Problem of Evil Paper
Published 23 December 2015 in media
This was my final paper for my Interdisciplinary Honors Seminar course The Problem of Evil in Popular Culture. For this paper I researched the role that the media played in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
The Birth of Mass Killers: When Wrong Becomes “Right”
Although a film whose closing message is not meant to promote violence (unless perhaps against TV-show hosts), the dynamic and wacky film that is Natural Born Killers can be at times very dark with a multitude of different messages that could be picked up and taken to heart by a perceptive though highly unstable and sensitive mind. In the case of the Columbine shooters, who even code-named the day of their attack “NBK day”, what they interpreted from the satirical film meant to poke fun at the West's violence-obsessed culture was much more serious and sinister. Often what is pointed out as an influential idea for the massacre is the fact that the two leads of the movie grab international headlines and adoring fans through the media despite seemingly being evil incarnate. If this worked in real life, it would have allowed the Colorado gunmen to go down in a blaze of glory and become immortalized while exacting their revenge on their school (Gumbel). Although this was part of their goal, there is a much deeper, subconscious reason for how the shooters changed from normal, hardworking students of good families to blood-thirsty, gun-wielding maniacs. The deterioration of their morality was brought on by many different things, but much of it was due to this film's unique presentation of violence as well as its various philosophies that the easily impressionable young men were too willing to digest as a result of their worsening psychological problems. Firstly, the issue with NBK is how appealing it makes the violence seem on the part of the main characters. Despite coldly murdering about 52 people, the mass murdering duo of Mickey and Mallory Knox suffer no real repercussions for their graphic actions besides a short stay at a prison which they even manage to escape by stirring up a full-scale prison riot that allows them to disappear from the public eye, raise a family, and live happily ever after. Furthermore, there is good music, black comedy, and excitement while watching as the couple evades capture time and time again while TV footage is shown of insane fans cheering on their favorite criminals. The glorification is deliberate and meant to make a point of the viewer's own enjoyment of the killers' lives. The fact that the story is seen mainly through the point of view of killers also makes it easier for the viewer to sympathize with them, and the differences between their sense of morality and that of the antagonist also provide just enough good in their characters so that the audience finds itself rooting for them throughout. Besides being chased down by the cameras of a carnage-hungry media and public, the free-spirited killers are being hunted by Detective Jack Scagnetti, secretly a perverse serial killer who desires Mallory. Although the acts of the protagonists are repulsive and include crimes such as senseless massacres and even the raping of a woman, the detective's deliberate and brutal strangulation of a prostitute he attempts to sleep with is presented without warning – lending it a much more disturbing feeling considering that he is putting on the facade of a hero in public. With this knowledge now in mind, the viewer then witnesses a scene in which the main characters unexpectedly show a glimpse of their humanity when given shelter and food by a Native American father. Although grateful for his help, Mickey accidentally murders him in a psychotic episode triggered by a nightmare about his childhood. In the entire movie, this is the only scene in which the two killers are shown feeling remorse for taking a life, but the fact that they do show a vulnerability and feel remorse for killing a stranger who treats them kindly demonstrates a “goodness” in them that Scagnetti lacks, making their form of “evil” more tolerable or even – to the Columbine gunmen and other impressionable youths – more admirable to emulate.
In the film, the main characters' philosophies about evil, suffering, and mankind are expressed both verbally and symbolically. The scenes between Mickey and TV-show host Wayne Gale hold the majority of the philosophical speech, such as during the climax of the story when Mickey is interviewed in prison for Gale's crime show and says to him about the act of killing: “It's just murder. All God's creatures do it. You look in the forests and you see species killing other species, our species killing all species including the forests, and we just call it industry, not murder” (Stone, Natural Born Killers). Although not explicitly stating it, these lines may give the philosophical notion that people as a species may be naturally evil as an inconvenience to all other organisms – or natural-born killers, as the title of the film gives away. It is eerie that shooter Eric Harris followed similar philosophies as he wrote in his journal on July 29th, 1998: “[J]ust because we are at the top of the food chain with our technology doesnt[sic] mean we can be 'judges' of nature... [Y]ou can judge people and nature all you want, but you are still wrong! [W]hy should your morals apply to everyone else... I think we are all a waste of natural resources and should be killed off, and since humans have the ability to choose... I think I will choose to kill and damage as much as nature allows me to... only Nature can stop me.[sic]” (Shepard). Harris, who nicknamed himself “REB” (short for “Rebel”) likely admired the rebelliousness of the killers that can be seen symbolically as well as literally. Aside from their criminal lifestyle that obviously deviates from the norm, there is a frequently used symbol that represents the trade-off the couple makes for their life of freedom: the double serpents. In the scene where Mickey and Mallory perform their marriage ritual, the two make a blood pact, spilling a drop of blood over the canyon river below, and in an animation sequence, the blood splits into two aggressive serpents that swim around each other and combine again. While each serpent represents each of the “evil” lovers, the serpent itself is an animal that appears in the tale of Adam and Eve and tricks both humans into consuming the forbidden fruit and acquiring knowledge, freewill, and pain. At once the serpent is both evil and good or an evil that results in good, and its usage as a symbol in NBK could show the killers' choice of giving up a life of security as part of society for a life of freedom. Again, this ties back to the idea of original sin and the title of the film, and to an angry American teenager who had already been exposed to violence in the news and entertainment, the philosophy of freedom over security may have seemed like a dangerous and exciting way to live. This is shown by how Harris believed that “if humans were let to live how we would naturaly[sic] it would be chaos and anarchy and the human race wouldnt[sic] probably last that long, but hey guess what, thats[sic] how its supposed to be... [S]ociety and goverments[sic] are only created to have order and calmness, which is exactly the opposite of pure human nature” as he wrote on May 6th, 1998 (Shepard).
However, one part that can not remain untold in the story of the adventurous Mickey and Mallory Knox is their childhood trauma and the psychological issues that came out of that, considering the blurred line between mental health and morality. The film delves very little into Mickey's past, presenting it only as a short, frantic flashback that triggers him into shooting his gun by mistake and killing the Native American man, however it is only necessary for the viewer to see that bit of his past to know that it involved domestic and child abuse like in the case of Mallory. In a surreal comedy show recreation of her past (complete with laugh track), the viewer learns how Mallory is sexually abused by her father and how her mother acts obliviously to it. In a dashing but macabre rescue, Mallory runs away with Mickey who helps her by murdering her father and mother, although Mallory's inner turmoil from the abuse never subsides. In a scene where she tries to cheat on her husband, she has a flashback of her abuse and murders the young man, indicating that demons from her past trigger her to violence. The madness that generally seems to escalate from the killers in the movie is connected to their past. Even Scagnetti, who is the least likable of the murdering characters, can trace his murderous thrill-seeking back to a bizarre trauma he experienced witnessing his mother being killed by real-life mass murderer Charles Whitman, the killer of 16 people on August 1st, 1966 after a rampage of the University of Texas (Biography.com). Of course, madness and a traumatic past do not excuse evil actions, however in the case of those who want to be violent, they can precipitate evil. Wayne Gale's “liberation” from morals to join the criminals in the scene during the prison break involves him descending into madness and erroneous thinking, despite him not having any childhood trauma the audience is aware of. By showing one of society's own people drop his life to join the “dark side”, the film implies yet again how wonderful it must be to be the outlaw who is not tied down by morals nor rationality, and this type of thought definitely got into the minds of susceptible people such as the Columbine shooters, with their questionable ideals and the disturbing manner in which they carried out their attack as if it was a game. It is clear that for the shooters, it was not only “cool” to be violent rebels - it was also “cool” to lose themselves in the madness and act crazy, assuming such a persona would leave a lasting impression on society after their deaths.
Differing from the indirect or subconscious influence of the madness in NBK, emotional connections between the monster in Frankenstein and the Columbine gunmen can better explain their motives for the violence they perpetrated on their school. In his book No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine, Brooks Brown, a childhood friend of Klebold, summarizes the stage play version of the story of Frankenstein in a few short sentences: “Frankenstein's monster is a deep, troubled creature who was created by a scientist, then dismissed as an abomination. From there, he wanders alone, labeled as a 'freak' by the rest of society and rejected by everyone who sees him. The cruelty eventually leads the monster to seek revenge” (Brown 84). The school play he and Klebold took part in was not mentioned solely to pace his novel – Brown's word choices of “society”, “rejected”, and “freak” invite the reader to compare this fictional story of a creature shunned by humanity to the mentalities of his two friends lost to evil. In Frankenstein, there are two components to the monster's misery which the two shooters shared: feelings of alienation and loneliness (or the lack of a “true love” for the depressive Klebold). In Shelley's novel, the humanoid creature starts out knowing nothing of the world or people, but he learns at a much faster rate than a naturally-born human through reading and observing from afar a family he spots living in the countryside. Wishing to belong to humanity and be good, the orphaned creation attempts several times to make himself of use to people, but, after revealing himself, he is repeatedly met with only fear, pain, and what he presumes is hatred. Eventually, the self-loathing he experiences from the rejection festers into an outward hatred of mankind and bitter contempt for his creator and his happiness, going so far as to murder the people Dr. Frankenstein loves after he destroys the monster's own bride who was to be “... as deformed and horrible” as himself and “... of the same species... and... same defects” (Shelley 214-5). What happens to Frankenstein's monster that makes him become a murderer is similar to what happens to real-life murderers like the socially-challenged Klebold and Harris: they feel maltreatment by their peers and superiors (and, consequentially, life and God) to the point of misanthropy and find that the only way to fight the moral evil that they perceive is done against them and their character is by using moral evil itself. Those who read Dylan Klebold's journal no doubt sense the self-described downward spiral of his mental state and disdain for other people as he refers to his classmates as “zombies” and creates a delusion of himself as a “God”, and Eric Harris's journal has a vile and aggressive tone throughout with phrases such as “KILL MANKIND” and a gory passage in which he fantasizes about brutally murdering someone weaker than himself (Shepard). While they revel in the thought of carrying out their horrendous plot both separately and together, neither abstain from describing their tormented feelings of interacting with others. On March 31st, 1997 Klebold wrote “...me- my soul (existence). & the rotine[sic] - is still monotonous, go to school, be scared & nervous, somewhat hoping that people can accept me... that [I] can accept them...”, yet previously writing that he tried “not to ridicule/make fun of people …at school” indicating how the effect of harassment by more popular students had caused him to bully back, although regretfully in the beginning (Shepard). Harris elaborated more clearly on his own bullying on November 12th, 1998: “I have always hated how I looked, I make fun of people who look like me, sometimes without even thinking sometimes just because I want to rip on myself. Thats[sic] where a lot of my hate grows from, the fact that I have practically no selfesteem[sic]... therefore people make fun of me... constantly... therefore I get no respect and therefore I get f*cking PISSED” (Shepard). Essentially, over-thinking their problems together led them to see themselves as “hated monsters” in their own minds and truly believe that they could use this perceived status of “outcast” to justify turning to evil and murder.
The other half of Frankenstein's monster adds yet more complexity to Klebold's motives in particular. Just as the lonely monster desperately yearns for a female monster as a companion of his own, the awkward, lovesick teenager wrote romantic prose time and time again about “the one” with whom he was meant to be (“someone who is me in a way,” he wrote on page 25 of his journal) and his failure to reach out to her (Shepard). Although one could easily imagine Klebold, having worked on his school's theater production, relating to the monster and therefore fueling his own insecurities and vengeance against the world, it is likely that his obsession with finding a soul-mate was initially ignited by a combination of jealousy of his male friends who preferred spending time with their significant others and the illusion that he could someday attain a relationship like that of Mickey and Mallory Knox in NBK. How ironic it is, however, that while the monster proclaims “Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous” (Shelley 141), the unstable human writes “Soon... either ill[sic] commit suicide, or I'll get w[/] [edited] & it will be NBK for us. My hapiness[sic]. Her hapiness[sic]. NOTHING else matters”, proposing not virtuous behavior but instead violence and mayhem as though he and the mystery girl were Bonnie and Clyde (Shepard 15). Surely love is good and, as Mickey cryptically states in the film, “the only thing that kills the demon... is love”, but as each story proves, being able to love another person does not automatically stop a disturbed individual from committing evil acts nor does it erase the crimes that have already been committed (Stone, Natural Born Killers). As with Frankenstein's monster, being treated as unworthy and “bad” despite having good intentions somehow eventually breaks down a decent individual's morals and convinces the impressionable individual that he or she is irredeemably “bad” and undesirable. Evidence of this can be read on an unsent love letter by Klebold in which he wrote “To most people, I appear.. well... almost scary, but that's who I appear to be as people are afraid of what they don't understand... Unfortunately... even if you did like me even the slightest bit, you would hate me if you knew who I was... I am a criminal, I have done things that almost nobody would even think about condoning” (Shepard 18). He internalized an unrealistic and exaggerated opinion of his misbehavior at the time as well as his guilt over the incident in which he was caught stealing electronics from a van with Harris (Shepard). Unfortunately, like in the case of Frankenstein's monster whose wish of being accepted by another was never realized, the world will never know if being accepted the way they wanted to would have given the teenagers the happiness they needed to stop themselves from choosing a fate in which they became evil monsters.
Taking the stories of each of the pairs into consideration, it is only natural to compare Job from the Book of Job to both the fictional Mickey and Mallory Knox and the flesh-and-blood people that were Harris and Klebold. Although more pious and virtuous than the average man today, the function of Job's story in modern society is for the reader to try to comprehend (or rather, accept) the senseless natural and moral evils that befall mankind from time to time. Despite both pairs becoming irredeemably evil by society's standards, they too were humans dealing with their own suffering in the world. In the case of Harris and Klebold – unlike the Knoxes, who are fictional – their disappointment in life and God were similar to Job's own disappointment, however their own circumstances were obviously insanely amplified out of proportion by their hormonal mental instabilities. The “evils” that were thrown at the shooters are difficult to categorize as natural or moral considering that the threat of death is a completely overblown and inappropriate means through which to extract repentance of any sort from those who teased the teenagers, and it is unlike the case of the Knoxes who may have been justified in their way of dealing with their abusers (although cremating Mallory's mother alive may have crossed a line). However, for a confused and emotionally sensitive youth, treating bullying and alienation as something that “just happens in life” while trusting an invisible being like God to make it better is difficult unless he or she swallows Leibniz's philosophy that “this world is the best of all possible worlds”, which author Susan Neiman rebuts in her book Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy by stating, “If reason itself is more powerful than God, since it prescribes laws that presume to limit Him, it is no wonder that God could come to seem superfluous” (Neiman 27). Clearly, the shooters had an issue with God and their identity, considering their taking action with the delusion of “unleashing Godlike Wrath,” as parroted often between Harris and Klebold (Shepard). As in Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus, with the monster being a metaphor for humanity and Frankenstein representing Prometheus, the creator and protector of man in Greek mythology, the distraught teens felt abandonment from their Maker but at the same time vengeful power thanks to what He had “given” them.
There were many times when the events of April 20th, 1999 could have been prevented, especially when police failed to act after Brooks Brown and his parents alerted them toward Harris's web pages which contained violent threats towards Brown and others (CBSNews.com). If such a thing as Leibniz's philosophy were true, massacres, which defy any logic and serve no purpose, would never take place or ever inspire copycat crimes, however that is the very conundrum that events such as Columbine have left imprinted on the mind of the American. Again, even if an examination of NBK's plot using Leibniz's philosophy is attempted, such logic does not work out favorably either, since although one evil is defeated, another evil triumphs, and the deaths of those lost are never fully avenged save for the case of the Native American father who “joins” his wife in the afterlife, although even this is a weak example. The only certain thing is that the Columbine gunmen took it upon themselves to choose that which goes against the good of mankind, much like the Knoxes in NBK and Frankenstein's monster. Knowing the high school shooters' own ideas about good and evil helps unravel more of the mystery. Harris believed: “theres[sic] no such thing as True Good or True Evil, its[sic] all relative to the observer. its[sic] just all nature, chemistry, and math,” while Klebold believed: “Since existance[sic] has known, the 'fight' between good & evil has continued. Obviously, this fight can never end. Good things turn bad, bad things become good” – both nihilistic attitudes of varying degrees about not only the world but themselves which, when now examined alongside the apparent senselessness of their actions, show that Harris and Klebold knew enough to force this destiny of evil and suicidal destruction upon themselves and the entire world (Shepard).
Today's modern American society is struggling in the middle of gun law debates and growing fears of further acts of terrorism and mass murder, and the evil of these events will unfortunately continue to ruin the lives of innocent people as long as an unhappy, mentally disturbed individual has a will, a way, and an inspiration to replicate the havoc he or she desires. Paradoxically, by displaying the lives and “achievements” of murderers all over breaking news and entertainment such as in the story of Natural Born Killers and in the real-life tragedies that the film inspired, the public is both informed and prepared for – but also put at risk of – another tragic story of an unstable youth rising out of the crowds into violent infamy. In the case of the short lives of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and their 13 eternally memorialized victims, the damage has already been done, but analyzing the remnants of humanity left behind by those who transform themselves into monsters helps to decipher some of the mess of the unstable adolescent brain forming its understanding of life, death, good, and evil.
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