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Son of Sam and the killers who hear voices

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On 29 July 1976, a woman named Donna Lauria was shot dead for no apparent reason in New York City. At the time, nobody could have guessed it would be the first in a string of shocking shootings which would bring widespread panic to the Big Apple. When the assailant, David Berkowitz, was eventually caught, he became notorious for both his unusual moniker – “Son of Sam” – and for his claim that he’d been told to commit his murders by a demon entity manifested in a dog called Harvey.

Across the Atlantic, an equally infamous serial killer was active at the same time as the Son of Sam. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, viciously attacked and killed numerous women before being snared. And, like Berkowitz, claimed to have been motivated by voices in his head.

“Hearing voices” is a phenomenon commonly attributed to both serial killers and sudden, one-off murderers. The concept has a strange, eerie fascination, and has been milked by crime novelists and the makers of film and TV thrillers for decades. But the truth behind this somewhat cliched phenomenon can be intriguingly nuanced and endlessly controversial.

Experts divide serial killers into different types. One of these types is the “visionary serial killer”. These are the ones who claim to hear voices in their heads – from ghosts, from Satan, from God. There can be some debate on the nature of these voices. Paranoid schizophrenia could be the underlying cause, with the killer suffering a break from reality and being bombarded by auditory hallucination.

Or, the visionary serial killer may somehow be subconsciously rationalising their actions. “When these killers hear voices from God, what they're really hearing is only their own inner voice, imagined permutations of what's in their own minds,” suggests Dr Helen Morrison, author of My Life Among the Serial Killers. “They may want to have someone else to blame for their inhuman deeds or they may want to feel more important than they really are, as if they are angels of God sent to earth to scrub it clean from its immoral filth”.

This sums up the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, who claimed he’d been on a divine mission to rid the streets of sinful prostitutes. He alleged that he first heard the voice of God while working as a gravedigger – it apparently emanated from the gravestone of a long-dead Polish man called Zapolski. Sutcliffe described it as “a voice similar to a human voice, like an echo”. He claimed this same voice later told him that prostitutes were “the scum of the earth and had to be got rid of”.

The question is, were the voices the result of mental illness or a form of twisted self-rationalisation? Or did he simply make the whole story up? Psychiatrists at the time diagnosed him as having paranoid schizophrenia, yet the jury rejected the idea, and he was sent down as a cold-blooded murderer. At least one of the detectives who worked on the case, John Stainthorpe, later voiced his cynicism about the whole thing, saying: “I never believed it was he who thought up this ‘voices from God’ defence… He pulled the wool over everybody's eyes. They may have told him it would be a softer sentence.”

The Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, openly confessed he’d made up the story of the demon dog telling him to kill. In a letter to a psychiatrist, he said “It was all a hoax, a silly hoax, well planned and thought out.”

Berkowitz clearly believed it was rationalisation on his part – a need to “somehow mentally convince myself that there was some meaning, purpose and justification for my acts.” He even admitted to taking inspiration from horror films like The Exorcist and The Omen, and coined a new word – “pseudopossession” – to describe his own case. “Let's say I needed to be possessed,” he wrote.

While cases like Berkowitz prove some killers will outright lie about hearing voices, and others like Peter Sutcliffe can still divide opinion and muddy the waters of consensus, there are also other cases where killers were indisputably motivated by those infamous “voices in the head”.

Hannah Bonser is a particularly sad example – in 2012, this intensely troubled woman stabbed a complete stranger to death in a park in Doncaster. Bonser had already gone to health authorities, warning that she was hearing voices that were telling her to kill. She had also told friends she felt crows were spying on her, and actually begged to be “locked up”.

Cases as different as Berkowitz, Sutcliffe and Bonser prove that, behind the seemingly simplistic phenomenon of lethal inner voices, there’s a whole spectrum of complexity, which may sometimes elude and confuse us with tragic and devastating effect.