Of serial killers and the dark side of the human psyche

Serial killers & cult leaders- I’ve been interested in serial killers and other societal deviants for a long time.  I can still remember reading the book Helter Skelter when I was about 10 years old.  I can vividly recall the fear and terror that gripped NYC when the Son of Sam David Berkowitz was randomly killing in the late 70s.  The Jonestown massacre in Guyana still holds a fascination for me.   I even studied forensic psychology in college (in fact I have a masters degree in it).  I’ve often wondered what is says about me that I am drawn to such darkness in human nature.

Even while studying psychology I knew I had no desire to be a therapist.  I just wasn’t sympathetic to the neurosis and petty problems of most folks (what can I say – I was very arrogant and fairly young).  I didn’t even necessarily want to work with the criminal population.  I think my pursuit of a  psychology degree was an effort to understand what makes people tick.  I was drawn to the darker aspects of human behavior because on some level I believed if I understood it then I could avoid falling victim to it.  The fact that I had already fallen victim to one act of violence as a child was also a motivating factor.

It seems to me that humans believe we are civilized and intelligent enough to rise above our more animal nature.  However two psychologists, Stanley Milgrom and Phillip Zimbardo, each conducted a well-known and disturbing experiment looking at how humans behave in various situation.  Milgrim’s experiment studied human behavior in response to authority figures.  He set up various scenarios but the core of this experiment was that the subject was put in a room and instructed to ask questions of another person and to issue a shock if the answer was incorrect.  The results were disturbing – in the initial study 65% of the subjects administered the highest shock voltage even when clearly uncomfortable.  Over the years this experiment was replicated in different cultures and with different parameters but with very similar results.  It makes me wonder why we are so willing to take actions we consider unethical or uncomfortable because an authority figure instructed us to do so.

Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Study, an experiment in which volunteers were randomly assigned to either the guard or the prisoner group.  Neither group was given much instruction in how to behave or what to do but it quickly became apparently that left to their own devices, the “guards” began acting sadistically and cruelly.  The “prisoners” began exhibiting signs of depression and rage.  The experiment, scheduled to run for two weeks, was canceled after 6 days because the results were disturbing and it was decided it was causing harm to the volunteers.

What fascinates and frightens me about both these experiments is how quickly we are willing to commit cruel, sadistic and atrocious acts either because we have been told to do so or because we feel that our “role” requires it of us.  Some elements of this may be due to the influence of peers or an internal desire to appease authority figures but it forces me to wonder just how civilized and humane we really are.  Is our willingness to engage in these behaviors really the result of a deep, hidden and unacknowledged desire to hurt others?  Maybe we all have a dark side that revels in cruelty and viciousness.  We learn to control it over time because we learn that such behaviors are unacceptable but those desires are still there – dormant and awaiting a chance to express themselves.  We all want to believe we would never commit certain acts but in reality I think that we might depending upon circumstances.

In fact I believe that one of the reasons some people need Lucifer or Satan is because it’s an effective way to project those nasty, dark, vicious aspects of our personality onto an external figure.  We’re not evil, we did something evil due to Satanic influences.  Or like the young accusers of Salem who behaved in shocking, socially unacceptable ways claiming witches were making them do it.  It’s always the fault of someone or something outside of ourselves.  It’s also made me realize that humans will use various excuses – “I was following orders”, “it’s my job” and even “the devil made me do it” to excuse viciousness and cruelty.  It’s why some are drawn to cults – they can submit to a more dominant personality and not feel the need to make decisions or be responsible for their behaviors.

One thing I’ve learned about my explorations into the dark side of the human psyche is that awareness of it helps me restrain it.  Not all the time but enough to be considered tolerable.  I am fully cognizant of my dark side.  Sometimes I even embrace it and allow it some form of expression that won’t hurt anyone else.  What I’ve also accepted is that it’s not the result of the influence of anyone or anything else.  It’s part of who I am.  It is also not an excuse for cruel or vicious behavior.  Knowing the cause of something is not an excuse.  Having an addiction does not excuse the behaviors that result.  Instead of trying to correct the behaviors we have a tendency for find excuses for them (which is a topic for another day).  I think it’s time to cut through the bullshit.  We’re all a blend of dark and light.  We all have mean, vicious aspects to our personalities.  What makes us human is our ability to know that and change our behaviors so that we aren’t hurting others simply because we feel like it.  We have the ability to shine light on the darkness and not lose ourselves in its embrace.

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