Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Predicting Extreme Fatal Violence

Under Pressure

Revenge fantasies are at the heart of many mass murders. "The most ominous fantasies," says Frank Robertz, a criminologist who studies school shootings, "gradually consume ever more psychic space and become buttressed by a distorted sense of what it just." Some target specific victims, while others pinpoint symbolic targets anonymous to the killer. Some killers focus on a specific goal, while others kill reactively. Some incidents have clear triggers, while others remain a mystery. Mass murderers may feel victimized and, to compensate, develop an inflated sense of self-worth.

Forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy.
Forensic psychologist
J. Reid Meloy.
Among the most common traits or behaviors that compose the constellation of red flags for the potential for mass murder are a preoccupation with themes of violence, low frustration tolerance, significant stressors, a tendency to collect injustices and blame others for one's problems, withdrawal and alienation, poor coping skills, and a sense of entitlement. Spree killers also seek to punish others for how life has treated them or for some specific incident they think is too unfair to be ignored.

Forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy, author of Violent Attachments, says that sudden violent crimes may occur as the result of "catathymia," a gradual build-up of anger and frustration that threatens to overwhelm a person's fragile sense of self. Sufferers desperately fear a loss of control that could turn into psychosis, so they construct layers of stabilizing deceptions. When the first ones work, they continue with more and more. But when reality intrudes, the possibility of losing their mask threatens to overwhelm them. Then something stresses them to a crisis point. The sudden flow of desperation capsizes their meager defenses, and they act out. Sometimes they murder, even if they've never committed an act of violence before.

It seems that underlying conflicts that have a strong emotional charge give otherwise normal concerns exaggerated proportions. The emotional energy turns an idea into a fixation with momentum, defeating all attempts by reason to waylay it. Whatever plan develops during this time of build-up, it seems the only possible way out. As inner tension increases, the need for violence as the response becomes demanding and the urge to act is nearly overwhelming. Psychologically, this process may be a safeguard within the self against the formation of a disabling psychosis.

But is that what happened with Cho?