The Lust for Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror, and Violence


How do we explain the lurid fascination that most people experience when confronted by real or simulated acts of violence, murder, horror, and crime? This is the subject examined in this candid assessment of our dark vicarious thrills. Based on a series of interviews with perpetrators, victims, and "consumers" of violence, including several celebrities, the author of a best-selling book on serial killers explores what there is about this subject that draws such a wide audience.

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How do we explain the lurid fascination that most people experience when confronted by real or simulated acts of violence, murder, horror, and crime? This is the subject examined in this candid assessment of our dark vicarious thrills. Based on a series of interviews with perpetrators, victims, and "consumers" of violence, including several celebrities, the author of a best-selling book on serial killers explores what there is about this subject that draws such a wide audience.

Unlike many other books that attempt to probe the murky psyches of deviant individuals, this book focuses on normal, average people who, despite themselves, enjoy getting close to the most forbidden, perverse side of destruction and evil. The persons interviewed range from homicide detectives and emergency room personnel to a heavyweight boxer and groupies of serial killers on death row. The author considers ideas from a variety of theories and research to explain our responses to violence, raises questions about the shifting line between normal and abnormal, evaluates the confusion and ambivalence that many people feel when witnessing others’ suffering, and suggests future trends in society’s attitudes toward violence.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616142285
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 12/1/2010
  • Pages: 310
  • Sales rank: 1,409,105
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey A. Kottler, PhD, is a practicing psychologist, professor of counseling at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of more than seventy-five books, including the New York Times best seller The Last Victim: A True-Life Journey into the Mind of the Serial Killer. He is also head of Empower Nepali Girls, which provides educational scholarships for at-risk, lower-caste girls.

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Table of Contents

Preface 7

1 Paradoxes of Violence 17

2 From Roman to Contemporary Gladiators 37

3 True Crime 53

4 Sports Fans 73

5 Zombies, Vampires, Monsters 97

6 Serial Killer Groupies: Attraction to Predators 119

7 Moving Violations and Other Eyewitness Curiosities 131

8 Occupations of Violence 149

9 The Meaning of Mayhem 169

10 What's Normal and What's Abnormal? 199

11 Exploring the Forbidden 219

12 What the Future Holds 237

Notes 263

References 281

Index 291

About the Author 311

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First Chapter

the lust for blood

why we are fascinated by DEATH, MURDER, HORROR, and VIOLENCE

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Jeffrey A. Kottler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-228-5

Chapter One

Paradoxes of Violence

It is that time of day when the heat and humidity are so suffocating it is difficult to draw a breath. No matter, he thinks. It is the way of things.

He is out for a walk with some friends, just hanging out and trying to stay cool. He is enjoying the companionship and the exercise, stretching his legs a bit. He is walking with a steady gait but then is momentarily distracted. Something is rustling in the bush. While his friends seem alarmed, he unconcernedly ventures ahead. Their chatter abruptly ends.

Suddenly, he sees the shapes of blurred movement. Before he can react, or even figure out what is going on, he feels an excruciating pain near his neck. Then he feels others tearing at his flesh, literally pulling him apart. The agony is unbearable, but he can do nothing but lie there immobilized. His testicles and ears are ripped off. Large gashes appear in his stomach and back.

As he begins to pass out, he notices his friends in the background watching this torture with horror and fascination. They seem paralyzed, unable to move and unwilling to help. They watch the bloodlust continue, never averting their eyes for a moment, as their friend is systematically disemboweled, his spine severed, and feet torn off, eventually dying of shock and blood loss.

When the band of savages runs off, the victim's companions remain to inspect the carnage. They just lost a valued friend, but they seem more concerned with the smell of death and how pungently it lingers.

This ambush in the Ngorongoro Crater of Tanzania takes place among two rival clans of spotted hyenas, although it could have easily been a description of what has happened repeatedly in the jungles of our own inner cities or battlefields. This is true not only with respect to acts of ferocious violence but also in the behavior of the spectators who stood riveted by the mayhem. The events described, documented by Hans Kruuk in his study of African predators, illustrates the type of lust for blood present throughout the animal kingdom, human animals included. Among a number of other mammals, including chimpanzees, gorillas, and lions, murder is also common—usually with witnesses making no attempt to intervene. Often this is not because they fear personal injury from such intervention, since a dozen bystanders could certainly restrain a few violent killers, but because they seem to accept that such murder is none of their business. They watch with discomfort, agitation, but also riveted fascination.


The killer is calm and methodical. There is no drama in his actions. He slices small bits of skin off the writhing victim with a casualness that might be associated with reaching into the cupboard for a snack. Indeed, he is eating the various body parts that he cuts off his prey, still alive but beyond the point where she can scream any longer. Every time she whimpers, the killer looks up in annoyance, then resumes his consideration of where he might extract his next bite of flesh.

There is blood everywhere. It runs in streams down the ravaged body. It lies pooled on the floor and on the table where the killer is enjoying his meal. There are spatters of red on the walls and ceiling. Most alluring of all are the blood spots that mar the blinding gleam of the rather large steel bowie knife.

You watch this scene unfold with a mixture of revulsion and rage. You feel sick to your stomach and very sorry that you agreed to watch this film. For a moment, you consider leaving and even look for the fastest route out of the darkened theater. But there is something that holds you in place, some unforeseen power that keeps you cemented to your seat. You could very easily look away from the putrid, sickening violence on the screen, but for some reason you can't explain, and frankly would rather not think about, you watch the nightmare continue until the end.

When the lights of the theater are turned on, you are startled by the intrusion of reality. You check your body parts and all is well: you have survived! There is also a lingering uneasiness you feel, not only about the horror you witnessed on the screen, but also by your own varied reactions to what you saw. Spiders, rats, snakes, ghosts, aliens, zombies, vampires, werewolves, monsters in the night, always in the night, and death, especially death, impending death most of all, is what cranks up the tension, gets the juices flowing, and reminds you that you are still very much alive.

This reminder is important considering we are likely the only creatures that are distinctly aware of our eventual, impending death. It is our consciousness that is our greatest gift and yet our most terrible burden. From the time we reach the approximate age of three or four, we learn that our tenure in this existence is limited. Dread is our constant companion. Existential philosophers have given a special name to this intense apprehension we feel about our own demise: angst. This is the free-floating anxiety that often crops up when you least expect it, when you hear the tick-tock of the precious seconds of your life ticking away with each beat of your heart. Your heart, after all, is just another muscle in your body, one that is slowly wearing out with each contraction.

Death is ever present in the back of your mind and the center of your spirit. It is so emotionally terrifying for most people that it lays at the core of literature, art, drama, film, and other entertainment. There is no subject more riveting because it is the topic that concerns you most, wondering how long you have to live and what happens after you die.

If you were really honest with yourself, there is something about watching a horror film, reading a crime novel, or viewing violence on television that is strangely stimulating. Then there are the times you are driving on the freeway and see an accident scene on the other side of the road; without thinking, you slow down and try to catch a glimpse of what happened. Sure, you are not a violent person by nature, and you are the first to admit that this world would be a lot better off if people resorted to more peaceful means to satisfy their desires. Still, there is something about vicarious violence that seems irresistible and riveting. Most people can't quite explain the attraction, and may even exhibit strong will to resist it, but the intense curiosity and interest still lives within. Even more surprising is that the interest in violence is hardly limited to macho men or adolescent boys.

Isabel Pinedo, a film scholar and avowed feminist, attempted to reconcile her commitment to peace and women's empowerment with her love of "slasher" movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. How, she wonders, did a good Catholic girl become so addicted to horror films, the gorier the better? Why, she asks herself even more perplexed, does the genre that debases and defiles and diminishes women instill "such a powerful source of pleasure for me and for others, but especially for women?" The burgeoning proliferation of movies, books, and television shows about vampires, creatures of the night that feed on helpless victims, has a special, forbidden allure to many women.

Very few people feel neutral about the subject of entertainment violence—either you like it or you don't. For those who feel the pull, it is something that defies easy explanation. Those who have a higher need for arousal and sensation seeking are more likely to be the ones most attracted to this media. These individual differences in the desire for new experiences and different forms of stimulation have something to do with the interest in violent entertainment.


Human beings are about the only inhabitants on the planet that deliberately inflict cruelty on others, that relish the opportunity to do so, and without apparent gain. Paradoxically, we are also unique in our capacity for compassion and altruism. This conundrum has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries and was a major sticking point for Sigmund Freud in his attempt to reconcile what he considered the masochistic and sadistic nature of human beings. Yet there is increasing evidence that our lust for blood is instinctually based, biologically programmed, and reinforced by stimuli in our environment, especially with regard to the presence of blood as a signal that we have been successful predators and thus able to survive.

We are all sadists at heart, argued Aristotle, Freud, and famously, the Marquis de Sade. All sensations, even those that are painful, can become pleasurable as a function of their pure stimulation of the nervous system, as well as awareness of the fragility of life. When we are able to put some distance between the violence and ourselves, as in entertainment media, there is a blurring of the boundaries between pain and pleasure, between horror and fascination. It is the detachment and awareness that the video game, movie, or scene from a vampire tale is not real that permits indulgence in the most forbidden thoughts and feelings.

Some of the most disturbing psychological experiments have confirmed the ways that people are capable of extreme cruelty if they feel they have permission. Philip Zimbardo's studies in mock prisons showed the ways that ordinary people can become quite sadistic in certain contexts, especially if given permission by an authority figure to do so. This phenomenon was highlighted even more dramatically in other studies by Stanley Milgrim, in which men in white lab coats told participants that it was perfectly okay to shock their partners (paid actors)—who were screaming in agony—even to the point of death. As much as we might shake our heads in disgust at what took place in real prisons, concentration camps, or the Coliseum of Rome, we are far more capable of violence and cruelty than we are willing to admit.

It is also peculiar the ways we subject ourselves to horrifying experiences, albeit vicariously, but are at a complete loss to understand what drives us to do so. Whether among hyenas or humans, there is a legacy from ancestors that makes us hyperalert to violence and its aftermath. There is something about the prospect of bloodshed that people find both compelling and intriguing. One feminist scholar, who rails against the depersonalization and oppression of women as victims in violent media, reluctantly admits she is also a fan of them: "I am irresistibly drawn to horror movies and simultaneously repulsed by them." It is the rational mind, the reflective thought asking, "What the heck am I doing watching this stuff?" that triggers the revulsion; it is a baser instinct that draws us into the vicarious experience in the first place.

Violence in general, and murder in particular—especially grotesque killing—is a form of escape from the drudgery of our lives. It is entertaining precisely because it is so different from anything else we experience on a daily basis. On some level we hunger for action and excitement that is missing in our routines. This isn't so much because the ways we spend our time is without purpose, or even passion, but the result of genetic programming that prepared us to function as thoroughbred racehorses rather than pack mules.

The neurological, endocrine, and muscular systems of the human body are exquisitely designed to tune into potential violence and danger, and then respond decisively. Certain emotional responses—fear, for example—are hardwired into our bodies. In the face of mortal danger, the fraction of a millisecond that it takes to send a warning from the brain to the large muscles used to fight or flee may still be too slow. That's why, in addition to the electrical signals that are launched through the neurological system, there is an even more efficient biochemical messenger that can be routed through the endocrine system. This option doesn't really even need the brain to interpret or translate what is happening—you just react, almost instantaneously, to a perceived threat. Even babies are born with this startle response, which is activated when they hear loud noises, for example.

For our ancestors who confronted the constant threats of predators and warfare, to react hesitantly would have resulted in a very short lifespan. We are all the products of spectacularly violent ancestors who survived and procreated largely because of their ability as stalkers and killers; their peers who were more peacefully inclined were wiped out by the likes of Vlad the Impaler, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Hernándo Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Alexander the Great, Joseph Stalin, or Adolf Hitler. We each hold within us the capacity to respond violently and swiftly to any threat or problem that confronts us. The problem today is that although we've retained the taste for violence that would have once saved our lives when facing a saber-toothed tiger or hostile enemy, we no longer face those situations in which the lust for blood remains functional—unless you work as a soldier or a professional fighter.

People who can afford it will pay huge sums of money for big-game hunting in which they experience the thrill of the hunt that has all but vanished from contemporary life. In addition to hunting large animals, they will pay premium fees to kill rare or endangered species. There are even reported cases in Cambodia of opportunities to shoot a cow with a bazooka or rocket launcher for the bargain price of three hundred dollars (which includes videos being posted on the Web). For those who don't wish to leave home, "crush videos" are becoming the rage, in which you can watch naked women in stiletto shoes stomp mice or kittens to death.

For most of us, about the only real-life physical danger we encounter on a daily basis is crossing a busy street or negotiating rush-hour traffic. Still, the hunger for risks is so strong that many people deliberately put themselves in harm's way in order to satisfy their need for stimulation. In fact, adventure-based travel is one of the fastest-growing segments of the entertainment industry, largely designed to feed public interest in minimal-risk, controlled excitement. That is why we pay good money to ride roller coasters, jump out of airplanes or off cliffs, or watch movies that really make us jump out of our skin.

For those without the courage to fight on a real battlefield, or the time and resources to finance an expedition to Everest or a hunting trip to Africa, we must make do with vicarious thrills. Thus tales of blood and violence, or better yet—realistic visual enactments—whether on the football field or movie screen, capture our interest in ways that few other experiences could touch. And this began from the earliest age with bedtime stories featuring witches, goblins, and monsters, or tales around the campfire that describe ghosts and demented killers on the loose. Throughout the ages, children have been indoctrinated into the violent legends, myths, and stories that have been passed on from one generation to the next.


Not only did biology predispose us to become aroused by violence and death, but so, too, are we culturally programmed to respond that way. We are bombarded by paradoxical messages that we should act peacefully and yet we are constantly teased and enticed by media images of aggression. The best predictor of a show's or a film's success is its budget for special effects, body count, and displays of violent action. Even supposedly educational vehicles, like the Discovery Channel, are watched most avidly when they show real-life predators trapping and eating their prey.

There are functional reasons why we should be curious about death and feel drawn to watching violent struggles unfold. These are potential object lessons so that we can learn from others' misfortunes. Based on what is observed, there is a belief that we may be able to prevent something similar from happening.


Excerpted from the lust for blood by JEFFREY A. KOTTLER Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey A. Kottler. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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