Last night’s episode of Mad Men brought viewers to the summer of 1966, when Richard Speck murdered eight student nurses during an overnight killing spree in Chicago. The lone survivor, who’d successfully hidden under a bed, was able to assist the police to identify Speck and catch him. The entire country followed the story through newspapers, magazines, and news reports.
In the episode, the adult characters discuss the incident together, and a child, Sally Draper, overhears. She also sees the dramatic black headlines and cannot wait to get her hands on the newspaper to find out what’s so intriguing. But what she reads terrifies her.
During this era such events were rare, but two weeks after the Chicago incident, Charles Whitman shot numerous people from the clock tower in Austin, Texas, killing 16 and injuring 32. Three years later, Charles Manson sent his disciples on a sensational murder spree. Each incident launched massive media coverage, inevitably exposing children to the grim reality of random, cold-blooded murder.
I can remember when a serial killer was operating in my town. I was just old enough to read the papers, and the photo spreads of the victims and the depictions of cops gathered around something on the ground were too compelling to ignore. Friends of my family had discovered the first body, and I overheard them as they described the gruesome details of a sunbaked, mutilated, decomposed corpse. I’ll never forget those images.
Many parents hope to protect their children for as long as possible from awareness of such evil acts. Yet novels and TV shows for children and teens have grown increasingly darker, and access to the Internet provides a grim wonderland of tales and images. Some kids have become so intrigued with specific offenders that they aspire to become like them.
For example, high school senior Robert Smith watched the coverage of Speck and Whitman in 1966 and became obsessed. He’d already formed fantasies about stabbing women and once had nearly ambushed his father with a knife. Mass murder appealed to him. His parents had given him a .22-caliber pistol for his birthday that August and Whitman’s massacre gave him an idea.
Smith set the number of victims he hoped to kill at 40. Then he looked around for potential targets and settled on a school not far from his home: the Rose-Mar College of Beauty. Similar to Whitman's MO, Smith prepared his equipment the night before, and the next morning, November 12, 1966, he went over to the target building. Five women were in the shop, along with a child and a baby.
To show he meant business, Smith fired a warning shot into a mirror. Then he ordered them into a back room and told them to lie down with their heads together. Terrified, they obeyed. He shot them all, stabbing the youngest two. Five of them died, including the three-year-old.
More recently, 14-year-old Daniel Bartlam became obsessed with murder as he watched various violent movies and TV shows. Following the example of a fictional serial killer to the letter, he beat his mother to death with a hammer.
I could name more kids who became killers after exposure to specific images of violence, but on the other hand, my childhood fascination with a serial killer inspired my career in forensic psychology. I expect that other such careers were similarly launched. Early fascination with violence has also influenced productive writing careers, not to mention careers in law enforcement.
The truth is, we can’t predict whether any given child will be traumatized by a violent event like Speck's massacre, unhealthily intrigued, entirely unaffected, or inspired to use what they learn for prosocial development. In fact, a constellation of things builds the nest in which good or bad eggs are incubated, and any number of them can be part of the causal chain.
However, the Mad Men episode did raise this issue about children and exposure, and made me curious about what others – especially parents – think. Given how pervasive the images of murder and mutilation are in our culture, how long should (or can) we protect children before gradually integrating them into our darkest social truths? I'm interested in your opinion.