Continuing the discussion in my last post, I'd like to look at one particular serial killer — David Berkowitz, aka the Son of Sam, who terrorized New York City in 1976 and 1977 — and see if the spirit-possession hypothesis fits the facts of the case.
First, here are the relevant parts of Berkowitz's biography, taken from the Wikipedia page on Son of Sam.
Berkowitz, who was adopted as an infant, was said to have a "troubled" childhood.
Although of above-average intelligence, he lost interest in learning at an early age and became infatuated with petty larceny and starting fires. Neighbors and relatives would recall Berkowitz as difficult, spoiled, and a bully. His adoptive parents consulted at least one psychotherapist due to his misconduct, but his misbehavior never resulted in legal intervention or serious mention in his school records.
When Berkowitz was twenty-three, after a stint in the Army and an honorable discharge, the killings began. One theory is that the murders were triggered by Berkowitz's discovery that he'd been born outside of wedlock, and that both his natural father and a prospective stepfather had been unwilling to care for him. Why this should have upset his mental balance and produced an animus against young women with long dark hair is unclear.
Berkowitz began ambushing couples in parked cars, shooting them with a .44 revolver. As his crimes gained notoriety, he left a message at the scene of one killing. It was a long rambling missive written in crude block letters with many misspellings.
I am deeply hurt by your calling me a wemon hater. I am not. But I am a monster. I am the "Son of Sam." I am a little "brat". When father Sam gets drunk he gets mean. He beats his family. Sometimes he ties me up to the back of the house. Other times he locks me in the garage. Sam loves to drink blood. "Go out and kill" commands father Sam. Behind our house some rest. Mostly young — raped and slaughtered — their blood drained — just bones now. Papa Sam keeps me locked in the attic, too. I can't get out but I look out the attic window and watch the world go by. I feel like an outsider. I am on a different wave length then everybody else—programmed too kill. However, to stop me you must kill me. Attention all police: Shoot me first — shoot to kill or else. Keep out of my way or you will die! Papa Sam is old now. He needs some blood to preserve his youth. He has had too many heart attacks. Too many heart attacks. "Ugh, me hoot it urts sonny boy." I miss my pretty princess most of all. She's resting in our ladies house but I'll see her soon. I am the "Monster" — "Beelzebub" — the "Chubby Behemouth." I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game — tasty meat. The wemon of Queens are z prettyist of all. I must be the water they drink. I live for the hunt—my life. Blood for papa. Mr. Borrelli, sir, I dont want to kill anymore no sir, no more but I must, "honour thy father." I want to make love to the world. I love people. I don't belong on Earth. Return me to yahoos. To the people of Queens, I love you. And I wa want to wish all of you a happy Easter. May God bless you in this life and in the next and for now I say goodbye and goodnight. Police — Let me haunt you with these words; I'll be back! I'll be back! To be interrpreted as — bang, bang, bang, bank, bang — ugh!! Yours in murder Mr. Monster
It was this message that gave the killer his nickname. On the basis of this document, psychological profilers described him as a paranoid schizophrenic who "believed himself to be a victim of demonic possession."
A letter to prominent New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin followed. This one was more polished in spelling, grammar, and printing.
Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood. Hello from the sewers of N.Y.C. which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed in the dried blood of the dead that has settled into the cracks. ... You can forget about me if you like because I don't care for publicity. However you must not forget Donna Lauria [one of his victims] and you cannot let the people forget her either. She was a very, very sweet girl but Sam's a thirsty lad and he won't let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood. Mr. Breslin, sir, don't think that because you haven't heard from me for a while that I went to sleep. No, rather, I am still here. Like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest; anxious to please Sam. I love my work. Now, the void has been filled. ... [I]f I shall be fortunate enough to meet you I will tell you all about Sam if you like and I will introduce you to him. His name is "Sam the terrible." Not knowing what the future holds I shall say farewell and I will see you at the next job. Or should I say you will see my handiwork at the next job? Remember Ms. Lauria. Thank you. In their blood and from the gutter "Sam's creation" .44 Here are some names to help you along. Forward them to the inspector for use by N.C.I.C: [sic] "The Duke of Death" "The Wicked King Wicker" "The Twenty Two Disciples of Hell" "John 'Wheaties' – Rapist and Suffocator of Young Girls. PS: Please inform all the detectives working the slaying to remain. ... Son of Sam
About three months later, Berkowitz was captured. By all accounts he showed no distress when placed under arrest. One version has him ask the police what took them so long, while in another version he tells the detective, "I'm Sam," adding, "Sam. David Berkowitz."
Berkowitz's apartment was a mess, "with Satanic graffiti on the walls." Police found diaries kept for years, recording "hundreds of arsons that he claimed to have set throughout New York City."
In his initial interrogation Berkowitz "quickly confessed to the shootings and expressed an interest in pleading guilty. During questioning, Berkowitz claimed that his neighbor's dog was one of the reasons that he killed, stating that the dog demanded the blood of pretty young girls. He said that the 'Sam' mentioned in the first letter was his former neighbor Sam Carr. Berkowitz claimed that Carr's black labrador retriever Harvey was possessed by an ancient demon and that it issued irresistible commands that Berkowitz must kill people."
In a post-arrest letter to a New York newspaper, "Berkowitz alluded to his original story of demonic possession but closed with a warning that has been interpreted by some investigators as an admission of criminal accomplices: 'There are other Sons out there, God help the world.'"
Two years later, however, Berkowitz publicly disavowed his earlier claims of demonic possession. "Berkowitz stated in a series of meetings with his special court-appointed psychiatrist David Abrahamsen that he had long contemplated murder to get revenge at a world that he felt had rejected and hurt him.Berkowitz claimed he felt particular anger due to his lack of success with women, and thus singled out attractive young women as victims."
In ensuing years,
Berkowitz began to claim that he had joined a Satanic cult in the spring of 1975. In 1993, Berkowitz made these claims known when he announced to the press that he had only killed three of the Son of Sam victims.... In his revised version of the events, Berkowitz said that other shooters were involved and that he fired the gun only in the first attack ... and the sixth.... He said that he and several other cult members were involved in every incident by planning the events, providing early surveillance of the victims, and acting as lookouts and drivers at the crime scenes. Berkowitz stated that he could not divulge the names of most of his accomplices without putting his family directly at risk....
Berkowitz did name two of the cult members: John and Michael Carr. The two men were sons of the dog-owner Sam Carr and they lived on nearby Warburton Avenue. Both of these other "sons of Sam" were long dead: John Carr had been killed by a shooting judged a suicide in North Dakota during 1978, and Michael Carr had been in a fatal car accident in 1979.
Although an investigation into Berkowitz's claims was opened, nothing came of it, and most authorities see his story as a fantasy.
After ten years in prison, Berkowitz became an evangelical Christian. He has said he does not deserve parole. He remains in prison today. He is now 65 years old.
That's a bare summary. What I'd like to do is look at this story from the standpoint that Berkowitz really was possessed (or obsessed or harassed) by a controlling entity — not necessarily a "demon" in the Biblical sense, but some malevolent postmortem personality that remained earthbound. Please note that I'm not by any means insisting that this interpretation is correct. This is more in the nature of a thought experiment, a "what if" scenario.
It's clear that Berkowitz was somewhat unstable in his formative years, yet he doesn't appear to have begun committing homicides until age 23. This is a bit late for the arrival of full-blown schizophrenia in males, but not implausibly so. I think it can be assumed that Berkowitz was genuinely psychotic.
This fact in itself doesn't rule out possession. Dr. Carl Wickland, in his pioneering 1924 study Thirty Years Among the Dead, offers many examples of schizophrenic patients who were apparently cured or at least greatly improved by a session with his wife, a medium, who would contact the obsessing spirit and persuade it to leave the patient alone. If there are harassing spirits, it seems likely that they would focus their attention on the most vulnerable humans — those who are already weakened by mental illness or by an addiction to alcohol or drugs. This, in fact, is the consistent message conveyed by mediums and automatists.
Although Berkowitz later denied his claim of demonic possession, it's noteworthy that even before he was caught, psychological profilers attributed this belief to him on the basis of his first message, and that, after his capture, "Satanic graffiti" was found on the walls of his apartment. One possibility is that Berkowitz really did believe he was possessed, but later rejected the idea under pressure from his psychiatrist, who likely saw it as an unhealthy fixation and an attempt to disown personal responsibility. Even after publicly disavowing the possession idea, Berkowitz continued to insist that there was a Satanic connection to the attacks, speaking of a mysterious cult populated by people who went unnamed or were conveniently dead.
"There are other Sons out there, God help the world," Berkowitz wrote after his arrest. This has been interpreted as possibly pointing to accomplices, but another reading is that there are other people on Earth who are targets of harassing spirits and who will be driven to the same homicidal behavior. "God help the world" takes on a different meaning in this context.
In his first, semiliterate message, Berkowitz presents himself as a kind of demonic entity:
I am a monster. I am the "Son of Sam." ... Sam loves to drink blood. "Go out and kill" commands father Sam.... Papa Sam keeps me locked in the attic, too. I can't get out but I look out the attic window and watch the world go by. I feel like an outsider.
There was no real-life attic. Could this image reflect the experience of a person trapped in his own body, with no will of his own, compelled to watch "like an outsider" as he does unspeakable things?
I am on a different wave length then everybody else — programmed too kill. However, to stop me you must kill me. Attention all police: Shoot me first — shoot to kill or else. Keep out of my way or you will die!
"On a different wave length" is an interesting choice of words. It's become a cliche in spiritualism to talk about levels of vibration, with the lower frequencies corresponding to undeveloped earthbound spirits. Note also that part of him, at least, seems eager to die. ("You must kill me. Shoot me first.")
I am the "Monster" — "Beelzebub" — the "Chubby Behemouth." I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game — tasty meat.... I live for the hunt — my life. Blood for papa. Mr. Borrelli, sir, I dont want to kill anymore no sir, no more but I must, "honour thy father." I want to make love to the world. I love people. I don't belong on Earth. Return me to yahoos.
This is tolerably explicit. He is Beezelbub, hunting victims ("tasty meat") to provide "blood for papa." He must kill to "honour" his father. He doesn't belong on Earth. Even the enigmatic words "return me to yahoos" could be significant. Yahoos are low-level, unevolved, semihuman creatures — "a race of brutes ... who have the form and all the vices of humans," according to Merriam-Webster.
And I wa [sic] want to wish all of you a happy Easter. May God bless you in this life and in the next and for now I say goodbye and goodnight. Police—Let me haunt you with these words; I'll be back! I'll be back!
The mocking reference to Easter is just what we would expect to hear from a possessed person, and the references to the next life and to haunting also suggest a strongly supernatural cast to his thinking. No wonder the profilers concluded that he believed he was possessed.
The letter to Breslin is essentially more of the same.
Sam's a thirsty lad and he won't let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood.... I am still here. Like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest; anxious to please Sam. I love my work. Now, the void has been filled.
Berkowitz's thinking is obviously deeply confused. I suspect it always will be. He seems to veer from one explanation of his behavior to another — demonic possession, a pathological response to female rejection, membership in a Satanic cult. But perhaps all these explanations contain an element of truth.
Let's suppose that Berkowitz, in his instability and vulnerability, became prey to a malign influence from the spirit world. He would indeed have been possessed or obsessed. At the same time, his focus on young women could well reflect his personal frustrations, which the possessing entity used for its own purposes.
Moreover, why should we limit our hypothesis to a single possessing entity? Perhaps, like the Biblical demoniac infested by a "legion," Berkowitz was harassed by multiple entities that ganged up on him. Could this be the source of his later confused account of a Satanic cult, of which he was only a member? Maybe his accomplices were real enough, but not anything earthly.
In prison Berkowitz has become a born-again Christian. He is said to be a model prisoner. He has expressed remorse and declined to seek parole. The mother of one of his victims even forgave him. He seems to have found some kind of peace. Could it be that by aligning himself with a more benevolent supernatural mythos, he has closed the door to "demonic" intervention? The Tibetan Book of the Dead advises the recently deceased person not to believe in the frightening thought-forms that may appear before him. But if he is unable to see through these illusions, he can try instead to align himself with a more positive thought-form, such as the image of an iconic deity. For many Westerners, this would be the image of Jesus Christ, which may be why Jesus crops up in many Western near-death experiences and mediumistic communications. The same effect may be found in our earthly state; focusing on Jesus as a source of "higher vibrations" may help ward off the entities that feed on "lower vibrations." Perhaps Berkowitz's fundamentalism is a crude but necessary psychological defense against the unseen forces that have assailed him throughout his life.
Again, this is only a thought experiment. I don't know what really made David Berkowitz become the Son of Sam. No doubt it was a combination of things. Was one of those things the intense mental pressure of a harassing low-level spirit (or group of spirits)? I can't say. But the case itself arguably provides some support for this interpretation.