Born bad or grew bad? Our Teen Killers

Mary Bell in 1968 (who as an 11 year old strangled two little boys “solely for the pleasure and excitement of killing”) and Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in 1990 (who aged 10, lured two-year-old James Bulger to his death on a railway track) shocked us deeply but they were thought an anomaly.  So rare, not even a thing. But something has changed;  juvenile killers are much more common (nearly 400 children have now been convicted of murder in the UK in the last two decades.)

If we’d made it up – a story of a 14 year-old loved-up couple, she trouble from childhood, he recently gone off the rails, who one night stole into a house armed with knives and intent to kill. Then, as they lay sleeping in their beds, the boy stabbed his dinner lady and her daughter in the throat, the girl, all the while, listening in to the muffled screams and gurgling blood.   How later, post-murders, they watched the film Twilight, she in minion pajamas, he in the t-shirt used to hide the weapons, had sex, drank alcohol. Would we have believed it? No, this story is only believable in it’s appalling truth (BBC news).

Elizabeth, 49 and Katie Edwards, 13

Childhood should be secure, warm, loving, innocent – but for some, it’s really not feeling that way. There’s something  rotten about growing-up today, corrupted even.  And being a teen really sucks – or so it would seem.  We have data and reports from charities, government organs and the press telling us this. And we have those with high-profiles campaigning to help; the Duke and Duchess of Kent (mental health), vlogger  Zoella (panic attacks and anxiety) and soap stars in TV adverts (relationship abuse).

And then we have the truly scary stats from the United States:

‘Murder is the second leading cause of death among American teenagers, after car accidents. The teen murder rate here is ten times that of Western Europe and seventy times Japan’s. The majority (75%) of teen murderers know their victims: 27% are family members, and 48% are friends or acquaintances. Eighty percent of the time, the teen killer uses a gun, and 75% of the time, the murder is about gang violence. Girls account for 10% of teen murders, and their victim is usually a parent, boyfriend or their own child.’ (

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What makes a child turn killer? Well it appears you’ve double the chances if you’ve been abused or neglected, are a member of a gang or come from a family with a history of criminal violence. You’ve triple the risk: if you have a gun in the house, problems at school and a frequent absconder or a history of arrests. Oh yes and a neurological disorder.

But what’s the motivation? Anger or passion usually -pent up emotions with no other outlet or way of expression. Other explanations may be an ongoing problem with a family member or friend, killing whilst committing another crime. There’s a separate category for “school shooter” (and 16% of teen murders have no apparent motive).

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Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High School Killers

And then you can hear the mother’s tales;

For real in A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy  by Sue Klebold


An examination of 17 child killers: Children Who Kill: Profiles of Pre-Teen and Teenage Killers by Carol Anne Davis 

The Case of Mary Bell and Cries Unheard, the story of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny  

The Sleep of Reason by David James Smith.  A harrowing, sensitive  account of the Jamie Bulger murder and its consequences.

Bad to the Bone – the “worst” children in literature (a list from


City Of God (2003). Fernando Mereilles’ dynamic portrait of Brazilian gangs shows how kids are drawn into a life of crime, brutality and murder as it seems like the only avenue that is open to them. The images of gun toting pre-teen killers are very disturbing.  The violence is abhorrent, but this has been hailed as a masterpiece.

Battle Royal (2000) Lord of the Flies – Japanese style. A class of ninth-graders, selected by random lottery to participate in a cruel contest on a remote island. The 41 teens are expected to kill each other off until only one “winner” is left. If you can bear with histrionics performances and cheap horror executions, you can see that the film is deeply concerned with social cohesion and the value-gaps between the generations. It is also a take-off on reality TV that turns high-school relationships into a war zone.

Bad Seed (1956) Young Patty McCormack received an Oscar nomination for her performance as a murderous child in this chilling drama classic. Based on the play by Maxwell Anderson, it’s an eerie examination of the question of nature versus nurture in the form of a little girl who is evil personified

And for some light relief..

Listen to this podcast series:

All Killa No Filla – Comedians Rachel Fairburn and Kiri Pritchard – McLean explore a shared passion, serial killers. In each episode the pair talk all things murder and macabre and have a right laugh doing it…

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