Thursday, March 29, 2012

What defines a monster?

When tragedies occur, all people see are the lurid newspaper headlines. THIRTEEN KILLED IN HIGH SCHOOL MASACRE. SERIAL KILLER RESPONSIBLE FOR OVER THIRTY DEATHS. In other words, they only see what is directly on the surface. What is seen is the media’s portrayal of the event: photos of angelic looking high school children taken away much too young, inconsolable relatives whose families will never recover, and of course, the killer looking like a monster rather than a human being.  
            On April 20th, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School and began shooting. They killed thirteen people and injured twenty-one more. They then shot themselves, making the total death count fifteen people. This was the third deadliest school shooting in history. Dylan and Eric will forever be remembered as monsters. Between 1987 and 1991, Jeffery Dahmer murdered seventeen men, while also engaging in necrophilia and cannibalism. He stored body parts in his freezer as trophies, and was eating flesh when the police caught him. Jeffery Dahmer will forever be remembered as a monster. Throughout the 1960’s, Charles Manson terrorized California with a gang he created for the sole purpose of mass murder. Manson and his gang brutally slaughtered numerous families. Charles Manson will forever be remembered as a monster. In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Doctor Victor Frankenstein creates an eight-foot giant in his laboratory fashioned from body parts scavenged from a graveyard. People see him as a monster and he ultimately kills not because he wants to, but because an intolerant and prejudiced society that he desperately wants to be a part of rejects him.
Frankenstein’s Monster brutally murders William, Henry Clerval, Elizabeth, and inadvertently Justine who is blamed and sentenced to death for the murder of William. He will forever be seen as a monster.
People die every day. When a person is killed, people are always left behind. They are left to deal with grief, and everyone deals with this differently. However, the circumstances of death play a large role in how people handle tragedy. In almost every case, anger is a dominant emotion, and everyone wants someone to blame. Again, the degree to which they feel anger is diverse. If it is disease or a horrible accident, the anger may be directed at God. If it is murder, there are people to be blamed. It is not bad luck like being diagnosed with cancer, or an unfortunate tragedy such as dying in a car crash. A loved one is dead because someone made the decision to kill them. To that person’s family and friends, that person will not be thought of as a human being but rather a monster.
            It is easy to not look past the surface of the tragedy. It is natural to feel sympathy for the distraught parents who sent their child to school on a day just like any other only to realize they will never return home. It is natural to watch families torn apart by an act of mindless violence and feel nothing but the deepest sympathy for these unfortunate people. It is not natural to feel sorry for the killer. The killer is the monster that has robbed countless families of future memories with their loved ones. These families are left with nothing except a question: why? Why their loved one? What drove this person to kill? More often than not, there is an answer. The problem is that no one wants to seek the answer to this question. No one wants to humanize the killer. After all, how could a human commit these crimes? It is much easier to see them as heartless sociopaths than tortured souls with troubled backgrounds. Ted Bundy said, ““We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow” This is the scariest thought in the world. We do not want to believe this. We do not want to believe that our husbands, children, and friends could be serial killers. We do not even want to believe that we unknowingly pass them on the street. Instead, we prefer to believe that they lurk in the shadows, never to be seen by the human eye. We prefer to believe that these people are actually monsters, because they certainly cannot be human. 
The question is not whether or not these people were monsters through their actions, but rather, WHY are they monsters? What happened to them to make them become this way? They did not wake up one morning and think; “I’m going to start killing people today.” Most often, there are explanations for their behavior. While these explanations do not justify their actions, they are important and interesting to consider. The truth is, most of the time the killers are actually victims themselves.
        Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were much like Frankenstein’s monster in that they were completely rejected by society. They were socially awkward and grew up being bullied and teased by their peers. As a result, they began to remove themselves from social situations, and spent the majority of their time together or alone. After years of social rejection, sadness turned to hate. Their anger built up inside of them until it eventually manifested in a plan to kill. Not only the people that directly hurt them, but everyone. Both Eric and Dylan kept journals, which offered an insight into their mindsets leading up to Columbine. Dylan wrote about his feelings of rejection saying, “Fact. People are so unaware…well, ignorance is bliss I guess…that would explain my depression. I swear I’m like an outcast, and everyone is conspiring against me. The lonely man strikes with absolute rage.” (Dylan Klebold’s Journal, Page 16) Many of his entries did not talk about hurting people, but focused on his self-hatred and consequently his hatred of society for the rejection he felt. Just like the monster, he desperately craved affection and attention, which he did not receive. The monster says, “I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me. I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was.” (Chapter 11 Page 146) Both Dylan and the Monster express feelings of hatred as a result of the knowledge that they are outcasts of society. Eric’s journal entries are much more angry. He writes, “The only reason you are still alive is because someone has let you live. You know what I hate? MANKIND! Kill everything! Kill everything!” (Eric Harris’ Journal, Page 43) Similarly, the monster says, “Inflamed by pain I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.” (Chapter 16, Page 158) Eric and Dylan did not think they were monsters. They viewed themselves as heroes, who were doing what they were supposed to be doing. They thought of themselves as victims, and thought everyone else deserved the punishment inflicted upon them.
            Jeffry Dahmer grew up seemingly normal until he was six years old and his younger brother, David was born. While he felt close to his parents, he never felt that he received the same love and affection that David did. When his parent’s marriage ended in a nasty divorce years later, the custody battle was centered on David. Jeffry, at age seventeen ended up living with his father, while his mother and David moved south and cut off all contact with him. His father coped with the divorce by immersing himself in his work as a chemical engineer. Jeffry was left alone, feeling angry and abandoned. In addition to losing contact with both parents, Jeffry did not have any friends. Throughout school, his peers sensed something was off about him and kept their distance. Jeffry’s first victim was a hitchhiker he picked up on his way home. He brought him to his home, and the two men spent about an hour together before the hitchhiker decided to continue on his way. Jeffry panicked, not wanting him to leave and hit him on the head with a barbell, killing him instantly. When asked about it, he said, “"I, uh, didn't know how else to keep him there other than to get the barbell and hit him over the head.” Although the monster did not do anything like this in Frankenstein, I could very well see him performing such an action out of sheer desperation for any sort of human contact.
            Charles Manson grew up with an alcoholic mother who was in and out of jail. While he loved her, she constantly let him down and would leave him for years at a time during various prison sentences. At times when he was young, she would even try to trade her child for drugs and alcohol. Finally, she left and never came back. Manson was left alone, going in and out of foster homes and orphanages. He suffered through several abusive homes, and grew extremely resentful of his mother for abandoning him. Eventually, he formed a cult, which he called “The Family.” This is extremely ironic because it brings together his feelings of abandonment and anger. He never had a family, and so he creates one with the purpose of hurting others. He is still serving out his life sentence in prison and maintains that he feels no remorse for his actions. Manson says, “Remorse for what? You people have done everything in the world to me. Doesn’t that give me equal right?” Clearly, just like Eric, Dylan, and Jeffry, he feels that what he did was justified because of the pain he suffered. In contrast, the monster feels deep remorse for his actions. His conflicting emotions leave him deeply frustrated. By nature, he is not evil. He does not want to hurt people, but he is furious with Victor and is determined to cause him great pain. While Manson speaks of his lack of remorse with complete apathy, the monster remarks with anguish, “Was there no injustice in this? Am I thought to be the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?” (Chapter 24, Page 257)
            The Columbine killers, Charles Manson, and Jeffry Dahmer all experienced very stark human emotions as a result of the harsh treatment in their early lives. They all felt sadness, hate, anger, loneliness, desire, and desperation. However, although Frankenstein is merely a fictional creation, I would argue that he displayed more humanity than the real people. He is full of regret and sorrow for his deeds. Conversely, the complete lack of remorse for their horrific actions makes the four killers truly "the real monsters" to me.

1 comment:

  1. The transition between historical monsters and the fictional one is awkward - it would have been nice if you'd worked in justifying that transition a little harder.

    It takes you a *long* time to get past the important but rather abstract insight that we need to think about monsters seriously, rather than just dismissing or ignoring them. The real essay doesn't begin until well *after* the Ted Bundy quote. I like the quote, and I like much of the material in isolation - but there's too much of the buildup, with too little actual argument following it.

    Maybe focusing on just Columbine and Frankenstein would have streamlined things?

    If a metaphor or connection is important, don't give up on it. The thing with the barbell - couldn't we read the monster's demand for a mate (which very likely he could make himself) as a sustained attempt to hold Victor's attention? Similarly, he *deliberately* engages him in a multi-month cat and mouse game. The need to have someone's attention is the connection here...

    The shift to Manson is a mistake. I'm not saying that you couldn't use him to think about the monster, but by shifting repeatedly between "real" monsters, you avoid any sustained engagement with any one of them, or with the monster. Hence, your argument never gets off the ground. You give us a fairly generic plea for sympathy for the monster, without really beginning to think through how the monster can help us read these real-world monsters, or vice versa.

    Example: You come close to understanding Manson's mother as the real monster. Doesn't this parallel the insight that Victor is arguably the true monster? (Strange how Victor drops out of this essay).

    Now, this could have been an essay about how we can try to approach our real-world monsters by way of fiction, so we can render them (perhaps) as more thinkable. You undermine that strategy, though, by returning to our habits and labeling them as the "true" monsters, even though you've already done a good job questioning that judgement - even in Manson's case!

    If you want us to sympathize with serial killers - at least up to a point - you can't go halfway. If you're trying to question *all* occasions when we categorize people as monsters, go ahead and do that - don't pull punches at the end.