Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Men and Supermen: The Nietzsche Syndrome

Arrogance, Youth, and Permission

In 1992, Donna Tartt published The Secret History, the tale of a naïve young student attending a New England college who gets drawn into a terrible situation. As in Rope, a professor, Julian, and his arrogant charges are at the center of a murder. Richard Pappen, the student telling the tale, meets an elite cadre of other students who clearly have a dark secret. Gradually he learns what it is. Under their professor's influence, they had performed the ancient Dionysian ritual one night (the one that had so impressed Nietzsche), working themselves into an erotic frenzy in order to achieve Plato's idea of "telestic madness." In other words, they'd gotten erotically worked up to try to achieve an altered state that felt like a deity was near.

Book cover: The Secret History
Book cover: The Secret History

"The appeal to stop being yourself," one of them says, "even for a little while, is very great. To escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one's moment of being.... One mustn't underestimate the primal appeal — to lose oneself, lose it utterly. And in losing it be born to the principle of continuous life, outside the prison of mortality and time."

To achieve this, they used alcohol, drugs, and even poison. The point was "to receive the god" via purification of the self. They tried and tried, and eventually managed to achieve an ecstatic, hallucinogenic state they had apparently lost their egos. They began to run through the woods and fields, oblivious to anything. Somehow, they killed a man along the way. When they came to their senses beside the body, which was ripped apart, they realized they had done it but had no memory of how. In other words, in their reach to defy human limits and unify with a deity, they became violent. Like God, they had taken a person's life.

In many ways, that is similar to the way some killers justify their actions with Nietzsche's call to "live dangerously" and develop a will to power. To be God is to be mighty, and that's often interpreted as the ability to kill another person — as if that's the ultimate exercise of power.

Book cover: The Psychopathology of Serial Murder
Book cover: The Psychopath-
ology of Serial Murder

Psychologist Stephen Giannangelo, in The Psychopathology of Serial Murder, understands how the excitement of the moment can actually propel someone across the line from fantasy to reality during an assault or rape to commit a murder. Stress can have the same effect, and killers "will say they do not even remember the details of their first kill." They may understand the gravity of the crime but will also experience a rush of discovering "what they truly need." Having committed murder, if they get away with it, they feel more confident in themselves and they may look for this excitement again.

Interestingly, Giannangelo points out something about serial killers that seems to be true of many of the Nietzsche-inspired murderers: "These killers seem to evidence a pervasive lost sense of self, an inadequacy of identity, a feeling of no control. These could all be factors in a pathology that manifests itself in the ultimate act of control — the murder...of other human beings."

Book cover: A Violent Heart
Book cover: A Violent Heart

In A Violent Heart, Dr. Gregory Moffatt says that one of the most important variables among the variety of factors involved in the development of aggression is choice. In the case of younger people with limited cognitive abilities, their choices are contained within their limitations. Many of the Nietzsche-inspired killers have been adolescents, immature in their outlook and their ability to understand the consequences of their behavior. They wanted to be godlike and to put some edge on their egotistical expansiveness, and to such types "the perfect crime" seems always to appear powerful.

Book cover: Speaking with the Devil
Book cover: Speaking with the

Carl Goldberg, who wrote Speaking with the Devil about senseless acts of evil, indicates that the development of aggression is inspired by shame, and propelled through six stages in which the person feels contempt for others, rationalizes and justifies his own actions, fails to think about the consequences or his own actions, and develops a type of thinking in which he has convinced himself (or herself) that he is perfect. In Goldberg's scheme, "malevolent magical thinking" involves obtaining power over the source of life by creating "moral and emotional distance between perpetrator and victim." It is a form of grandiosity in which the person believes that others have failed to recognize his unique qualities and must thus be forced to see. "Self-examination is impossible," says Goldberg, "because it is believed to be unwarranted."

This appeared to be the case with the next team of killers, who harmed an entire family to establish their sense of being like God.

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