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

  • DLixx

    Interesting, heavy stuff. I was curious about your thoughts on one thing: if the link is made between a shooting simulation and the news report of the death of children, wouldn’t this make more apparent the connection between video game horror and real-life horror? I guess it’s hard to get into the head of the pseudocommando, but I think that seeing a video game-like re-creation would make someone cognizant of the connection between game and real-life violence, turning him away from actualizing video game violence. Connecting virtual to real horror, sensibly, would turn people away from the virtual. It is a big assumption, however, that these people make any sense…thanks for posting.

  • I guess you have a point. Other than what such disturbed individuals may think, I also think it implies a trivialization on our part as a society, showing these people being shot as animated toys. I certainly don´t think it serves any informational purpose other than exciting people´s morbid fascination.
    Thanks for your lucid comments.

  • 17 is typically the age of onset for schizophrenia in men. Although, very few schizo folks are violent. Symptoms are subclinical until then although these are family, inherited brain disorders.

    The vast majority of violence comes when young men, and others, are drunk.

    The evidence on video games is mixed. It may actually be a way to displace violence. More study is needed.

    What does seem both predictive and a strong factor is undiagnosed and untreated depression. Remember, suicide is mainly a symptom of depression.

    Just saw a study where depression is highly predictive of violence and drunkenness in US Latino young men.

  • L

    Can you gather data prior to the popularisation of video games? For the adolescent murderers I suspect they feel as if the world is against them, they are suicidal but don’t want to feel as if they are letting all those people who made their lives hell get away with it so try to kill a few people after.

    Making an assumption about a teenage killer playing violent video games and actually carrying them out may be the same as comparing a man or woman lost in dreams for romance watching or reading romantic films or literature. Although the real question asked is what comes first? Is the desire fuelled by the film, or is the desire coercing the subject to watch those films? In an attempt to cancel confusion I am relating to those who spend significant amounts of time doing these activities. But again with those mentally unstable its not unlikely they do not have anywhere to go so do spend their times viewing such media (for those romantics I don’t think this applies so much).

    This is all thinking out loud so there is no need to take any of this into your consideration but gathering statistics for school shootings and such prior to the popularisation of video games/violent media (or simply those who do not follow those hobbies) would be very interesting.

    Either way these people are likely to be mentally deficient in some way or another so are likely to break down easier and go on the offensive (I am talking singularly about the murderers but maybe those romantics may become obsessive and go to extremes considered only by those murderers? Unlikely but possible).

  • Our understanding about murder and killing includes the following:
    – By far it is drunk men killing relatives
    – Next is drunk young men killing other drunk young men
    – Mass and serial killing is, overwhelming, “normal” civilians killing for government supported programs

    The incidence of unrelated, usually always male, mass killing is very low — but captures headlines and pop media so “feels” much larger. Self-killing, for example, is far more common – but still uncommon.

    Pop media always highlights the least frequent events.

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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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