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In the 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, a horde of rising zombies kills seven individuals in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. Two years earlier, in real life, a zombie fatally stabbed and strangled eight student nurses in a Chicago townhouse. His name was Richard Speck.
While Speck was not a re-animated human corpse in the mode of modern Hollywood depictions, he was, in a very real sense, one of the walking dead—a person who is physically alive, but emotionally, socially, and morally dead. Even 22 years after the murders, when asked how he felt about them, Speck sneered: "Like I always felt . . . had no feeling. If you're asking me if I felt sorry, no." With soulless detachment, he went on to describe the process of strangulation: "It's not like TV . . . it takes over three minutes and you have to have a lot of strength."1
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Night of the Living Dead proved to be a groundbreaking film in the horror genre. Zombies, which until then had been depicted as living persons enslaved through the power of black magic, were recast in this film as insatiable cannibals raised from the dead. Numerous spinoffs followed, as well as a raft of slasher films in the 1970s and 1980s, whose villains were zombie-like. Think, Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers.
In a similar way, the Chicago townhouse murders marked the rise of what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls the "spectacular rampage murder." According to Brooks, from 1913 to about 1970, there were no more than two of these types of murders per decade worldwide. After that, the number shot up to nine in the 1980s, eleven in the 1990s, and twenty-six in the past decade.2 Since July 2012, when Brooks wrote his analysis, there have been a half-dozen more, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December.
Clearly, the rise in such killings could not happen without the rise of a certain type of killer: a socially isolated person who, psychotherapist Dr. Paul Hannig declares, "can't feel the normal range of human emotions" and has lost "all sense of normal morality and impulse control."3 Think Cho Seung-hui, James Holmes, Adam Lanza . . . zombies.
Whereas Hollywood movie zombies kill to satisfy their hunger, the real-life rampage murderer kills, says Dr. Hannig, in the belief that mass murder is "the solution to his problems." He imagines that the spectacle of his crime will bring wide attention to the injustices he has had to bear. Through mass murder, he will assert his grievances and accomplish what he has failed to accomplish thus far: "to be heard, understood, and accepted."
But whether fictional zombies or real-life murderers, such persons represent something the Apostle Paul warned would characterize the latter days: people "without natural affection" or, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, who are "inhuman" (2 Timothy 3:1–9). They are not inhuman in the sense of "sub-human" or animalistic, however, but in the sense of "counter-human"—that is, these individuals are set against humanity and even their own humanness, often to the point of taking their own life after taking the lives of others.
Over sixty years ago, Albert Camus wrote a novel about what well could be the proto-"counter-human." He titled the book The Stranger, an apt reference to the central character, Meursault.
Meursault is a man resigned to the meaninglessness of his existence in a silent, indifferent universe. Discerning no grand design to things, he drifts through life from one experience to the next with zombie-esque detachment. Materially, Meursault enjoys the sights of nature, the sounds of music, and the pleasure of sex, but emotionally, he is benumbed.
He claims to love his mother, but when she dies, he betrays no feelings of loss or grief. Instead, he spends the day at the beach with a female acquaintance whom he takes to a movie—a comedy, no less—and makes love to that evening.
On another day, Meursault fatally shoots a man, then fires four more rounds into the lifeless body. Presaging the chilling insouciance of Richard Speck, Meursault comments, "It was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness."
Later, when asked by the magistrate whether he was sorry for the murder, Meursault shrugs, "More than sorry, I felt kind of annoyed." What annoyed him (and, apparently, Richard Speck) was not the guiltiness of his deed, but the moral value that society imposed upon it.
The extent of Meursault's inhumanity is revealed after he is convicted and sentenced to death. Facing his execution, the only thing he wishes for is "that there be a large crowd of spectators . . . and that they greet me with howls of hate."
Looking for Solutions
Importantly, Meursault's crime was not the result of mental illness or "going postal," but of a faulty worldview. Once Meursault accepted the notion that the cosmos was uncaring and unsupervised, he was destined to conclude that fellow-creaturely sentiments were absurd, and that any action, even the choice to kill or not to kill, was bereft of moral value.
Similarly, real-life mass murderers aren't necessarily "crazed killers" or persons suffering some mental disorder—in fact, many are neither. A study published in The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice reported that fewer than one-third of mass killers had any mental health concern.4
Dr. Michael Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry, concurs. After personally examining over 200 mass murderers, Dr. Stone found that "only 25 were ruled clinically insane." The rest, he found, were "social misfits or angry loners" whose rage was triggered by "some event."5
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting, there has been a lot of talk about the need for better mental health care. In fact, of the nearly two dozen executive orders signed by President Obama in the wake of the killings, four were specifically related to mental health. But even if we were to succeed to "get his mind right," as the "Captain" phrased it in Cool Hand Luke (1967), restoring mental health alone wouldn't make a killer's heart right (it didn't Luke's).
The rest of the executive orders following Newtown, and much ongoing debate in the halls of Congress, concerned stricter gun control. But think—even if all assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, and handguns in the country were banned, confiscated, and destroyed, it wouldn't deter the counter-human from unleashing his anger on society with explosives, incendiaries, chemicals, biotoxins, or vehicles (all of which have been used). The variety of weapons employed in a considerable number of rampage killings indicates that the perpetrator, to borrow a line from Jurassic Park (1993), "will find a way." Richard Speck, remember, didn't use a gun.
Granted, better diagnosis and care of the mentally ill, as well as smarter and better-enforced gun laws, might play a role in reducing the number of rampage murders, but until we look beyond the killer's mental state and access to firearms to the ideas that shaped him, any reduction will remain heartbreakingly small.
Nihilism at the Root
It should strike us as more than coincidental that the rise in rampage killings began when the vapors of nihilism wafted out of coffee houses and college lecture halls to cover the cultural landscape, from sea to shining sea. Although its milder forms—relativism and subjectivism—are more prevalent, they share nihilism's tenet that neither God nor Man is the measure of all things, but the individual. By now, at least two generations of young people have grown up learning that the answers to life's mysteries are not writ large in the heavens or inscribed on ancient scrolls; the answers are within each of them, waiting to be discovered in the sacred "search for self."
Average children have been taught to believe that they are special, exceptional, and gifted, and it is never pointed out to them that if everyone is exceptional, no one is. Their exalted sense of self has been nurtured further by schools that inflate grades and eliminate class standings and the honorary distinctions that go with them, like valedictorian and salutatorian, so that no one feels less than special.
Even many sports programs for young people are set up so that winning and losing teams receive trophies and every player receives an achievement award. Many children have been protected all their lives from hearing a discouraging word, experiencing failure (or its natural consequences), or having to come to grips with their finitude.
When they then grow up and enter the real world, they are often shocked to find that it is not so nurturing or appreciative of their giftedness as they've been led to believe. Instead of the fame, fortune, and fulfillment they've been promised and come to expect as their due, they all too often find themselves faced with failure and disappointment—the dead-end job, the missed promotion, the layoff, the cancer diagnosis, bankruptcy, divorce, broken relationships.
Is it any wonder that many of them, having grown up under the spell of their own wonderfulness, blame others (their boss, their coworkers, society, the "system") for their stalemates and setbacks? Or that some of them, having never learned to cope with repeated failures and rejections, become "social misfits" or "angry loners?"
And if such misfits and loners have also been raised to believe that there is no transcendent meaning to life, and that, like Meursault, they live in a silent, indifferent universe, is it any wonder that a few, a very few, take out their frustrations in an inhuman way—even, perhaps, like one of the walking dead?
The Need for Transcendence
The increase in zombie-like murders is gut-wrenching. But if we think we can thwart the perpetrators with the silver bullets of executive orders and congressional action, we would do well to recall Prohibition and the War on Drugs. Those efforts failed—and to the extreme—because legislation and law enforcement, by themselves, cannot imbue a moral sense into the heart of the offender, or renew the moral climate of society. Only a Transcendence that speaks to the deepest yearnings of the human spirit for wholeness, meaning, and significance can do that.
Unless the nihilistic worldview is abandoned for one that recognizes such a Transcendence, we can expect a rise in the number of walking dead and their devastating crimes. We must teach students and young people to reject what some of the supposedly brightest minds today are selling them—that the universe is meaningless and without purpose or supervision. Such nihilism only deadens the soul, which, after all, was created for communion with the living God. •
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