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Why Do People Fixate on the Killer When Tragedy Strikes?

Updated on December 14, 2012
His face is everywhere.
His face is everywhere.

Colorado theater shooting highlights a quirky psychological behavior

When something horrible happens, why do people get fixated on the killer? It seems that James Holmes is now the most popular (and hated) man in America today. This seems to happen every time a tragedy strikes. What is behind our nosy and morbid curiosity?

Trying to make sense of tragedy
When something unthinkable happens, people need a reason. It is not enough to know that the universe is screwed up; there must be a motivation or underlying idea to why something so horrible can happen to innocent people. The bottom line is that a senseless tragedy is scary. It means no one can predict when or how it will strike. The fear of the unknown drives the masses to understand the “why” so they themselves will not be vulnerable.

Profiling the murderer
Watch the Twitter and Facebook feeds throughout a day like today, and it is easy to see how many of them are on James Holmes- his life, personality, and what he’s like. Taking a murderer apart piece-by-piece helps to give others a sense of security- if you know the profile of a murderer, you can avoid him in a crowd.

It is a distraction from mundane life
If you are not happy with your life or feel a frequent sense of boredom and despair; the momentary distraction is a welcome deviation from daily life. You can feel (for a moment) that you are blessed, safe, and better off than the victims or the killer. It gives a person the feeling of, “well thank God I am not such and such,” or “my kid will never turn out like because I am not making him do such and such.” Tragedy brings a strange sense of reassurance that we must be okay because our lives are not that messed up.

Crisis junkies feed on the drama
The media banks on the fact that people like “crises” because it causes a surge of stress hormones. These hormones raise vigilance, a feeling of urgency, purpose, and excitement- welcome emotions to those who feel lazy or mundane. Drama momentarily bonds people together, gives them a feeling of community, and promotes other happy hormones as they reunite against a common enemy.

People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are transfixed
Those with various phobias might find themselves unable to break away from the news. That feeling of, “What if I miss some new piece of information that completes the puzzle?” drives people who are prone to OCD to stay focused on the news updates as they come in.

Desperate to be in the “know”
No one likes to be the last person to know about an important event. For some, having the latest information on the killer gives them a sense of “importance” among friends and family. Others go to them looking for answers because he or she is known as the person with the inside scoop. It is essentially a way to build self-esteem, but unfortunately- the results are temporary. As soon as the news is old, the person must go looking for that new piece of info that will bond him/her with the community.

The bottom line
Whatever the reason may be, it is a common phenomenon in this modern world, that the media frenzy feeds all sorts of quirky habits in people intent on taking apart a senseless tragedy. Let’s hope that just as much attention, resources, and support go to the victim’s families as well.

-Julie DeNeen

[Updated December 14th, 2012] Given the trauma and tragedy of today's school shooting, I felt this article was relevant. Let's focus on the victims and not the shooter.


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    • passthejelly profile image

      Mark Passarelli 

      6 years ago from Lakewood Colorado

      The problem is not gun control... If they do not have access to guns then they will just use knifes, bombs, or other weapons. The real problem is how sick these people are. The United States has a very gun oriented culture and harsher gun control is not the solution.

    • HoneyBB profile image

      H Lax 

      6 years ago

      I think when these horrific things happened less frequently curiosity got the best of most people who wanted to know why and how something like this could happen. After this latest one, I, for one, got the general information, and then shut it off. I can't stand to see these things happening anymore. It's heartbreaking and watching it doesn't change it. Writing about it may ease the pain or find solutions to keep us from living this nightmare again some time in the future. Excellent article.

    • patchofearth profile image

      Rebecca Long 

      6 years ago from somewhere in the appalachian foothills

      "Let's focus on the victims and not the shooter."

      Well said.

    • Peanutritious profile image

      Tara Carbery 

      6 years ago from Cheshire, UK

      An insightful article. You are right, we need to look at society not just the killer. If this sociopath had not had access to a gun then perhaps 27 people's lives would not have been taken.

    • whittwrites profile image

      T.B Whitt 

      6 years ago from the Philly area

      I agree it seems it such tragedies is put on the one who commits the crime and not the one who suffers from the senseless act.

    • GoForTheJuggler profile image

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Good read. There's a song I listen too often that sums up your article quite well.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 

      6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      wow this is a great hub.. this was on dateline last night.. He is a sick person.. sick of it myself.. so glad i found this on Facebook.

      voted up

      and sharing


    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      6 years ago from England

      Hi, you got some good points here, I live in England and saw the story as it virtually broke being a few hours ahead, and I just sat there in disbelief. Of course at that time there wasn't much to go on, but as the story unfolded I did sit and watch for a while, but as someone else above said, after a while it just sickened me and I turned off, I do think the media like twitter etc do go overboard, the news over here is just letting us know each new evidence but thankfully they are not going on to much. they tend to be showing the victims more and thats a good thing, they are the important ones, all my thoughts to the families, nell

    • Kari Pete profile image

      Kari Pete 

      6 years ago from Oakland, CA

      I think there is the added issue of wanting to make the killer "other" which is sort of similar to two points you made, but not quite. If the killer is "other" not only can we avoid them by knowing about them, but we can reassure ourselves that no one in our lives is that person. You often will hear people say that "they seemed 'normal'" but that just highlights how hard it can be to predict these things, if the person can remain organized enough.

    • catgypsy profile image


      6 years ago from the South

      Hi Julie. You bring up some very interesting points as to why we do this, things I hadn't thought about before. I realized a long time ago that to

      "study" the person is useless...the sane among us will never figure out why that person did what they did. Our minds can't even work on that level. Great hub.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      6 years ago from Southern California

      The media as well as the entertainment industry is part of the problem.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nosy and morbid always attracts the masses - I am not sure why but it drives me crazy when everyone slows down in traffic to look at a tragedy...I think there is a deep thinker in you and that is not a bad thing...cheers

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 

      6 years ago

      Hi Julie, well thought out and getting right to the salient points. Hope the victims families have as much support as the all the attention unfortunately goes to the perpetrator. Have shared this, voted up and interesting.

    • Lord De Cross profile image

      Joseph De Cross 

      6 years ago from New York

      Hi Julie, Caught with this story through Twitter. Unfortunately media and morbidity are married. Both get fed and both get rewarded. Media won't talk about autism or the best student from the poorest neighborhood. Society is already on a landslade of corruption and deceiveness. Social media is not doing any better. Thanks for saying it like it is!

    • profile image

      Ghost Producer 

      6 years ago

      Great article I'm finding all kinds of articles on this guy. Look at his gun collection

      Ps are you currently in Colorado?

    • profile image

      Sunnie Day 

      6 years ago

      Great hub Julie...we need to turn our focus on the victims, praying and lifting them up during this time for sure.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Hi Julie,

      I was watching a local news station but turned the station cause they kept on repeating the story every 5 minutes.

      My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims families.

      Take care :)

    • Julie DeNeen profile imageAUTHOR

      Blurter of Indiscretions 

      6 years ago from Clinton CT

      @everyone- thank you! It's the psychology geek in me.

    • josh3418 profile image

      Joshua Zerbini 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania


      This is a very interesting angle and a thought provoker. So many people talk about the killer and forget about the victims. I for one, am very saddened for the families who have lost loved ones, and hope they get some love here soon. Such a tragic event, truly heartbreaking. Thanks Julie for presenting this story in this way.

      Let's think of those families as we spend the rest of our day today.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Bravo Julie! You make a great point and I, for one, am tired of it. We will now endure days of reports about the killer and what made him do what he did.....and very little on the victims....Sad commentary on the media and those who are spellbound by the media.

    • CarlySullens profile image

      Carly Sullens 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

      Great writing about this very horrific tragedy.

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 

      6 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      I was watching FoxNews this morning while I was writing and couldn't sleep just as this story was breaking. It was tragic and captivating for a few minutes, but once I got the information, I no longer wanted to hear about children being slaughtered while they were out with friends and family.

      Great hub and very insightful. Thank you, Julie! VUMS.


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