Why do people kill each other? It’s a question that I think about, perhaps too often. Greed, jealousy, revenge? To solve a sticky relationship problem — such as unwanted spouses who won’t go away on their own. Or maybe to end a loved one’s suffering? For the greater good? The crowded lifeboat debate. But the other question is why are so many others so curious about the subject? It’s not really a pleasant subject.
I know that eating too many Pepperidge Farms Chesapeake cookies is unhealthy and that to outsmart myself I must never buy more than one bag at a time. I feel similarly about my diet of crime fiction, especially on Saturday when, because I’m an anti-social curmudgeon, I binge on true crime as served by “48 Hours,” “Dateline,” and “20/20.” The long, drawn-out dramas chronicling human sadness cannot be that healthful for the brain. But just as carrots and kale cannot satisfy certain hungers, neither can mind-improving or soul-lifting drama cure the apparent need for the seamy side of life.
For the most part, I’m not talking about wars or terrorism, or even the collateral damage of an armed robbery, though understanding the murderous psyche might help us there, but murders of a personal nature, where, in some fashion, victim and perpetrator know each other or in instances when the driving force behind the murder is mysterious in and of itself.
Murder. Movies are made of this. True-life murders are a staple of small-screen, low-budget, but often riveting productions. They show how dilemmas in the ordinary lives of ordinary people ratchet into irretrievable acts of violence. The big-screen nonfiction dramas are usually about people we all know because the media was obsessed with the crime or the people involved, or because it reflects a larger theme.
|From the film, Swoon|
The court proceedings for two young men, Leopold and Loeb, for the murder of a young student Bobby Franks in 1924, was billed as the “trial of the century.” The kidnappers and victim were children of exceedingly wealthy parents. Loeb, obsessed with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, had latched onto an interpretation of the “superman principle,” that if you are smart enough, you are not bound by the laws designed for ordinary humans. Loeb thought of himself smart enough and convinced Leopold, follower and lover, to commit the perfect crime. It wasn’t perfect, apparently. The boys were on their way to an almost certain death penalty. The most famous American attorney of this or any time, Clarence Darrow represented the defense. Scandalous for its homosexual overtones, the trial of he century was also one of the nation’s mot important trials because of the capital punishment implications as well as its philosophical “superman” backdrop. The Leopold & Loeb trial was made for the cinema. The story inspired three major films — Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Compulsion with Orson Welles, and Swoon, which had spelled out the story’s gay component, intentionally downplayed in previous versions.
|From the film, Reversal of Fortune|
Later, actor Jeremy Irons portrayed the social climbing Claus Von Bulow in another torrid trial concerning the death of Von Bulow’s wealthy, high-society wife, Sunny. Von Bulow was successfully defended by celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz and was made into the movie, Reversal of Fortune. The film was was a hit and Irons earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of the ice-cold Von Bulow, who had well more than his 15 minutes of fame.
In the 1950s, the murder of Dr. Sam Sheppard’s pregnant wife dominated the media. The surgeon claimed he was struck and knocked unconscious, but that he saw the murderer in a long coat leaving the scene of the crime. The story was splashed all over the tabloids and the mainstream media followed. Sheppard was eventually acquitted with help of media favorite attorney, F. Lee Bailey. Though no one claimed it was Sheppard’s story there is little doubt the crime and the mystery surrounding it inspired the incredibly popular film, The Fugitive, and the successful TV series also bearing that name.
|From the TV series, The Fugiive|
There are other films based on real-life murders. The lesser known Prick Up Your Ears — a film based on the book of the same name— tells the story of naughty British playwright Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, his lover and sometimes writing partner, who hammered Orton to death before killing himself in their claustrophobically tiny apartment, a room almost too small for one.
Why has always been the most important question of the journalistic “w’s” for me. I’m told I drove my elementary school teachers crazy with that question. I continue. Again, I’m not talking about wars, revolutions or drive-bys. That’s a good question as well. But mine is: Why do people kill people one-on-one? Is there any unified theory explaining why people do this? They seem to rarely get away with it. Perhaps there is no simple answer. However, I’d like to propose one.
Self-preservation. Not necessarily self-defense as we understand it; but self-preservation in the broadest sense. Preserving the self can include doing what’s necessary to preserve one’s perception of self or pursuing the self as one wants to perceive it or be perceived by others. In the case of Von Bulow, we have a fellow who grew up in the shadow of wealth and privilege, yet always dependent upon another for his station in life. His family served the wealthy. He served Jean Paul Getty as an assistant. He married into wealth and privilege, but was always privilege’s husband. He was acquitted of attempted murder by insulin injection, (his wife lived on in a coma). The young, handsome, respected Dr. Sheppard was about to have a child, which would have inhibited any choice to live a more adventurous life perhaps an alternate fantasy during a mid-life crisis to that of a quiet, reserved family man, bound by the conventions of that status. After acquittal, the good doctor became a professional wrestler.
Did Leopold and Loeb have to prove to themselves that they were smarter than anyone else to justify their belief they occupied a rarefied space superior to that of ordinary mortals? It wasn’t a matter of preservation of the body, the physical self, but that special place they thought they occupied. They failed miserably. The irony is that if they had achieved or were deserving of the “superman,” or “overman” label as Nietzsche defined it, they would never have sought it or felt the need to prove it. The death of Bobby Franks was completely senseless. The trial itself wasn’t one of guilt or innocence. The evidence was clear. The boys confessed. No perfect crime for them. Darrow’s job wasn’t easy but the goal was simple: to prevent the two self-proclaimed geniuses from being sentenced to death. He did, though Loeb was stabbed to death in prison. Leopold was eventually paroled and surprisingly made serious contributions to humanity in ways Nietzsche might have actually recognized as the work of the Overman he described.
|From the film, Prick Up Your Ears|
Why did Halliwell kill Orton? They were partners/lovers, co-conspirators in life. Because their identities were intertwined and for Halliwell interdependent. Orton’s success pulled his friend into the spotlight. Soon it was not Orton and Halliwell, but Orton and his increasingly nameless friend, and then Orton. Only Orton. Orton further threatened their shared identity by going his own way not only as a writer, but by eventually finding another lover. What did that leave Halliwell? They died together, within moments of each other. Was Halliwell not trying to protect himself despite the fact he was the man with the hammer and the overdose? For Halliwell, perhaps it wasn’t murder-suicide, but only suicide. Hadn’t he, in his perception, only killed himself for his failure to achieve a self?
Certainly self-preservation is built in. We will do everything we can to save our own lives. Most would do all they can to save the lives of loved ones. One can make the case that we could not live with ourselves if we didn’t. I think that instinct, at least for us humans who are self-conscious and who try to create meaning for why we live, is basic to understanding why we kill. On the surface, it may be that someone disrespected us, stole from us, had something (money, position, love) that we felt was necessary for our survival that provides motive. But the base need always relates to survival of the self as we define it or understand it to be. At least that’s the theory.