What is evil—and how do we measure it? Is it more evil to abduct and torture a stranger for days before ultimately letting them go, or to fatally shoot a spouse in a fit of jealous rage?
These are questions at the heart of The New Evil: Understanding the Emergence of Modern Violent Crime, a new book by Drs. Michael Stone and Gary Brucato that categorizes some of the most notorious violent offenders in history by a 22-level “Gradations of Evil” scale. Stone is a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Brucato, a clinical psychologist and researcher in the areas of violence, psychosis and other serious psychopathology, is the assistant director of the Center of Prevention and Evaluation at the New York State Psychiatric Center/Columbia University Medical Center.
A&E True Crime spoke with Dr. Brucato about how he determined what acts are more evil than others and why serial killers aren’t all categorized the same way.
What exactly is your ‘Gradations of Evil’ scale?
It’s a 22-point continuum… and they’re ordered that way for a reason. They start with crimes that are human in tone, ones we can all understand—like a crime of passion or a crime of self-defense or when someone buckles under enormous pressure. Then it gradually moves through people with some personality traits that bias them to violence, like: hotheadedness, or narcissism, or not knowing who one is… And then it cycles through people with growing degrees of psychopathy and sadism until you end up with sadistic torturers—people who kill repeatedly with the intention of causing huge amounts of pain to other people.
How did you decide what’s more evil between two ghastly acts? Is there a guiding moral principle that determines the scale?
Our definition is really a very psychological one: It’s about the emotional reaction people have to an act that is extreme—that causes confusion and bewilderment, shock and horror, that is premeditated.
So the more horrified the public-at-large is to an act, the more evil it is? For example, something involving a child as a victim?
Yes. If it’s a child who is sexually abused or killed, it adds to the evil of it…because [to] anyone across time and space, an innocent child being killed is always seen as worse. We have an internal barometer for this stuff. And it’s difficult to quantify it, and it’s hard to explain why. We want to understand: What is that barometer?
[Stream Invisible Monsters: Serial Killers in America, with no sign in required in the A&E app.]
How did you determine where specific serial killers fall on this scale? You placed Richard Ramirez—the ‘Night Stalker’—as a Category 17 evil. Jerry Brudos, aka the ‘Lust Killer’ is Category 18, more evil than Ramirez. Both these men brutally raped and murdered, but Brudos killed far fewer people. Given that, why is he scaled higher?
Because of the torture. Ramirez killed with an explosion of rage. Brudos would keep a victim tied up with her toes barely touching the ground, then gradually choke her to death. Once there’s a torture element, the scale can’t be lower than 18.
You put Gary Krist at Category 19—above both those killers—but he didn’t even kill anyone. He kidnapped someone. Why is that so bad?
Krist kidnapped Barbara Jane Mackle in the 1960s, and just for the hell of it buries her alive, with oxygen tubes running down into the box. He kept her there for 83 hours. That’s sadistic.
Very few people who commit crimes are psychopaths. And above psychopathy is sadism. With most of the psychopathic, there isn’t much in it for them beside the practical—a person is in their way. The concept of sadism is even worse than psychopathy.
Your book claims that serial murder has become more prevalent in the last century, specifically from the late 1960s onward. Given that linking murders together requires investigative skills, how do you know it’s the serial murder that’s gotten more prevalent? Isn’t it possible investigators just got better at connecting the dots?
I’m not sure why prior to the 1970s [serial killers] would’ve been savvier. In the Western world there has always [been] an intense emphasis of reporting this kind of crime. And because these crimes were so closely linked to who got executed, they were always widely sensationalized.
As far as the police were concerned, their techniques [of detection] only got better after [the large increase in serial killers after the late ’60s].
Your book argues that a lot of this ‘new evil’ is a reaction to the female empowerment that arose in the 1960s. Jeffrey Dahmer (Category 20) and John Wayne Gacy (Category 22) were gay. So how does homosexuality fit into this theory?
It means not everyone high up on the scale was motivated by the same thing. But also, John Wayne Gacy was very much affected by toxic masculinity, which was itself driven by this sexual revolution period in which he was living. There was a lot of: man up, go out, get yourself a wife.
As far as Dahmer, an interesting point that Dr. Stone figured out is that with cannibals, for some reason, a disproportionate number of them identify as gay. And no one can figure out why that is.
[Watch Monster in My Family: Killer Clown: John Wayne Gacy on A&E Crime Central.]
What made you want to write this book?
Before I’d gone into the world of psychiatry, I’d studied for years to become a priest—I’ve always been fascinated by the question of evil. But when you take theology off the table, it’s still something people understand. And so whether there’s truth to religion or not, there’s an inborn understanding of things you just don’t do. And is that adaptive?
When you really get into this stuff… you swim in this despondent sense that everything is a disaster. But fortunately, you have to conclude that if some people do things that are evil, you’re forced to also believe in categorical good.