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University of Georgia Hobbes and the Culture of American Violence Essay


Chapter 5

Hobbes, Human Nature, and the Culture of American Violence in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

Thomas Fahy

In a sleepy town in the heartland of America at the end of the 1950s, a family of four was brutally murdered for no apparent reason. When Truman Capote read about this crime in the New York Times, he decided to travel to Holcomb, Kansas, to investigate not only the crime, but its effects on the residents of Holcomb whose sense of peace and safety had been brutally shattered. Thomas Fahy examines how Capote wrote about the crime, not as a suspense-filled detective saga—he gave away the ending at the start of the book—but as an examination of what happens when the monstrous looks just like the normal. Thomas Fahy is the director of the English graduate program at Long Island University. He has written extensively about horror. Among his many publications are Dining with Madmen: Fat, Food, and the Environment in 1980s Horror (2019) and two young adult novels, The Unspoken (2008) and Sleepless (2009). This excerpt was taken from The Philosophy of Horror (2010), a collection of scholarly essays on horror. The life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.—THOMAS HOBBES, Leviathan [Men are] creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.—SIGMUND FREUD, Civilization and its Discontents My epigraphs are taken from Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961). [Author’s Note.] On November 15, 1959, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith drove several hundred miles to the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, and brutally murdered four members of the Clutter family. Armed with a hunting knife and a twelve-gauge shotgun, the two men entered the house through an unlocked door just after midnight. They had been hoping to find a safe with thousands of dollars, but when Herb Clutter denied having one, they tied him up and gagged him. They did the same to his wife, Bonnie, his fifteen-year-old son, Kenyon, and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Nancy. Afterward, they placed each of them in separate rooms and searched the house for themselves. When they found no more than forty dollars, Smith slit Herb Clutter’s throat and shot him in the face. He then proceeded to execute the rest of the family. Each one died from a point-blank shotgun wound to the head. One month later, Truman Capote, who had first read about these crimes in the New York Times, arrived in Holcomb with his longtime friend, the author Nelle Harper Lee. 1 Both the horrifying details of the murders and the strangeness of the place appealed to Capote. Everything about Kansas—the landscape, dialect, social milieu, and customs—was completely alien to him, and he was energized by the prospect of trying to capture this world in prose. He recognized that the case might never be solved, since the police had no clues about the identity of Hickock and Smith at the time, but that didn’t concern him. He primarily wanted to write about the impact of these horrific killings on the town. As biographer Gerald Clarke explains, Capote was less interested in the murders than in their potential “effect on that small and isolated community.” 2 Six years later, after the execution of Hickock and Smith, he completed his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences—a work that offers a chilling portrait of violence and fear in American culture. But why is this book so terrifying? Before reading the first page, we know the outcome. Even if we haven’t heard of the Clutter family, the description on the back of the book tells us that there is no mystery here. Capote even announces as much at the end of the first short chapter: “four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.” We know the Clutters will die and that the killers will be caught and executed. So what makes Capote’s narrative so frightening and unsettling? The author gives some clue in the next sentence: “But afterward the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again—those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.” 3 In Capote’s rendering of this event, we, too, re-create “those somber explosions” and share in the fearful mistrust of others. We try to grapple with what these killings suggest about human nature, and in the process our neighbors become strangers, too. They become potential threats, undermining our own sense of safety and security. Capote’s book raises several disturbing questions for the reader as well: How and why were Hickock and Smith capable of such brutality? Could you or I do such things? These questions resonate with Thomas Hobbes’s philosophy about the innate aggression and brutality of human beings. His pessimistic outlook can provide some insight into the source of terror in Capote’s work—that such violence, resentment, and anger are in all of us. Before discussing this connection, I will situate In Cold Blood in the horror genre by focusing on its use of a horrific event and the imagined encounter with the monstrous. I will then discuss Hobbes’s notion of human nature and the sovereign—a figure that promises to provide moral justice and prevent mankind from being in a perpetual state of war. But what happens if this source of moral authority (the sovereign) is absent? If the veneer of civilization is removed? Capote’s answer, like the one offered by Hobbes, is clear: we will all act in cold blood. The Horror of In Cold Blood 5 The horror of In Cold Blood operates on several levels: its realism, the brutality of the crime, the random selection of victims (Smith and Hickock had never met the Clutters before the night of the killing), the incongruity between the primary motive (theft) and the ultimate outcome (multiple murders), the fear that swept through the state in its aftermath, and the callous indifference and lack of remorse on the part of Hickock and Smith. So can In Cold Blood, which promises a journalistic account of actual events, be understood in terms of the horror genre as well? By making this connection I’m not trying to minimize the real tragedy of these crimes. I’m merely suggesting that Capote uses some of the conventions of horror, as well as the suspense/ thriller genres, to craft his rendering of these events. Capote himself labeled the work a nonfiction novel, and this invites us to think about the literary devices shaping In Cold Blood. “Journalism,” he said, “always moves along a horizontal plane, telling a story, while fiction—good fiction—moves vertically, taking you deeper and deeper into character and events. By treating a real event with fictional techniques . . . it’s possible to make this kind of synthesis.” 4 Capote’s fusion of reporting and fiction here enabled him to present Hickock and Smith’s crime and its subsequent investigation as a novelist. He could make choices to create a certain effect and to manipulate the reader’s response. As suggested above, part of the momentum of In Cold Blood comes from the details that resonate with suspense/ thriller fiction. A crime has been committed that launches a nationwide manhunt. Lead detectives work around the clock, piecing together clues and interviewing suspects in hopes of a lucky break. At one point, the special agent in charge learns that the men are back in Kansas, and the chase intensifies. But the facts of the case undermine these familiar-sounding conventions at every turn. The crime has been “solved” for the reader before the first page. The identity of the criminals is discovered by accident when Hickock’s former cellmate, who told him about the Clutters in the first place, hears a radio broadcast about the murders and reveals Hickock’s identity to the authorities. Smith and Hickock are caught not because of Special Agent Dewey’s hard work and ingenuity; they are apprehended because of their own incompetence and arrogance. The book also suggests that Smith’s abuse as a child, his family’s neglect, his inability to pursue an education, and his association with people like Hickock helped shape him into a killer. Such revelations often occur in the suspense/ thriller genres as well, but Capote is using them here to create sympathy for the killer—a response that complicates our response to his execution. When the people of Holcomb first see Smith and Hickock after they have been apprehended, for example, Capote notes that they all respond with stunned silence. “But when the crowd caught sight of the murderers, with their escort of blue-coated highway patrolmen, it fell silent, as though amazed to find them humanly shaped” (248). When faced with such horrible crimes, we expect the monstrous, the inhuman. Yet Capote’s sympathetic characterization of Smith, in particular, makes it difficult for the reader to view him as a monster. This is where In Cold Blood intersects with the horror genre as well—an encounter with the monstrous. Noël Carroll, in his influential work The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart, argues that monsters are the central feature of horror. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, are recognizable threats, and the danger they pose must be destroyed/ defeated to restore harmony. Monsters also elicit the emotional effect that the genre seeks—horror—because they literally embody the abnormal. As Carroll explains, “The objects of art-horror are essentially threatening and impure.” 5 They inspire revulsion, disgust, and nausea. A number of scholars have criticized this narrow definition, arguing that serial killers and more realistic monsters must be accounted for as well. David Russell, for example, offers a broader taxonomy for the horror genre, arguing that “some types of monsters may be explained as ‘real’ . . . [in that they] are not remarkable in any physical sense. Their threat to normality is manifested solely through abnormal behavior challenging the rules of social regulation through ‘monstrous’ and transgressive behavior.” 6 He labels these monsters “deviant”—a category that includes stalkers, slashers, and psychokillers. Critic Matt Hills also responds to Carroll’s limited framework by suggesting an event-based definition of the genre (as opposed to Carroll’s entity-based definition) so that “we can take in the widest possible range of texts that have been discussed as ‘horror’ by audiences and labeled as such by filmmakers and marketers.” 7 Both of these characteristics are evident in Capote’s book. As a ruthless killer, Smith is certainly a realistic monster, and the Clutter murders qualify as horrific events. 10 But let’s return to Carroll’s emphasis on monsters for a moment. Even though In Cold Blood doesn’t fit the supernatural requirements of his definition of horror, Capote does present Hickock and Smith as monstrous on physical and psychological levels. His descriptions of their anomalous, damaged bodies attempt to ascribe some physical difference to their aberrant behavior. Smith is first depicted as a man with “stunted legs that seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported” (15), and Special Agent Dewey takes note of Smith’s disproportionate body at his execution: “He remembered his first meeting with Perry in the interrogation room at Police Headquarters in Las Vegas—the dwarfish boy-man seated in the metal chair, his small booted feet not quite brushing the floor” (341). Likewise, Hickock has a tattooed body, serpentine eyes “with a venomous, sickly-blue squint,” and a face “composed of mismatched parts . . . as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center” (31). As a boy-man (dwarf/ adult) and serpent-man (with a divided face), Smith and Hickock are hybrid figures like the monsters that typically appear in horror fiction. Their bodies, like their actions, violate social norms and categories (moral/ immoral, good/ evil, human/ inhuman), and this element resonates with Carroll’s argument about monsters as repelling and compelling “because they violate standing categories.” 8 At the same time, these physical aberrations are not so pronounced that the townspeople of Holcomb can comfortably “Other” Hickock and Smith. Their bodies do not live up to the monsters whom they imagined responsible for the killings. As noted above, they initially responded to these men with stunned silence, “as though amazed to find them humanly shaped,” but in many horror stories unreal monsters come in human form. The horror, in other words, resides within. Just like a serial killer who seems like a nice guy to his neighbors, werewolves “hide” inside human beings until a full moon; vampires can “pass” as human until they reveal their fangs. The notion of a threat from within is integral to the terror of In Cold Blood. 9 Smith isn’t a werewolf or a vampire. He is a person just like us, but a killer lurks inside. Like these supernatural counterparts, he can transform at any moment from charming loner to ruthless murderer, which is evident in his confession: “I thought [Herb Clutter] was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat” (244). What makes Smith so terrifying is not simply the suddenness of his transformation here, but the fact that he doesn’t physically turn into a monster. At some level, the town of Holcomb, as well as the reader, fears this lack of visual otherness because it implies that anyone can be like Smith. This implication also fuels fears in the community that the killer lives among them. On hearing the news of the murders, one townsperson responds: “If it wasn’t him, maybe it was you. Or somebody across the street” (69). Another remarks: “What a terrible thing when neighbors can’t look at each other without a kind of wondering!” (70) And even when the killers are apprehended, their suspicions don’t vanish. “For the majority of Holcomb’s population, having lived for seven weeks amid unwholesome rumors, general mistrust, and suspicion, appeared to feel disappointed at being told that the murderer was not someone among themselves” (231). Once they admit that anyone has the potential to be a monster, they can’t stop being afraid of one another.”

  1. “Restate in your own words what the quotation from Thomas Hobbes is saying about human life.
  2. Why did Truman Capote choose to reveal the outcome of the crime right from the very beginning of his book? What effect might this have had on the reader?
  3. Fahy writes, “Monsters also elicit the emotional effect that the genre seeks—horror—because they literally embody the abnormal” (par. 8). How is this reflected in Dick Hickock and Perry Smith?
  4. What does Fahy mean when he writes about “visual otherness” (par. 11)? How is that connected to Hickock and Smith?
  5. In Cold Blood has been called a true-crime novel. How is truth (i.e., the real-life story of the murder of the Clutters) connected to fiction in this story? How can these opposites—truth and fiction—be resolved? Reflection and Response
  6. Capote observed that until Smith and Hickock were caught, the residents of Holcomb, Kansas, began to fear each other. Indeed, Fahy records that, in Capote’s words, “old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers” (par. 3). What is the effect of believing that the familiar can suddenly be the unknown danger? In what ways might we see this in today’s world? Give specific examples.
  7. Capote concludes, echoing the idea of Thomas Hobbes, that when moral authority or rule of law has been removed, humans “will all act in cold blood” (par. 4). Do you agree or disagree? Support your answer.

The Horror in the Mirror: Average Joe and the Mechanical Monster

Richard Tithecott

The horror of Jeffrey Dahmer was that he was so ordinary, so unremarkable, just an “Average Joe,” and yet he was capable of such horrific deeds. The question then becomes how we can reconcile the idea of normalcy with the facts of killing, necrophilia (an erotic interest in corpses), dismemberment of corpses, and cannibalism. Much rests on how we define ourselves as human and how we answer the question of what constitutes normal and natural. Richard Tithecott is the author of Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer (1997) from which this excerpt is taken. To Randy Jones, one of Dahmer’s neighbors, Dahmer seemed “like the average Joe” (Newsweek, 5 August 1991: 41). Helping us to disseminate a picture of Dahmer in court, a caption in Anne E. Schwartz’s book describes Dahmer as an “average-looking man.” To Tracy Edwards, whose escape from Dahmer’s apartment led to Dahmer’s arrest, Dahmer “seemed like a normal, everyday guy,” and presumably in order to justify that characterization, Edwards agrees with Geraldo Rivera’s suggestion that he and Dahmer were out to “hustle some chicks” (Geraldo, 12 September 1991). Dahmer “is a very gentle man” according to his attorney, and “that’s what makes it so absolutely intriguing and unbelievable to see how a fellow like that you saw in court today could have done all these horrific acts” (Larry King Live, 17 February 1992). To make it even more intriguing, as a Washington Post columnist notes, Dahmer is not from one of the “nation’s urban areas with more of a reputation for cold-bloodedness,” but from Wisconsin, “America’s heartland” (1 August 1991: C3). . . . The idea that “appearances are deceptive” is repeated in article after article: “Concealed amongst all this normality lies dormant evil.” Like the surrealists, in the banal we see, and perhaps like to manufacture, something extraordinary. Average Joe often has a story to tell about himself and his friends that calls into question his claim to his name. This celebrated embodiment of middle America is often hiding something. His normality, we say, is an illusion. But when we look at our monsters and wait for the true gargoyle within to burst through that familiar shell, sometimes we experience a more horrifying or thrilling possibility: the monster that appears actually is Average Joe; what is unspeakable turns out to be impossible to put into words not because it is so extraordinary but because it is so ordinary. Thus, we have a twist on the story behind Daniel Vigne’s The Return of Martin Guerre or Jon Amiel’s Sommersby: not an intruder in the guise of familiarity, but familiarity in all its glory. It is a possibility that Hannah Arendt describes in Eichmann in Jerusalem: “[ The prosecutor] wanted to try the most abnormal monster the world had ever seen. . . . [The judges] knew, of course, that it would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmannx was a monster. . . . The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal” (Arendt 276). The “trouble” with Eichmann is the trouble with our serial killers, both new and old. “I shall clip the lady’s ears off . . . wouldn’t you?” asks Jack the Ripper in a letter to his fellow man. As Martin Tropp suggests, the writer “speaks directly to his readers, implying by his words and literacy (despite the [possibly intentional] misspellings) that he is one of them” (113) and that this is why he is so difficult to catch. “Our monster turns out to be not something monstrous disguised as Joe but Joe who has let it all hang out.” Halloween director John Carpenter, commenting on the success of The Silence of the Lambs, remarks, “I think we’re all frightened of the unknown and also of the repressed people in our society. There’s a duality that touches off sparks in all of us” (People Weekly, 1 April 1991: 70). Those sparks are theorized by Jonathan Dollimore thus: “Since, in cultural terms, desiring the normal is inseparable from and conditional upon not desiring the abnormal, repression remains central to identity, individual and cultural” (246). We often figure the serial killer as failing to repress the desire for the abnormal. Joan Smith, for example, figuring identity in hydraulic terms, says, “The otherwise inexplicable actions of a serial killer . . . can . . . be understood as a survival mechanism, a means of coping with intolerable stress. The fact that they commit such terrible crimes enables them to function normally in the periods between their crimes” (3). Our desire for normality, our fetishization of Average Joe, inevitably means that abnormality is constructed as something that needs to be repressed, something that inevitably becomes desirable, mysterious, sexy. As it comes into focus, our depiction of the serial killer as “letting off steam” is also a picture of Average Joe who has given in to his deeper desires. Our monster turns out to be not something monstrous disguised as Joe but Joe who has let it all hang out. Attempting to satisfy our hunger for horror, we revert sometimes to what John Carpenter says indicates fifties conservatism: the cheap scare. Our monsters, more animal than human, spring at us from behind bushes, prey on us, return to their lairs far from everyday, familiar society. At such times we might, like Dahmer’s neighbor, John Bachelor, compare Dahmer to Jason in Friday the 13th (Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1991: A14)—he who, like Lecter, xi we like to conceal behind a hockey-mask—or we might, like Robert Dvorchak and Lisa Holewa, describe Dahmer’s reported “wailing” and “screeching” when he is arrested as “all those forces seething inside him erupt[ ing] to life” (Dvorchak and Holewa 8). But we are generally movie-literate people, and to truly scare ourselves, we want sometimes to be a little more subtle, to show that we can write and speak a little more fully, a little more knowingly about those “forces.” At these times, we must be able to mistake our monsters for ourselves—or ourselves for them. We must build a house of mirrors. 5 If we are white, scaring ourselves in this way is a little easier. Average Joe is white, and so is Average Joe, the serial killer. Average Joe has power, the power of being average, of being a representative of middle America. And so does Average Joe, the serial killer. The sister of one of Dahmer’s many black victims is curious about why her fellow guest on The Maury Povich Show should be so fascinated with Dahmer that she regularly attends his trial: “Did you want to read about the man [ Joachim Dressler] that sat up there and cut up 11 people in Racine. Did you want to read about him? No, see, you don’t even remember him. But he was—came from an insane place. But see, that’s not big news. This white man that killed almost all minorities, he is big news” (Maury Povich, 4 February 1992). Not that the whiteness of a serial killer becomes an issue—but his “normality” does. We not only place the white Dahmer or the white Bundy or the white Gacy on the covers of magazines, we give them the power to look back at us. And that’s a thrill. Looking at our monsters is a good way of finding out who we think we are, or who we think we might be, or even who we want to be. They can be figures who have realized our frightening or fantastic potentials. The trick is to identify how subtle we are being. Take, for example, the representation of Dahmer as automaton. Seizing on classmates’ memories of Dahmer’s ritual walk to the school bus—four steps forward, two back, four forward, one back (Masters 1991, 267)—we deal with his lack of feeling towards his victims by constructing an image of Dahmer as boy-machine who develops into something which, when arrested, “looked so emotionless, so harmless, as if he were a robot being led away” (Norris 1992, 41). In court his face is “passionless” (Geraldo, 12 September 1991), his eyes “almost vacant” (Newsweek, 3 February 1992: 45). For the Washington Post, Dahmer, “his face . . . pale and impassive,” “walked with the near-drop pace of a zombie” (7 August 1991: B1). People Weekly magazine, countering the claims of his lawyer that he was in a “state of anguish,” says, “but Jeffrey Dahmer was impassive in court as he was charged with first-degree murder” (12 August 1991: 32). While defense and state attorneys differ in their assessments of Dahmer’s responsibility for his actions, their portrayal of him as unfeeling, inhuman, and machinelike are indistinguishable. Dahmer’s attorney, Gerald Boyle, describes him in court as a “steamrolling killing machine,” “a runaway train on a track of madness, picking up steam all the time, on and on and on,” while Michael McCann for the prosecution describes Dahmer as a “cool, calculating killer who cleverly covered his tracks” (New York Times, 16 February 1992: 24). Such estrangement can be of the unsubtle variety, a case of “pathologizing and thus disavowing the everyday intimacies with technology in machine culture” (Seltzer 98), but it can also indicate not so much a disavowal as an expression of anxiety on our part about modern humanity or, more specifically, modern man in “machine culture.” Klaus Theweleit describes the masculine self of members of the First World War German Freikorps as “mechanized through a variety of mental and physical procedures: military drill, countenance, training, operations which Foucaultxii identified as techniques of the self’ ” (Rabinbach and Benjamin in Theweleit 1989, xvii), and Mark Fasteau, among others, describes the stereotype of the contemporary male self in similar terms, a stereotype which we are still struggling to outgrow. In The Male Machine Fasteau describes the ideal image to which the title refers as functional, designed mainly for work. He is programmed to tackle jobs, override obstacles, attack problems, overcome difficulties, and always seize the offensive. . . . He has armor plating which is virtually impregnable. His circuits are never scrambled or overrun by irrelevant personal signals. He dominates and outperforms his fellows, although without excessive flashing of lights or clashing of gears. His relationship with other male machines is one of respect but not intimacy; it is difficult for him to connect his internal circuits to those of others. In fact, his internal circuitry is something of a mystery to him. (Fasteau 1) Fasteau’s “male machine” is a frightening but familiar image. It corresponds with the way we often figure our monsters: “If there’s anything monstrous about [Dahmer], it’s the monstrous lack of connection to all things we think of as being human—guilt, remorse, worry, feelings that would stop him from hurting, killing, torturing” (Davis Silber, quoted in Dvorchak and Holewa 141). It corresponds with the way we represent our mostly male psychopaths who can be diagnosed as such by demonstrating, among other things, “a shallow understanding of the meaning of words, particularly emotional terms” and by not showing “the surge of anxiety that normal people exhibit” when they are about “to receive a mild electric shock” (New York Times, 7 July 1987: C2). And, apparently keen to confer buddy-status on as many of society’s others as possible, Fasteau’s male ideal also corresponds with necrophilesxiii and schizophrenics.xiv “According to Eric Fromm’s findings,” says Brian Masters, necrophiles “often have a pallid complexion, and they speak in a monotone. . . . They are fascinated with machinery, which is unfeeling and antihuman” (quoted in Masters 1991, 266). In Cold Blood examiners of Lowell Lee Andrews produce a diagnosis of “schizophrenia, simple type,” and by “simple,” Capote tells us, “the diagnosticians meant that Andrews suffered no delusions, no fake perceptions, no hallucinations, but the primary illness of separation of thinking and feeling” (Capote 315). How different are our killing machines from our male machines? While we are familiar with and still sometimes valorize the male machine, how sensitive are we to the idea that it is logical for such machines also to regard their others as mirror-reflections of themselves, as unfeeling, interesting only as mechanical objects? While Dahmer the schoolboy explains to a classmate his reason for cutting up the fish he catches—“I want to see what it looks like inside, I like to see how things work” (Dvorchak and Holewa 41)—the adult Dahmer confesses to the police “in the uninflected language of an affidavit” that he disassembles his human victims “to see how they work” (Newsweek, 5 August 1991: 40). Our construction of the serial killer resembles a figure of masculinity, or rather a reassembled figure of masculinity, who has turned on all that frustrates masculinity either within himself or without. When we represent serial killers, necrophiles, psychopaths, schizophrenics, and a male ideal in similar ways, we sometimes refuse to identify links between them, but sometimes we allow the representations to merge, to form an almost conflated image in which the other is seen through the familiar self, the familiar self seen through the other. An uncanny effect, as Freud might say. What Freud does say is that the uncanny hints at “nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression” (Freud 1953, 47). In the same essay he mentions the uncanniness of mechanization: “Jentsch has taken as a very good instance [of the uncanny] ‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate’; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automatons. He adds to this class the uncanny effect of epileptic seizures and the manifestations of insanity, because these excite in the spectator the feeling that automatic, mechanical processes are at work, concealed beneath the ordinary appearance of animation” (31). A Newsweek article on Dahmer describes serial killers as “taking their cues from some deranged script” (5 August 1991: 40) and concludes with a quotation from Park Dietz: “These people are the most controlled people you can imagine” (41). While Dahmer was found to be in control, not out of it, his actions perceived to be those of a man who knew what he was doing, he is also represented as someone/ something being controlled. The figure of the killer as unfeeling, programmed machine—the writer of the program remaining a mystery—is one with which the Gothic and our representation of serial killers are particularly occupied. And contributing to our sense of the uncanny is the defining characteristic of the serial killer, the repetitiveness of the killing act. For Freud, “repetition-compulsion” is “based upon instinctual activity and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts—a principle powerful enough to overrule the pleasure-principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character” (Freud 1953, 44). In other words, “repetition-compulsion” can signify oxymorons such as “mechanized nature” or “natural machine.” 10 With Freud’s understanding of the uncanny in mind, the mechanically repetitive serial killer is a construction which can suggest for us the power of “natural instinct,” an instinct whose naturalness we may or may not wish to question. But whether we see the power of “mechanized nature” or of a “natural machine,” our particular representation of the body as machine may appear as both a powerful fantasy and a fantasy of power. Mark Seltzer, who argues that “the matter of periodizing persons, bodies, and desires is inseparable from the anxieties and appeals of the body-machine complex” (my italics; Seltzer 98), refers to the type of fantasy which “projects a transcendence of the natural body and the extension of human agency through the forms of technology that supplemented it” (99). And just as dreams about technology can reflect more than just our anxieties, our construction of mechanized monsters, as I mentioned earlier, can indicate more than just our worries about humanity’s “naturalness” or its future in a technological age. Gilles Deleuze says, “Types of machines are easily matched with each type of society—not that machines are determining, but because they express those social forms capable of generating and using them” (Deleuze 6). Reinventing Deleuze’s comment, one might say that our constructions of automated monsters, rather than indicating what we fear machines are doing to us, indicate what kind of a culture is “capable of generating and using them.” In the mythology of modern America the serial killer is a character able both to scare and thrill us in unsubtle and subtle ways. He can be monstrous, but he can also demonstrate a monstrosity which is familiar. The figure of the mechanized serial killer—the serial killer as automaton, unable to stop—offers us a version of familiar, “natural,” and to some extent “appealing” behavior “that has been estranged only by the process of repression.

  1. Tithecott says, “Average Joe often has a story to tell about himself and his friends that calls into question his claim to his name” (par. 2). What does Tithecott mean by this?
  2. What does Halloween director John Carpenter mean by the “cheap scare” in regard to horror (par. 4)? Why does Jeffrey Dahmer not represent that sort of scare?
  3. According to Tithecott, how is race connected to serial killers and our perceptions of them?
  4. Analyze how Tithecott builds his paragraphs in terms of rhetorical structure. For instance, where does he typically place his topic sentences? How does he use language to present his evidence? Does he analyze the evidence sufficiently? How does he end his paragraphs? Compare the paragraphs in Tithecott’s writing to Anne E. Schwartz’s paragraphs in (See “Inside a Murdering Mind”) to get a sense of how paragraphs can differ structurally.
  5. Tithecott quotes John Carpenter as saying, in reference to the movie The Silence of the Lambs, “I think we’re all frightened of the unknown and also of the repressed people in our society. There’s a duality that touches off sparks in all of us” (par. 3). Do you agree? Why or why not? Cite examples to support your argument.
  6. Consider how serial killers have become celebrities: people know their names and want to learn details about their upbringing, their killings, and how they were ultimately caught. Many killers have “fans” even as they serve time in prison. There are serial killer trading cards and a serial killer trivia game. What does this suggest about our cultural values?

Ethical Aliens: The Challenge of Extreme Perpetrators to Humanism

William Andrew Myers

There are criminals, there are murderers, and then there are what William Andrew Myers calls “extreme perpetrators”—those whose actions are so evil, so beyond our ability to understand, that they seem like a different species: aliens. Murderous dictators, serial killers, and ideological killers qualify because their actions seem to negate their own humanity. In Aristotle’s terms, they act more bestial than merely wicked. In an essay originally published in 2009, Myers examines these extreme perpetrators not to salvage them, but to save us: we must recognize the human in them in order to recognize the human in all of us. Myers is professor emeritus of philosophy at College of St. Catherine. Societies have many ways of marking off individuals and groups, both to establish social and political hierarchies and to create categories for exclusion from a normative mainstream. The specific functions of these markers vary with time, place, and application, but no society, it seems, can get along without them. And categories established within societies have pragmatic consequences: members of out-groups are treated differently, and the different treatment is sanctioned, itself as normative as the categories themselves. We create images of the poor, of ethnic and religious minorities, of the insane, of criminals, and we justify our different treatment of them by reference to their out-group status. Yet the categories and the treatment based on them may or may not stand up to scrutiny. The exclusionary marker I want to explore here is the category, perpetrator of extreme harm. Part of our experience as humans includes awareness, if not direct experience, that some people are quite extraordinarily vicious. Some behavior seems to go beyond ordinary criminality, so far beyond that we struggle to comprehend it as human action. I call people who behave so badly extreme perpetrators. Their behavior leads us to grope for comprehension and to dismiss them as utterly alien. But should we regard such individuals as so distinct from the human community? And what does our attitude toward extreme perpetrators say about our understanding of what it means to be human? I will argue that uncritical acceptance of the social mechanisms that treat extreme perpetrators as absolute outsiders, barely or not even human, impermissibly limits our shared beliefs about what it means to be human—and hence our self-understanding—but also constricts our conception of the humane. Extreme Perpetrators “Uncritical acceptance of the social mechanisms that treat extreme perpetrators as absolute outsiders . . . impermissibly limits our shared beliefs about what it means to be human.” In a brief passage in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguishes between ordinary human wickedness and bestiality:xv “Bestiality is less ‘evil’ than vice,” he says, “though more horrible.” He continues that in contrast to the wicked person, whose “highest part,” that is, the intellect or reason, is corrupted, in the bestial individual it is not corrupt “but entirely lacking.” Aristotle thought the wicked person could do much more harm than a bestial person, but that in terms of moral character the two are not comparable. “[ I ]t is like comparing an inanimate with an animate thing [apsychon versus empsychon: literally, an unsouled with an ensouled thing], and asking which is the more evil; for the badness of a thing which has no originating principle—and intelligence is such a principle—is always less capable of mischief.” Thus Aristotle regards bestiality as something outside the range of our framework of ethical concepts. Extreme behaviors and the minds they evince cannot even count as vice—excess or deficiency—in our calculations of the mean that constitutes excellence or virtue. In the sentences just preceding the quoted passage he notes that the concepts of moderation and profligacyxvi do not pertain to lower animals because they “have neither the faculty of choice nor of calculation,” and he adds, “they are like men who are insane.” So we get here a comparison between lower animals, who lack nous, intellect—and therefore cannot make rational choices—and the bestial person, who likewise cannot make rational choices due to insanity. Perhaps because this is merely an aside in Aristotle’s discussion of vices, he gives us no examples here of bestial human behavior; in fact he seems to dismiss it as outside the topic. But his point seems to be that the actions of some persons are so far outside the range of ordinary human wickedness that we can safely ignore them in constructing a descriptive and normative account of human ethical life. What interests me in the distinction Aristotle makes between the wicked or vicious person and the bestial is that his dismissal of the latter conforms to modern ways of regarding some perpetrators of extreme harm as inhuman, or alien. And indeed, clearly some acts do challenge our norms of behavior that is merely criminal. 5 Hannah Arendt speaks of the abyss between a normal society’s moral and legal frames of reference and the revelations of Nazi depravity at the end of WWII. “What meaning has the concept of murder when we are confronted with the mass production of corpses?” she asks. Most moral theory, not just Aristotle’s and its modern descendants, addresses norms ill-suited to comprehend, say, the creatively sadistic serial killer or the willing participant in mass murder. And the social determinants that lead us to dismiss the extreme perpetrator as outside the range of ethical reflection are strong. Richard Tithecott, in his analysis of the social construction of the serial killer, which focuses on Jeffrey Dahmer, comments, “With our condemnation of Dahmer as evil, we say, simply, he happened: there is no need to explain the crime, to speculate about context, only to deal with him, the criminal.” But to show that this dismissal of the extreme perpetrator as absolutely alien has undesirable consequences, I must now be more specific about what counts as the extreme in this context. A Description To be more precise about who counts as an extreme perpetrator I must refer to some distinctions among theories of evil. Three emphases have emerged in the recent philosophical literature. The first looks to the actual damage a person causes, the second to motivations, intentions, or the will, and the third to the feelings a person has about the actions. As Daniel M. Haybron points out, none of these emphases is sufficient on its own to provide a “robust bad/ evil distinction.” But my purpose here is not to develop a theory of evil, nor to examine in any detail Haybron’s attempt; I merely wish to use these emphases to ground a description of extreme perpetrators. First, we do commonly measure harm, suffering, and injury as indicators of the extreme. In its crudest form, a harm-based view literally counts the victims. Thus a planner and implementer of mass murder (Heinrich Himmler, xvii say) is widely regarded as being in a different category from that of a man who kills a store clerk during a robbery. A perverse manifestation of this kind of thinking treats serial killers as sports heroes, scoring their total victims like game statistics. (There are, I read, even serial killer trading cards.) Despite such aberrations, the scope of damage done does figure importantly in our sense of the extreme. Another harm-based marker of the extreme is sadistic cruelty. Christopher Browning, in his study of “ordinary men” induced to commit atrocities during the Nazi mass murder program in Poland, reports that a few of the men ordered to shoot women, children, and elderly persons face to face, one by one, in Józefów, Poland, in July of 1942, were unable to comply; while these men were treated by their fellows as cowards, they suffered no serious reprisals for their unwillingness to carry out the orders. We may applaud such a small triumph of human decency in terrible circumstances, but there are plenty of other cases in the bloody twentieth century in which multiple murders were carried out with a maximum of cruelty and humiliation to the victims. At least some perpetrators take obscene pleasure in their work. [Lavrenty] Beria, Stalin’s henchman who oversaw the murderous infighting in the dictator’s inner circle, personally tortured arrested members of the leadership (some former friends) and their wives, raping the women before murdering them. The wantonness of such actions, the depravity it reveals, seems to mark such perpetrators as Beria as fundamentally different from those who, we may say (without in any way discounting the suffering they cause), merely murder. Extent of harm caused and sadistic cruelty thus are important markers of an extreme perpetrator. Note that the cruelty of actions treated in a harm-based account reflects only measures of the perpetrator’s actual actions: that victims were in fact tortured, for example. In the case of someone whose actions spring from a deformed character, the character of one who derives pleasure from inflicting suffering on others, motivations may well count in our assessment and subsequent judgment that the individual represents an extreme. A deranged form of pleasure-seeking might be behind the actions of someone who tortures victims before killing them. Nevertheless, it remains the actual harm done, including its manner, that predominates in our delimiting of the extreme. 10 Second, the inner life of the perpetrator does count in our assessment of the ethics of ordinary actions, but at the extremes motives and intentions become far less weighty, for two reasons. For one thing, the scale of harm can overwhelm our willingness to dissect and analyze motives. Contemplating events such as the 1994 genocidal massacres in Rwanda, our ordinary moral sensibilities, including for example such attitudes as that children should be nurtured and the elderly cared for, are so completely violated that no account of individual motivations seems relevant to our ethical assessments. As Arendt says, the mass production of corpses makes ordinary concepts of murder meaningless. While we may indeed be curious to understand the linkages between what a person thought and what he did to bring about extraordinary harms, in extreme cases like those at various levels of the Nazi mass murder programs accounts of motives notoriously fail to align with the scale of the atrocity we seek to understand. (This is the paradox of the banal perpetrator as described by Arendt.) Moreover, motives, though they may be constituted by extraordinary malice, cannot be a sufficient condition for identifying an extreme perpetrator. For instance, we can imagine an individual so consumed with malice against some group that almost her entire mental life is devoted to imagining horrors she wishes to visit upon members of that group, whereas in fact she never does anything about these fantasies. We would hardly be justified in calling her an extreme perpetrator, or a perpetrator at all. And if she revealed publicly her mental life to be what it is, we would probably counsel therapy, regarding her pathological ideation as unhealthy rather than criminal. She may have the necessary mens rea, xviii but lack the means and opportunity to act. It is actual perpetrators who seem to merit classification as the worst of the worst. Similarly, affect pales in significance before the scale of some atrocities. Whereas in everyday contexts it matters to us whether someone took pleasure in doing harm or felt remorse later, for extreme perpetrators these aspects of their actions do not help us to describe the extremes of our moral universe. As Haybron notes, “We don’t particularly care whether Hitler cried into his pillow every night. We care about the millions of lives he destroyed.” That is, we assess the moral characters of ordinary perpetrators on the basis of their actions, their motives, and how they feel about themselves and their actions. For extreme perpetrators, it appears to be actions alone that we take as primary, though we might also at times reason from those actions to judgments of depraved character. With this background now, we can distinguish extreme perpetrators from ordinary malefactors as those who commit acts so heinous in extent or in cruelty that they stand outside the norms of mere criminality, even when they commit acts that are prosecutable. This concept of the extreme perpetrator is based on an idea of degrees: there are many ways to be bad, even very bad, but some people create so much mayhem—including real suffering—that their actions set them apart from ordinary malefactors. The idea of the extreme perpetrator is a harm-based concept because it is the extremes of injury and suffering to which we refer in our horror at the actions of some people. Recognizing people at this extreme of evil leads to the various distancing strategies we see. Keeping Our Distance Societies have various mechanisms to distance themselves from the worst of the worst. Each of the three principles of exclusion I will describe here (not by any means an exhaustive list) marks those it refers to as irretrievably Other, aliens in the fullest sense. That in each case there is a huge descriptive and analytical literature and a vast array of popular entertainments devoted to them reveals our fascination with the extremes; but these productions also create the alien as a category. The Murderous Dictator 15 National leaders who carry out programs of genocide or other mass atrocity, claiming to act on behalf of the nation, are outside our normative moral framework. Some of the people we want to distance ourselves from include murderous dictators, like Stalin, Idi Amin, or Pol Pot. Distancing is easy in this kind of case because these figures are physically and often culturally distant to start with. Their actions seem inexplicable when we learn of them, and in many cases we do not learn of the extent of their damage until long after they have died or fled the scene. The discovery of mass graves, publications of survivor narratives, reports of truth commissions, even films such as The Killing Fields, may give us insight into their atrocities, but typically the perpetrators remain shadowy and their story is revealed only slowly over time as historians and biographers do their patient scholarship. In some cases, prosecutions in the International Criminal Court at The Hague will elicit testimony that reveals the nature and extent of a leader’s depravity. Such knowledge can itself be an alienating factor. The mere fact that a person has had the power to act on his darkest fantasies without—for a time—reprisal separates the murderous dictator from the rest of us. Such people need others acting with complicity, often in large numbers, to carry out their depredations, but it is the leader himself (nearly always male) who bears the full onus of the atrocities—in the public mind if not legally. For the rest of us, especially those outside the sphere of operation, the murderous dictator is an inexplicable and alien being. Distance from the worst of the worst of humanity seems built in for those of us fortunate enough to be outside the ambitxix of their power to do harm. The Serial Killer People who commit murder repeatedly, depending on their methods and numbers of victims, are outside our normative moral framework. The enormous industry that has developed over the last twenty-five years devoted to mythologizing the serial killer in America through novels, movies, and television programs has had the effect of creating a new kind of outlaw (a somewhat perverse replacement for the defunct Western gunslinger); it has exaggerated in the popular mind both the number of such killers and the number of their victims; and it has made it harder for us to see through the various constructions to the people who actually commit multiple murders. As Philip Jenkins comments, From being a person whose sickness derived from family or social circumstances, the serial killer of the 1980s was increasingly seen as a ruthless incomprehensible monster undeserving of sympathy and meriting only destruction. . . . The monstrous is even more titillating when it involves forbidden practices, such as occult rituals or cannibalism. “In constructing the characteristics of dangerous outsiders, tales and legends usually focus on their supposed inversion of normal culture,” Jenkins notes. Serial killers capture the public imagination for many reasons, but one of them is surely that, until apprehended, such people represent an atavisticxx terror of the secret and secretive predator among us, able to strike at any time. The real and justified fear communities feel when, for example, young women or children are going missing, lends itself easily to the construction of the predatory monster, the Other in its most threatening form. The Ideological Killer 20 People who commit atrocities for religious or ideological reasons are outside our normative moral framework. Finally, there are ideological killers, motivated by religious or political convictions that lead them to attack, sometimes suicidally, innocent people. We can distance ourselves from someone like Timothy McVeigh, who constructed and planted the bomb that blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 with a loss of 168 lives, many of them children, because we see the appalling gap between his grievance against the U.S. Government and his attack on a building full of ordinary people. Similarly, the hijackers and pilots of the airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon [in 2001] seemed to be motivated by such aberrant beliefs we find ourselves at a loss to see ourselves in them. This construction of the Other runs somewhat counter to my claim that the primary marker of the extreme perpetrator is the harm done rather than motivation. Here the harm done is certainly primary; but part of the alienation we experience springs from contemplation of the fanaticism of the perpetrator. “How could anyone do that?” we ask. But then we find that the answer to that question is as confounding as the act itself, given that most of us, though we may have passionately held beliefs, would not commit mass murder on their behalf. The very idea of the fanatic marks someone so labeled off from the normative mainstream. Distancing strategies based on these principles (and others like them) portray the perpetrator as so different from us that we are empowered to regard the actual individual voyeuristically, titillated by accounts of his or her crimes (those trading cards!). And being so empowered, we are able to cancel out any sense of common humanity that might intrude on our objectification. Perhaps, I speculate, we need these distancing principles because we cannot countenance seeing ourselves in the lives and actions of extreme perpetrators. This is not a failure of empathy, but a genuine blocking of the imaginative processes by which we might see ourselves as potentially like them. Tithecott says, “How much easier it is to comprehend the serial killer as akin to a bolt of lightning than as something whose origin lies within histories we can write for ourselves.” In contrast, forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis comments that her attitude toward many of the severely damaged individuals on death rows all over the U.S. whom she has studied and extensively interviewed has been, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I submit that hers is a highly unusual attitude (she notes that it differs even from that of her co-researcher, neurologist Jonathan Pincus). Most of us would recoil at the suggestion that we have anything important in common with sadistic serial murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy. We could never ever do such things, we like to think. And for the most part, we are correct. But regarding the extreme perpetrator as being in a category utterly unlike us leads us to regard such persons as totally beyond the scope of our humane concern. I hasten to add that I am not recommending in any way that we should regard extreme perpetrators empathetically or that we should imaginatively try to see the world through their eyes. In fact that might be quite dangerous for our own psyches. I do recommend that we resist the distancing mechanisms that society imposes on us to the extent that we can recognize extreme perpetrators as individuals and as part of the human community regardless of their aberrant histories. 25 This point obviously runs counter to the tradition of regarding some people as moral monsters, and dismissing them accordingly. But as Haybron points out, an ascription of evil character (as opposed to mere badness) carries with it considerable simplification of a person’s actual biography. He says, If I am correct about the simplifications involved in ascribing evil, then regarding individuals as evil amounts to treating them as moral write-offs, as monsters who are not fully human and certainly not fit for any kind of society. But, one may ask, isn’t such categorization exactly what such people deserve? Hasn’t their evil behavior itself marked them irrevocably as beyond the pale of human society? Shouldn’t the purpose of studying such monsters be the purely pragmatic one of learning how to protect ourselves from them? The pragmatic purpose is certainly valid, and the point should be taken further: it is highly valuable for us to understand the family, social, and educational conditions in which moral monsters arise, insofar as any generalizations can be drawn about causation. But my point here is that, however we assess culpability and just deserts for extreme perpetrators, writing them off as outside the scope of moral regard damages our self-understanding. It is our ability to recognize our full human potential that is at stake. The Human and the Humane Though my topic here is not the culpability of people who commit atrocities, in the conditions of some people who do terrible things we do find factors that we should take to reduce their legal and moral responsibility for their actions. Virtually all of the large number of death row inmates, including juveniles, examined by Lewis and Pincus over twenty years were discovered to have brain damage caused by childhood abuse, injury, and accident. Commonly, the damage took the form of disconnecting the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, responsible for controlling or modulating impulses from the limbic system; the result of such damage is an inability to control impulses. Such damage can explain the extraordinarily rageful violence sometimes seen, such as extreme mutilation of already dead victims. These diagnostic facts about certain individuals do mark significant differences between us and them. Should this matter to us? Regardless of the organic condition of the brains of some extreme perpetrators, don’t we still need to keep them incarcerated once they are caught lest they do further harm? Certainly. But part of the social dynamic of distancing described here is to keep the details out of sight; it is the harms caused by extreme perpetrators that allow us to construct them as alien. The factors that may explain their extraordinary behavior may at the same time go too far in mitigating it, and we need them to be as alien as possible to justify our treatment of them in our justice systems, particularly those we execute. And yet, despite the vast difference between extreme perpetrators and the mainstream “us,” there are common threads. People who do depraved and vicious acts, even on a large scale, remain, in some sense, part of the human family. There are basic universals that pertain to all human beings, and among these are the fact that we are born (our natality), we are dependent on others and live among others (our plurality), and we all die (our mortality). Other universals, such as embodiment, could be added to this list (derived from Hannah Arendt), but the point is that the minimum conception of humanity is that as human we are united in inescapable ways. The rhetoric that constructs the extreme perpetrator as an alien, as inhuman or bestial, contradicts that conception, with the consequence that while we may study our worst perpetrators, write books and make movies about them, regard them as objects of curiosity and even entertainment, our distancing strategies tend to narrow the scope of our understanding of what it means to be human. 30 And by thus constricting our self-understanding, we also cut off the scope of our humanity, in the sense of the set of attitudes and beliefs which, when acted upon, constitute such traits as kindness and moral regard for others. This is a huge topic in itself; here I wish only to indicate that putting extreme perpetrators in the category of Other (particularly those in our own society and time) invites us to limit our moral regard to those we see more as peers and to respond with indifference to cruelties visited upon those outside that circle. It also blinds us to the origins of evil in our own humanity. In [ Dostoyevsky’s] The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan complains, “People speak sometimes about the ‘animal’ cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to animals, no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.” We do not have to be as cynical as Ivan to see that understanding ourselves as fully human includes paying attention to the details of the extremes, the Other in all its forms, as Us.

  1. What is the distinction that Aristotle makes between “ordinary human wickedness and bestiality” (par. 3)? Why is that distinction important? How does it connect to what Myers terms “extreme perpetrators”?
  2. What are the three emphases in the theories of evil Myers refers to? How does he use them to describe approaches to extreme perpetrators?
  3. Why does Myers want to examine only the actions of extreme perpetrators rather than take into account their motivations or emotions?
  4. According to Myers, how have serial killers in particular captured the public’s attention?
  5. In your opinion, are there other types of extreme perpetrators that Myers has not included? If so, what are they? Why might Myers not have included them?
  6. Myers quotes Richard Tithecott as saying, “With our condemnation of Dahmer as evil, we say, simply, he happened: there is no need to explain the crime, to speculate about context, only to deal with him, the criminal” (par. 5). What, according to Myers, are the “undesirable consequences” that might result from this attitude? Does the public put itself more at risk by ignoring the motivations of the extreme perpetrator or not? Support your response with specific details.
  7. Myers calls the serial killer “the Other in its most threatening form” (par. 19). Do you think this characterization is appropriate? Why or why not?

Why We Still Need Monsters

Kevin Berger

Shots ring out, people fall, and another mass murder is in the news. Is the killer a monster? What do we mean by “monster,” and is the word adequate to describe the shooter? Kevin Berger conducts an interview with Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. Asma remarks on the historical definition of monster, what the monster means today, the origins for our fears and understanding about people who behave monstrously, and the neuroscience behind fear. Asma is the author of On Monsters (2009) and “Monsters and the Moral Imagination”. Berger is the feature editor for Nautilus, an online and print magazine covering the world of science and culture. This interview was published on October 19, 2017, as part of an issue that focused on the theme “Monsters: Imagination’s Borders.” It doesn’t seem enough to call Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 innocent people in Las Vegas this month, a monster. The term has lost its power to evoke the unimaginable. The beasts that terrorized the mental lives of our ancestors have been tamed by religion and culture, notes Stephen T. Asma this week in a Nautilus essay, “Why Are So Many Monsters Hybrids?” So what do we call Paddock? Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, and author, most recently, of On Monsters and The Evolution of Imagination, says the term “monster” is not ready to be retired. The moniker suits Paddock, he says. “Monster is a term we reserve for people who cannot be negotiated with. It’s almost impossible, if not impossible, to understand their behavior, their motives, their mind. Our regular theory of mind doesn’t work on these people.” In a ranging interview with Nautilus about mythic and real monsters, Asma talked about the evolutionary origin of werewolves and the psychological fears that give rise to tyrannous leaders. Asma lived in Cambodia for a while and learned about the monstrous rule of Pol Pot. He offered his view of what appeals to Americans about Donald Trump. We delved into the roles that desire and repulsion play in our conceptions of monsters, and why he disagrees with neuroscientist Lisa Feldman


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