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Insanity Defense in Halttunen's Book Murder Most Foul

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The seventh chapter of Halttunen’s book Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination is titled “The Murderer as Mental Alien”. It deals with the different insanity defense narratives used during the ages, especially during the 19th century while providing for sociological background for each of the narratives. Lastly, it is shown how this paradigm gave rise to the Gothic novel and it highlights its two main components. The first and oldest one of said defense narratives is the mens rea doctrine. It draws back to the 13th century and basically establishes that committing a crime is a voluntary act prompted by a certain state of mind. It established the ground for children and madmen not to be held accountable for their crimes, based upon the assumption that what they were doing escaped their rationality. Some centuries after that, the ‘medical’ background started challenging the narratives of madness. The wild-beast concept of madmen lacking rationality and lucidity was replaced by the ‘pThe seventh chapter of Halttunen’s book Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination is titled “The Murderer as Mental Alien”.

It deals with the different insanity defense narratives used during the ages, especially during the 19th century while providing for sociological background for each of the narratives. Lastly, it is shown how this paradigm gave rise to the Gothic novel and it highlights its two main components. The first and oldest one of said defense narratives is the mens rea doctrine. It draws back to the 13th century and basically establishes that committing a crime is a voluntary act prompted by a certain state of mind. It established the ground for children and madmen not to be held accountable for their crimes, based upon the assumption that what they were doing escaped their rationality. Some centuries after that, the ‘medical’ background started challenging the narratives of madness. The wild-beast concept of madmen lacking rationality and lucidity was replaced by the ‘partial insanity’ one. The latter is mentioned several times in the text, because it reinforces the concept of ‘mental aliens’ as individuals who look like the rest but are different nonetheless, they have madness inside them and it comes out at times. Some superintendents of the mental hospitals started to become ‘alienists’ specialized in the mental aliens’ condition. Since they were experts, they quickly became an authority when having to decide if a person was to be deemed guilty or not in relation to the state of their mental health.

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Next, the notion of partial insanity is contextualized within the philosophy of that time period. “Alienists generally adhered to an Enlightenment liberalism, reinforced by the romantic faith that humankind was not only essentially good, but crafted in God’s image, even perfectible.” Religion still played a visible role and they were seen as creatures of God, which can be helped somehow. Liberals in charge of institutions advocated for the idea that humankind is innately good, but since murders questioned this notion, the notion of ‘partial insanity’ became a very widely accepted argument. This denotes the transition from a speech of depravity to that of disease.

At that time very little was known about how the brain worked, and they started searching for somatic signs of madness, of how a murderer ‘looks’ like.Followed by these notions was the common knowledge that “the crime itself, […] sometimes provided the first indication of mental alienation.” They took the crime as a sign of madness instead of a result of it. Next in this line of thought came the idea of ‘monomania’, which is best described by the term ‘paroxysm’: “referred to a state of transient insanity in which the victim was not himself and sometimes was unconscious of his actions.” Madness did not only appear suddenly in any kind of individual, but it was also driven by an ‘irresistible impulse’. They considered that the more it appeared, the more of a confirmation of insanity. Due to this idea, people started fearing going insane and there was a rise in the asylums. There was no hope for a cure and they were sent to asylums instead, away from society.Lastly horror and mystery, which are the two key elements to the work of fiction of the Gothic novel, are presented as the characteristics which separated the sane, innocent minds from the alien murderers, thus representing social and moral distance.

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