In season two of Opacity Zero we are going to explore what drives some of us to actions most of us can’t even begin to imagine. What makes someone a serial killer or a mass shooter? Does anyone or anything make you something? Or are some of us simply natural born killers? Welcome to episode I — Fear No Evil.


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To my Family, Friends and all the Amazing People who keep downloading, listening and supporting Opacity Zero, THANK YOU. To Peter Vronsky, thanks for your really interesting, well researched and fearless book — it helped me to finally tackle this topic. To my Hubby, I love you. To all the talented artists at soundsnap, thanks for creating fantastic sounds that help me turn words into emotions.

This is Opacity Zero, a show about challenging the unknown with curiosity. I am Melanie Heymans and I am really excited to welcome you back to season two — Natural Born Killers.

If this is your first episode, well hello there and thanks so much for joining us, I really hope you are gonna enjoy the show. If you are one of Opacity Zero’s loyal fans out there, thanks for stopping by again, I missed you.

In season two we are going to explore what drives some of us to actions most of us can’t even begin to imagine. What makes someone a serial killer or a mass shooter? Does anyone or anything make you something? Or are some of us simply natural born killers? Here is episode one — Fear no Evil

“He was a handsome, athletic, well-spoken young man. He was unfailingly polite and popular, and appeared caring and concerned to those in his proximity. He was educated, sophisticated, and well mannered, a graduate with a university degree in psychology. He had plenty of friends of different ages and romantic relationships with women. Many other women considered him their trusted friend and confidant. An elderly women he befriended described him as a “lovable rascal.” Another woman, a former police officer who would become America’s leading true-crime writer and who coincidentally knew him, described him as having “old-world gallantry.” He had worked as a suicide counselor at a phone-in crisis clinic and had been recently admitted into law school in Seattle. The state government hired him as a crime-control consultant and he even wrote a rape-prevention handbook for women. He was a hardworking volunteer for the Republican Party, an often invited dinner guest, and a popular date, and was considered by his elders as somebody worth grooming for a possible future as a state governor, perhaps even president. He was a necrophiliac who kidnapped, murdered, raped and mutilated, in that order, twenty college-age women over a period of sixteen months. At one point he kept four of their heads in his apartment. He burned the head of another in his girlfriend’s fireplace. His name was Theodore Bundy.”

With this chilling introduction Peter Vronsky, an investigative journalist and documentary producer, opens his book Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. Over the next 383 pages Vronsky guides his readers through the history of serial murder, the evolution, the different classifications and the art and science of criminal profiling. As I was reading through these captivating yet often terrifying and disturbing pages earlier this year, one question came back to me over and over again: Are people who commit acts so far beyond general human explanation and understanding evil, insane or both?

In order to answer that question I thought it might be helpful to get a better understanding of these two concepts starting out with evil in episode one and exploring what does evil really mean? Where does it come from? How has it evolved over the course of its existence? And is it still or has it ever been a valid concept?

The word evil is generally defined as describing something that is profoundly immoral and malevolent. If you are like me this definition might throw you off a little cause how can we define a concept with two other concepts that are not clearly defined, as in profoundly immoral and malevolent. Well, during my research for this season I learned pretty quickly that more specific definitions of evil and the analysis of its root motives and causes vary widely amongst groups, cultures, societies and religions. One thing that most definitions seem to have in common though is that evil is not really used to simply describe something bad or wrong, it somehow goes beyond that. Think about it for a second, I am sure you can come up with something bad or wrong that you have done this week, I sure can. I ate too much sugar, I kinda almost ran a light, I told my fair share of white lies and I could go on like this for quite a while. But if you ask me about something evil that I have done last week something changes and I am not really sure I could or would want to come up with something. Do you feel similarly?

Evil seems to add a quite serious layer to wrongdoing, and I was wondering why that is. If we look back at the definition of evil, the concept of morality seems to play quite a role in it — remember, evil equals profoundly immoral. Now we generally define morality as some code of conduct agreed upon by a society or group that defines what is right and what is wrong and this code is generally accepted by and applies to all members of this group. It’s basically a human made system that encourages behavior that facilitates group cohesion and discourages behavior that would disrupt, endanger or maybe even destroy the group.

And still, being morally responsible, or doing the right thing, often requires effort. That’s simply due to the fact that many moral standards go against our evolved inclinations and require us to be altruistic. I know there are many kind and selfless people out there and I definitely don’t want to make the claim that we are all completely self-centered but if you think about it from an evolutionary perspective altruism might not always be the best strategy, so there are times when we would prefer to do the wrong thing out of self-interest, if we knew we could get away with it.

So going back to being profoundly immoral, is that what evil is then? Doing the wrong thing and hoping you can get away with it? Doing the wrong thing and not caring if you get away with it? Doing the wrong thing and even enjoying it? Maybe but there still seems to be a huge difference between lying or stealing and kidnapping, murdering, raping and mutilating strangers. There must be more to evil than simply breaking the morality contract.

Historically the concept of evil or at least its origin seems tightly related to religion and mythology and begins thousands of years ago with an attempt to explain how pain, misery and destruction — back then often in the form of natural disasters — could exist in a world that was believed to be created and ruled by an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good higher power.

Early non-secular attempts tried to explain that contradiction through describing the universe as a product of an ongoing battle between good and evil forces or as evil being a lack of goodness not created by an all-good higher power. Over time humans began to personify all kinds of adverse circumstances or tragedy in order to deal with the anxiety that life and its risks and uncertainty brought about. If you think about it, that still holds very true today, coincidence, arbitrariness and ambiguity often scare us, and in order to deal with that fear we need to judge and categorize, we need a scapegoat, we need an explanation and if we lack that there is always the supernatural or the evil. A kind of funny and at the same time quite scary tidbit that I came across in my research is that 40% of all Americans believe in devils, demons and other superstitious concepts.

And then again that’s not that surprising considering that to this day within all religions pain, misery and destruction are represented by some form of supernatural force, like monsters, shadows, darkness or demons.

Even though one of the first purely secular theories of evil, offered by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, put the human and its will, morale and self-interest — in other words the evil that humans do — at the center of the “evil” conversation, a somewhat supernatural aspect remains even in those approaches.

Hannah Arendt, a political theorist, for example described evil as a form of wrongdoing which cannot be captured by moral concepts and is not done for humanly understandable motives.

I found this definition intriguing and it reminded me of how many news reports, political statements, opinion pieces and even personal conversations use the word evil to try to describe the actions and actors behind things that seem incomprehensible to us like mass shootings, terrorist attacks and serial murders. So I started to wonder, is evil unhuman? And if it is, what is it then?

Contemporary theories about evil generally focus on 5 different areas:

  • Wrongfulness
  • Harm
  • Motivation
  • Affect and
  • Responsibility

The first aspect, wrongfulness, defines that for an action to be evil it must be wrong. Well, that’s another quite tricky definition because what is wrong is not universally defined or accepted. On the contrary, what might be wrong to you might be very right to me and the other way around. Still as a society we follow a moral code that just like law applies within our group and defines to a certain extend what it right and what is wrong.

The second aspect, harm, indicates that evil actions must be harmful and that some form of serious and excessive suffering is needed to make an action evil.

The third aspect, motivation, specifies that an evil action requires a certain kind of motivation — a motivation to cause significant harm or suffering or the lack of motivation not to cause it.

The fourth aspect, affect, describes that in order to do evil we must feel a certain way or lack certain emotions at the time of acting — like feeling hate or lacking compassion for example.

The fifth and final aspect of evil, responsibility, describes that someone must be morally responsible in order to perform an evil action. This is further described as acting voluntarily, intending the victims suffering and the action must lack moral justification. This fifth aspect made me think of capital punishment, stand your ground laws, or wars — even though most societies deem murder morally wrong there are obviously situations in which we voluntarily intend someone’s death and feel morally justified to kill, which in these situations makes murder morally right, right?

In order to get a bit of a better understanding of these possible aspects of evil — again these are theories and not scientific facts — I tried to explore a few examples. Let’s look at two of them together.

Let’s say you bump into your neighbor and they invite you over to a little get-together that night but you don’t want to go because you are not that into your neighbor so instead of saying something like “You know I really don’t know you and I have no interest in changing that anytime soon” you say something like “Oh I would love to but I already have plans tonight…and so on and so on” — is that wrong? Yeah, cause you are lying. Does it cause harm? Most likely not. Is your motivation to cause harm or suffering? No, not really (on the contrary actually). Is it emotionally okay? Well you might lack some interest or empathy here but hey it’s nowhere near hate or rage. And last but not least, yes you are acting voluntarily but you are not intending anyones suffering AND at least in some western societies I would say you don’t lack morale justification for it. So to sum it up, is your lie evil? No, not as defined by contemporary theories.

Now lets up the ante and say you are living in a mutually agreed upon monogamous relationship and you are cheating on your partner — is that wrong? Yes, cause you are lying and betraying someone else’s trust. Are you causing harm? Yes, maybe not right now but should your partner find out you might be causing a lot of pain. Is your motivation to cause harm? Not necessarily, but do you lack motivation to not cause harm, I would say so. Are you feeling a certain way/lacking a certain emotion that causes you to cheat on your partner? I assume so. And last but not least, are you morally responsible for your cheating? I would say so. So in that case you would more or less meet all five aspects that contemporary theories around evil discuss — does that mean that cheating on your partner is evil? Well if so, then according to several independent studies more than 70% percent of us have committed an evil action.

Don’t get me wrong, I think cheating — in all its forms and variations is wrong — but I wouldn’t call it evil. So even though I can see how these 5 aspects play a role in the definition of evil they don’t really seem to do a good job defining it.

So can one really define evil? Even though historical and contemporary approaches to define evil give us a good understanding of where it comes from and how it has evolved I am still not sure if it is, or ever has been a valid concept, and if it makes sense to consider it when looking at extremely violent and disturbing behavior.

So to get a more scientific picture of evil let’s take a look at psychology and psychiatry. I am sure it doesn’t come as a big surprise that evil is not a scientific concept or term at all. What might be surprising though — it was for me — is that there seem to be at least two camps within the scientific community when it comes to evil — one that calls for a more scientific definition and the inclusion of the concept of evil in medical literature, diagnostics and the justice system, and one that heavily fights that and claims that evil has no place in science.

Even though the scientific community is not the only one disagreeing over the value and place of evil — within all groups, communities and societies there are evil-skeptics, evil-revivalists, and even moral-skeptics who are against all moral concepts — I feel the scientific community has made some very interesting points that really spoke to me, so here are just a few.

As we talked about earlier, evil is a humanly created concept that has, throughout our history been used to describe experiences, incidents and behaviors that defy scientific explanation and human understanding. This makes evil a quite subjective, relative and flexible moral concept that isn’t really quantifiable or measurable with science.

So why would some of us want or need a scientific definition of it? One reason might be that for evil to have any true legal relevance it would need to be defined and standardized. We, as a society, cannot and should not call or punish someone for being or doing evil without a clear and standardized definition of it.

Another possible reason might be our need to put a distance between us and those who commit what we consider evil actions or those who we consider evil, especially in harsher times. Historically societies tend to stiffen and strongly enforce or reinforce conformity and moral agreements during threats or times of trouble in order to protect the group. In these times it gets increasingly important to quickly identify threats and punish the immoral — a clear definition of the immoral, no matter how fraud, has continued to make that easier for us throughout human history. If we can put a label on evil we can judge it quickly and that makes it seemingly a lot easier to protect our group.

If we look at who or what we call evil as a society in less threatening times we can’t help but look to the extremes — mass murder, acts of terrorism, torture, serial murder or pedophilia. And even though for every one person who is killed in a mass shooting 2000 are killed in less infamous homicides, events like Columbine, Aurora, 9/11 or Sandy Hook stick with us forever and the word evil still feels like the only explanation we have got.

Interestingly that might actually say more about our society than it does about the people committing these acts or the acts themselves. Calling someone or something evil is a way of explaining or even justifying certain actions. Based on its origin and history evil clearly puts someone or something outside of the demarcation of being human and puts a hard border between us and them. Someone who is evil is perceived as being permanently beyond repair or human understanding and no effort toward trying to rehabilitate or reintegrate this person would be worth the risk. In a weird way this perspective relieves our guilt for punishment — if you think through human history we have often felt justified in committing horrible atrocities against individuals who we labeled evil. Even today, if we take capital punishment for example, wouldn’t it make it a lot harder to justify killing another human being if we believed that with medication, therapy or another approach we could fully rehabilitate and reintegrate a murderer?

I have been wondering about the concept of evil and its validity for many years and even though I am well aware that deviant and extremely violent behavior is still not well understood I feel that what we have discussed today has definitely made me doubt the validity or usefulness of the concept of evil, especially when it comes to people who committed acts of excessive intentional harm. It seems to me that we have been using the concept of evil mainly to describe things we don’t understand but how can we judge someone’s actions if we don’t understand their motivations?

“Terrifyingly normal” An exploration of biological, psychological and social forces in human acts that defy human understanding — next time on Opacity Zero.