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The beast inside: The psychology of animal torture

A few days ago, I was interviewed by the Irish newspaper The Journal about someone deliberately trying to poison a dog by throwing three rat poison-stuffed chorizo sausages into Linda O’Byrne’s garden. But what typically possesses anyone to inflict such acts of intentional animal torture and cruelty (IATC)? In this particular case it may have been done as an act of revenge or as a way to shock O’Byrne to the amusement of the person who did it.

In addition to these reasons, rhere are many types of IATC including individuals that do it (i) as a religious ritual sacrifice, (ii) as an ‘artistic’ sacrifice (e.g., killing animals in films such as the controversial Cannibal Holocaust), (iii) because they have psychological disorders (such as anti-social/psychopathic personality disorders and engage in deliberate acts of zoosadism), and/or (iv) because they have sexually paraphilic disorders (such as crush fetishism in which small animals are crushed for sexual pleasure). Additionally, there is some research showing that in some circumstances, IATC is sometimes used to coerce, control and intimidate women and/or children to be silent about domestic abuse within the home. Although any animal torture is shocking, arguably the most disturbing type of IATC is that which occurs amongst those with anti-social personality disorders.

When the science of behavioural profiling began to emerge in the 1970s, one of the most consistent findings reported by the FBI profiling unit was that childhood IATC appeared to be a common behaviour among serial murderers and rapists (i.e., those with psychopathic traits characterized by impulsivity, selfishness, and lack of remorse). Many notorious serial killers – such as Jeffrey Dahmer – began by torturing and killing animals in their childhood. Dahmer also collected animal roadkill, dissected the remains, and masturbated over the animals he had cut up. Other killers known to have engaged in childhood IATC include child murderer Mary Bell (who throttled pigeons), Jamie Bulger’s murderer Robert Thompson who (who was cruel to household pets), and Moors murderer Ian Brady (who abused animals).

IATC is one of the three adolescent behaviours in what is often referred to the ‘Homicidal Triad’ (the other two being persistent bedwetting and obsessive fire-setting). Some criminologists and psychologists believe that the combination of two or more of these three behaviours increases the risk of homicidal behaviour in adult life. However, scientific evidence for this has been mixed. There has also been research into some of the contributory factors as to why a minority of children engage in IATC. Research has shown that the behaviours in the ‘Homicidal Triad’ (including IATC) are often associated with parental abuse, parental brutality (and witnessing domestic violence), and/or parental neglect.

A number of criminological studies have shown that around a third to a half of all sexual murderers have abused animals during childhood and/or adolescence (although I ought to add that sample sizes in most of these published studies are usually relatively small). However, most research has reported that one of the most important ‘warning signs’ and risk factors (specifically relating to the propensity for sex offending), is animal cruelty if accompanied by a sexual interest in animals. Other researchers have speculated that the zoosadistic acts among male adolescents may be connected to problems of puberty and proving virility.

Another ‘triad’ of psychological factors that have been associated with IATC are three specific characteristics of personality – Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy (the so-called ‘Dark Triad’). Studies carried out by Dr. Phillip Kavanagh and his colleagues have examined the relationship between the three Dark Triad personality traits and attitudes towards animal abuse and self-reported acts of animal cruelty. They found that the psychopathy trait is related to intentionally hurting or torturing animals, and was also a composite measure of all three Dark Triad traits.

In Germany, there have been an increasing number of violent crimes against horses. This offence of ‘horse ripping’ (i.e., violently cutting, slashing and/or stabbing of horses) has been accepted as a criminal phenomenon in Germany and has led to a number of studies on the topic. Horse ripping has been defined as a destructive act “with the aim to harm a horse or the acceptance of a possible injury of a horse, especially killing, maltreatment, mutilation and sexual abuse in sadomasochistic context”. In 2002, German researchers Dr, Claus Bartmann and Dr. Peter Wohlsein reported a study examining 193 traumatic horse injuries over a four-year period. They reported that at least ten of the injuries (including wounds from knives, spears, and guns) were acts of zoosadism.

There is no easy solution to childhood IATC. Given that most children learn anti-social behaviour from those around them, the best way to prevent it is teaching by example. Here, parents are the key. Pro-social behaviour by parents and other role models towards animals (such as rescuing spiders in the bath, feeding birds, treating pets as a member of the family) has the potential to make a positive lasting impression on children.

Note: A version of this article was first published in The Independent.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Arluke, A., Levin, J., Luke, C., & Ascione, F. (1999). The relationship of animal abuse to violence and other forms of antisocial behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(9), 963-975.

Bartmann, C.P. & Wohlsein, P. (2002). Injuries caused by outside violence with forensic importance in horses. Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr, 109, 112-115.

Beetz, Andrea (2002). Love, Violence, and Sexuality in Relationships between Humans and Animals. Germany: Shaker Verlag.

Beirne, P. (1999). For a nonspeciesist criminology: Animal abuse as an object of study. Criminology, 37(1), 117-148.

Felthous, A.R. (1980). Aggression against cats, dogs, and people. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 10, 169-177.

Furnham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The Dark Triad of personality: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(3), 199-216.

Hickey, E. W. (2013). Serial murderers and their victims. Cengage Learning.

James, S., Kavanagh, P. S., Jonason, P. K., Chonody, J. M., & Scrutton, H. E. (2014). The Dark Triad, schadenfreude, and sensational interests: Dark personalities, dark emotions, and dark behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 68, 211-216.

Jonason, P. K., & Kavanagh, P. (2010). The dark side of love: Love styles and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(6), 606-610.

Kavanagh, P. S., Signal, T. D., & Taylor, N. (2013). The Dark Triad and animal cruelty: Dark personalities, dark attitudes, and dark behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(6), 666-670.

Macdonald, J.M. (1963). The threat to kill. American Journal of Psychiatry, 120, 125-130.

Patterson‐Kane, E. G., & Piper, H. (2009). Animal abuse as a sentinel for human violence: A critique. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 589-614.

Ressler, R., Burgess, A., & Douglas, J. (1988). Sexual homicide: Patterns and motives. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Schedel-Stupperich, A. (2002). [Criminal acts against horses – phenomenology and psychosocial construct]. Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr, 109, 116-119.

Wochner, M. & Klosinski, G. (1988). Child and adolescent psychiatry aspects of animal abuse (a comparison with aggressive patients in child and adolescent psychiatry). Schweiz Arch Neurol Psychiatry, 139(3), 59-67.

Can you feel the force? The psychopathology of ‘Star Wars’

A few days ago, my friend and colleague Dr. Andrew Dunn sent all the psychology staff members a paper published in the December 2015 issue of Australasian Psychiatry by Susan Friedman and Ryan Hall entitled ‘Using Star Wars’ supporting characters to teach about psychopathology’. As a fan of Star Wars and science fiction more generally, I immediately read the paper and thought it would be a good topic to write a blog about.

It turns out that Friedman and Ryan have written a series of papers in psychiatric journals over the last year arguing that many of the characters in the Star Wars movies have underlying psychopathologies and that because of the films’ popularity, the films could be used to teach students about various psychiatric disorders. The authors asserted that supporting characters in Star Wars can be used to teach about a wide variety of psychiatric conditions which are not commonly so accessible in one story, including [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] ADHD, anxiety, kleptomania, and paedophilia”. I have to admit that in my own teaching I often use characters and/or storylines from film and television to explain psychological phenomena to my own students (and have also published articles and papers demonstrating the utility of using such sources in both teaching and research contexts – see ‘Further reading’ below). Therefore, I was intrigued to read what psychiatric disorders had been attributed to which Star Wars characters.

In the Australasian Psychiatry paper, it is argued that Jar Jar Binks has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD):

“Jar Jar frequently overlooks details and makes careless mistakes…His difficulty in sustaining his attention is evident…His difficulty in following instructions almost results in him being put to death…trainees can determine whether [the examples provided] are related to inattention, hyperactivity or impulsivity”.

More controversially, Friedman and Ryan make the case for Qui-Gon Jinn showing paedophilic grooming behaviour.

“In Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon engages in many behaviours with young Anakin Skywalker the same way a paedophile would with a child victim. Anakin seems to fit a pattern which Qui-Gon has of cultivating prepubescent, fair-complexioned boys with no strong male family ties…Anakin’s mother has no power or relations with authority, which decreases the likelihood that either she or Anakin would report the paedophile, or potentially be believed by others…Qui-Gon develops a relationship with Anakin, noting his special features and abilities: he often gives compliments to the child…He fosters a relationship where secrets are kept…and the child is slowly isolated from others…After trust is gained, there is a gradual increase in physical intimacy. In the movies this was symbolised by Qui-Gon drawing blood samples from Anakin. A paedophile may incorporate other children or older victims into the grooming process to further lower the child’s inhibitions”.

I’m not overly convinced by the argument but it does at least lead to discussions on the topic of grooming that I could see having a place in the classroom. Friedman and Ryan also examine a whole species (the Jawas) and claim that they are by nature kleptomaniacs:

“Jawas can introduce the concepts of kleptomania and hoarding, since they ‘have a tendency to pick up anything that’s not tied down’. It is important from a diagnostic point of view to recognise that kleptomania is more than just stealing or shoplifting…To meet criteria for kleptomania, one must recurrently fail to resist the impulse to steal unneeded or non-valuable objects. Tension before committing the theft is followed by gratification or release afterwards. These characteristics of kleptomania can be inferred from the Jawas’ capture of R2D2…The gratification of stealing R2D2 is clear from the Jawas’ excited scream…As for the need or value of the stolen items and the repetitive nature of the theft, the Jawas’ sandcrawler is filled with droids in various states of dysfunction…Although on a desert planet almost anything might have value, the Jawas seem to take this to extremes given the number of broken droids in their possession which do not even appear to be in good enough shape to use as spare parts”.

Elsewhere in the paper is a table listing many Star Wars characters along with “potential concept discussions” related to the characters’ behaviours in the films. This includes (amongst others) Darth Vader (borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder), Jabba the Hutt (psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder), Boba Fett (Oedipal issues – Hamlet type), Yoda (dyslexia, malingering), Luke Skywalker (prodromal schizophrenia), Princess Leia (histrionic personality disorder), Padme Amidala (postnatal delirium, postnatal depression), Obi-Wan Kenobi (major depression in old age, pseudo-dementia), and C3PO (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder).

However, given my own research interests, the character that most interested me in Friedman and Ryan’s list was the claim that Lando Calrissian might be a pathological gambler. According to one of the Wiki entries:

“Lando Calrissian was a human male smuggler, gambler, and card player who became Baron Administrator of Cloud City, and, later, a general in the Rebel Alliance. [He] was born on the planet Socorro…During his youth, he became a smuggler and a gambler, playing a card game known as sabbacc. Calrissian was able to make a living by illegally acquiring and redistributing rare or valuable goods. However, due to Calrissian’s penchant for gambling, he and his business partner Lobot were in deep with the wrong people”.

Gambling does make the occasional appearance in Star Wars films – particularly in bar scenes. In describing Calrissian to Han Solo, Princess Leia notes “he’s a card player, gambler, scoundrel. You’d like him“. Qui-Gon Jinn notes in The Phantom Menace that “Whenever you gamble my friend, eventually you’ll lose”. The Star Wars Wiki on gambling notes that it involves the betting of credits or possessions in wagers or games like sabbacc. For example, Lando Calrissian bet the Millennium Falcon in a game of sabacc with Han Solo, and lost. Gambling was rampant on Tatooine [the home planet of Luke Skywalker]”. The Star Wars Wiki on sabacc also notes that there are several variants of the game and that Calrissian lost the Millenium Falcon to Han Solo while playing ‘Corellian Spike’ and that Solo kept the two golden dice that were used while gambling. A profile article on Calrissian in the Washington Post describes him as a “suave gambler” rather than a pathological gambler.

There is no doubt that Calrissian liked to gamble but there is little evidence from the film that it was pathological. However, other articles (as well as older and newer fiction) about him claim that he is. For instance, in an online article by Shane Cowlishaw discussing the personality disorders of Star Wars characters, the following is claimed: 

“He may have ended up leading the final assault on the Death Star, but Lando perhaps was only successful due to being a pathological gambler. Having lost the Millennium Falcon to Han Solo in a bet, conned the Bespin Gas Mine out of somebody and gambling on a deal to betray Han and Chewbacca to the Empire, it is clear he can’t help himself. Lando gambles with the lives of other rebels, albeit successfully, be demanding that the spaceship not abort their mission when Admiral Ackbar orders everyone to retreat from the unexpectedly operational Death Star. A perfect character to debate whether pathological gambling is an addiction or an impulse-control disorder, apparently”

It’s also worth mentioning that Calrissian will also be making an appearance in upcoming Marvel comics. In an interview with writer Charles Soule (who will be scripting the new stories), it is evident that the crux of his character will focus on the gambling part of his personality – but more on the problem side:

“I focused on the whole gambler archetype for Lando; more specifically, the sort of lifelong card player who never really knows when to walk away from the table. He’s always chasing his losses, hoping that if he makes a big enough bet, he can get ahead with just one good hand. It’s tweaked a bit here—the idea is that Lando had something happen to him in his past that put him way behind, and now he’s just trying to get back to even. This isn’t really a financial thing, although that’s part of it – it’s more like a moral thing. Like a life debt. I don’t hit it too hard in this story—it’s all background—but the shading is there…Lando gets into crazy, extreme situations because they’re his version of making big bets at the card table. If he can make it through his next adventure, maybe he can just retire and live a quiet life. It never really works out, though. One step forward, two steps back. That’s Lando Calrissian…It’s a story about a hyper-charismatic, ultra-smooth guy who gets into huge jams constantly, and tends to get out of them through a combination of luck and charm. He’d never punch his way out of a fight; he’d rather buy everyone a few drinks and leave on good terms. Assuming he hasn’t gambled away all his money, that is”.

However, there is also the 2013 novel Scoundrels written by Timothy Zahn featuring Calrissian, Han Solo, and Chewbacca and includes the short story Winner Lose All based on Calrissian’s love of gambling but here, there is nothing to suggest the behaviour is pathological. There is also a fictional online interview with Calrissian that puts forward the idea that he was a professional gambler rather than a pathological gambler:

“Basically I was born to a normal middle class family and found I had a talent for gambling. I traipsed across the universe as a professional gambler, but occasionally need more money so I hired out as mercenary and treasure hunter. Eventually I won the Millennium Falcon, but didn’t know how to fly it. So I paid Han Solo to teach me, he won the ship from me in a game of Sabbac. I won it back but, it like taking your best friend’s girl so I gave it back to him. When I wound up on Cloud City I won my title of Barron Administrator in a card game. The rest is they sat history”.

Finally, on a more academic note, Calrissian also makes an appearance as one of the ‘Gambler’ archetypes the book Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists by Margaret Hartwell and Joshua Chen. The book is a novel approach to brand development and includes a deck of 60 archetype cards with the aim of revealing a brand’s motivation and why it attracts certain customers. The authors hope that the book will be used repeatedly to inform and enliven brand strategy. This again suggests that Calrissian’s gambling is not seen as pathological (otherwise he wouldn’t have been included in the book as a brand to be modelled upon).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cowlishaw, S. (2015). Star Wars characters and their personality disorders. Stuff, July 8. Located at: http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/70017741/Star-Wars-characters-and-their-personality-disorders

Friedman, S. H., & Hall, R. C. (2015). Using Star Wars’ supporting characters to teach about psychopathology. Australasian Psychiatry, 23(4), 432-434.

Friedman, S. H., & Hall, R. C. (2015). Teaching psychopathology in a galaxy far, far away: The light side of the force. Academic Psychiatry, 39(6), 719-725.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Media literature as a teaching aid for psychology: Some comments. Psychology Teaching Review, 5(2), 90.

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Media and advertising influences on adolescent risk behaviour. Education and Health, 28(1), 2-5.

Hall, R. C., & Friedman, S. H. (2015). Psychopathology in a galaxy far, far away: The use of Star Wars’ dark side in teaching. Academic Psychiatry, 39(6), 726-732.

Hartwell, M. & Chen, J.C. (2012). Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists. How Design Books.

Disfigure it out: A brief look at post-mortem mutilation in murder cases

A body of an adult female of about 25 years old was found dead in a naked condition in a reserved forest area in South Delhi in June, 2006 by police. There was information to [the] police via public call as 2-3 people had killed one lady after [having] sex [with her] and [then running] away. Further enquiry, revealed that they all had consumed alcohol along with the lady. They also had sexual intercourse with her using condom…Following the quarrel they killed her by hitting her head with a heavy stone. After killing her, they also tried to destroy her identity by burning her face with wooden stick and twigs and her clothes. One of them also introduced a wine bottle inside [her] vagina. There were multiple postmortem injuries in particular pattern over left side lower part of chest, abdomen and inguinal regions including upper part of left thigh. All [the] accused were subsequently arrested by the police”.

This shocking account of a brutal murder was the opening paragraph in a paper by Dr. B.L. Chaudhary and his colleagues in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine (JIAFM). Although an increasingly common theme in television and film homicides, post-mortem mutilation of a dead person’s body by perpetrators is arguably much rarer than the incidence in fictionalized drama. The JIAFM paper noted that the majority of such cases typically involve body “dismemberment for the purpose of disposing or hiding a body or of preventing identification”.

A national study carried out in Sweden by Dr. Jovan Rajs and colleagues in the Journal of Forensic Sciences found that only 22 deaths over a 30-year period (1961-1990) had been criminally mutilated and/or dismembered. These were then classified into one of three types: (i) defensive, (ii) offensive (i.e., lust murder) and (iii) necromanic mutilation. They reported that the perpetrators of the defensive and aggressive post-mortem mutilation were typically “disorganized” (i.e., alcoholics, drug abusers, mentally disordered) whereas the lust murderers were typically “organized” with a long history of violent crimes. The JIAFM paper summarized the findings of Raus and colleagues:

“The characteristics of the mutilations were diverse. In cases of murder committed in association with sexual deviation, wounding is usually limited to the breasts and sexual organs. Corpse mutilation can also be of a symbolic nature as in cases of mafia murders (revenge punishment) and then it is associated with torturing the victim and with the motive of destruction of identify of victim”.

In the case of the female victim reported by Chaudhary and colleagues, they reported that it was the victim’s head, face, and chest that were burned, destroyed, and mutilated post-mortem. They speculated that this was done to either (i) to prevent identification of the victim, (ii) to make it difficult to determine the cause of death, or (iii) as an act of depersonalization as it is often seen “when the murder is disorganized and has a close relation to his victim or offensive mutilation as general act of frustration”. Why the men had inserted a foreign object into the woman’s vagina was less clear. The authors speculated that it may have been because of (i) frustration of a non-performing sexual partner because of heavy intoxication, (ii) an extortion demand by victim, (iii) blackmail by the victim, or (iv) psychopathic tendencies of the perpetrators can carried out for sadistic pleasure. However, they also added that:

“In this case as there was alleged history of consensual sexual activity which could be or could not be as body had injuries so it could be non-consensual activity also. Apparently there was no smell in the [gastric] contents but samples were sent for alcohol screening/concentration estimation. In [the medical] literature, various materials and objects like chilly powder, corrosives, metal or wooden sticks are introduced into genitalia as a part of punishment for unfaithfulness or infidelity. Males suffering from depression due to erectile dysfunctions, premature ejaculation and impotency may indulge in extreme frustration cases. In this psychological profiling of the accused can also be helpful in knowing for such abnormal instincts. At times, provocative words by female partner about their malehood could trigger such impulsive murder and mutilation”

Post-mortem mutilation while extreme can sometimes border on the almost unbelievable. For instance, Dr. J. Kunz and Dr. A. Gross published a paper in a 2001 issue of the American Journal of Forensic and Medical Pathology which as Ronseal would claim “does exactly what it says on the tin” as it was entitled Victim’s scalp on the killer’s head: An unusual case of criminal postmortem mutilation”. The paper reported that:

“After killing his father, the son decapitated his body and dissected the scalp free, forming a mask of the father’s head and neck. The young man wore the scalp-mask over his own head to imitate the father. The motive of the murder was revenge, and the postmortem mutilation was the realization of the perpetrator’s fantasies, symbolically representing a penalty for the reprehensible past life of his father”.

Another extreme case of postmortem mutilation following murder was reported by Dr. Tomasz Konopka and his colleagues in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. In this instance, a Polish man cut up the corpse and dismembered the body into 850 fragments. He “employed various tools to divide the body into fragments and subsequently boiled the pieces to reduce their volume”. This reduced the body volume by 30kg. The murderer then placed all the body fragments into two large pots in a space under his stairwell and then plastered over the wall to hide the body. Another paper by Dr. Konopka and colleagues in a 2007 issue of Legal Medicine examined 23 cases of dismembered bodies in the 1968-2005 period at the Cracow Department of Forensic Medicine. Of these, 17 were cases of defensive mutilation, three were offensive mutilation and two were dismemberment (decapitation, and direct cause of death). One case remained unclassified where the murderer dissected free skin from the whole torso. They concluded that:

“Apart from rare cases of necrophilia, the victim of dismemberment is always a victim of homicide. Homicides ending with corpse dismemberment are most commonly committed by a person close to, or at least acquainted with the victim and they are performed at the site of homicide, generally in the place inhabited by the victim, the perpetrator or shared by both. Such instances are generally not planned by the perpetrator and rarely serial in character”.

Finally, I came across an interesting 2009 paper by a Finnish team led by Dr. Häkkänen-Nyholm in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. The authors noted that research relating to mutilation of bodies by murderers was “sparse”. They estimated the rate of mutilation of the victim’s body in Finnish homicides. To do this they examined all crime and forensic reports of homicide offenders from 1995–2004 (n = 676). Only 13 murders (2.2%) involved postmortem mutilation. They concluded that:

“Educational and mental health problems in childhood, inpatient mental health contacts, self-destructiveness, and schizophrenia were significantly more frequent in offenders guilty of mutilation. Mutilation bore no significant association with psychopathy or substance abuse. The higher than usual prevalence of developmental difficulties and mental disorder of this subsample of offenders needs to be recognized”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Chaudhary, B.L., Murty, O.P. & Singh, D. (2007). Foreign objects in genitalia: Homicide with destruction of identity – A case report. Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine, 29(4), 135-137.

Häkkänen-Nyholm, H., Weizmann‐Henelius, G., Salenius, S., Lindberg, N., & Repo-Tiihonen, E. (2009). Homicides with mutilation of the victim’s body. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 54(4), 933-937.

Hladík, J., Štefan, J., Srch, M., & Pilin, A. (2000). A rare case of evisceration. International Journal of Legal Medicine, 113(2), 107-109.

Konopka, T., Bolechala, F., & Strona, M. (2006). An unusual case of corpse dismemberment. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 27(2), 163-165.

Konopka, T., Strona, M., Bolechała, F., & Kunz, J. (2007). Corpse dismemberment in the material collected by the Department of Forensic Medicine, Cracow, Poland. Legal Medicine, 9(1), 1-13.

Kunz, J. & Gross, A. (2001). Victim’s scalp on the killer’s head: An unusual case of criminal postmortem mutilation. American Journal of Forensic and Medical Pathology, 22(3), 327-31.

Rajs, J., Lundstrom, M., Broberg, M., Lidberg, L., & Lindquist, O. (1998). Criminal mutilation of the human body in Sweden: A thirty year medico-legal and forensic psychiatric study. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 43(3), 563-80.

Simonsen, J. (1989). A sadistic homicide. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 10(2), 159-163.

Türk, E. E., Püschel, K., & Tsokos, M. (2004). Features characteristic of homicide in cases of complete decapitation. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 25(1), 83-86.

Velvet gold mind: Psychopathy, addiction, ECT, and the psychology of Lou Reed

Regular readers of my blog will have no doubt picked up that one of my all time favourite bands is the Velvet Underground (VU) – often referred to as “The Psychopath’s Rolling Stones“. I bought my first VU album on vinyl back in 1980 as a 14-year old adolescent (a 12-track compilation that I still have simply called ‘The Velvet Underground’). When I bought it I had heard very few VU songs on the radio and one of the main reasons I bought it was because a number of my musical heroes at the time (Ian McCulloch the lead singer of the Echo and the Bunnymen being the one I seem to remember) kept listing VU songs in their ‘Top 10 Tracks’ in Smash Hits magazine.

Over time I have steadily accumulated a massive collection of VU and VU-related albums (mainly solo LPs of VU band members, most notably Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico, as well as dozens and dozens of bootleg LPs). As much as I love the recorded solo outputs of Cale and Nico, it is Lou Reed that I have always found the most psychologically fascinating on both a musical and personal level (even though Cale was admittedly the better musician) – and because of his autobiographical lyrics (many of which were collated in his 1992 book Between Thought and Expression). Reed (along with a few other musicians such as John Lennon, Morrissey, David Bowie, Adam Ant, and Gary Numan) is someone I would love to have interviewed, as he was a psychological paradox and appeared to have so many different facets to his personality. During is early career, Reed was a self-confessed drug addict and wrote songs about both heroin (‘I’m Waiting For The Man‘ and admitting in his song ‘Heroin‘ that it was “my wife and it’s my life”) and amphetamines (‘White Light, White Heat‘). I would also argue that in later life he replaced these negative addictions with what Bill Glasser defined as a ‘positive addiction‘ in the form of t’ai chi ch’uan (i.e., tai chi).

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Reed’s lyrics covered topics that shocked many people. His song lyrics recounted life’s misfits and those that lived on the fringes (particularly of the life he had himself experienced in New York and as part of pop artist Andy Warhol’s entourage). His world was one of drug addiction, transvestite drag queens, bisexuality, and sado-masochism. Like many of the best and most literary writers, he wrote about what he knew and had experienced. As Reed himself pointed out many times, the subject matter of his songs were no different from his literary heroes such as Edgar Allen Poe, Hubert Selby Jr., William Burroughs, and Delmore Schwartz. Sex and drugs were common themes in novels and poetry. Reed wondered why listeners and rock critics alike were so horrified by the content of his songs when the same content could be found in books from the 1950s and early 1960s.

Reed was a much feared interviewee by music journalists and often poured vitriol on many rock critics (Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau being the most high profile). Just listen to his 1978 live LP Take No Prisoners that is remembered more for the acerbic monologues in between the songs than for the music. Although I would have loved to interview him, his experiences with psychologists and psychiatrists arguably left him emotionally scarred for life (or at the very least a deep mistrust of therapists). His affluent parents sent him for weekly sessions of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a young teenager to “cure” him of his homosexual desires and urges. It had such a negative impression on him that he documented the experiences on his song ‘Kill Your Sons’ (from his 1974 LP Sally Can’t Dance). As he was quoted as saying in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s 1996 book Please Kill Me:

“They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable”

Up until the ECT session, Reed appeared to have lead a relatively trouble-free childhood (although there were admittedly some juvenile delinquent activities). The ECT sessions may have been the catalyst that far from ‘curing’ him of his sexual urges confused the issue even more. Reed was more explicit in the lyrics to ‘Kill Your Sons’ about the whole experience of ECT and what he thought about it:

“All your two-bit psychiatrists are giving you electro shock/They say, they let you live at home, with mom and dad/Instead of mental hospital/But every time you tried to read a book/You couldn’t get to page 17/’Cause you forgot, where you were/So you couldn’t even read/Don’t you know, they’re gonna kill your sons”.

I have read almost every biography that has ever been published on Reed and there appears to be an almost unconscious pathological need to subvert the traditional rock cycle treadmill of fame and success. There is no doubt that Reed wanted to be respected and remembered for his literary writing – but many of his decisions and actions were self-defeating. In my own field of gambling, the psychologist Edmund Bergler speculated that addicted gamblers have an ‘unconscious desire to lose’ – a form of psychic masochism. If Reed was on Bergler’s couch, he may have come to the same conclusion about Reed.

There are so many points in Reed’s life where he appeared to deliberately sabotage his own career and commit what others have described ‘artistic suicide’. For instance, after David Bowie had befriended him in the early 1970s and produced his first hit LP (Transformer) and biggest hit (‘Walk On The Wild Side’), he fell out with Bowie and recorded what a number of rock critics have described as “the most depressing album of all time” (the 1973 LP Berlin). He then seemed to get his career back on course with his one and only top 10 US album (1974 LP Sally Can’t Dance) only to follow it up with the album consisting of four tracks of guitar feedback each 16 minutes in length (1975 album Metal Machine Music). James Wolcott writing for the Village Voice went as far as to say that  Metal Machine Music “crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence”. Although both “career killing” LPs have since been hailed as masterpieces in their own way, both releases provide an argument that Reed was a masochist on some level even if the original pain didn’t become pleasure until 30 years later.

The arguably self-inflicted pain didn’t end with his musical output. Almost every important person he looked up to in his life between 1964 and the early 1990s were cast aside and verbally and/or physically abused by Reed at some point. This included his managers (e.g., Andy Warhol, Steve Sesnick, Dennis Katz), his admirers and benefactors (e.g., David Bowie), his record company senior executives (e.g., Clive Davis), his lovers (e.g., Shelly Albin, Nico, Bettye Kronstad, Sylvia Morales, “Rachel” [Tommy] Humphries), and his musical collaborators (e.g., John Cale, Doug Yule, Robert Quine).

Some people have claimed Reed was almost psychopathic in some of his actions. The criminal psychologist Professor Robert Hare developed the Revised Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), a psychological assessment that determines whether someone is a psychopath.

At heart, Hare’s test is simple: a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 (if it doesn’t apply to the person), 1 (if it partially applies) or 2 (if it fully applies). The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of ‘revocation of conditional release’ (i.e., broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour. A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy”

Personally, I think there are psychopathic traits in almost any person with a successful career, and Reed (from the many biographies I have read) would certainly endorse some of the indicators in the list above. However, as he (i) became older, (ii) became teetotal and drug-free, (iii) studied Buddhist philosophy (including meditation and tai chi), and (iv) settled down and married performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson, he arguably became happier and produced some of the best music of his career.

The trio of ‘concept’ albums including his ‘warts ‘n’ all’ tribute to his home city (New York, 1989), his moving tribute to Andy Warhol (Songs for Drella, 1990, with John Cale), and his lyrical musings on illness, death and dying (1992, Magic and Loss) were all critically lauded (and among my own personal favourites). Songs for Drella (the VU’s nickname for Andy Warhol – a contraction of the names Cinderella and Dracula) is not just one of Reed’s best albums but it’s one of the best LP’s ever. The fact that the songs were heartfelt and full of remorse for the way Reed had treated Warhol in the latter years of his life, suggest that the characterization of Reed as a psychopath is unfair.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bockris, V. (1994). Lou Reed: The Biography. London: Hutchinson.

Bockris, V. & Malanga, G. (1995). Up-tight – The Velvet Underground Story.London:Omnibus Press.

Doggett, P. (1991). Lou reed – Growing Up in Public. London: 
Omnibus Press.

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Henry, T. (1989), Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style, Ann Arbour MI: UMI Research Press.

Hare, R. D., & Vertommen, H. (2003). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. Multi-Health Systems, Incorporated.

Heylin, C. (2005). All Yesterday’s Parties – The Velvet Underground In Print 1966-1971. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Hogan, P. (2007). The Rough Guide To The Velvet Underground. London: Penguin.

Jovanovich, R. (2010). The Velvet Underground – Peeled. Aurum Press.

Kostek, M.C. (1992). The Velvet Underground Handbook
. London: 
Black Spring Press.

McNeil, Legs; McCain, G. (1996). Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. London: Grove Press.

Muggleton, D. & Weinzierl, R. (2003). The Post-subcultures Reader. Oxford: Berg.

Reed, L. (1992). Between Thought and Expression. 
London: Penguin Books.

Wall, M. (2013). Lou Reed: The Life. Croydon: Orion Books.

My fiction ‘addiction’: The psychology of Hannibal Lecter

If I ever went on the BBC television show Mastermind, one of my potential specialist subjects would be the fictional serial killing psychiatrist Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter (in print and on screen). I have devoured all four of Thomas Harris’ original books and all the DVDs (all five films and the TV series). In short, I am an obsessive Lecterite. While I was at university in the 1980s doing my undergraduate psychology degree, I was also the Entertainment Editor of the University of Bradford’s newspaper (Fleece). One of the perks of my part-time (unpaid) job was that I got to watch all the latest cinema releases for free and review them for Fleece. In 1986, one of the films that I watched (and loved) was Manhunter directed by Michael Mann. At the time, I didn’t realize that the film was based on Thomas Harris’ second book Red Dragon (first published in 1981 following his 1975 non-Lecter novel Black Sunday). However, I do remember the great (and understated) performance by Scottish actor Brian Cox playing the serial killing psychiatrist (spelled ‘Lecktor’ rather than Lecter in that particular film).

It was in 1991 that my real fascination with Lecter began after seeing The Silence of the Lambs directed by Jonathan Demme (and starring Anthony Hopkins as Lecter). I went to see it in the first week it was out as I was a big fan of Demme’s work particularly his musical documentary of Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense (1984), and films such as Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1984), and Something Wild (1986). I came out of the cinema and within the space of a few weeks I had seen the film three times (and I was delighted when the film won all five of the main Oscar categories in 1992 – only the third film ever to have done so). At the time, I was a psychology lecturer at the University of Plymouth, and was teaching a weekly criminal psychology module to police inspectors on the university’s BA in Social and Organizational Studies. I was enthralled by the film’s use of behavioural profiling of criminals and the fact that the star of the film was a strange and bizarre paradox – a highly intelligent and highly cultured psychiatrist that also happened to be a serial killing cannibal.

It was at this point that I bought the two Thomas Harris novels that featured Lecter (i.e., Red Dragon and the 1988 sequel The Silence of the Lambs). I was gripped. Harris had clearly done his psychological and criminological research well (and I found the two books even better than the films). From then on I sought out anything Lecter-related and bought Harris’ further sequel (Hannibal, 1999) and prequel (Hannibal Rising, 2006), and watched and bought the big-budget Hollywood films Hannibal (2001, directed by Ridley Scott), Red Dragon (2002, directed by Brett Ratner) and Hannibal Rising (2007, directed by Peter Webber and starring Gaspard Ulliel as the young Hannibal), and most recently the US television series Hannibal (2013, starring Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter). My good friends also started buying me Lecter-related gifts (such as Daniel O’Brien’s excellent 2001 book The Hannibal Files).

So why am I – and millions of others worldwide – so fascinated, and – for want of a better word – ‘hooked’ on Hannibal the Cannibal’s fictional exploits? In 2005, the American Film Institute voted Hannibal Lecter the No.1 villain of all time (and who would argue against?). I suppose one of the scariest things about Lecter is that he’s the composite of real serial killers. People like Lecter actually exist and Harris clearly did his homework in writing his novels. In July 2013, Harris gave a rare interview and claimed that his inspiration for Lecter was a real-life Mexican murdering doctor (that he gave a pseudonym ‘Dr. Salazar’) and that he met in the 1960s while he was a newspaper crime reporter. Harris claimed that ‘Salazar’ had a “certain elegance”. It has also been noted that Harris attended the trial of Pietro Pacciani, a suspected serial killer nicknamed the ‘Monster of Florence’. The Wikipedia entry on Lecter claims that Pacciani’s serial killing modus operandi was used in his Hannibal novel. The Wikipedia entry also went on to say:

“According to David Sexton, author of The Strange World of Thomas Harris: Inside the Mind of the Creator of Hannibal Lecter, Harris once told a librarian in Cleveland, Mississippi, that Lecter was inspired by William Coyne, a local murderer who had escaped from prison in 1934 and gone on a rampage that included acts of murder and cannibalism. In her book Evil Serial Killers, Charlotte Greig asserts that the serial killer Albert Fish was the inspiration, at least in part, for Lecter. Greig also states that to explain Lecter’s pathology, Harris borrowed the story of serial killer and cannibal Andrei Chikatilo’s brother Stepan being kidnapped and eaten by starving neighbours (though she states that it is unclear whether the story was true or whether Stepan Chikatilo even existed)”.

I was surprised to find that there are dozens of academic papers written from many perspectives including psychology, psychiatry, criminology, media/film studies, and literary criticism (and I may well come back and write further blogs on Lecter using some of these). However, the rest of today’s blog concentrates on a really interesting trilogy of papers about Lecter written by Professor James Oleson in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture (during 2005-2006). Oleson did a thorough review of various academic literatures and noted (in his 2005 paper) the following in relation to (i) the appeal of serial killers, and (ii) the appeal of Lecter more specifically:

“Apter (1992) suggests that serial killers transfix people because dangerous things – like serial killers – tend to create a state of invigorating psychological arousal. To neutralize the feelings of anxiety that accompany dangerous threats – like serial killers – we use protective frames such as narrative explanations or criminological theories. In explaining the serial killer’s behavior, we allow ourselves to succumb to the exciting magnetism of evil (Kloer, 2002) and can thereby ‘experience the excitement of arousal without being overwhelmed by anxiety’ (Ramsland, 2005)…Why do we love Lecter? Perhaps because he is the ‘perfect gothic hero’ (Dunant, 1999) or because he is the perfect gothic antihero (Dery, 1999). Perhaps it is because the heroic and the villainous co-exist within him. Because he is Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader rolled into one (Hawker, 2001), because he is Darth Vader and Superman rolled into one (Cagle, 2002), or because he is Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty rolled into one (Sexton, 2001)”.

Professor Oleson spends a lot of the first paper examining whether Lecter fits any of the serial killer typologies that various criminologists have formulated over the last three or four decades. According to Oleson, various researchers have identified two key precursors that have a high association with serial homicide – a pathological fantasy life and childhood trauma. Oleson argues that Lecter fits “this basic etiological model” because “he enjoys a rich and detailed fantasy life” and “he suffered serious childhood trauma”. Oleson also recounted the FBI’s research into ‘organized’ and ‘disorganized’ serial killers, and argued that there was evidence across all Harris’ books that Lecter displayed all 14 profile characteristics of an organized serial killer: (i) average to above-average intelligence, (ii) socially competent, (iii) skilled work preferred, (iv) sexually competent, (v) high birth order status, (vi) father’s work stable, (vii) inconsistent childhood discipline, (viii) controlled mood during crime, (ix) use of alcohol with crime, (x) precipitating situational stress, (xi) living with partner, (xii) mobility with car in good condition, (xiii) follows crime in news media, and (xiv) may change jobs or leave town.

Oleson also notes there are some models of serial killing that Lecter does not fit at all. For instance, the ‘addiction model’ of killing argues that some serial killers have a compulsion to kill and that they become addicted to killing (as put forward in the 1988 book Serial Killers by Dr. Joel Norris, and the 1996 book The Psychopathology of Serial Murder by Dr. Stephen Giannangelo). Another psychological model associated with serial killers is the concept of ‘sociopathy’ and ‘psychopathy’ (now termed ‘antisocial personality disorder’). Throughout Harris’ novels there are various references to Lecter being a sociopath and in the films he is described as being a psychopath (most notably by the psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton, Director of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Lecter was sent after being caught by his former profiling partner at the FBI (Will Graham). Oleson uses Dr. Robert Hare’s commonly used Psychopathy Checklist (first published in a 1980 issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences) and convincingly shows that there is little evidence that Lecter is a psychopath.

Another model that Lecter does not fit is the “homicidal triad” of warning-sign behaviours (i.e., bed-wetting, animal cruelty, and fire starting) outlined in the many books of the FBI’s Dr. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. This FBI research asserts that these three warning behaviours (particularly when they co-occur in adolescence) signal an elevated risk of subsequent serial homicide. However, Oleson shows that Lecter does not fit this profile at all. In his second (2006) paper, Oleson also assesses to what extent Lecter is insane. According to the M’Naughten test for insanity:

“It must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or that [if] he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong (Finkel, 1988)”.

Oleson argues that Lecter “flunks the M’Naughten test on all counts”. In fact he goes on to say that:

“[Lecter] does not suffer from a defect of reason – if anything, as a genius with an infinitely rare IQ score, he may suffer from a superhuman perfection of the reason… Similarly, Lecter knows perfectly well the nature and quality of the crimes he commits, and he knows that they are denounced as wrong by society…The character of Hannibal Lecter would be deemed sane under more recently developed tests for insanity, as well. Lecter, in perfect command of his will, does not commit his crimes because he is compelled. Accordingly, he would not be insane under any formulation of the irresistible impulse test (Finkel, 1988). Nor would he be found insane under the American Law Institute test. ‘A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law’ (Finkel, 1988). Lecter possesses both near-infallible cognitive ability and an iron will. He in no way fits the categories of insanity articulated under prevailing rules”.

Oleson’s papers also examine the idea that Lecter may be a non-human monster, a vampire, a superhuman, and/or the Devil. He also speculates that his crimes may be the product of his superhuman intellect (as Lecter’s IQ is so high that it cannot be assessed by any instruments that are currently used). As Oleson concludes in the second of his three papers:

“It has been suggested that the character of Hannibal Lecter is so memorable because he emerges from paradox…It could simply be the case, however, that Lecter is such a successful villain because we love monster stories…because we need monsters…and because the Lecter novels skillfully combine the police procedural with particularly resonant elements of the supernatural horror story”.

I (for one) love the paradox of Lecter’s personality and character. Both (super)man and monster. I admire some of his character traits but (of course) despise others. He is a highly flawed criminal genius and polymath. A serial killer and a cannibal. Victim and villain. In his third paper on Lecter, Oleson asserts something that I agree (and will leave you) with:

“By asking why Hannibal Lecter commits his crimes, criminologists may be able to use the Lecter novels and movies as a catalyst for the study of the etiology of serial homicide. The character of Hannibal Lecter is, after all, based on real life serial killers, and provides readers and viewers with an intimate (if hyperbolic) case study of an organized serial killer. Characters drawn from novels can serve as valuable heuristic devices…teaching us a great deal about the nature of crime and evil”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

American Film Institute. (2005). Heroes and villains. Located at: http://www.afi.com/tvevents/100years/handv.aspx

Finkel, N. J. (1988). Insanity on Trial. New York: Plenum Press.

Hare, R.D. (1980). A research scale for the assessment of psychopathy in criminal populations. Personality and Individual Differences, 1, 111-119.

Hare, R.D. (1996). Psychopathy: A clinical construct whose time has come. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 23, 25-54.

Hare, R. D. (2003). Manual for the Revised Psychopathy Checklist (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

Hickey, E. W. (1991). Serial Murderers and Their Victims. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Oleson, J. C. (2003). The celebrity of infamy: A review essay of five autobiographies by three criminal geniuses. Crime, Law, and Social Change, 40, 409-16.

Oleson, J. C. (2005). King of killers: The criminological theories of Hannibal Lecter, part one. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 12, 186-210.

Oleson, J. C. (2006). Contemporary demonology: The criminological theories of Hannibal Lecter, part two. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 13, 29-49.

Oleson, J. C. (2006). The devil made me do it: the criminological theories of Hannibal Lecter, part three. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 13, 117-133.

Raine, A. (1993). The Psychopathology of Crime. New York: Academic Press.

Sexton, D. (2001). The Strange Mind of Thomas Harris. London: Faber and Faber.

Wikipedia (2013). Hannibal Lecter. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannibal_Lecter