Of course, dreams and daydreams sometimes have a dark and violent cast to them. Almost everyone has imagined vengeful scenarios, even murderous ones, after particularly frustrating experiences, according to research by psychologist David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin. Such fantasies can defuse tension and thus might be considered a type of psychological hygiene. As Austrian psychoanalyst Theodor Reik put it: “A thought murder a day keeps the psychiatrist away.”
But what is cleansing to a healthy mind may overwhelm a less balanced psyche. Signs of psychic trouble include being excessively introverted and lacking strong social attachments. Cho’s peers described him as “quiet” and as someone who would not respond when others greeted him. Violent offenders are also often pessimistic about their future and have low self-esteem; many have been harassed, bullied or rejected by classmates; suspended from school; or pressured by teachers. Cho was reportedly teased and picked on in middle school for being shy and for his unusual way of speaking.
Adolescents who saw or otherwise experienced violence at a young age are very susceptible to intense brutal fantasies, points out clinical psychologist Al Carlisle, who practices in Price, Utah, and has long studied serial killers and young violent criminals. Such experiences, Carlisle says, foster a belief that violence is the only way to gain recognition and respect.
Thus, the media attention showered on previous school shooters such as the Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold often appeals greatly to would-be copycats, because the publicity may pass for esteem in their minds. After their April 1999 rampage, which left 13 dead and 24 injured at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Harris and Klebold were on the covers of magazines and the front pages of newspapers for weeks.
Castillo and Bosse had stated several times that they idolized Harris and Klebold. Cho called them martyrs. On Internet fan pages Harris is compared to a god, and at a recent auction Klebold’s old car fetched a price way over book value, almost as if it were a religious relic.
Once inspired, a disturbed adolescent may slowly tumble into an increasingly elaborate fantasy world. FBI interviews with imprisoned multiple murderers have shown that the most ominous violent fantasies gradually consume ever more psychic space. In the beginning, they may be a harmless way to pass idle hours, but later they mutate into an obsession. Eventually a dangerously violent vision dominates a youth’s thoughts and cries out for action.
An unbalanced adolescent often embellishes his daydreams with details of the venue and manner of the imagined massacre—in some cases, amassing ideas from violent or violence-promoting movies, games and Web sites. Schools are a natural target because adolescents experience the worst slights in school. Two months before his rampage in Germany, Bosse wrote in his diary, “Imagine that you’re standing in your old school and that your trench coat conceals all of your tools of righteousness, and then you throw the first Molotov cocktail, the first bomb. You are sending the most hated place in the world to Hell!”
As fantasies become increasingly important to a disturbed youth, he begins to neglect his real relationships to focus on the mechanics of the deed he has dreamed about. Then a serious frustration, such as the breakup of one of his last friendships, may redouble his efforts to sketch out his killing.
Would-be school shooters seem to advance ineluctably toward their idols. Copycats often wear similar clothing and choose the same weapons as those of their heroes. Among other copycat actions, Castillo wore a trench coat just as the Columbine shooters did. He also mimicked their weaponry, going so far as to name his shotgun Arlene, the same name Harris gave his shotgun. (Arlene is a character from the series of novels inspired by the 1993 computer game Doom.) Frequently, those in the final stages of planning a rampage state a desire to do it “better” than their predecessors—which generally means killing even more people.
Fully embellished pathological fantasies are often rationalized by a distorted sense of what is just, something that sociologist and violence researcher Jack Katz of the University of California, Los Angeles, terms “righteous slaughter.” Castillo apparently felt that murdering his father was a way to right past wrongs done to his family. In a videotaped statement, the young man angrily recounts his father slapping his mother, along with him and his sister, on the head, back and rear—hitting at the camera as he speaks to it. It is not clear to what extent the abuse was real, but Castillo seemed to believe it was reason enough to kill.