"From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee" (Captain Ahab)

    Mass murder is the killing of three, four, or more persons in roughly the same place within a short period of time.  Four is the FBI minimum, but some experts use a minimum of three.  There is presumably no "cooling-off" period, which means there is usually not a high level of preconceived planning (at least in terms of escape), but there is some planning, which can be days, weeks, or months in advance.  There may or may not be some mental fantasy re-enacted, and the crime is basically committed out of strong passions or emotions.  There is no scientific evidence that violent entertainment or violent video games are causally associated with mass murder (Fox & DeLateur 2014).  Motives vary, but the most common one is revenge (not against the victims).   Second most common is the need for fame and recognition (often called a power motive).  Still others may be ideologically or politically motivated (often called a loyalty or terror motive).  In a minority of cases, a suicide note or other document is left behind to explain the murderer's motivation.  If captured, a mass murderer will usually show no remorse or regret, usually expressing a casual attitude that the victims "just happened" to get in the way, or that "people die; get over it."  It is the perfect example of what Freudians call displacement -- taking out your anger and frustration on someone who is NOT the cause of your anger or frustration.  Healy & Bronner (1931) were the last criminologists to thoroughly study displacement, and they found the root cause to be a "broken home," but that phrase became politically incorrect over the years.  While telltale signs of mental problems exist, they are extremely difficult to discern beforehand because they are the kinds of symptoms that are somewhat prevalent among the general population.      

    According to FBI data, about 20 mass murders occur every year.  The rate is not increasing or decreasing.  In fact, it is one of the most stable crime rates among all types of crime.  Here are some classic examples.  On September 6, 1949, Howard Unruh walked through Camden, New Jersey and gunned down 13 people within 12 minutes.  On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman began a rampage from the Clock Tower on the University of Texas campus, killing 13 people and wounding another 31.  He had killed his mother and wife just before beginning his slaughter at the university.  Also in August of 1966, Robert Smith killed five beauty college students in Mesa, Arizona.  Also during 1966, Richard Speck killed 8 nursing students in Chicago, Illinois In July 1984, James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people and wounded another 19 in a McDonald's Restaurant in San Diego, California.  On August 19, 1987, Michael Ryan killed 15 people and wounded another 15 in Hungerford, England.  In 1989 Marc Lepine killed 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Quebec, Canada.  In July, 1999, Mark Barton, a daytrader, shot and killed 9 people at two Atlanta day trading firms. During 2002, Luke Helder became the "Smiley Face Bomber" across five states.  In April 2007, Cho Seung-Hui, shot and killed 32 students and wounded another 30 injured at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. In May of 2010 the national news media reported at least three different cases of mass murder in China.  In July of 2012, James Eagan Holmes dressed up in tactical gear and shot up a movie theater in Colorado.  In December of 2012, Adam Lanza shot up an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.  These kinds of incidents, and many more like them, illustrate the reality that mass killings have become a regular feature of our culture, and are international in scope (see Wiki list of rampage killers worldwide).  "No society, no city, no culture, and no country may claim a special immunity from their occurrence" (Turvey 2008).

    These events, which we call mass murder, mass homicide, or spree killings, seem to have increased in the last half century.  Another term "going postal" has come to mean going on a killing rampage because of several incidents by present or past employees of the U.S. Postal Service.  "Theorists believe that a breakdown in social controls during the past three or four decades has undermined the inhibitions that ordinarily keep a person from acting on the impulse to kill" (Flaherty 1992:5)   Bartol (1991) calls these cases "multiple murders."  He breaks multiple murders into three categories: (1) serial murder; (2) mass murder; and (3) spree murder.  Serial murder occurs when an individual kills a number of individuals, usually three or more, over a period of time.  Mass murder occurs with the killing of a number of individuals in one occurrence, usually at one location.  Spree murder involves a number of killings at two or more locations with almost no time between the murders (Bartol 1991:225-6).  Many cases that we call mass murder are technically cases of spree murder, but the distinction is cloudy.  Turvey (1999) gets around it by saying "the phrase mass homicide is generally defined as the murder of three or more victims during a single event at one or more associated locations." But Turvey (1999:507) is also careful to explain the difference between mass homicide and genocide, in that genocide is "the deliberate and organized killing of large groups of people who are distinguished by their personal, political, and religious beliefs, their nationality, or their ethnicity."  Holmes and Holmes (2000) attest that the definition of mass murder has four components:

    The collection of general statistics and characteristics about mass murderers is informative.  We find that the mass murderer is almost always male, almost always White, and is in his 20's or 30's.  He loves weapons, particularly guns, is a loner with no friends and few acquaintances, may be a drifter with no responsibilities, and probably has no criminal record or any lengthy history of mental treatment.  The mass murderer has festering "real or imagined grievances, frustrations, disappointments, and outrages done to him by others over a long period of time" (Flaherty 1992:5).  According to Lunde and Morgan (1980), most mass murderers are psychotic and probably qualify for a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict.  Their motivation is often for no apparent reason at all, or sometimes for an apparent but perverse (often sexual) or private reason.  Mass murderers are usually not under the influence of any intoxicant during the episode.  They don't need to be under the influence because in their minds, their self is already dead (society has destroyed it).  They rarely know their victims, but their choice of victims is usually not random or coincidental (at least in their mind).  In their mind, the victims represent people they are envious of (Klein 1975) in the sense that the victims are seen as purposely having withheld something the offender wanted.  Some select victims possessing certain attributes; i.e., there are some significant physical, social, or psychological feature about the victims that attract the offender (Bartol 1991).  It may be noted that Huberty disliked Hispanics and children.  Robert Smith detested women.  Seung-Hui Cho hated snobs.  A triggering event may occur which is the final blow which sets the mass murderer off and causes the onslaught.  The triggering event may be a loss of job, being spurned by a woman, or something similar (usually an economic or academic crisis of some sort).  On the other hand, there may be no triggering event other than what is going on inside the mind of the offender.  It is difficult to determine motives in these incidents as they seem to be based on psychologically rewards known only to the offender.

    Turvey (2008) does an excellent job in presenting a statistical analysis of the mass murderer.  He cautions, however, that statistics only give a probability of characteristics or traits and can sometimes be misleading.  His goal is to determine behavioral evidence in relation to these offenders.  He cites four studies which are often cited in other texts on the subject matter.  He first cites Hickey (2009) who determined that mass murderers have four basic characteristics.

The research of Fox and Levin (2005) found that most mass murderers have the following characteristics:

Hempel et al. found the following characteristics of mass murderers.  They are generally:

Gray et al. studied adolescent mass murderers and found the following characteristics:

    The following typology of mass murderers was presented by Turvey (2008:510).  The types were  grouped according to the variables of motivation, crime scene types, and victim selection by Fox and Levin (2005), who used the five categories of power, revenge, loyalty, terror, and profit.

1.  The mass murderer has a thirst for power and control, often dresses in battle fatigues and has a passion for symbols of power, including assault weapons.
2.  The mass killer seeks revenge against either against specific individuals, particular categories or groups of individuals, or society at large.  Most commonly, he seeks to get even with people he knows such as family or the boss and other employees.  
3.  The mass murderer kills due to a warped sense of love and loyalty, a desire to save their loved ones from misery and hardship.  Typically it is a husband/father who is despondent over the fate of the family unit.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Manson family, the murders are done by a cult group being obedient to their charismatic leader.

    Holmes and Holmes (1994) call multiple murders, either serial, mass or spree, "multicides."  They note that it is difficult to put the pieces together as to causes because the perpetrators usually die at the scene either by suicide or after being killed by police.  In reference to the motivations for mass killings, Holmes and Holmes (1994) indicate that those motivations may be either intrinsic, occurring within the offender, or extrinsic, involving factors outside the offender.  Their typology is similar to those offered by others mentioned above, but with different names.  The follows the dictates of a charismatic leader.  This motivation, then, is outside the killer, or is extrinsic.  The Family Annihilator kills his entire family at one time, and may even kill the family pet.  The motivation for the Family Annihilator is intrinsic, inside the offender.  The mass killer is preoccupied with revenge and weaponry, often harboring a warrior mentality.  This person may stockpile various weapons, ranging from ordinary knives to hand grenades.  The motivation for this offender is intrinsic and fantasy-driven.  The Disgruntled Employee may have been dismissed from a job, denied a promotion, have received some disciplinary action, or suffered some other perceived wrong.  The motivation is intrinsic in an effort to "right a wrong."  The mass killer sometimes operates for revenge, sometimes for a profit, and sometimes just is seeking infamy.  The motivations for this type of killer vary widely and may be either intrinsic or extrinsic.  These types are explained more fully below:

    DISCIPLE --- This type follows the commands of a charismatic leader, like the followers of Charles Manson. They fall under the "spell" of the leader, and desire nothing more than to please their leader. Victim selection is usually random or has some symbolic meaning known only to the leader. Spatial mobility is a possibility, but usually the murders are committed fairly near the location of the leader. Weapons of choice are usually hand weapons, but poison, nerve gas, biologicals, and other weapons of mass destruction are also possible. Rarely is the disciple dispatched on a suicide mission as the whole point is to live to strike again. Gang initiation and cult loyalty killings fall into this category.

    ANNIHILATOR --- This type exhibits the most mental problems and typically launches into a burst of violence against those who share his home. Usually, it's the oldest male child in the family who exhibits some early warning signs of bizarre behavior. They then kill everyone in the family at one time, even the family pet. They often commit suicide afterwards or are shot to death once police arrive. They may lie in wait for when more family members are expected to visit, or they may travel some distance to kill relatives who live away. Strangers are usually spared as victims of this attacker. Whatever reasons they have for their behavior is unknown.

    DISGRUNTLED EMPLOYEE --- This type is often a former employee or someone about to lose their job. They are sometimes on medical or mental disability leave. They appear to enter and move around the workplace with a target in mind, but they almost always kill randomly and indiscriminately as they wander about. Often, this type has been a long-term employee, but it can be a new employee too. It's believed they are lashing out at some perceived unfairness, although lax management can be just as much involved as strict management.

    PSEUDOCOMMANDO --- This type is usually a stockpiler of guns, assault rifles, grenades, and other exotic weapons. Their attack is usually the result of careful planning and a desire to lash out against the world which is "not right" in some way. Victims are usually selected at random, and this type of offender may be quite geographically mobile. It's believed that something about the social world these offenders inhabit may be criminogenic, but gun collecting in itself is not to be construed as any warning sign.  Knoll (2010) notes that this type usually progresses thru a revenge fantasy, a hero fantasy, and then a death fantasy (the obliterative state of mind) where they must absolutely "wipe out" or destroy others who are enjoying the things that they cannot have.  They keep a running tally of all the mistreatments they've experienced at the hands of others.  They often verbalize an outburst, like "Death awaits you" or "Have a Nice Day" at the beginning of the mass murder (Hempel et al. 1999).  They are often copycats because if they are captured alive, they will admit they were inspired by others as well hoped to inspire others (Mullen 2004).

    SET AND RUN KILLER --- This type appears to be motivated by a desire to "go down in infamy" because they will, for example, claim to have a bomb or explosive device left somewhere and/or attached to themselves and threaten to blow themselves up and as many people with them in a crowded location.  However, they will always have, consciously or unconsciously, made an escape plan. They are called set-and-run killers because it has been discovered that their true intent, most of the time, is not suicide, but to set or plant the device somewhere on a timer and then be removed (run) from the scene when the explosion goes off. They have some similarities to the serial arsonist in this regard. Another variation is product tampering. This type of offender may inject or insert poison into products on the shelves of grocery stores, although the motivation in this case could be a grudge against some company's product.

A Close-Up Look at Revenge Fantasies

     Revenge involves the harboring or collection of perceived acts of injustice. It is the typical response to narcissistic injury, and different from other emotions, it calls the person experiencing it to take action. Indeed, there is a feeling of sacred obligation that action must be taken to obtain the taste of "sweet payback."  Revenge fantasies form when a person rationalizes that "payback" is the only heroic or honorable thing to do. There are no spiritual or social aspects to the restoration of justice sought, as the fantasy only involves some kind of "primal" sensation -- that the whole of a person's self (body and mind) must be committed to this action. In the meantime, further acts of injustice are noticed and accumulated, resulting in an escalation of hate into a kind of nihilistic self-hate. By this point, the revenge-driven offender will either seek help (depression and suicide being seen as the only outlet) or lash out in an effort to avoid what is within. However, as Knoll (2010) points out, it is more likely the nihilism grows into an "obliterative state of mind" which desires to blot out or destroy everything (anything) that is good, beautiful, or represents humanity in general. Nihilism, of course, means nothing matters; everything is utterly intolerable; all is miserable.  Empathy doesn't help. Such individuals wish to destroy everything; embrace nothingness.    


    The notion that mass murder is motivated by the desire to "go down in infamy" or to achieve some kind of sensationalistic, news media coverage is known as the "Herostratos Syndrome" (Borowitz 2005).  It is discussed more at length in the Lecture on Suicide Terrorism, but here, it seems to closely fit a number of cases where the murderer's desire for self-glorification coincides with a certain amount of jealousy over another party's notoriety.   For Hinckley it was something in the movie "Taxi Driver."  For Chapman, it was the Beatles.  For Holmes, it was the character Joker in the Batman movie series.  Regardless of the object of comparison (or emulation), the ultimate goal is to aggrandize the self by doing something spectacularly evil. 

    Why people choose to engage in spectacular evil probably has more to do with lure of the spectacular than the temptations of evil.  After all, most of the mass murderers who succumb to this kind of behavior are practically well-behaved "honor students" prior to the horrendous act.  They have never before chosen evil.  Their thinking process in terms of what's bothering them is severely distorted because a certain constellation of pains and possible pleasures (fantasies) dominate their thoughts.  The pains are usually very real; e.g., economic problems, relationship problems, etc. -- so real, in fact, that they are not just overwhelming, but mentally exaggerated to the point that the only "escape" is a completely ridiculous and fantastic escape of spectacular proportions.  This condition of "fantastic thinking" bears a close resemblance to the delusional aspects of paranoid schizophrenia where the person envisions themselves as being a superstar.  Culture plays a role in this by encouraging the superstar aspiration.  The only good deterrent for such a thing is to deny such people access to the history books.  A long, long time ago, one of the world's first historians told a story about a person who burned down one of the seven wonders of the world (the Temple of Diana) so that "his name shall live forever."  The historian's account went like this:  "I know his name, but will not write it."  


    Workplace violence has some of the characteristics of mass murder in that the offender is usually seen as some crazy, disgruntled employee ("snapping" or "going postal"), and regardless if the offender is crazy or not, this kind of crime is most certainly atypical.  Threats occur more often than acts of violence (but about 1,000 workers are murdered in the workplace every year), and in many cases, the grudge is against the organization or bureaucracy (rather than a specific target).  In other cases, there are diverse reasons stemming from some obsessive factor related to the workplace (O'Connor 1997).  When strong obsessive compulsive factors are present, the offending pattern more closely resembles serial murder than mass murder.  Psychosis is not typically present.  The following rank order of characteristics and most common locations (domains) exists:

Violent Employees:

Employment Domains:

1. History of Violence 1. Transportation Hubs
2. Psychosis and/or Projection 2. Tavern/Liquor Stores
3. Romantic Obsession 3. Convenience Stores
4. Chemical Dependence 4. Fast Food Restaurants
5. Depression 5. Government Offices
6. Pathological Blaming 6. Business Offices
7. Impaired Neurology 7. Administrative Offices
8. Elevated Frustration 8. Police Stations
9. Interest in Weapons 9. Postal Stations
10. Personality Disorder 10. Educational Institutions

    According to FBI and ASIS research (Romano et. al. 2010), workplace violence is evolutionary, which is to say there are always warning signs like brooding or odd writings or drawings.  In other words, offenders do not suddenly "snap" without antecedent, perceived provocation.  However, the science of detecting warning signs is far from perfect.  Pre-incident indicators generally fall into one of two categories: (1) signs of emotional or psychological distress; and (2) minor acts of overt violence that may have taken place outside of the workplace but may spill over into the workplace.  No single indicator or type of indicator is suggestive in and of itself, as the best indicators come in clusters or sets.  The detection of these clusters or sets depends upon the vigilance of co-workers.  There are two points that co-workers reach: (1) the action point - where co-workers feel compelled to talk to or "check in" on the troubled employee; and (2) the flash point - where co-workers have mostly given up, don't report their suspicions, and assume someone else is reporting the employee.  Ultimately, it's the mind-set of co-workers which is the best determinant of workplace violence.  Motive only comes into play if an when the offender turns out to be a hostage taker (rather than active shooter) since hostage takers tend to have substantive motives.  Romano et. al. (2010) present the following typology of workplace violent offenders:

     Many of the motivations are unclear, and there's tremendous controversy over what constitutes the proper "warning signs."  Events are unpredictable and evolve quickly.  Prevention as well as police response tactics are areas and issues that deserve greater consideration, particularly the tactic of first response which holds that when responders first arrive, they are not there to evacuate or attend to the injured; they are there to STOP THE SHOOTER.  Injured victims encountered by responders on the scene would do well to remain calm, keep their hands visible, and avoid pointing or yelling.  More often than not, mass murderers tend to target particular victims to avenge perceived injustices, but then, of course, there are random and indiscriminate patterns.  In almost all cases, innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire.  The more random the pattern, the more likely the perceived injustice is small and insignificant.  Mass murder has been around longer historically and in more societies than serial murder.  In comparison to serial killers who are usually apprehended, sent to prison, and can be interviewed, the mass murderer usually ends up taking their own life or is killed by police ("suicide by cop").  About the only way to get more scientific information would be by conducting "psychological autopsies" or speculating about similarities between cases.  Community reaction is also different. As opposed to serial killers who instill lingering horror and lasting interest, society tends to get briefly shocked by mass murder and then returns to normal.  Of course, some workplaces and locales never seem to get over it.  In 2012, DHS and ReadyHouston released a public service announcement on how to survive a mass shooting incident.  Their suggestions revolved around three things that can make a difference: RUN, HIDE, or FIGHT:

1. If there is an escape path, attempt to evacuate
2. Evacuate whether others agree to or not
3. Leave your belongings behind
4. Help others escape if possible
5. Prevent others from entering the area
6. Call 911 when you are safe
1. Lock or blockade the door
2. Turn off lights and silence your cell phone
3. Try to hide behind large objects
4. Do not trap yourself or restrict your options for movement
5. Remain very quiet  

FIGHT (as a last resort)
1. Improvise weapons
2. Commit to taking the shooter down, no matter what
3. Act with physical aggression
4. Attempt to incapacitate the shooter

    Pre-attack school shooting behavior is detectable and knowable, according to the Secret Service (Vossekuil et al. 2001), who studied 37 cases between 1974 and 2000.  Prior to such an attack, the perpetrator is very likely to communicate their intent, in some way or fashion, to just about anybody, except anyone associated with the intended targets or place of planned attack.  It's almost as if the perpetrator is playing a coy game of some sort whereby they are seeing if "the rest of society" really cares about the safety of others or some distal location "under the radar" because it's so taken for granted.  Most school shooters also have a history of suicidal attempt or ideation, have been "bullied, persecuted, or injured" by others prior to an attack, and have been unable to cope with some "significant loss or personal failure."  Many have had experience with firearms prior to the attack.  The key to controlling or preventing school shooting may or may NOT lie in constructing profiles.  There are no good standard profiles of a school shooter.  The key to prevention lies in getting those who "hear" the pre-attack planning to take some intervention, and most likely this will involve the one and only adult that the potential shooter shares their plan with, rather than the dozen or more peers that the plan is usually shared with.     

Differences Between Mass Murderers and Serial Killers
List of Mass and Spree Murders by Number of Victims
Stories About Mass and Spree Murders
The Wacky World of Mass Murder: Case Histories

Wikipedia Article on Mass Murder

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Last updated: Jan. 15, 2014
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