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Danse Macabre
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Friday, 27 January 2006 22:34

The Black Death killed approximately 30% of the European population in the mid-1300s. It was during this period, along with the peasants' revolt and the 100 years war, that the spectre of death proliferated European culture--due not only to its expansive reach and gruesome results, but also that it followed closely upon the heels of the Crusades, as Europe emerged from the cloud of unknowing, and into the colorful tapestry of the Renaissance. Thus, from the stench of burning pyres, arose dramatic portrayals of Death. Spain's "La Danza General de la Muerte" in 1360. France's "Cimetiere des Innocents" in 1424. And Italy's "Trionfo della Morte" in 1559. Perhaps as a means to transform the inevitable to a less fearful, even celebrated, form. The spectre of Death was transmogrified becoming the messenger sent by God to accompany people from this life to the next--The Grim Reaper, the Dark Angel, Azrael in his many forms. Or the hooded figure that rides the pale horse, but one of the horsemen of the apocalypse--an image that persists in our culture today. With the ending of the second world war another change took place and Death's Angel donned a new face, that of 32-year-old Joseph Mengle who, along with other atrocities at Auschwitz, was most well remembered for his twin studies involving a wide range of sadistic experiments resulting in the torture and death of approximately 3,000 twins. The romanticized death was relegated to a period which was neither peaceful nor romantic, the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Death however wears another mask.

When considering unsanctioned killing, one can easily categorize and to some extent, even understand, its variants. Crimes of passion, those murders involving the killing of a loved one in a jealous rage. Felonious murder, the collateral damage arising from a bank robbery or similar Felony crimes. Retaliatory murder, the killing of another as an act of revenge for perceived harm. Negligent homicide or manslaughter, the killing of another through negligence, such as drunk driving. While the majority of us would agree, that exclusive of negligent homicide, purposefully killing someone is most certainly in the extreme, these classifications still fall within our purview of comprehension. It is those murders which exact sadistic torture on the victims prior to their deaths and gruesome mutilations after their deaths, that have no apparent reason That defy comprehension. Thus we find ourselves asking the age-old question, "Why?"

Books, such as "Lustmord" (Brian, ed. 1996) has captured the words and artwork of some of history's most notorious, and even less well-known, killers and "Ted Bundy: Conversation with a Killer" (Michaud & Aynesworth, 2000) provide another glimpse into the mind of this population. And lest we forget, "Psychopathia Sexlualis" (Krafft-Ebing, 1886), which also captures the voices of times past. While the blog explosion has introduced a different kind of record, one that challenges law enforcement to acquaint themselves with varied online communities, such as Xanga, MySapce, and Live Journal, and crime bloggers use the power of both pen and Internet savvy to sleuth out breaking news, introducing us to these modern day killers, it is the voice and words of these cold-blooded killers that brings both pause and speculation. It is, of course, rather simple to head out to your favorite bookstore or library to pick up some of the aforementioned titles. Or surf on over to a present day killer's blog. Indeed, the latest known serial killer, Joseph Edward Duncan III, has his own blog, and amazingly (or perhaps not so), a post-arrest incarnation. Blogging the Fifth Nail and Blogging the Fifth Nail: Revelations, respectively. Still. What might they say if you were speaking to them? What if you were able to merge their brains? What, if any, striking resemblances exist?

Perhaps it's time to create a conversational AI to see what, if any, patterns might emerge. It would be quite easy to utilize a primitive associative algorithm to pull responses from the several thousand statements made by past and present day serial killers. If were you to engage with such an AI, you might recognize some themes in the resulting responses. Depending upon how much of a crime buff you are, you may, in fact, be able to pick out a tidbit here (Shoemaker) or tidbit there (Fox). And then there's Panzram. One of the few who seems lucid and, at least initially, takes responsibility for his actions. That is... until he goes off the deep end detailing his plans to commit a combination robbery mass murder train wreck in order to make enough money to start World War III. And then explains that he is a product of our society. And more specifically, a product of our Criminal Justice System. There are, of course, the old standbys. You know. Manson, Berkowitz, Bundy, Zodiac...

Regardless, identifying the killers by their words would not be the goal. In fact, I would argue that those areas where they distinguish themselves from the others, are nothing more than quirks that reflect both the societal climate as well as their particular theme. For example, does it matter that Hickman (1927) refers to "Providence" and Duncan (2006) refers to "William"? Not really. Both arrive at similar conclusions. Both present a picture of delusions of grandeur. Of being the chosen ones. Whether the picture represents an accurate view of their inner world or a fallacious construct designed to distract, is of course up for debate. These seeming differences notwithstanding, they do appear to have far more in common than they do differences--something that is not easily recognizable when reading them individually, one following the other. Yet, themes do appear to come to bubbling to the surface when chatting with their amalgamated personas. And together, they seem to unwittingly reveal the darker side of themselves. Indeed. The ultimate Danse Macabre, I suppose... That is, a conversational AI that gives you a different kind of glimpse of the shadow.


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