This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Gun Violence and Gun Control in the U.S.

Deadly Dreams: What Motivates School Shootings? [Preview]

After a recent spate of school shootings, researchers are analyzing the malignant fantasies of young assassins for warning signs that could help prevent future tragedies

Seeds of Violence
Fantasies and dreams often stimulate productive human activity. They also drive the healthy psychological development of children and adolescents, making possible prospective, or "wishful," thinking and creativity. So it is normal for an adolescent boy to escape into reveries about lovemaking with his girlfriend during an acutely boring class in school.

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.

Evolving Apparitions
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.

This article was originally published with the title "Deadly Dreams."

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