The Psychology of a House of Horrors in one’s Neighborhood

After I checked into my hotel, I rode up the elevator not really noticing who else was in the elevator with me besides my work colleagues. Stepped out of the elevator and walked down the oddly dim-lit hallway to my hotel room. Stepped into my room. Looked around. Proceeded to throw all my stuff all over the floor, as usual. Quickly changed and went out to dinner Upon returning to the hotel, I was extremely tired and pretty much went straight to bed. Then I started hearing odd sounds. I thought I felt my bed cover move. I ignored it. But then thought what if it is bed bugs? But seriously would bed bugs make sounds and be able to move the bed covers? I was definitely on edge. I finally turned the light back on and looked below the bed. I think I have watched too many CSI episodes because I half expected there to be a body or some mad man that would jump out. There was nothing. But I was on edge. Why? Then I started thinking of the past few weeks.

Business travel is always a hard endeavor to undertake. And when you have to travel repeatedly it is really difficult. Not an earth shattering statement for sure. Travel is made especially more difficult when there are national events, horrific events such as the Boston marathon bombing that occur while on travel. One can feel so disconnected from it all or it can become consuming because it becomes the small talk of the first five minutes of each meeting.  When the Boston marathon bombing occurred I was on the road in Kentucky and it was a discombobulating experience. What was going on? Would similar events happen? Why was American Airlines canceling hundreds of flights? How safe were we?

So, back on the road and yet another major disturbing event being widely reported on the news. You may have heard the recent great news that these three women, who had been kidnapped and kept hidden for about 10 years each, were found and freed from their captors. Indisputably great news. Your heart warms up a bit. Until you realize why it’s warming up. These three women were probably sexual slaves for 10 years and at times must have felt without hope.  How did they get through such a day to day ordeal.  Could such a statement such as “this too shall pass” have helped them get through? Who in the world does such a thing? Obviously, throughout history we have examples of great crimes against humanity. We know evil exists. We know there are just bad people. We know sometimes good people follow the lead of bad people. We know many follow “bad” orders because there is a leader and people will follow. Very simply put.  However, that is often the gist of many social psychological findings.

These three women kidnapped for a decade in Ohio seem to have been subject to the whims of three male family members who banded together and hid this horrific, grand secret for so long. Amazing that not one of these kidnappers broke down during that time and let their secret slip to someone.  What could have compelled three family members to abduct these women? Too many questions and perhaps at the end of the day we will not ever really know despite however many psychological, forensic profiles are written up.   As I watched the news I had a momentary silly thought. I remembered the Chris Rock comedy skit where he talked about how whenever a crime is reported in the news he would pray for it not to be a black person. I actually hoped for a second that the kidnappers would not turn out to be a Hispanic. Shameful to our collective identity that it was.

On my way to the airport yesterday my taxi driver, who is an immigrant from Colombia, asked me about the story. He didn’t understand the kidnapping. He asked me for how much money the kidnappers had requested. I told him that as far as I knew there was never any ransom requested. He just could not understand a lack of a ransom request. How was it possible that these men would kidnap these women and not ask for a ransom? When I explained that they were probably sex slaves he was even more confused. He asked who would do that. To him a kidnaping was about getting money, a ransom. We have all seen those movie scenes of Colombian cartel-led kidnappings.  Using Colombia as an example,  he noted that sex-related kidnappings seemed barbaric to him and he wondered why in the United States these things tended to happen. He staunchly believed that a kidnapping was supposed to occur for money and once upon receiving those funds the kidnapped individual should be released.

I explained that for me these type of kidnappings were about people wanting something of their own and wanting a toy that they could just control at all times. People covet other people and not just their neighbors’ wives. People are in such dire need for instant gratification that at times it crosses the line of the perverse.

But imagine this. Some people are claiming to the news cameras that they knew these kidnappers for over 20 years. Had seen them around. That they seemed to be normal. Ask yourself this. How many of you know your neighbors? How many of you know what is going on behind closed doors? Of course, you do not know what is happening in their basement or attic. In commuter towns, there are many neighbors that may not even be able to identify each other as neighbors. People leave early in the morning to go into the city and then come home. When do they have time to get to know their neighbors? I was talking with my hairdresser this past week and she was talking about how scared she was about this guy in Queens that was grabbing little seven year old girls. He seemed to know his way around the neighborhood. I then said naively, “well, if he is from the neighborhood why hasn’t anyone identified him?” As soon as I said that, I realized I just had said something that was nonsensical.  That was a stupid question. Of course, no one could identify him because so many neighborhood people just walk in the shadows, come and go at odd hours and most people are busy looking down at their cell phones text messaging someone as they walk.

Psychologically and physically we are not connecting with our neighbors. How many people do you walk past staring to the right of them instead of looking at them in the eye?  We are too busy. We are too scared.  We are too self-focused at times. This particular type of interaction tends to occur in cities-the urban jungle.  But think of these two things: (1) in a jungle isn’t there interaction between the animals, and (2) even in non-urban areas how many people really know their neighbors?  In some towns neighbors could be miles apart. I suppose that at that point the question becomes are they even neighbors?  But doesn’t the rise of technology use mean that even more people stay indoors interacting in a cyber world.  How many even use their real names while interacting in the internet? How many people take on new persona making it hard to be able to pinpoint the real “you”.

Back to my hotel. As I sat up on my bed trying to figure out the sounds, I remembered then that I never looked at the person in the elevator. I would never be able to tell you what that person looked like. And even when I say good morning at 6am to the person in the elevator as I ride down to get my early exercise in, I am not too sure I would be able to recall that individual’s face.  My phone and ipod weigh heavy in my hands as I try to answer emails, text, and call my son. It is as if we walk around in a technology bubble keeping us from looking out onto the actual world before us.

We are walking around faceless and nameless. All the while with no peripheral vision as we stare at our electronics focused on whatever job, family or pop culture issue grabbing our attention at the moment.

Some neighbors of the Castro brothers appeared to be second-guessing themselves on television, questioning why they hadn’t noticed signs earlier and if they could have prevented the rise of the house of horrors in their neighborhood.  At the end of the day, these men are the ones responsible for what happened to those three women.  They bear direct responsibility and it is their souls that will be on the line.  They must be judged before a group of their peers. They will hopefully, unless a Casey Anthony type of injustice occurs, spend the rest of their lives in jail for what they have done.

But as we get more and more immersed in our jobs, in technology, pop culture, don’t we all need to be a bit more vigilant, curious and interactive? There has to be a way for us to become and remain connected to our communities and get to know each other. And just see and recognize each other.

May those three women be able to reconnect with their families, the world and themselves and be free of the psychological chains from that house of horrors.

8 replies »

  1. “People are in such dire need for instant gratification that at times it crosses the line of the perverse”
    I agree, but unfortunately I believe this applies to a wider audience. There has to be some accountability in the 24 hour news rating driven community for integrity and respect for human suffering.
    Honestly having the story of the day be fodder for idle chatter only reinforces the idea that horrific occasions are trivialized down to mere entertainment driven by greed and ratings and ultimately plays to that immediate gratification culture.
    One only has to look at the media frenzie that surrounds any occasion like this to question where the line of perversion is drawn.


  2. The concepts of ‘community’ and ‘neighbour’ have changed in the last two-three decades. The same families lived in the same houses for years, so people knew most of the folks living in their neighbourhood. Now people relocate often, everyone is a stranger meriting no more than a polite, “Hi”, and there’s no sense of belonging, of “our community”. And privacy has become much more important than it used to be. So one doesn’t watch, question or even make eye contact with unknown neighbours. And, like you pointed out, all the electronics that we stay immersed in, oblivious to what’s going on around us. Whenever I follow the line your thoughts have taken in this post, like at the time the horrifying gang rape happened in Delhi, I feel sad and helpless, even though another part of my mind reminds me that atrocities have been a part of human history for thousands of years. But then, aren’t we supposed to be more evolved. . .? I know evil exists but. . . I wish such things wouldn’t happen. . . then my thoughts get incoherent. I agree with you that no amount of psychological, forensic profiling can answer all our questions.


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hadn’t thought about this before but i so agree about the need for privacy being part of this equation. The american culture is very much centered around notions of protecting privacy which may be isolating us even more. I need to think about this more and perhaps write about that in some way…thanks for the idea!


  3. There is a wonderful picture doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment that I think illustrates your point well. It shows 8 kids, probably high school or college students, walking down the street and each one of them is completely focused on a mobile device in their hands. The caption reads “Here’s your zombie apocalypse”. We are interacting with devices and not with each other. It’s sad.

    Your post also made me think of the generic line that always seems to emerge after a tragedy. At least one neighbour being interviewed will say, “Well he was very quiet and kept to himself, but he always seemed like a nice guy”. I thought of the women over the years who have discovered they were married to a serial killer and had no idea. Although most of them probably should have noticed the signs (to put it mildly) Judith Mawson; married to Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Serial Killer believed to have killed over 70 people; honestly thought she had the perfect husband for 13 years. And based on how he treated her, I think she was justified in her belief. Little did she know…
    It just makes you think… even when you do connect with someone, can you ever really know a person?

    Incidentally, did you ever find out what the strange sounds were in your hotel room? It’s been bugging me ever since I read your post yesterday, haha!


    • Thanks for sharing. So true. Can you imagine being married to a serial killer and not knowing it that while time? It would make me question my judgment for sure.
      No, i never figured out the sound. It was quite bizarre, a rhythmic swoosh of sorts.


  4. I really enjoyed reading this piece. It has given me a lot to think about. You are absolutely right, we do not know our neighbors – we are becoming socially dysfunctional it is a pity.


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