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

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.

Distorted Thoughts
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.

Even so, Castillo wanted to be known as more than a father killer. Near the end of his final video segment, he announced: "It's time to teach history a lesson." That is where the school shooting came in. Castillo wanted to be remembered as a shooter in the tradition of Harris and Klebold. Just before the teenager was taken away from the school grounds in a police car, he yelled out to the cameras, "Columbine! Remember Columbine! Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold!"

For their part, Harris and Klebold seemed to have had more sinister motivations, with fantasies of malevolent grandeur that Katz categorizes as "primordial evil." In their diaries, published in July 2006, they painted themselves as gods who wished to be feared, not loved. One year before the killings, Klebold wrote in his school yearbook, "My wrath... will be godlike." As gods, Klebold and Harris felt they stood above society and were beyond its control--and laws. And to demonstrate their "omnipotence," they became masters of life and death.

Cho may have been trying to defend a similarly overwrought and distorted sense of morality. In his video Cho denounced materialism and hedonism, and in a note police found in his room he condemned "rich kids," perhaps suggesting that his murders were an attempt to get back at privileged people. In another video, he hinted that he would become a martyr akin to Jesus Christ, musings that echo the grander fantasies of Klebold and Harris.

Cries for Help
Although adolescents may at first hide their destructive fantasies out of fear of rejection, over time they may increasingly feel a need to express them. Bosse, for example, created drawings and poems and dropped hints of his plans in conversations. Like some other emotionally disturbed youth, Bosse cried for help. In an online forum two years before his shooting spree he wrote: "I am gorging on my entire rage, and one of these days I'm going to let it out and get revenge on all the assholes who made my life miserable.... For those of you who haven't gotten it yet: yes, I'm going to go on a rampage! I don't know what's the matter with me, I don't know what to do, please help me."

A few hours before his rampage, Bosse e-mailed a scanned copy of his diary to several schoolmates and wrote in a suicide note: "Because I know that the fascist police won't publish my videos, notebooks, or diaries or anything else, I've taken care of that myself."

In some cases, a youth may alert the media to his plans. At Virginia Tech, Cho unleashed two shooting sprees separated by two and a half hours. During that intermission, the young killer mailed a package of homemade videos, photographs and writings to NBC News. Castillo sent a video to a local newspaper in which he vented his rage and hinted that he was planning a massacre at his former school.

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

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