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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 

Drugs! Blades! Death!

The brutal murders of Steven Bayliss and Nuttawut Nadauld by Tom Palmer were almost a wet dream come true for the tabloids (and other media). Obsessed with knives! Addicted to skunk! Watched a movie about a serial killer stabbing his victims to death repeatedly in the days before the murders!

How much any of those things actually influenced the murders is open to question. Sentencing Palmer, the judge told him the most likely explanation for his behaviour was "a sudden and lethal explosion of anger, although what caused it remains something of a mystery". The whole addiction to skunk and developing schizophrenia defense was the one actively pursued by Palmer's lawyers. The psychiatrist who has been treating Palmer since his arrest himself said that cannabis had exacerbated Palmer's descent into mental illness, but that it was not the cause.

Indeed, Palmer's family background itself may hold just as much light for why he eventually came to murder two of his friends for no apparent reason. Even the Daily Mail is forced to admit that:

[But] they did report that the 20-year-old has a family history of breakdowns, nervous disorders and even schizophrenia

This isn't to dismiss out of hand the effects of strong cannabis and the links between those who smoke it and go on to develop psychosis. Those who already have a family background of mental illness, or who have in the past suffered from mental ill-health are those most at risk from habitually smoking the drug. As with any other drug, teenagers, with their minds still developing, are better off leaving well alone at least until they're 18. The risk posed however is far more slight than that which the media has tried to present. At the weekend, the Independent on Sunday claimed it had got it wrong in campaigning for the decriminalisation of cannabis, leading Transform to fisk the arguments of the Sindie into oblivion.

One friend, giving evidence, gave further insight into his mindset just before the murders. He had carved swastikas into his stomach, which ought to be enough for anyone to realise that he needed to talk to someone, and urgently. We're not told of his relationship with his family, but it seems bitterly ironic that his father is apparently a nurse at Broadmoor.

His so-called obsession with knives is also open to question. The Daily Mail's article does its best to hype this up, then's forced into admitting:

He had access to weapons and knives through his interest in outdoor activities and sport - hobbies which appear to have begun innocently enough, but by the time of the killings he was proficient in several martial arts and kept stocks of practice equipment in his bedroom.

It appears then that he good excuses for having knives, and that it was only with his mental health apparently in decline, with paranoia levels rising, that he started carrying them.

Which leaves us with his other "obsession", horror films. His favourite, according to both the Sun and the Daily Mail, or at least the one he watched in the days leading up to the murders, was the Last Horror Movie. Here's the Sun's take:

The court had heard Palmer was obsessed with violent horror films. His favourite was The Last Horror Movie, in which a serial killer videos himself slitting throats.

The 1982 movie also features a gory beheading.

Just a slight problem with this. The Last Horror Movie was made in 2003, and as far as I'm aware, as I own the DVD and have just flicked through it to be reasonably sure, there's no beheading. Sure, there is at least one throat being slit, someone's set on fire while tied to a chair, and he feeds the cooked flesh of his victims to his friends and family amongst other things, but there's no beheading.

The Last Horror Movie is in fact more a pitch-black comedy than it is a horror film. Taking its lead from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Man Bites Dog, it's one of those films on the edge of the genre that make the viewer question their own complicity in watching the carnage associated with stalk and slash. The whole plot itself is ridiculous, as the protagonist, despite leaving mountains of evidence, is never caught. The conceit is that this is a slasher film that's been taped over by some lunatic (or rather not a lunatic, as he claims convincingly that he isn't mad) with his own graphic home video, and that his next victim is in fact you for not turning it off. Compared to the glut in gory horror now coming from America, exemplified by the likes of the Saw series, the Devil's Rejects and Hostel, it's on a whole different intellectual plane, and I would of thought not been too appealing to someone more interested in blood and guts than in the whole debate about what role horror films play in the modern consciousness.

The case sparked warnings about the dangers of gruesome DVDs and using skunk. Labour MP Martin Salter said some horror films were “practically snuff movies”.

Would this possibly be the same Sun newspaper that was last week giving away a free horror film DVD every day? Indeed, one of the films it gave away (Evil Dead, banned in the aftermath of the video nasties moral panic, was only classified by the BBFC on video in 1990, and then with nearly 2 minutes cut) was one it along with the Daily Mail lambasted in the 80s and early 90s as being responsible for general moral decay and for warping the minds of children. As for Mr Salter's daft comments, there are films that are practically snuff movies, but they're the ones currently being produced by jihadist groups as propaganda, not the ones that Hollywood and independent film makers in this country are making.

We may well never find out exactly what caused Palmer to kill his two friends on that day. All the evidence however suggests that he had suffered a slow descent into depression and psychosis, even if neither had became fully developed. Skunk may indeed have exacerbated this, as the psychiatrist said, but it seems unlikely that it was the sole cause. More does need to be done to teach youngsters that cannabis is not risk-free, as the head of Rethink states, but then neither are cigarettes or alcohol, with some evidence suggesting that it poses far less of a risk than either. As ever, an apparently unexplainable act of murderous violence has been blamed variously on drugs, horror films and obsession with knives, when none of these in actual fact come close to making clear what actually happened. It's easier to do than instead realise that the warning signs may well have been there, and simply weren't noticed.

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Thanks for the link to the Transform debunk of the Independents attack of reefer madness. There was more of the same this weekend - critiqued here:


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