In the 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, a horde of rising zombies kills seven individuals in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. Two years earlier, in real life, a zombie fatally stabbed and strangled eight student nurses in a Chicago townhouse. His name was Richard Speck.
While Speck was not a re-animated human corpse in the mode of modern Hollywood depictions, he was, in a very real sense, one of the walking dead—a person who is physically alive, but emotionally, socially, and morally dead. Even 22 years after the murders, when asked how he felt about them, Speck sneered: "Like I always felt . . . had no feeling. If you're asking me if I felt sorry, no." With soulless detachment, he went on to describe the process of strangulation: "It's not like TV . . . it takes over three minutes and you have to have a lot of strength."
Night of the Living Dead proved to be a groundbreaking film in the horror genre. Zombies, which until then had been depicted as living persons enslaved through the power of black magic, were recast in this film as insatiable cannibals raised from the dead. Numerous spinoffs followed, as well as a raft of slasher films in the 1970s and 1980s, whose villains were zombie-like. Think, Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers.
In a similar way, the Chicago townhouse murders marked the rise of what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls the "spectacular rampage murder." According to Brooks, from 1913 to about 1970, there were no more than two of these types of murders per decade worldwide. After that, the number shot up to nine in the 1980s, eleven in the 1990s, and twenty-six in the past decade.2 Since July 2012, when Brooks wrote his analysis, there have been a half-dozen more, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December.
Clearly, the rise in such killings could not happen without the rise of a certain type of killer: a socially isolated person who, psychotherapist Dr. Paul Hannig declares, "can't feel the normal range of human emotions" and has lost "all sense of normal morality and impulse control."3 Think Cho Seung-hui, James Holmes, Adam Lanza . . . zombies.
Whereas Hollywood movie zombies kill to satisfy their hunger, the real-life rampage murderer kills, says Dr. Hannig, in the belief that mass murder is "the solution to his problems." He imagines that the spectacle of his crime will bring wide attention to the injustices he has had to bear. Through mass murder, he will assert his grievances and accomplish what he has failed to accomplish thus far: "to be heard, understood, and accepted."
But whether fictional zombies or real-life murderers, such persons represent something the Apostle Paul warned would characterize the latter days: people "without natural affection" or, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, who are "inhuman" (2 Timothy 3:1–9). They are not inhuman in the sense of "sub-human" or animalistic, however, but in the sense of "counter-human"—that is, these individuals are set against humanity and even their own humanness, often to the point of taking their own life after taking the lives of others.
Over sixty years ago, Albert Camus wrote a novel about what well could be the proto-"counter-human." He titled the book The Stranger, an apt reference to the central character, Meursault.... Continue reading here.