As a kid I was fascinated by a comic strip about a bumbling cop, Fearless Fosdick, most famous for his habit of pursuing bad guys by “firing a warning shot into the crowd.” In one series of strips, there was a sinister murder weapon that was killing people off — a sheet of paper on which was written a joke that was so funny that anyone who read it would die of uncontrollable laughter.
Thus was planted in my adolescent brain the possibility that a thought could literally kill a person. (And of course, an undying curiosity to read that joke. Kind of the Fosdickian equivalent of Odysseus panting to hear the song of the Sirens.)
Later I discovered that various writers of thrillers had attempted to plumb the depths of this concept. Two of the most famous were Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris. Harris, in The Silence of the Lambs, included an episode in which the evil psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter persuaded a man in the next cell, “Miggs,” to commit suicide by swallowing his own tongue. (Lecter is generally good at mindfucking, but this is his most notable example of having a non-drugged victim literally kill himself.)
In her novel Curtain — Poirot’s Last Case, Agatha Christie creates a villain whose skill was in getting others to kill by means of psychological manipulation. A string of murders are all committed, seemingly by a collection of unlikely suspects; in each case the “killers” had been manipulated into performing the deed by this third party, labeled “X” for much of the book. Generally, “X” needed only a brief, seemingly casual conversation to launch the “bolt” through the other person’s actions. It’s often pointed out that “X” is a kind of Iago on steroids.
This is a fascinating topic. But a moment’s reflection might reveal that the idea of being manipulated into doing something horrendous is not far removed from our everyday experience. Seductions abound, whether it’s someone using sex or wealth or “best foot forward” lies to get us to marry (or at least sleep with) them, or advertisers conning us into buying the ten dollar shampoo when it cleans no better than the cheapest brand. Much in our lives is about being, or resisting being seduced into doing things that may be against our self-interest, whether as individuals or “demographics” or entire nations.