Sunday, June 19, 2011

How Do They Look Just Before They Die?

I've just started reading a new book named 'The Psychopath Test' by Jon Ronson, and it seems both entertaining and interesting.
In the first chapter Ronson describes an episode during a visit to the University College London School of Psychology where some neuro-psychology related research takes place. Here he was told about one of the researchers who interviews psychopaths. It went like this:

I heard a story about [the researcher] once ... She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify the emotion. He said he didn't know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them.

Now whether or not someone actually said this in an interview, it is obviously a joke and not meant to be taken seriously. But it reminded me of my own issues with identifying certain emotions - and sometimes all emotions if they're not strongly enough expressed. I thought of the interviews I've been through and the questions I've been asked about how the people I've killed looked during the event and right before I killed them.

The 'funny' thing about this is that people generally don't look very frightened when the moment comes and they know that now they'll die. I've seen people look much more afraid when they get startled, f.x. by a sudden entry of someone they're afraid of. But even then it's not that simple, because fear and surprise can look very much alike, so maybe it's more about me reading my expectations into their expressions based on the knowledge I have about whether or not they're afraid of me/someone already before they get startled.

I made a search on expressions of fear with the intention of finding one or more pictures where people have the expression I've seen on the faces of those I killed.
There weren't many that really resembled the expressions I remember. Most of the photos were exaggerated expressions performed for the purpose of showing as clearly as possible what fear looks like.

But I found a couple of pictures that somewhat conveys how people really look in the situations that I have been witness to, their expressions just before I killed them, but also a few occasions where I wasn't the killer but an observer. The picture above is the one that comes closest, especially to my own three experiences with seeing people in this kind of situation.

As the Reader will probably agree, the woman looks more slightly surprised than afraid. I wouldn't personally identify her expression as fear, but it was on the page among the pictures and photos of people expressing fear.



Anonymous said...

"I heard a story about [the researcher] once ... She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify the emotion. He said he didn't know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them."

That sounds like an aspie, I'm sure psychopaths can read facial expressions perfectly, they just lack empathy because they are callous. He could have just lied about not knowing what the facial expression meant, there is 100 different reasons, without some solid studies you can't take the word of a convicted killer for obvious reasons.

Zhawq said...

They aren't my words, but allegedly the words of someone who was diagnosed as a psychopath.

You can find the very sentence I quote in the book 'The Psychopath Test' by Jon Ronson, at the bottom on p. 10 and the top at p. 11.

I respect your position, of course, but I assure you, I am not throwing about with unfounded quotes or facts.

- If I may ask you: What are the obvious reasons for not taking the word of someone because they have killed?

I have killed, yes. But I didn't lie when I did it. Killing is an act, not a verbal formulation of neither truth not lie. And to me this is an obvious reason to not link the two things.

Anonymous said...

I think it (the facial expression of the woman in the picture) looks more like disbelief than surprise or fear. But that's just my own opinion.

Anonymous said...

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Bella said...

She is staring into the abyss. It is as close to death as she will get while she still breathes.

Bella said...

She is staring into the abyss. It is as close to death as she will get while she still breathes.

ZKM said...

Beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous. This is close, but not quite what I consider, the ideal expression.

I'm a bit quirky, an aestheticist, I might call myself. I really have an obsession with 'ritual'. Certain things have to be a certain way, or they are meaningless; a waste of time.

I really garnered a fascination and obsession with facial expression at an early age. It was like people were speaking a language I could not. To this day I still stop people mid-motion and ask them to describe, exactly what it is they are feeling.

I like to invoke certain expressions like a painter on canvass. I will tell you that this emotion is not fear, it is what one might call 'shock'. It is best described as the transition from fear to... almost confusion. You do not have to kill a person to get this expression, you need to make their fears come true. Fear is an anticipatory emotion, this is after that. Have you ever seen the face of a rape victim or a man whose wife just burnt to death in their home? Same gorgeous expression, really accentuates the eyes.

Anonymous said...

I have gone here myself -into "the abyss." I have felt this way, and had this expression. I then want to escape. It's rare. I wouldn't call it beautiful, i would call it aware of nothingness.

You need to snap out of that in order to live, I think.

i suppose it CAN be beautiful, but really, only in a fantasy mindset for me -in escapism. I may try to experiment one day, and try other ways to escape. I do wonder if that is possible.

Anonymous said...

I think she looks happy.

Anonymous said...

this is the universal facial expression of surprise with the eye brows raised and slack jaw whereas fear has the eyebrows raised and drawn together and the corners of the mouth pulled down, ive learnt this from reading paul ekmans books so i can improve my own skill at attempting to see what others feel.

Anonymous said...

gawky surprise. It makes me want to hurt her.

SaschaVykos said...

Maybe it looks like shock because they are letting it sink in their life is over. Do they make this expression like seconds before you kill them or as soon as you start being violent with them?
If it was me id have my hands over my head and crouching and crying i think. Depends what mood my borderline personality has me in.

Anonymous said...

I think she looks terrified...

Anonymous said...

Did you seriously kill somebody?

Zhawq said...

Anon July 6. -15, 10:48 PM,

Yes, I was quite serious. Never the kind to laugh or make crazy smiles or remarks during the kills. I wouldn't say I was "grim", but I was serious.

Nenya said...

Why wouldn't you laugh? I'd thought you'd feel pleasure, or do you just feel nothing instead. Perhaps killing is the closest thing to feeling you get... like in taking life you feel the closest to being alive? What if you kill someone like you or someone with no emotional reaction whatsoever or some lunatic laughing, does it still satisfy regardless?

Zhawq said...


most people just don't look particularly funny when they die. Of course there can be rare occasions when someone will make the strangest sounds and grimaces, but you yourself are usually very alert about your surroundings so all your attention isn't on the "victim", you're doing a job that you want to do quickly and then leave as fast and silently as you can.

I think, if I killed someone who started laughing - providing it wasn't an immediate kill, of course - I would probably inwardly feel somewhat puzzled and wonder if something was wrong with him or just ponder how thew human psyche can produce results like this, but I wouldn't find it funny.

The only kind of death that I have ever found funny in that sense were when people were blown up and had time to get that very surprised look just before they weren't really human anymore. But in that situation I'm a spectator and I guess that makes it different somehow.

Anonymous said...

This struck me as frozen in shock. I agree with KZM that fear is anticipation and this is when it becomes reality.

Something about this article brings home to me the stone coldness of psychopathy more than anything else I can think of.