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Did a Metallica song really inspire two brutal murders?

Music can often become a lonely person’s best friend. We’ve all seen the movies and documentaries that tap into the animalistic pleasure that humans take from hearing of such depraved and shocking acts of violence. A large proportion of murders and other morally corrupt acts are committed from a state of mental illness, often resulting from psychological trauma or psychopathy. Something such individuals tend to have in common is a deep and possessive love for music, perhaps proliferated by desperate loneliness. 

The further disassociated from society an individual becomes, the more likely they are to suffer from depression and delusion. It’s hard to imagine such people dancing around to ABBA or Katrina and the Waves; much easier comes the image of a depressed recluse listening to darker material from gothic, heavy punk or metal genres. This, of course, is a stereotype, but is there truth in it?

As research professes, young adults and teenagers are most subject to the power of music and lyrics as they take hold of moods and ideas. This is because the human brain still isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s. The mind is still highly impressionable, and the prefrontal cortex (the section of the brain located at the front, above the eyes) is still under maintenance. Unfortunately, this is the part of the brain that controls rational decision-making and reasoning. Throw in an ill-developed anterior insular cortex (controlling empathy), and you might just have a problem on your hands. 

According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, dark or violent lyrics can create “negative emotions and thoughts that can lead to aggression”. The important word to note here is “can”. Not everyone who listens to a parental advisory labelled album will kill their parents, but someone with the wrong brain chemistry could find themselves doing just that. 

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In 2002, a 28-year-old man named Ronald Pituch from New Jersey wielded a dumbbell and bludgeoned his mother to death with rolling blows to the head. The alleged story, via The Philadelphia Inquirer, told of how she had refused to buy him cigarettes. Following the ‘fight’ reaction, he took ‘flight’. Pituch tied up his five-year-old niece and fled on his motorcycle. 

Sadly, the spree didn’t end here. As he made haste on his motorcycle, Pituch came across 11-year-old Gregory Katsnelson, who was innocently riding his bicycle to meet with some friends. Without any discernible motive, he pulled the boy from his bicycle and stabbed him to death, leaving the body in a nearby pond before turning himself in at the local police station. 

As it later transpired, Pituch had a long history of mental illness. “He is paranoid, schizophrenic, suffers from manic depression,” his lawyer said at trial. When questioned, Pituch claimed that he saw demons in the faces of ordinary people and explained that the Metallica song ‘Ronnie’ was one of the factors that pushed him over the edge. He claimed that after becoming obsessed with the 1996 song, he stopped taking his medication and became increasingly fixated on the track. “I was drinking, and I was out of it. That song was always in my head, too. There was just so much pressure building up … I caved,” he explained (via The Inquirer).

It is difficult to ascertain how much truth there was in Pituch’s statement, but the prosecution successfully argued that the young man was sane and fully understood what he was doing. Ostensibly, the court felt he had fabricated a story of insanity for a lighter sentence. Ultimately, he was sentenced to nearly 50 years without parole. 

Personally, I’m on the fence. Surely labelling someone who murdered their own mother and an innocent 11-year-old as “sane” shows a lack of judgement? Perhaps the prosecution had a few years of prefrontal cortex development to go too.

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