From the infamous Roman Poison Ring to Lu Shenatir to Locusta the Gaul in the early moments of human civilization. From Samuel Mason, the famous highway gang-leader in the USA, to the infamous Elizabeth Bathory, also called the Blood Countess, who is claimed to have killed at least 400 people. And, more recently, from the infamous Jack The Ripper to H H Holmes and his house of murders. Humans and these so-called Masters of Death have a long history between them. As a certain psychological study in California notes, humans are originally designed to kill each other off. The infamous Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, it seems, was not a one-off tale of warning but rather a foreshadowing of the true nature of mankind and its base predispositions.
In the criminal context, this leads to some bold and difficult questions that have left even the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI scratching their heads. How could we, by asking the right set of questions, successfully identify what kind of person is likely to commit a crime? How can we understand his possible motive behind his crime? And, most importantly, can we preempt the criminal’s future course of action? In examining these questions, the term this Behavioral Science Unit coined for the perpetrators of repeated crimes, i.e. ‘serial killer’ is now cult famous. These were the people who would go on a certain form of a spree, committing possibly similar or even dissimilar acts in order to prevent any trace leading up to them. The Unit was exploring how to connect these actions and how to develop a fool-proof method of doing so. Moreover, the Unit wanted to distinguish someone who just kills people and someone who does that because he believes the devil commands him to do so.
There were too many questions which could have been asked and none of them could have had any proper answers. But John E Douglas, a member of the Behavioral Science Unit, notes that there was a lot of fruit borne out of their investigations and rightly so. Douglas and his colleagues spent years interviewing criminals across penitentiaries all over the country in a span of more than a decade. Their subjects included Ted Bundy, the killer of several innocent girls, John Wayne Gacy, the infamous “Killer Clown”, who is also thought of to be the inspiration for IT’s antagonist—a killer clown called Pennywise. The Unit interviewed the “Son of Sam”, David Berkowitz, who claimed that he shot people in cold blood because his cat – a manifestation of Satan himself – asked him to do so. They also interviewed Ed Kemper, a ‘giant’ in all literal senses with an extraordinary IQ of 145, who was convicted of killing his own mother, grandparents and 3 others whilst engaging in necrophilia with their bodies. The insight the Behavioral Science Unit gained from these studies influenced criminal profiling and psychopathic documentation over the years, giving rise to new fields within psychology.
The distinctive features, John Douglas noted, that were possessed by most of these subjects was an incessant amount of ego. Douglas compared Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber who was an extraordinarily intelligent criminal, and Dennis Rader, a comparatively less-educated one, and said that both their downfalls were due to their narcissism. Douglas contended that a heightened sense of ego, a lack of remorse and all such associated feelings, innate aggression, a traumatic childhood, and a poor, sexually malignant upbringing were all factors that could contribute to a person’s choices of insanity and crimes. He wrote his critically-acclaimed book, The Mindhunter, on his studies which till date serves as a manual for some at the Quantico, which is the training ground for FBI agents in the US. This book explores all of his findings and delves deeper into the psyche of how a psychopath could possibly be thinking in accordance with Freudian psycho-sexual stimulation or violence-induced arousal.
The interesting fact, however, is that Douglas points out that it is wrong to believe that all psychopaths are just remorseless, guiltless, killing machines. He says that there is more complexity to them than that. Psychopaths have a lopsided view of emotions and morality, it’s not that they don’t ‘feel’, just that they feel very differently from the way most people do. Their ability to take cold, completely unemotional decisions is one that is cherished by most CEOs in today’s world. The only difference between psychopathic killers and corporate executives is the presence of external factors like a tough childhood, poverty, trauma etc., which makes the former a threat to society. As it is posed by another psychopath, albeit fictional in this case, Hannibal Lecter from the series of books by Thomas Harris, the human mind has an unfathomable level of variability and complexity. Who knows for sure what makes the Bundys and the Kempers the people they are? All we know is that they’re not born so, they are made to be so.
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