Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know

Planning to write a murder mystery or horror story? Have a creepypasta formulating in your noodle? Here's an examination of some problems, inaccuracies, and gross oversights that crop up rather frequently in these stories.

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People aren't so easy to kill as some seem to think.

If many stories by amateur writers on the Internet are to be believed, stabbing someone with a chef's knife is no different than sticking a butter knife through a block of Spam - one jab and the knife goes in easy as you please, and voila! Instant corpse! In one story I read, a victim was stabbed from the back with a pocketknife and dropped dead in a matter of moments.

In real life, killing is nowhere near as simple as fiction often makes it out to be for a multitude of reasons. For one, the heart is pretty well-protected by the ribs and sternum from the front. Likewise, the lungs are protected by the ribs. From the back, you've got the ribs, scapulae, and spine to contend with - and the human spine, for all its flaws, is still extremely tough.

Go and pick up a chef's knife and try to stab or cut through a frozen steak. Appreciate how difficult that is. Human bone is even harder to cut through. Better yet, next time you have a beef or pork roast with a bone in it around, take a knife and try to cut through it. It'll be pretty much impossible, unless you find a joint. What's more, even cutting through a bone with a tool designed specifically for cutting bone can take several minutes of hard, nonstop work.

Now, add to that the fact that most people aren't simply going to hold still and let you stab them. No, they won't hold still and keep quiet because they "know that struggling would only make it worse" or some nonsense - that would take an incredible amount of willpower and resolve that people simply don't have. Plus, holding still while a sadistic killer tortures you means you almost certainly will die, but if you fight back then you at least have a chance.

In the face of an assailant, most people are going to defend themselves, even fight back if they can. (They'll also be amped up on adrenaline, so they'll be a lot stronger than they look.) Because they'll be defending themselves, most of the blows actually landed on them are going to be defensive wounds, and therefore superficial. Unless the assailant gets lucky and nicks the jugular or if the victim has a blood-clotting disorder, these wounds won't bleed enough to put the person in any real danger before coagulation starts. Also, the blood that gets on the knife as a result of the contact will make the knife slippery and thus harder to handle. One consequence of a slippery knife with no handguard to speak of is that the wielder ends up cutting xir own hands and fingers a lot as the knife slips around in the hand.

Now, let's assume that our assailant actually manages to get the knife plunged in. That knife won't pull out easily at all - it'll be stuck pretty firmly, and the deeper the knife goes in, the harder it'll be to pull back out. And as long as it's there it'll help block some of the bleeding.

In many a story, an assailant uses the ever-overused chef's knife to slice someone's throat, and the victim dies in a matter of seconds with very little struggle. In reality, if the assailant was successful in the attack (and remember, people don't usually keep their kitchen knives in the best shape), xe'd still be dealing with a thrashing, gurgling victim for several minutes... and what's more, things would get messy. An adult human body between 150-160 pounds will hold about 4.5-7 quarts of blood, which is a bit over a gallon. Now imagine how much mess taking even a quart of a dark, difficult-to-clean liquid and slinging it around a room would make - for a cleanup that would pass casual visual inspection, that's going to be hours of effort, and what's more, a complete cleanup may simply be impossible due to things that would be difficult or conspicuous to remove and dispose of (eg, carpeting, drapes, or furniture) getting stained, or blood getting into nooks and crannies that are easily overlooked or simply can't be cleaned out.

Now, how about injuries to the brain? Weeeeell... fact of the matter is, no injury that doesn't ameliorate the base of the brain is going to be immediately fatal. It takes about four minutes of oxygen deprivation (longer, if the body's cold) before brain cells start to die, and if it's not the brain stem what's deprived of oxygen one way or another, the result is going to be a brain-damaged, rather than dead victim. Plus you've got the skull in the way, and it's a pretty hard piece of bone, particularly in the front. Try whacking or stabbing a coconut with a knife sometime and see how easily the knife goes through - then, remember that the human skull is even harder.

People who don't know what they're doing are probably going to botch something.

A would-be murderer who doesn't really know what xe's doing would not have the knowledge and possibly not even the physical skill to hit where xe'd need to to make a quick and easy kill, which means that landing a truly mortal blow would be more a matter of luck than skill.

The average person is hardly at peak physical condition, doesn't have the training or practice to be coordinated enough to easily land a critical hit, and knows very little about combat outside of what xe's seen in the movies. While this person might be able to overpower someone at a significant size and/or strength disadvantage, if the assailant and the victim are on equal physical footing xe'll likely find xirself in a struggle against the intended victim, and an assailant with a distinct disadvantage compared to the intended victim is very likely to end up badly-off indeed.

Now, assuming the intended victim didn't successfully fight back or run away and the attacker got lucky enough to seriously wound the victim, an inexperienced or unskilled attacker may still fail to hit anything that would ensure a certain quick death. As a result, the victim might take a lot longer to die than anticipated, and might very well survive long enough to get help after being left for dead.

Remember the aforementioned pocketknife victim? In the real world, she'd have stood a good chance of survival if she'd been given prompt medical attention. What her assailant took for "death" probably would have simply been a loss of consciousness from the injury and shock of it all.

Dead bodies are not easy to make vanish.

In one story I read, the narrating character oh-so-casually handwaved away the disposal of a couple of dead bodies in five words: "I disposed of the bodies." Described thus, it makes it seem as if getting rid of a few corpses is no harder than washing the dishes. In fact, getting rid of bodies is a monumentally difficult and time-consuming task.

First, if we're talking about more or less average-sized adults, we're talking 150-200+ pounds of dead, lumpy weight to move around. For reference, imagine a large bag of dog food and multiply that weight three or four times, and imagine that said weight has four extremities that flop around uncooperatively when you're trying to move it - that is, if rigor mortis hasn't set in yet. If it has, you're dealing with something that can be pretty hard to move through doors, let alone stuff into a car or trunk for transport.

Decaying bodies create a smell that's very difficult to miss. If you've ever smelled a small dead animal, perhaps something hit by the car, bear in mind how small the thing you smelled was, and try to imagine how much scent something as large as a human body would put off. A dead body hidden in an attic, basement, shallow grave, or anywhere that people would get anywhere near and doesn't have an airtight seal would probably be noticed by people and animals. A body simply dumped out in the woods or the desert would be an easy find for police dogs. Hunters and hikers (especially if they have dogs with them) could stumble upon them as well.

Digging a hole by hand to bury a body in would mean several hours of intense labor, even with relatively soft soil. If the body isn't buried deep enough (eg, about six feet), the smell of decomposing tissues will catch the attention of dogs and other scavengers, who will come and dig it up to get at it. Furthermore, burying a body will leave a large patch of obviously-disturbed soil for potentially years to come, and if investigators looking for a missing person came upon such a patch, they'd likely dig it up to see what had been buried.

When it comes to burning a body, you're dealing with something that's already about 80% water. (Try to imagine how long it would take to boil off 120 pounds - about fourteen gallons - of water!) While an accelerant like gasoline might help, it would still take a good long while to burn the body. Also, it would send off a very dark and very smelly plume of smoke into the air, and the fire won't get hot enough to destroy the bones.

Chopping it up and feeding it to the dogs isn't a breeze, either - processing that much meat will take time and create a huge mess (especially if optimal tools aren't available). Dogs can only eat so much at once, and feeding them too much rich food in one meal can simply cause them to vomit it back up.

Dumping a body into water isn't without its problems - depending on where the body is dumped, it might just wash back up where people can find it, if it ever really gets washed out at all. Furthermore, decomposition will create gases in the body that will cause it to float to the surface if it hasn't been weighted down.

Putting a body into a steel barrel and filling it with sulfuric acid is a surefire way to destroy the body, but nowadays the sales of strong acids are closely monitored due to the fact that they can be used to create explosives. Furthermore, sulfuric acid presents a health risk to the user, as it can create dangerous fumes and cause third-degree burns to the skin. Boiling a body in lye can also work, but there you have the problem of finding somewhere to boil the body, and the whole process takes several hours.

Trying to brush off a body never being found by simply saying that the police just don't care or don't have the resources to look for someone doesn't really work, either. There's nothing to stop friends and family from organizing a search effort of their own, and some places even have organized volunteer search parties. Also, if people have the money, they can hire private detectives.

Killing someone for the first time does not awaken an insatiable bloodlust.

For someone to find killing addictive or feel a compulsion to kill, there'd have to be something seriously wrong with that person already. Odds are good that such a person would exhibit disturbing behaviors long before actually killing a human victim, such as torturing and killing small animals since childhood, displaying callous disregard or apathy toward the safety and welfare of others, willfully destroying property, or inordinate obsession with gruesome and violent fantasies.

If someone with a normal moral conscience killed or nearly killed someone either accidentally or intentionally (such as in self-defense), it would be much more likely that this person would end up a teary, traumatized mess in need of a lot of therapy. This person might end up feeling guilt and remorse that would never entirely go away - killing or severely hurting another human being often leaves a stain that can never be fully erased from one's conscience. The same thing goes for people with minor violent tendencies who lash out and kill after being pushed too far - once the reality of what they've done sinks in, they're probably going to be more shocked and horrified than anything, particularly if the victim was someone they didn't believe actually deserved to die, and/or had any reason to believe that killing this person was a grievous wrong in itself.

That said, there are a few ways for an otherwise-normal person not to feel much in the way of guilt or regret after killing someone. The killer might have absolutely no positive emotions toward the victim at all while seeing the victim as inhuman or subhuman. The killer might also believe and feel that the death was utterly justified, deserved, or even necessary (such as fighting enemy soldiers, someone who presents an imminent threat to oneself, or members of a group that has been utterly dehumanized and painted up as a menace to society); or be a master of compartmentalization and rationalization. But even then, an insatiable bloodlust is not going to develop.

In any case, if the killer (or almost-killer) is going to develop any long-term mental issues from what happened, the complete shutdown of one's sense of morality or conscience and/or a compulsion to kill is not it. If anything, one possible consequence is that the person would be unable to handle or even be around a weapon without experiencing severe negative reactions, EG, panic attacks, dissociation, or becoming violently ill. Someone who has gone through the experience of feeling the guilt and remorse of wrongfully taking or nearly a human life will remember that pain and guilt in any situation that looks like it could potentially lead to the same thing happening again, and so that person will most likely be anything but eager to have a repeat of that experience.

People do not suddenly commit mass murder because they "snap" and "go insane."

It can certainly look this way to outsiders, but let's face it - how many people plotting mass murder are going to talk about their plans and show off the guns to the neighbors? That would just be a great way to get caught. In real cases where an ordinary person apparently "snaps" and suddenly goes on a murder rampage, subsequent investigations inevitably find that the person had been planning the murder for days to months, possibly even fantasizing over committing such an action for even longer - friends of Moncton shooter Justin Bourque reported that the young man shared his revenge fantasies with them, though they thought nothing of it at the time.

And as covered in On Writing Mentally Ill & Insane Characters, traumatic or high-stress events can cause a temporary bout of psychosis in an otherwise mentally-healthy person, but if the person had no violent tendencies or inclinations to begin with it's not likely they'd suddenly develop.

So, in summary...

Invariably, most of grisly and gruesome elements found in murder mysteries and horror stories are much more complicated and difficult than many people give them credit for, or are just plain wrong:

Also check out:

Things Writers Get Wrong About Bladed Weapons
Basic Tips To Make Scarier & Better Creepypasta & Horror Creeps
Tips For Writing & Maintaining A Horror Atmosphere
Basic Tips To Write Better & More Despicable Villains
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy

Tips & Advice On Killing Main Characters
The Worst & Most Frustrating Ways To Kill Off Main Characters
Basic Tips To Write Better Abuse Victims & Abuse Situations
On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents
Basic Tips To Create Better Characters With Tragic & Traumatic Backstories

The Basics Of Writing A Mystery Plot
Tips To Write Better & More Exciting Action & Fight Scenes
On Creating, Building, & Keeping Suspense
Creating & Writing Fantasy Armies - Things To Keep In Mind & Consider
Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds

External references & resources:

Psychology Today: Seven Myths of Mass Murder
What Makes Serial Killers Tick?
Anoxic Brain Damage
Alleged RCMP killer ‘wanted to go out with a bang:’ report
In Moncton, a search for a killer that paralyzed a city
How Long Does It Take To Dissolve A Human Body?
How can adrenaline help you lift a 3,500-pound car?

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