Origins for psychopaths

Posted: May 16, 2010 in All, Comic Books, Horror, Prose

I used to attend improv workshops at college. A group of acting students formed a club and would run people through acting games. We’d try to establish characters and relationships during the course of a five-minute sketch.

One of the games was a murder mystery. There were two players. The audience gave the murder weapon, location and motive to the murderer. The other player was taken out of the room, so he couldn’t hear the audience’s suggestions. When the skit started, he had to solve the mystery, which was usually ridiculous.

After one mystery sketch, Matt, the actor running the club, said “Why is it whenever someone gets a murder weapon in their hands, they start to talk about their childhood.”

And it was true. Every time there was a murder mystery sketch, inevitably, the murderer would start talking about some bizarre tragedy thrust upon him as an impressionable child.

Apply this to horror books and movies.

Why is it, whenever we learn more about the killer’s origin, there’s always some hidden atrocity committed against him as a child? At one point, he was a victim, and the reader can sort-of kind-of rationalize how he turned out the way he did.

Except this: We never really know why some people turn bad. Just as we don’t always know why some people turn out to be wonderful people.

Two children from the same parents can grow up to be vastly different people. Millions of stories are based on this.

Whenever you read about a serial killer in real life, the authorities piece things together afterward, and it paints a picture. He shared a bed with his widowed mother until he was 14. She rarely let him out of the house. You think, “God, how could he not wind up being a killer?” But this is overly simplistic.

I think most people are just trying to be normal, whatever their perception of normal is.

Granted, few people have a life-altering event in their life. An epiphany or a time when everything fell apart. But when a writer starts dissecting a killer’s childhood, showing where it all went wrong, I start to lose interest.

It rarely translates right. A young boy is forced to eat human flesh to survive, so he becomes a cannibalistic killer. What? No.

Whenever a writer develops an origin for psychopaths, he assumes that there’s logic behind it. A boy watched his father brutally murder his mother, so naturally, he continues the cycle.

There is no logic to why people turn out the way they do, good or bad. And if the reason for his m.o. is faulty, then it calls into doubt everything that he does in the story.

If you’re a writer seeking originality, then you’re going to try to push that envelope further and try to find some kind of horror that your young proto-psychopath witnessed. The possibilities are endless, but sometimes you’re really reaching. And if you reach too far, you strain believability.

Alfred Hitchcock had “The Birds” attack for no reason, because he thought that was scarier. And at first, I didn’t think so. I used to want an explanation. But really, he might be right. He is Alfred Hitchcock, after all.

In “Cell,” Stephen King never explained what caused cell phones to turn people into electro-zombies. I was upset about this. But thinking about it, there was no way for the few characters we followed to ever find out. In a bigger book, like “The Stand,” we saw inside the lab where Captain Trips was created. The force in “Cell” had to have an origin, but we never learned it. King might not even have known it.

But you can also learn it for yourself and never tell the reader. I wrote pages and pages of background on one of my main super heroes. Her family. Her early boyfriends. Friends. I haven’t looked at it in years, but it helped form how I want her to be. So I know that information (although I’ve forgotten most of it), but I don’t need to show the reader any of it.

If it’s a horror, then you only show hints of what this killer’s background really was. Deepen the mystery for the reader.


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