case.

Young Bruce Wayne witnessed both of his parents murdered together in cold blood. The emotional trauma of this event and the extreme misery to follow could very easily stymie brain development in profound ways. For a child witnessing their parents die in a grotesquely violent act at the hands of a killer, that killer has also just abused the child in a very serious and disturbing way. Child abuse is one of the primary suspects for the development of serious personality disorders, including those that result in a lack of empathy. Presumably, this act also made the young Bruce develop an obsession with criminals and instill in him the need to make sure they are brought to justice.

I don’t know much about the adolescent Bruce Wayne, perhaps someone who is more familiar with the canon can let me know if he was socially deviant, reckless, and callous.

There can be little doubt that Batman himself is extremely violent. Beating villains into a bloody mess seems second nature. Other than the apparent lack of empathy, it is worth noticing that the violence dished out by Batman is very personal; it is close quarter, bone crunching, skin ripping, joint popping, and back stomping violence. In other words, it’s a very intimate level of violence. This seems to point to him getting a thrill out of hurting people, which makes him a sadist. It is widely known that Batman does not use guns (an aversion that could perhaps be explained by his parents being gunned down), but guns are very impersonal. The irony here, which helps enrich the story, is that the Joker also likes to use personal forms of violence, such as knives, on his victims.

There is also an argument to be had that the adult Wayne (and Batman) lack emotion. Batman is usually very clear-minded, cold, and calculated in his behavior. One often hears it is bad to let “emotion” get in the way of making decisions, but perhaps here, Batman has very little to get in the way. Yet clearly, there is always an explosive rage ready burst out of Batman, usually in the form of fists, feet, and head butts. Arguably, he doesn’t have much of an emotional spectrum, which is perhaps one of the reasons he cannot seem to maintain a good relationship (with the exception of Alfred).

There is a parallel between Batman, and the fictional serial killer from Jeff Lindsay’s novels, Dexter. While Batman does typically withhold from killing, he still has a code that provides the parameters for his violence. These parameters help to keep him socially acceptable, as he’s only going after the bad guys. Although, Batman’s code, like all tyrannical codes, have an element of the greater good. Any philosophy that incorporates the greater good will result in the denial of human rights to at least one, but often many individuals. Depending on the group, one could argue that the temporary denial of their rights is necessary, as politicians often do (although not in these words), but nonetheless it places people on different levels of worth. In fact, prisoners, which were at one time criminals, are an incredibly vulnerable group of individuals because they are very much at the mercy of the state, and in scientific research, the use of prisoners is heavily regulated.

Much of these ideas have already been realized in the superhero comics, especially how morality is very often a slippery slope.

Still, if I was asked to write a Batman story, and part of the story included him being diagnosed using Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, I don’t think it would be a stretch to convince people of a score of at least 25.

While the promise of thrill seeking is enough to excite your average psychopath, the Bat Signal clearly gives Batman a raging boner.

A new short story

I haven’t written a blog post in a fairly long time. I’ve been researching a lot on psychopathy, and have just submitted a chapter for an academic collection. Should this chapter be accepted, I will no doubt blog to celebrate and provide a reference for the new piece.

In the mean time I have been playing around with a short story. I’m still tinkering with it, but if you’d like a gander, here it is. Enjoy!

 

Hope

 

Sarah was deathly sick, and had recently finished her fourth round of chemo. Out of sympathy, Hope had decided to shave her head, and it was going to be a surprise for Sarah on her next visit. Hope ran her fingers over her head, and trailed them down and through her long blonde hair, pulling it over her left shoulder.

 

She smiled, and knew she was going to miss it. But some things were more important.

 

Hope took a mental snapshot of Sarah, sitting in her chair, watching the TV, and pulled the door closed until she heard the lock click. It scared Hope how much weight Sarah had lost. In High School she had been on the track team, and had a throwing arm that rivaled the quarterback. Now she was small and bony, and none of her clothes fit her anymore.

 

Sarah lived on the top floor of the apartment building. The concrete stairwell that wound down to the ground floor was always dirty and littered with discarded coffee cups and fast food boxes, and sometimes even used syringe needles, bent and burnt spoons, and broken glass. It was a burden to remember the location of anything ominous that might be stepped on.

 

Hope decided against the stairwell and followed a small and hunched man wearing a tatty blue cardigan and flat gray cap into the elevator. He was stooped over two large cloth carrier bags, one on each side, and shuffled forward without taking his feet from the floor. Judging by his posture, one would’ve guessed the bags each weighed about fifty pounds.

 

There were stains on the floor of the elevator, but none of them looked wet. Hope stepped to the side of the old man, glanced sympathetically at his heavy bags, and looked up to see the doors close.

 

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Hannibal Rising – A Review

Hannibal RisingI have always been curious about the Hannibal Lecter stories, especially the movies, which I enjoyed. I have recently watched the entire series of Hannibal on NBC and I’m totally digging that – not only are the main cast fantastic, but it’s fantastic to see Eddie Izzard sink his teeth into the role of a serial killer. With this enthusiasm in mind, I decided to turn to the books for the first time, and see how Thomas Harris writes.

I suppose it is perhaps wrong to start with the latest book in the Hannibal Lecter series, but I was more than curious to see how Lecter as a child develops into the formidably brilliant killer. I was not disappointed. Harris’s writing is poetic and thought-provoking, a narrative worthy of Lecter himself. Much like Lindsay’s ‘Dexter’, you immediately love and sympathize (hesitate to say empathize) with young Hannibal, as the dark forces play and shape his mind towards the inevitable. Of course we know what Lecter becomes, but this in no way diminishes the enjoyment to be had as Harris sits the reader in a front row seat in Lecter’s nascent shadow.

I recently watched a video from the online magazine Slate, entitled Which Movie Psychopaths are the Most and Least Realistic. An audience of forensic psychiatrists sat down and watched a number of movies featuring psychopathic killers. Lecter (as played by Hopkins in the movies) was dismissed as being too much of a genius, a characteristic which is rare among normal populations, let alone psychopathic killers. Being a genius, though, just makes his character less probable, and not necessarily less realistic.

In later incarnations of Lecter, you never see him lose control or see him at odds with his drives and desires. In Hannibal Rising you get to witness the death of his innocence and the masterful acceptance of his fate.

A Sense of Future and the Act of Killing

Nietzsche future pastIt’s easy to forget how much the ideas we have about our own futures impact our daily lives. We all try to invest in our futures (financially, academically and intellectually, and emotionally and genetically) so that when ‘it’ arrives we will be comfortable and happy. Ideas of a comfortable future make us feel happy, and conversely, thoughts of a chaotic future fill us with dread and peptic ulcers. How we end up in the future is in some ways besides the point, because what we are really trying to do is feel satisfied and happy in the present – by doing what we need to do to secure good thoughts of the future.

Thoughts of the future are intimately related to our sense of morality. Take the golden rule, for example – treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. How would you like to be treated? We need to think about a hypothetical future scenario that involves us being treated a certain way and deciding whether or not we would like it. I say hypothetical future scenario, rather than simply hypothetical, because hypotheticals depersonalize the scenario, and the whole point is that you imagine an act happening to you. Imagining a future scenario overcomes this problem.

Furthermore, if we begin to lose interest in the outcome (future realization) of various activities, we will start to neglect those activities. This is not a moral issue if we no longer care to play the piano, but if we are no longer interested in personal relationships, we can start to neglect people. In fact, a common reason for romantic relationships to fail, is that at least one person in the relationship doesn’t see a future. Considering and being considerate towards your own future and the future of those you care about is clearly moral behavior.

In order to achieve these happy future thoughts, we often set ourselves certain rules and make plans governing our behavior, usually in the name of saving money, staying healthy and in shape, and maybe trying to shape the behavior of our children by being strict. All of the rules are often at the expense of fun and cheap kicks. So, every now and again, we decide to Seize the Day! and completely forget about the future. Obviously, when we do choose to forget about the future and live in the moment it’s still done in a controlled way – none of us really believe that the day to be seized is the be all and end all of our lives.

So what has any of this got to do with killing?

A point that I hope I’ve impressed upon you is that by limiting our sense of future, there is also the danger of relaxing and disregarding our own rules and ethics. I think a ‘sense of future’ actually plays a very potent role in the brains of killers. Below, I have listed what I consider to be the different types of killer (excluding military and legally sanctioned killers), and how a sense of future helps to determine their actions. I have stereotyped each one, but obviously in reality the categories could overlap to varying extents. Brains are dynamic and constantly changing, and so the act of killing only reflects a brain at one moment in time promoting the act within specific contextual cues. Clearly, other people kill in self defense, by losing their temper, or perhaps because of the psychotic symptoms of a mental disorder, and a sense of future may or may not play a role in those events. Regardless, I just want to focus on these three:

Psychopathic Serial Killer: Psychopaths lack a sense of morality and struggle to understand or empathize with emotion. It seems that most serial killers accept that abduction, raping, and killing is going to be a part of their life. Upon this acceptance, and knowing that their behavior can only be continued by evading capture and suspicion, serial killers plan out future events, and are often very meticulous in doing so. It does appear, though, that some psychopathic serial killers do have genuine empathy and morality, but it is only temporal. During these moments they are genuinely able to forge meaningful relationships and lead a ‘normal’ life. Other times, a capacity for empathy isn’t temporal and only limited or faked relationships are possible. This means that serial killers are likely to  fall on a spectrum between a dark/normal life and a dark/faked-normal life. Capture means that both lives are finished, and given the nature of the necessary dark life, a sense of future is integral to the intellectual machinations of the serial killer.

Sociopathic Killer: Sociopaths have a sense of morality, although it’s different from the morality of the parent culture. This means that the sociopath has values or a worldview that one, differs from most people, and two, includes beliefs that devalues or denigrates the lives of certain groups of people. If you hold genuine beliefs that the lives of women, those of different skin color to you, Jews, homosexuals, those of a different religion /worldview / or political ideology are worth inherently less than your own life, then you are a sociopath. Some sociopaths are willing to kill for the sake of their outlook, for their ideology to champion the parent ideology, and so in this sense some may see themselves as revolutionaries. A sociopath is unlikely to have a sense of future while the parent culture/morality remains. As we have already discussed, to lack a sense of future can lead to being unhappy and uncomfortable. A sociopath wants a different future, and may be willing to try and forge it through violence.

Spree Killer: Spree killer is a bit of an outdated term now, but it tends to describe those who arm themselves to the teeth and choose a place where they can inflict maximum casualties in a short space of time. James Holmes, the man who killed many movie goers in Aurora, CO, in July, 2012, might fit this category. Spree killers have a tendency to die in a crossfire with police, commit suicide, or hand themselves peacefully over to the police (as Holmes did). For these killers, there doesn’t appear to be any regard for their lives after the act. The act might be planned out to the nth degree, but if you intend to die in a gun battle, take your own life, or hand yourself over to police knowing that you are going to spend life in prison or receive the death penalty, you clearly have no sense of future. No sense of future – no morality.

Acting at Random – An exhaustive look at the life of Israel Keyes

Acting at random

I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to the blog Acting at Random: A Study of Israel Keyes. The biographer of Keyes, Molly Kaneski , has done a fantastic job of illuminating the life of a killer, who five months ago was being held in police custody and awaiting trial. Keyes committed suicide in his cell in December, 2012.

I mentioned Keyes, briefly, in a blog post I wrote for Psychology Today, entitled When Serial Killers Commit Suicide. At the time I wrote this post, a concise history of the life of Keyes was unavailable, and I had to find what I could from various media outlets. Kaneski has put together a very well researched study on the life of Keyes, and it includes life photos, as well as audio and video files pertaining to his crimes and eventual capture.

Keyes worked in construction and had ‘kill kits’ buried around the United States. He researched the activities of other killers and was even compared to Ted Bundy in terms of how well he kept his dark-side hidden and how meticulous he was carrying out his crimes.

I highly recommend Acting at Random: A Study of Israel Keyes to anyone interested in the lives of serial killers, as they will profit immensely from this excellently put together biography.

I am certainly looking forward to the future work of Molly Kaneski.

Richard Chase: A schizophrenic serial killer

Richard Chase (1950-1980)

Schizophrenic individuals do not usually present with violent behavior, and the odds of a schizophrenic committing serial murder are probably about the same as me winning the jackpot from numerous Vegas casinos in one night. However, it does appear that Richard Chase, who became known as the Vampire of Sacramento, was one such individual. Serial murder is most often associated with the psychopathic, or those with extreme Antisocial Personality Disorder. David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam, claimed to be schizophrenic and that his neighbor’s dog was instructing him to kill, but it wasn’t long before he recanted.

There are a number of different types of schizophrenia, perhaps the most common being paranoid schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenics have progressed passed the so called negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as jumbled and confused thoughts, and an inability to speak fluently and coherently, to the positive symptoms, which include auditory and visual hallucinations. In other words, paranoid schizophrenics are having sensory experiences that are not obviously coming from their environment (i.e. hearing a voice when nobody has spoken). It is not hard to imagine how this could become a living hell. In fact, for some insight, watch this video from youtube as to what it is like to experience these symptoms.

Although schizophrenia can result in violent outbursts, it must be realized that as a mental disorder that results in disordered thinking, it is not really conducive to the cold blooded and premeditated serial killing that we have come to associate with Bundy or Ridgway.

Richard Chase was clearly a special case.

While still young, Chase did wet the bed excessively, liked to light fires, and killed small animals. These three behaviors are actually associated with Conduct Disorder (childhood psychopathy), so while schizophrenic in his early adult life, he could have also had Antisocial Personality Disorder. In his late teens, Chase would hear voices and even answer them, responding, “I’m not going to do that,” and, “Stop bothering me.” This seems consistent with schizophrenia.

Chase developed an obsession with his own personal health and believed that there were problems with his blood and his circulation. While in hospital he remarked to a doctor that his pulmonary artery had been stolen and that his blood flow had stopped.

Throughout his twenties, Chase continued to exhibit weird behavior and paranoia, and continued to receive diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia. His mother, however, did not want him to be put in a mental health home, and eventually was able to get him his own apartment.

It wasn’t long before his neighbors began to witness his weird behaviors, and the fact that animals would be seen in his apartment, such as dogs and cats, but would never be seen again certainly raised some questions. In fact, one day Chase showed up at his mother’s house, holding up her dead and bloodied cat by the tail. Much to his mother’s absolute horror, Chase stuck his hand into the dead animal and then smeared the blood all over his body.

Chase eventually moved on to stalking humans. After a few close encounters with a number of individuals who managed to escape, some were not so lucky. Theresa Wallin, who was 3 months pregnant, had been spotted by Chase only moments before he decided to gun her down in her home with his .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol, which he had managed to purchase legally as the 3 day wait had not picked up his psychiatric history. Chase mutilated the body and smeared Wallin’s blood on his own body, also using an empty yoghurt cup as a means to drink from her.

Less than a week later, Chase entered the home of Evelyn Miroth and murdered four people, including Evelyn. He shot all of them with his .22 caliber. After shooting Evelyn, Chase mutilated her body and drained much of her blood into a pail, from which he dipped a coffee mug and began to drink her blood.

Chase was caught the very next day after killing Miroth. Police knocked on his apartment door, and he came out carrying a box. After trying to make a sudden break for it, the box fell and revealed bloody papers and rags, and Chase was quickly apprehended. Later in the evening, after obtaining a search warrant,  police entered Chase’s apartment. On his bed was a dinner plate with a piece of human brain swimming around in it. In his freezer was a half gallon container with either human or animal organs sitting inside it.

You can see from these events that Chase does not fit the stereotype of a serial killer. For one, the murders don’t seem very calculated or premeditated, other than Chase’s insatiable drive for blood – he probably knew he wanted human blood, but he went after it in a very irrational and disorderly way. And secondly, the murders happened very close together and were devoid of the “cooling off” period that typically describes the psychopathic serial killer.

Chase was sentenced to death, but actually died from an overdose of his medication while in San Quentin State Prison.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2013

Source

Alone with the Devil: Famous cases of a courtroom psychiatrist, Ronald Markman M.D. & Dominick Bosco

Denying killers their fame: How the Ancient Greeks handled it

An interesting opinion piece by Vicki Leon was recently published in the L.A. Times entitled, ‘For mass killers, no name, no fame — forever: Take a lesson from 356B.C.: Infamy should not be headlined.’

In the article, Leon discusses how in 356 B.C. a citizen of the Greek city, Ephesus, shamelessly burnt down a temple and killed many citizens. He made no attempt to escape, and when caught he bragged about his name becoming immortalized. To deal with this, the Ephesians passed a law that decreed anyone who uttered his name would meet the death penalty. This ‘name ban’ apparently remained in place for a long time.

The article then goes on to suggest how if we could create some contemporary equivalent to this ban, then it would surely be worth a try.

I would be opposed to such a ban, personally, and for two reasons. Firstly, I find nothing wrong with names like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Richard Ramirez striking fear into our hearts. Let them serve as reminders as to what kind of people are ‘out there’, and let their names be yelled out and condemned by the families of their victims. Ironically, if you silence the killer’s name, you silence the memory of their victims.

Secondly, who cares if the egomaniacal killer loves all of the media attention? Should we silence the media just because the killer is loving his time in the spotlight? The media who are letting us know who was responsible, who he killed, how he killed, and where he was operating. A psychopathic killer is likely to feel a sick glee for what he’s done, regardless of attention. Provided that the media are sympathetic to the victims and law enforcement, I don’t see a problem with the mass proliferation of a killer’s name.

Laws that promote silence are never going to be a good thing.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2013