Mass Murderer Psychology – The Patterns of Horror

My first reaction on learning about the Realengo school shootings in Rio de Janeiro was to feel tremendous, almost physical pain at trying to imagine what could possess a man to shoot little children at random. After writing about how I felt and the implications of the event, I came across the murderer’s letter on Twitter. There was something incongruous in finding these words written in the familiar language of my Brazilian neighbors. In South America, we are all unfortunately used to these things happening in lands far away, but reading the familiar diatribe of a resentful mass murderer made me realize that these things could happen close to home as well, and also, that there were some very distinct similarities between the words in this letter and those of other perpetrators of similar crimes.

After the initial bitterness and pain, I focused on studying the existing literature and research about mass murderers and their motivations. In a way, Realengo raised new issues because the victims were not only innocent people chosen at random, they were the most innocent victims a man could target, namely, little kids. Although there are precedents of children being shot in America (e.g. Laurie Dann and later copycat James Wilson in South Carolina, during the year of 1988), this was the first time that something like that ever happened in Brazil.

The bulk of the research that has studied the psychology and motivation of people who have committed this type of crimes, defined as killings that take place usually in broad daylight in a public space, where the victims are not specifically chosen and are generally strangers, which often end with the killer committing suicide, has identified a loose pattern among the victimizers.

According to a study of adolescent mass murderers (who killed over three people and were under 19 years of age), they are most often white males (79%) with a median age of 17, and they have a history of reclusive behavior as opposed to violent behavior. The majority of them were reported to be people who kept to themselves, often focusing more on books, dreams, videogames and brooding inside their inner worlds than real social connections with their fellow students, friends and families. This study is based on multiple source data gathered about 27 incidents of this kind, between 1955 and 1999.

Revenge fantasies are very frequent specially among the type of mass murderers grouped under the “pseudocommando” category. This term, coined in the eighties, refers to murderers who come to a public place, prepared with a full arsenal of weapons, and are generally moved by revenge fantasies, on account of feelings of powerlessness and humiliation.

One thing that research has commonly pointed out is the fact that people around this kind of troubled individuals are seldom able to identify anything dramatically wrong with them. In fact, the adolescent mass murderers study points to only 23% of them having a documented psychiatric history. Scholars have widely concluded that there is enough evidence to sustain the idea that many of these mass murderers have largely suffered from undiagnosed psychiatric conditions.

The story seems to repeat itself: neighbors talking to the press, awestruck because the guy nextdoor just went and shot a handful of people at random without any warning. In this scenario, both medical science and crime prevention have a hard time. What can science or crime specialists teach us that will help prevent another Realengo, another Columbine? So far, it seems that not much.

When Gus Van Sant made the film Elephant (2003), based on the Columbine shootings, he brilliantly created a parallel between the violent videogames the mass murderer used to play and the moment when he aimed and shot at random students. Media coverage of the recent Realengo shootings included an animated simulation of the shootings, which looked just like a videogame.

As some of the literature points out to media influences on mass murderers, preeminently the influences cited by the murderers themselves (e.g. the movies Natural Born Killers (1994) and The Basketball Diaries (1995)), the implications of this type of obsessive and even video game-like coverage of the mass murders themselves can have a widespread influence on how both covert potential perpetrators of similar crimes and the public in general view and process this type of incidents.

If the media is turning violent-videogame influenced acts of horror into a highly entertaining pseudo-violent videogame, it seems that research should focus on this aspect extensively, besides the psychology and modus operandi of these yet puzzling crimes. In a way, a mass murderer in the making toying with the idea of killing people at random would see this videogame-type coverage as something positive: he will at last be the star of his own videogame, and, in his view, he will come out as the victor.


Holmes, R. M., Holmes,  S. T.  Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1988.

Knoll JL 4th (2010). The “pseudocommando” mass murderer: part I, the psychology of revenge and obliteration. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 38 (1), 87-94 PMID: 20305080

Meloy JR, Hempel AG, Mohandie K, Shiva AA, & Gray BT (2001). Offender and offense characteristics of a nonrandom sample of adolescent mass murderers. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40 (6), 719-28 PMID: 11392351

Myers, W. (2004). Serial murder by children and adolescents Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 22 (3), 357-374 DOI: 10.1002/bsl.590

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA, holds a Masters in Creative Writing. She has directed two documentaries shot in psychiatric wards and a feature documentary about the 77-year old senior Decathlon champion of the world, Raul. Her last production is Monstruo, a short film about non-voluntary euthanasia. She is the CEO of Uruguayan film production company Nektar FIlms. You may visit her blog at The Wander Life
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