Antisocial America: From Cults to Serial Killers to Classrooms
“You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody’s crazy.”
— Charles Manson
MKUltra, Helter Skelter, G-men, bugs under the skin, an overbearing mother, castration, Kool-Aid! Sensational and sensationalized violence used to be the purview of hippie cults and self-proclaimed Sons of Sam. Over the last half-century, America has been host to the homicidal-suicidal cults of the ’60s and ’70s, followed by thirty years of serial killers, and now, the school shooter. Antisocial violence has worn many masks across the decades, and seems to shift at random. Each new grotesque contortion comes as a shock, as a blow against all good sense. The public knows these people are mentally ill, that they’re the proverbial black sheep and bad apples, but what we cannot seem to understand is why. What about these specific windows in time prompts antisociality to emerge and attack in different ways? No matter what clothes they wear or their modus operandi, freaks and fanatics are a bellwether of contemporary American decline.
Each period of murderous American deviancy corresponds to a specific set of material, social, and spiritual conditions. In order to better grasp what produces school shooters, and in an effort to systematize an understanding of antisociality, it helps to understand the unique incentive structures of each period. The ’60s and ’70s were a time of dramatic upheaval, a generation facing unbound prosperity, upward mobility, and unprecedented hegemony. Hippies and their fellow travelers rejected it all. Rather than hold fast to the institutional metanarratives provided by church, nation, and family, these youths fled into the void of psychedelics, communal living, and free love. Tie-dyed heresiarchs welcomed them with open arms, and alternative meaning was provided for alternative living. There are two cults which serve as useful case studies: the People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate (an outlier in time, but one whose exceptions prove the rule). Each, in its own way, is a product of sexual deviancy, a forlorn search for meaning, and the new, decadent anonymity of the post-war era.
Religions create and sanctify; cults copy and pervert. America has always been bustling with new religious activity, some firmly in the realms of normalcy, and others well outside. Though there were cults prior to the late midcentury, their explosion, influence, and scandal are firmly rooted in the sociological conditions of the hippie era. The post-war baby boom produced a generation of youth that, by the time of the ’60s and ’70s, became revolutionary footsoldiers. Eisenhower’s blatant lie over the U-2 incident, shortly followed by JFK’s assassination, primed the young for disillusionment and alienation from traditional modes of living.
There were movements ready to capture this disillusionment toward their own ends. The Civil Rights movement, something that in effect founded a Third American Republic, was full of young, left-wing Americans ready to lash out against the system that lied to them. The Vietnam War channeled long-haired twenty-something’s energy into a righteous crusade against the Man. The initial entry of women into the workforce during the war, and their ever-swelling numbers in traditionally male occupations and offices, provided a new means of movement to young women, who were eager to flex this new freedom. Cults, both nestled in and active leaders of these movements, offered free sex, free drugs, and a new kind of liberation to all of these prosperous, bitter young folk.
Three key material factors made the States rich soil for cult activity. Firstly, the new generation enjoyed a newfound ability to relocate, separate from family, and strike out on their own. Baby Boom prosperity provided both a means to flood into urban centers and cavort with the counterculture. Secondly, the invention and explosion of psychedelic drugs, and a meteoric rise in marijuana use. Thirdly, mass adoption of the birth control pill, which gave women newfound sexual agency and provided the biological foundation for the infertile ‘free love’ movement. The pill allowed women and men alike to ward off family, and stay totally ‘free’, only to be enslaved by drugs, charismatic men, and ideology.
“Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned”.
— Mark 5:9-13
This midcentury churn and opportunity inevitably produced many lost and lonely people. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple closely tracks the above sociological conditions, as does the Manson Family. Heaven’s Gate is an exception to some factors, and a confirmation of others. Manson famously turned seemingly All-American boys and girls into ritualistic murderers and junkies. What he really scooped up were Hollywood burnouts, failed musicians, actors, and a bundle of runaways to boot. Manson was a soothsayer. With prophesy, LSD, and sexual control, he gathered a small but fanatical group of fellow travelers. In one of his many famous utterances, he remarked: “Your water’s dying. Your life’s in that cup. Your trees are dying. Your wildlife’s locked up in zoos. You’re in the zoo, man. How do you feel about it?”
Then and now, this is a common sentiment. It struck a chord, it promised an escape from the mundanity and failures of their normal lives. With Helter Skelter on the horizon, Manson cajoled and caroused his way into arranging the murder of once-in-a-generation beauty Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and many others. But the truth is that he didn’t have to do much. The hippies in his orbit lived lives of radical unimportance, and murder has a way of making one feel important. As Camille Paglia once wrote, “Eroticism mixed with death is archetypally potent… in cultic experience, death is sexy”, which was true of many mid-century California cults. If Charles Manson had arrived at a small, rural town offering a vision of anything within the realm of normalcy, he wouldn’t have been offering anything at all. Promising the ultimate trip to a score of down-and-out Californian transplants and natives was another matter entirely. Manson had an abusive childhood and spent half his life locked up – a life of zero control. As we’ll see, the profane alchemy of sex and death translates into a feeling of ultimate control over others. Manson was high-profile, but persuading groupies to commit murder is another matter entirely from convincing people to kill themselves.
Jim Jones was far more successful than Manson. Though he employed similar techniques, recruited people sick with the same afflictions, and mastered an era without meaning, he had an ace up his sleeve: the Civil Rights Movement. Though any large, society-spanning endeavor will end up with its fair share of quacks and confidence-artists, the Civil Rights Era seemed particularly prone to these aberrations. Father Divine taught his followers he was God, discouraged them from sex and marriage, and inspired the likes of Elijah Muhammad (founder of the Nation of Islam) as well as, predictably, Jim Jones. California Governor Jerry Brown, Assemblyman and later San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown (Kamala Harris’ mentor), Vice Presidential Candidate Walter Mondale, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and gay rights activist Harvey Milk were counted among Jones’ many associates and friends.
Jones secured leadership of Indianapolis’ human rights commission, and utilized his newfound authority to aggressively prosecute his vision of desegregation, alongside his allies in the NAACP. Black identity at the time was in flux, and up for grabs. Racialist neo-Muslims, traditional Black Protestants, the Black Panther Party, the People’s Temple, and other militant Afro-Socialist groups all sought to be the standard-bearer of Black identity. This is reflected in the People’s Temple’s demographics as well: 70% of members were Black, and 45% were Black women. Again, Paglia succinctly condenses the circumstances: “members of the sixties counterculture were passionately committed to political reform, yet they were also seeking the truth about life outside religious and social institutions” – but instead of alternative truths, they found Legion in a cup of Kool-Aid. Jones’ increasing paranoia and exposure to scrutiny caused him to uproot his people and move them to Guyana, a socialist safe haven. He aimed to create a USSR in miniature, an Apostolic Socialism. Jones declared to his congregation, “I am come as God Socialist” (whatever that means), and they believed him. Jones, especially in Guyana, made it a habit to rape his male followers, and take members’ wives as concubines.
Despite this, his followers, particularly his female followers, defended Jones to death. Anne Moore’s suicide note blames specific women of “wanting sex from him that he was too ill to give,” and went on to state that “his hatred of racism, sexism, elitism, and mainly classism, is what prompted him to make a new world for the people — a paradise in the jungle. The children loved it. So did everyone else.” In the end, after the assassination of Congressmen Leo Ryan, who had flown to Jonestown to investigate, these true believers preferred to murder their own children and kill themselves rather than sacrifice the metanarrative Jones had given them. As one member, Christine Miller, attempted to convince Jones to spare the children, to arrange transport to the USSR, anything else aside from this, members of the cult shrieked and nearly assaulted her. They were violently eager to die. For these thousand, it was better than the wandering and the void in their hearts that would await them stateside. It’s difficult to imagine something like Jonestown being replicated today. But another bastard of the 70s, Heaven’s Gate, remains strikingly relevant even a half-century from its inception.
Heaven’s Gate and its millenarian/UFO cult/New Age teachings are complex, and you can access this information straight from the horse’s mouth. Two (supposedly) surviving members who maintain the digital archive of their ‘graduating Class’, with whom I briefly chatted, described the mass suicide as a fulfilling experience. In Heaven’s Gate, we see yet again, educated members of society living lives devoid of meaning, but we also see the opposite side of sexual control. Celibacy was encouraged and gender differences were frowned upon. Applewhite, the cult’s primary leader after the ‘ascension’ of his partner, castrated himself, and his students followed his example. In 1976, the cult ceased active recruitment and retreated into monasticism. They would, however, disseminate their orthodoxy via the Internet, a novel form of evangelism at the time. Cultural theorist Paul Virilio described them as a ‘cybersect’, a new religious movement which congregates online and depends on digital forms of communication to spread its message. Heaven’s Gate was a forerunner of today’s explosion in cybersectarianism, where numerous online political communities, fandoms, religious groups, and misanthropic collectives (more on this later) congregate and proselytize. We see this cybersectarian grooming and self-mutiliation most prominently today in the transgender phenomenon. Young, mostly autistic individuals are conditioned in Discord chat rooms and other forums into believing they need to chemically castrate themselves or bind their breasts to feel ‘normal’.
Cults ceased to be the norm of sensational American antisociality for three main reasons. Most readily apparent is that they failed miserably, spectacularly, and very publicly. Hippies looking for peace and love quickly became disillusioned with murder, mayhem, mass suicides, and broken promises of new religious movements. They returned to normalcy, cleaned up, and became run-of-the-mill, soulless liberals in the ’80s, or slowly suffocated in a green haze for another few decades. Beyond that, they failed to institutionalize charisma. The only cults of this era that remain, Scientology for instance, managed to manufacture an office capable of continuing their dynamic founders’ authority and mystique. Finally, the issues these cults seized on were solved or dismissed in other ways. Contemporary liberalism’s great ascension, its desire to issue one nation-wide damnatio memoriae on human normalcy, co-opted and succeeded in advancing the late mid-century movements’ goals. Scientology is a notable counterexample, which emerged due to L. Ron Hubbard’s battle with the hyper-medicalization of psychiatry, and given the currently unquestionable dominance of psychiatry, Scientology preserved its oppositional raison d’être. Bad press amid several scandalous exposes have, however, stymied its growth. Furthermore, the Internet altered the incentive structures necessary for dramatic cult action. When your membership consists of talking online, living six states away, and the vast majority of your potential followers are content with liberalism’s manufactured meaning anyway, there’s not much hard power to be had.
As urbanization and interstate travel sped up, and cults burned out, a new form of disintegrating violence emerged: the serial killer. Looming under every broken streetlight, creeping up in every rearview mirror, serial killers ignited a novel wave of paranoia and psychoanalysis that remains part of the American consciousness to this day. Old cases are dug up again and again to produce another forty-odd minutes of lurid documentary, straddling a fine line between tragedy and pornography. As with any other phenomenon, there are concrete factors which cause rippers to flicker in and out of a society. In the case of serial murder, these are relatively straightforward.
“When this monster entered my brain, I will never know, but it is here to stay. How does one cure himself? I can’t stop it, the monster goes on, and hurts me as well as society. Maybe you can stop him. I can’t.”
— Dennis Rader
These words, pronounced by serial killer Dennis Rader, also known as ‘BTK’ (Bind, Torture, Kill), display the pathology of a serial murderer in a full-frontal fashion: A total acknowledgment of the evil done, self-recognition, sexual compulsion, and lack of remorse. What caused men and women of this mold to rear their heads so violently in the ’70s and ’80s? Were they lurking beneath civilization’s surface, like a chthonic force, waiting to pounce? Were they produced by bad home lives and loose morals? The answer, predictably, is some combination of both. Reports of serial murder stretch back to antiquity. However, they were rare. Something about this period either created better circumstances for them to operate, or the preceding decades affected some psychosocial shock severe enough to make monsters out of men.
Materially, there were several advantages for the predators of the day. The concentration of people in urban centers, virtually always anonymizing and isolating them as a result, offered plentiful and low-risk hunting grounds for would-be boogie men. Interstate roadway development, and its accompanying slice of motels, drifters, long-haulers, and hitchhikers added to this. A city, in many cases, wasn’t needed, just a small town, nightfall, and a functioning car. Inasmuch as these antisocial tendencies existed in previous eras, the hypersocial mode of agrarian living, restrictions of movement, and yes, intact families, strictly limited the means of action for these types. Neuroscientist James Fallon found that fathers returning from World War II, stricken with PTSD, often influenced their children’s early childhood development negatively. Often absentee, drunk, violent, or all of the above, these formative years exacerbated potentially latent traits in later killers. Oftentimes, a domineering mother would fill the void left by these veterans, further estranging antisocial children from normalcy, and breeding pathological resentment to boot.
For a serial killer to be formed, a perfect storm of factors is necessary: broken homes, high-trust targets, urbanization, ease of transport, frontal lobe damage, and genetic predispositions. The ’70s and ’80s possessed all the right stuff. Though this era stretched until the early 2000s, things changed after the so-called ‘Golden Era of Serial Murder’ in the two aforementioned decades. Victim pools shrank to prostitutes, then shifted online, and have now either submerged in return to the roadman equilibrium of the past or genuinely diminished under different conditions.
The media, as ever, made hay off of others’ suffering, igniting massive paranoia across the country. The result was an America with drastically reduced social capital, the rise of ‘stranger danger’ childhood education, and a feeling that the country was spiraling into the abyss. These things remain with us today, even if serial killers have taken a back seat in both media sensationalism and activity. Again, we see the psychosphere produce its own cruel maladies and bitter medicines: the epidemic of serial killings spurs society to adapt and defend itself, but in so doing, losing much of what constituted the society in the first place. Additionally, the deus ex machina of DNA testing led to the early apprehension of criminals and murderers who would have previously blossomed into Sons of Sam and Zodiac Killers. A warier society, smarter police, the emergence of the Internet, and a generational exchange of parents all chipped away at serial killer’s operational capacity. The Internet was leveraged by them in some ways, but in general, the diminishment of social life and stranger interaction was crippling for serial killers. It was, however, a hefty price to pay in its own right.
There are fewer fathers with PTSD, and fewer domineering mothers, but more neglect, more divorce, less rootedness, and fewer family support structures overall. America, though it may be trite to say, has atomized. This disassembly didn’t make America safer, it only swapped one gruesome villain for another: the school shooter.
“Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world… The man’s crime is different from other crimes — for it makes even crimes impossible.”
— G.K. Chesterton
The cultist believes in meaning, yearns for it, and finally finds some warped and snake-oiled version of it. No matter how abnormal, perverse, or life-denying, they did find solace in spaceships, silver tongues, and ritual sacrifice. Their mistake was looking for it in mildewed crevices, in the brambles, where liars with perfect teeth and crooked smiles prepare their resting places. These stringy-haired ramblers fled from the dying culture of their parents and into the lethal, novel culture of gurus and ‘alternative living’. The serial killer, on the other hand, has no use for meaning at all; he is the world, his meaning is himself. He is content to continue killing as long as he can – he is a being of pure egoism. What makes the school shooter different, however, is that he wants meaning – desperately. He never finds it, not in some cybercult, not in the Good Book, nowhere. The closest he can ever get is through nihilistic stardom, wiping out the world, his own personal doomsday, one last solar flare before the lights go off.
There are no anonymous school shooters. Each and every one becomes a star, going supernova before collapsing into dwarven nothing. A school shooting is a murder, but this isn’t a very helpful way to think about it. In reality, the school shooting itself is a suicide of mass proportion, a knife in the dark against life itself. By killing children, and almost always themselves as well, the school shooter makes the entire world suffer, the world which left them in stygian silence.
Technological determinism is an easy out. Sure, the siloization of Online, the endless onslaught of groomers, easy access to the vilest and sickening material imaginable, and the celebrity status of other mass murderers have an effect. But these things existed, albeit in more personal and immediate forms, during the heyday of cults and serial killers as well. The question is: what about today turns these antisocial creatures into nihilistic kid-killers instead of cultists or serial exsanguinators?
America has had both guns and schools forever. If you paid heed to the tired, cookie-cutter explanations of the Great Replacers and Resetters, you might think both of these things were novel. Prior to the 2000s, school shootings overwhelmingly followed the typical archetype of homicide: grudge killings and crimes of passion. A teacher slept with a pupil’s mother, and the father shot him down on school grounds. The incidences per decade were exceedingly low, the fatalities rarely if ever numbered over one to two, and the perpetrator almost never ate their own gun. The school shooter today aligns with a completely different pattern. They target strangers, typically children, and attempt to annihilate as many innocents as possible before killing themselves or committing suicide by cop. Guns themselves have changed, of course – but a rifle or a pistol can achieve the same results, and these were readily available for much of the modern era. What is unique is this specific archetype of violence: the nihilist, suicidal, slaughtering of innocents that baffle most normal, decent people. These men, who commit the worst of all crimes, share a uniform misanthropy, sense of invisibility, and antipathy toward life itself hitherto unforeseen in American history.
Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, had a long list of mental illnesses, and made frequent contributions to online forums discussing various aspects of the macabre. He fantasized about his future matricide frequently, made consistent references to pedophilia and schizophrenia, and defended the Columbine shooters. In these posts, we can access a closer look at the person behind one of the most heinous crimes in American history: “I castrated myself when I was 15 to rebel against society… I hate every facet of language…”, and so on. Whether he actually castrated himself or not we don’t know, as his autopsy wasn’t made public. However, his ennobling of the act speaks to a deep nihilism and lack of faith in a future in America or on Earth, as seen in Heaven’s Gate. Indeed, this drive toward infertility, seen today in abortion, transgenderism, and yes, school shootings, is a suicide in slow motion, individual and national. Murdering your own mother and others’ children in one fell swoop is an attempt to annihilate the very foundations of life, of self-propagation.
The dissolution of religious faith, family, collective identity, and the clandestine ghettoization of psychosis into cyberspace speaks to an immense sabotage of the support systems previously available to maladjusted individuals. Lanza and others like him are the black-hearted bastards of atomization – and atomization is the inevitable fruit of liberalism, which shreds civilizational standards and succor in its rabid drive to liberate man from his body, his people, and the institutions that bind him.
A mass shooter isn’t just out to commit suicide on a grand scale, however. Having been invisible his whole life, he commits the worst crime in hopes of air-time, a vision of his face finally having eyes laid upon it, even in horror, by an entire nation. He hopes his visage will, for a glimmer of a moment, become the mask of pure sin so frequently exchanged and worn on television screens today. He wants the undeniable celebrity of the Devil.
“For a star, being seen is everything. But the powers that be are well aware that being seen is no more than a symptom of the gaze. They know that the reality everyone thinks they see and feel draws from the spring of artifice that you and I are guarding. To keep the public pacified, the spring must always be shielded from the world by masks. And these masks are worn by stars.”
— Yukio Mishima
School shooters represent the penultimate stage of social deterioration, where none of the value mechanisms and meaning-producing institutions bear any weight. When the default is slipping through the cracks, going unacknowledged, unincorporated, and unassisted, the worst evil is inevitable. This is compounded by today’s ruthless sexual marketplace. Again, it may be rote to repeat, but it remains a fact that the ever-widening gyre of frequent sexual interaction between men and women spawns these neo-Gnostic menaces. Without sex, already maladjusted individuals lose reference to the sanctity of their own bodies and of others, the solidity of their gender identity, and the sense of being seen. If the early free love movement provided easy fodder for nympho-cults, then America’s subsequent desexualization has produced men without any connection to their own bodies and senses of self. An infinitesimally small amount of these men will go on to commit any terrible crime, but the ones that do are heavily influenced by this deprivation. Most school shooters view their flesh as an iron maiden, something to be shed and shattered, and consider themselves misunderstood liberators:
“You’re the one who wants to rape children, I’m the one who wants to save them from a life of suffering you want to impose on them. You see them as your property and I want to free them. I don’t want to see children as adults, I don’t want to see anyone as adults because I don’t want there to be a system that perpetuates this abuse. If you care so much about the damage of children then why advocate that they live?”
This total rejection of the future, this abject nihilism, has festered throughout our entire society. Reading Lanza here is no different from reading the abortionist, or the eco-extremist who thinks it’s worse for a child to be born into a warmer world than to remain un-ensouled beyond the veil. We’re living in an age without shared meaning, without individual or collective destiny, without the support structures of the past, and some of us crack. If you come from nowhere, and you’re going nowhere, then your community is just another liminal space, one stop on a short ride into oblivion. School shooters aren’t a freak accident, or some incomprehensible agent of evil. They’re a predictable product of the society that’s been fashioned for us, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
It’s hard to remember a time where normal people lived normal lives, unmolested by perverts, deviants, and demons of every imaginable variety. Post-War America has been steadily unraveling, each binding on its mummified corpse unleashing a new pestilence. From the chaotic hedonism or hyperchastity of the cult, to the Golden Age of Serial Murder’s unparalleled egoism, to the nihilistic infanticide of the mass shooter, American decline has followed an identifiable pattern of horror. Liberalism, the noble annihilator, has hollowed out every institution, every binding force, every social failsafe and backstop, and its agents feign surprise when the liberating infanticide it promotes is taken to its next logical step.
The cultists died, reintegrated, or were swept into liberalism’s institutionalized abnormality. Serial killers were hunted down and pushed into the recesses of human society, and as abuse turned to neglect, psychopaths turned to psychotics. School shooters, the cybernaut celebrities of contemporary antisociality, have staked their claim to terror and annihilation. Each of these periods would have been incomprehensible to the generation immediately preceding it, before they happened. Ever-more depraved incentive structures and violent anti-socialites lurk just out of view.
A total spiritual revolt, an edification of traditional sense-making, and a revivification of our fire for the future, are required to effect any lasting change. Whether it will come in time remains to be seen. Until then, we will continue to mourn the innocent, hug our children tighter, and gaze unblinkingly into the ever-darkening horizon, smothered in blood and tears.