Almost alone. Which is to say, if you were trapped in a house with a homicidal maniac, who would you most want to have with you?
I have been pondering this question lately. Not, you will be happy to hear, because I am trapped in the house with a homicidal maniac. Rather, it’s the fault of the Internet Archive.
More specifically, it’s due to some of the movies in their catalogue – thinking especially of The Case of the Frightened Lady and The Ninth Guest. Both of these films (spoilers!) include the trope of the homicidal maniac. And in both cases, the homicidal maniac looks perfectly normal (fair enough) – until the audience finds out who it is. Then, of course, it is all wide, staring eyes and rabid laughter.
As the actor Paddy Considine said, “All you’ve got to do is turn up and have a few facial tics and be a lunatic and throw someone around the room or blow their brains out and people think it’s good acting.” Very unsubtle, not to mention unrealistic.
But this is the problem with the aforementioned films, which otherwise aren’t too bad, as films go. There’s no subtlety. One moment someone appears perfectly normal, and the next they’re frothing at the mouth. If we are to take movies as our guide, what causes homicidal maniacs to lose their rag is someone finding out that they’re a homicidal maniac. Up until that point, they’re just politely and quietly homicidal when no-one’s looking. (Especially not a cameraman.)
Needless to say, this is not very realistic. In fact, according to this article, very few serial killers are actually insane. Of course, this is from a point of view that doesn’t consider someone insane just because they’re a psychopath. In order to be legally insane, you have to be sufficiently distant from reality to be unaware that killing people is wrong (and by wrong, they mean ‘against the law’). This is extremely rare. Most serial killers know killing people is against the law, they just don’t care.
That leaves us with the uncomfortable conclusion that most serial killers are sane. (For a given value of sane.) And it goes without saying – or it should, but I’ll say it anyway – that the vast majority of people with mental health problems are not serial killers. In fact, they are by some accounts more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence. (Also, in case you were wondering, the whole multiple-personalities-and-one’s-a-psychopath thing is also a non-starter – for reasons explained here.)
But we still have that idea of insanity as all wild-eyed and slavering. I can even remember a case here in New Zealand where a normally ordinary-looking man (on trial for murder, attempted murder, wounding, kidnapping, aggravated burglary and shooting at police) took to wide-eyed stares and a bizarre haircut to bolster up his defence of insanity. The jury didn’t buy it; while he was undoubtedly of unsound mental health, he wasn’t legally insane.
Now obviously, if someone comes at you with, say, a samurai sword, you shouldn’t pause to consider whether they’re insane, sane, or just stepping out for a spot of tsuji-giri. At that point, it doesn’t really matter whether they are of sound mind; you should be taking evasive action.
Perhaps, then, the question should be “If you were trapped in a house with a homicidal person-of-indeterminate-sanity, who would you most like to have with you?” A hostage negotiator? Vin Diesel? Mummy? Someone you really don’t like, to act as a diversion while you leg it?
Personally, I think I’d like to have the Caped Gooseberry, for general comfort, quick thinking, and long limbs. The latter would be useful for making a quick exit through a window, which seems like the rational choice if trapped in a house with a killer (instead of the usual “let’s separate and have a look around in dark corners”). Of course, the window method only works on ground-floor buildings – or first floor, if you’re desperate – so if I receive any invitations to penthouse parties from people I don’t know, I will just have to regretfully decline.