As a society, we’re utterly turned on by the notion of psychopaths. Give us someone other, a boogey man to fear, and we’re equal parts scared and titillated.
It’s why, when you look at documentaries and journalistic articles about serial and rampage killers, you wind up with the boogey man mystique and don’t really get a chance to understand the why-fors of it all.
Part of that is because we don’t know enough to clearly define the equation of what creates a rampage or serial killer: there’s no cookie cutter formula to say that the same math won’t give you a dozen different answers.
But there’s something else at play, something that’s quite relevant to writers: we’d prefer the sense of otherness to the sense of regret. If there’s something wrong with the kid, then there’s nothing society could have done to change the situation or minimise the damage.
I was watching a documentary today about rampage killers (hence the blog post), and what struck me was the way we tend to veer madly away from the idea that it’s not all biological. We focus on those good kids who suddenly go bad because we can point and say that clearly, there was something wrong inside them. They’re not being abused by their family, they’re not bullies, they’re not the stereotypical ‘bad’ kid. There was a misfiring something that suddenly broke down, and boom, chaos.
It was interesting to watch the show touch on issues that seem like they would have similar levels of importance to the mental health and biological ones, and then rush back to focus on the mental. But while they got a glancing mention, there wasn’t really a discussion on the social elements that impact the mental issues.
Pro tip for those without mental health issues: those social elements play a huge part in the severity of certain problems. Stress ramps up issues so, so much. People’s comments about us impact depression. What others do has a direct and meaningful impact, whether we like it or not.
As a writer, the one-sided conversation annoys me, because the best villains in fiction aren’t just a product of biology. They’re a product of a series of tiny, insignificant or all important events that pile up to create an unwinnable situation. In the Marvel universe, Loki’s actions are directly caused by the realisation that his life was a lie, and his true heritage was one feared by those around him. In the Blacklist, Red’s career trajectory was entirely positive until that unknown something pushed him towards cruelty. Frank Burns in M*A*S*H was loved by his mother, but otherwise almost universally disliked from a very young age.
When you scratch the surface of a lot of fictional villains, it becomes clear that it’s less about biology than it is about circumstances. And when we see them entirely, not just as a mustachioed monologue-user with a love of black clothes and evil cackles, villains are scarier. We can relate to them. We can see that it could have been us, or someone we loved, who made those choices.
We’ve all been made to feel lesser than, and wanted to get revenge. We’ve all been so angry that violence seemed like a perfectly reasonable option. We all have some measure of darkness within us.
Most of us step back from that darkness, though, with varying degrees of success. We’re insulated from the worst of those temptations by a complex web of family morality and social consciousness. But some fall through the cracks.
So, for what it’s worth, here are the three social issues that were mentioned in turning ‘good’ kids ‘bad’:
Gender: oftentimes, the boys involved in violent acts (whether rampage shootings or violent crimes with less media focus) are raised in a society that defines masculinity as overtly domineering and violent. So, the boys that like comic books instead of football are seen as lesser, for example. There’s a very definite idea of what boys/men should be and do. Those who don’t meet that ideal are bullied, and are less likely to ask for help or support because of an idea that they’ve failed as men for being in that position in the first place.
Think of it this way: if you’re raised (whether by family dynamics or society in general) to believe that masculinity= strength, and that strength is about dominating another person, then you’re probably going to assume that being bullied makes you less of a man (for what it’s worth, I’ve always found that the opposite is true). So these guys try and figure out a solution to turn them from bullied to powerful. And because of that skewed idea of masculinity, it can go incredibly badly.
Education: generally, the bullying is happening both inside and outside of school. The wider community chalks it up to ‘boys being boys’ and doesn’t intervene. At times, the school doesn’t respond (whether because they can’t, or because they don’t know about it). What this means is that the bullied kid’s education suffers, because hyper-vigilance around potential threats doesn’t make for a great focus on learning. Grades suffer, which reaffirms the idea that there’s something wrong with the bullied child, and can even add a level of frustration from the teachers and parents, on top of the issues with other students. All this reaffirms the idea that there’s nothing beyond what’s happening: there’s no escape, no chance at success or leaving that feeling of helplessness behind. So you’ve now got a kid who feels like he’s not enough, and never can be. See how that’s playing on any mental health or cognitive issues?
Finally, you’ve got the community issue. If you’re new to a close knit community, it can take time to become an included part of it. So what happens if you’re the sort of kid who doesn’t fit in, and you’re living in a place where fitting in means everything?
Think about it: if you’ve got your parents and teachers on your case for your failing grades, you’re getting bullied, and you feel like nobody cares, it would be easy to feel as though everyone was against you. And it would be easy to start thinking of them as less human because you’re thinking they’re acting like monsters. If you’re the hero in your life story, then surely that means that these are the villains.
And those tiny little moments become an incredibly tragic situation.