Behind the walls of a well-kept suburban family home, a terribly tragedy unfolded on a bright May afternoon. Six people lost their lives; a whole family has been annihilated. The police believe the man first killed his parents in their flat which was part of the family house, then his two children (4 and 7 years old) in the attic, followed by his wife (30), who had separated from her husband earlier in the year, and finally himself.
Shock in Bavarian village
A 81 year old man who was well respected and liked in the village shot his wife (77) and then took his own life. His wife suffered from a severe ailment which he found difficult to cope with.
Mother kills son and attempts suicide
A 40 year old mother drowned her son (6) in the bath tub and attempted to commit suicide by cutting her wrists while her husband was on a skiing holiday. She had been suffering from depression. She survived the suicide attempt.
While incidences as those described in these newspaper reports are rare, they often evoke special public sensation, partly because they occur within the family commonly regarded as a sanctuary. The co-occurrence of the killing of a partner or family member and of the perpetrator’s suicide seems particularly incomprehensible. Whether rage, revenge, despair, or psychopathy are behind these deeds, the combination of lethal violence directed against one’s partner or one’s own child and the self-destructive, suicidal force make homicide-suicide one of the most inconceivable and puzzling forms of lethal aggression.
By definition, two well-researched types of lethal violence overlap in the case of HS: homicide and suicide. There is a long tradition in criminology to regard homicide and suicide as antagonistic expressions of human aggression. One of the puzzles about HS therefore is how this peculiar type of violence relates to characteristics of either homicide or suicide events, and whether it constitutes a distinct type of lethal violence discernable from other forms of homicides.
Previous research on HS has been restricted to only few countries and has often relied on small samples. This is particularly true for Europe where research has been sparse to date. Exceptions are Finland and Great Britain which has seen Donald West’s classic book “Murder followed by Suicide” (1965).
The ‘European Homicide-Suicide Study’ (EHSS) is a new collaborative project including seven European countries which will put criminological research on HS on a new and more solid basis. The empirical cornerstone of this project is the collection of complete national samples of HS cases covering a whole decade (ca. 1996 to 2005). The resulting uniform dataset contains detailed information on perpetrators, victims and events and allows for the analysis of many relevant research questions. With nearly 2000 cases of HS, it is the largest sample of its kind world-wide. The study covers Germany, Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Spain, Poland and England & Wales.
One set of questions relates to the quantity and rates of HS, both absolute (in proportion to population size) and relative to homicide rates. A large fraction of perpetrators who kill their current or ex spouses and/or their children commit suicide immediately afterwards. While it has often been shown that the relative share of HS is negatively associated with a country’s overall homicide rate because other types of homicides vary much more in frequency than HS do, there still are – though on a much lower level – noticeable variations in HS rates between and within countries. The study will look to these national and regional variations in HS rates and relate them to socio-economic and cultural indicators. The cross-national research design exploits the considerable variation across Europe in terms of cultural and religious traditions, socio-economic conditions and demographic patterns which may be important macro-level dimensions influencing the frequency of HS. One set of hypotheses guiding these analyses follows Durkheim’s theory of social integration which assumes that societies with an emphasis on traditional, collectivist norms tend to foster rather than reduce violence, esp. within primary social groups. In this perspective, certain types of domestic violence could be a downside of strong social integration. However, other socio-economic influences as economic deprivation may also influence the HS rate or interact with cultural influences.
Another aim of EHSS is to investigate the heterogeneity of constellations and motives characterizing HS. Among the types of offender-victim-relationships, male perpetrators killing their female (ex-)partners are in many studies found to be most prevalent. In cases of female perpetrators, however, children are the primary victims, while male partners are rarely affected. When HS occurs in elderly couples, the line between homicide-suicide and suicide pact is often blurred. Different classification schemes mainly focusing on offender-victim constellations have been used to systemize these different events. We propose a more general typology which looks at the underlying foci and motives of HS perpetrators. In this typology, one dimension distinguishes a hostile and non-hostile (or pseudo-altruistic) attitude towards the victim, while another dimension distinguishes cases in which the perpetrators’ primary focus is either on the homicide or on the suicide. A related question is whether homicide and suicide are planned from the outset as a joint action.
A third research focus is on the individual-level social and psychological characteristics which are connected with perpetrators of HS. Previous research has shown that perpetrators of HS have less ‘risk markers’ and tend to socially more inconspicuous than other killers. They are more likely to be of middle rather than lower class background, to be ‘white’ rather than from ethnic minorities, and to have no previous record of violence. HS therefore often happen completely unexpectedly to the outside world. This poses a major challenge also for prevention efforts. Forensic and psychiatric studies often stress the role of psychopathology in many cases of HS. While this is certainly true, still a majority of cases are not contributable to personality or depressive disorders and therefore call for more subtle explanations.