The Dark Powers of the Human Imagination: Some Thoughts on Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer

By Adam J. Pearson

Anyone who wishes to deeply understand the nature, potentials, and powers of the human mind cannot simply survey its beautiful aspects and products.  These positive currents and fruits of the human psychological experience are undoubtedly essential and remarkable; we must certainly attend to the powers of the mind and human heart that enable us to produce great works of art, to conduct beautiful acts of kindness, compassion, justice, courage, and every other kind of virtue, and to make awe-inspiring scientific breakthroughs such as those made by Albert Einstein and countless other scientists.  We must be aware of the advances that humanity has made in the production of beneficial medical technologies, and the securing of a safe and healthy quality of life for billions of human beings.   If we put our inquiry to rest with humanity’s positive achievements, however, our portrait of the human mind remains incomplete, like a coin with a vibrant image on one side, and a blank face on the other.

The same human mind that produced the triumphant achievements of Rembrandt and Monet also produced the systematic genocides of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot.  The same majestic human imagination that envisioned the music of Mozart and Bach also drove Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer to murder countless innocent people in cold blood.  These latter two serial killers are striking cases in point; as one watches the interviews that were conducted and filmed with them, one gets a palpable sense of just how horrifyingly fertile their imaginations were.

Bundy and Dahmer were men who lived in fantasy worlds of their own construction, worlds which grew so vivid, so striking, and so overpowering that they overtook their clear perceptions of the physical and social reality in which they lived.  Their imaginations conjured up images that were so horrifying that they frightened the killers themselves, and yet, exerted such a powerful force, that the killers felt themselves compelled to move them out of their minds and into reality.

Like twisted artists, once Dahmer and Bundy had envisioned the grisly crimes that they could carry out, imagining every single detail, they felt a strong urge to carry them out.   Neither of these killers was a psychopath, that is, a person devoid of the capacity for empathy or remorse.  Both expressed clear signs of remorse in the aftermath of their crimes; however, their powerful imaginations overwhelmed their feeling for their fellow human beings.  The full, living, breathing, innocent human beings in their environments were reduced to mere fantasy objects; the urge to control and use overwhelmed their sense of humane fellow feeling.

This is not to say that the two killers were mere victims of inner forces.  Neither Dahmer nor Bundy was a victim; in their final interviews, both men expressed a sense of profound responsibility for what they did and rejected all attempts to blame their families for their actions.  However, both of these killers saw the world through horrifyingly dark and violent imaginations that reshaped everything they saw in light of the terrible fantasies that dominated their inner lives.  In them, the ordinary human tendency to imagine and dream was sharpened to such an acute point that it cut through all of their other priorities, socialized inhibitions, values, and codes of morality.   Both men have expressed in their interviews that they felt themselves torn between a sense of vivid first-person agency – a sense of personal triumph in their brutal domination of their victims – and a sense of disconnected third-person spectatorship – it seemed at times as if they became mere spectators to their own actions, watching themselves, as if from outside, carrying out the brutal murders of innocent individuals.

The lesson of serial killers like Bundy and Dahmer for humanity at large is that the imagination is not only a realm of beauty and light; it also harbors tremendously dark and horrifying powers that exert, on some individuals, an unshakable influence that is at once repulsive and attractive.  There are terrifying potentials and shadows within all of us that are rarely acknowledged precisely because of how terrifying they are.  As sincere inquirers into the nature of the minds that drive our lives, however, we must be willing to look deeply into this darkness and give an honest account of the inner shades that coexist with the inner beacons of resplendent light, the roots of our most beautiful actions and achievements.


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