WASECA, Minn. – The website boasts a long menu of horrors captured on video: impalements, hangings, suicides.
Click on “beheading,” for instance, and after agreeing to continue through a warning about explicit content, viewers can watch masked men in a purported Mexican drug cartel pull out a machete as they surround their kneeling victim. Under “execution,” a video shows the shooting of an alleged infidel in Iraq.
They are memory-searing, nightmare-inducing scenes for most people, but they are an Internet destination for some teens and young adults — including the Waseca teen accused of plotting a school massacre, according to his parents. The videos have raised worry among parents and caught the attention of some public safety officials. The Canadian government is charging the producer of one of the grisliest sites for corrupting morals.
While violence on screen and in video games might not necessarily provoke inappropriate behavior, mental health experts say, it can affect those who are vulnerable or prone to violence. The effects of true gore videos in particular may not be getting enough consideration from researchers, said Abigail Gewirtz, associate professor in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. “We probably haven’t paid enough attention,” she said.
Difficult to forget
Fifteen miles from Waseca, in Owatonna, tattooed young men ran their painted skateboards over ramps and pipes at a skate park one recent evening. Most said they’d seen a video of an execution, brutal fight or bad accident.
“It’s, like, what kids get a kick out of nowadays,” said one skater in a white T-shirt and baseball cap, who didn’t want to give his name.
“It’s worse than it should be but you can’t stop it,” said another.
The videos are shared on social media or surreptitiously shown in school, in the back of a classroom on somebody’s phone or on a school computer when a teacher isn’t looking, they said.
Zach Beese, 21, watched a few of the videos — one of an execution shooting, another of a group of boys murdering another boy with a hammer. Other kids egged classmates to watch.
“They kind of, like … showed it to everyone,” Beese said. “They said, ‘Hey, check this out, it’s gross.’ ”
Beese and others said they watched only a few and that was enough to sear their memories. “You can’t erase ’em,” Beese said.
Waseca teen’s obsession
In Waseca, 17-year-old John LaDue’s parents say their son told them recently how he repeatedly watched the graphic videos as he also consumed himself with making secret, unfulfilled plans to kill his family and set off bombs at the local school. LaDue told his parents that he had become obsessed with the videos and started to like them, his father said.
David and Stephanie LaDue say they aren’t blaming the videos, but they can’t help but believe it was a factor in the darkness that crept into their son’s consciousness. They said they want other parents to be aware of what their children might be watching on smartphones and laptops, away from the watchful eyes of parents and teachers.
“I think people would like to think that this is really an aberration, and in most ways it is,” David LaDue said. But he was surprised to learn that, he said, “not only is it out there, but it’s been consolidated [on websites devoted to it] and popularized.”
His daughter, 18-year-old Valerie LaDue, first saw students watching gory videos on cellphones in the back of a classroom a few years ago, she said.
A group of boys were trying outdo each other by watching videos of increasingly violent deaths and showing them to classmates.
“Look at this one,” she remembers hearing them say.
Former Waseca High School student Nathaniel Galvan said he watched the videos with some buddies between classes and in the library and outside of school over students’ phones. The images are now burned in his conscience, he said.
“I’m not exactly sure how the popularity started,” said Galvan, now 20. “It’s so easy to access them with smartphones … It’s only, like, a click away.”
Teachers can’t watch students every minute, he said.
School superintendent Thomas Lee said he wasn’t aware of students watching such videos in school.
Ashley Wobschall, 21, said one of her Waseca friends posted a link to a Taliban beheading on Facebook once. She didn’t watch it, she said. She’d already seen one years earlier when older kids were watching a different beheading. “It’s around,” she said.
Charged: corrupting morals
One shock site, which the Star Tribune is choosing not to name, recently ranked as the 6,181st most popular website in the United States, according to Alexa.com, a website that measures Internet traffic. The site’s audience is mostly male and about one-third American. It is viewed mostly from people’s homes
The site’s owner, based in Edmonton, Canada, was charged last summer with corrupting morals after he hosted a video of a man stabbing and dismembering a 33-year-old man.
On the website, the founder calls it a “reality news website” and maintains that people have a duty and responsibility to know the truth about what humans do to others. “Many people seem to live in a fantasy. The seem to look at the world through the rose tinted sunglasses which makes them weak, vulnerable and oftentimes dangerous. To wake people up to the reality, [the site] was created,” the site says.
It contains warnings about content and says viewers must be 18 to use it. As for children who might watch, the founder argues that children could stumble upon horrific accidents in real life. “… every effort was taken to ensure that children won’t find their way to [the site], however parents need to do their part and monitor their children’s activities while on the Internet,” the site says.
Drawn to the sites
Many experts agree that screen violence has an effect on life violence, but they caution against placing the blame squarely on videos.
Dr. Michael Brody, chair of the Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said screen violence is reinforcing and can contribute to an atmosphere of violence and strange behavior. But videos can’t be labeled a cause, he said.
“I think people who have these ideas or are fascinated by it are obviously going to seek these particular sites and it’s going to give them some type of validation,” Brody said.
Gewirtz, the Minnesota professor, said she knows of at least one school shooter who had never shot a gun before opening fire on classmates. But he had been playing first-person shooter video games for years, she said.
The vast majority of kids who play the games aren’t violent, though.
“You have healthy kids who watch video games, violent media. All kids are curious,” Gewirtz said. “In general, with healthy well-adjusted kids, with parents who are able to help them process these kinds of things, exposure per se to violent media won’t turn a child into a killer … The kids who are most vulnerable are the kids who already have an underlying vulnerability to psychosis or depression or serious conduct problems or psychopathy.”
‘Why are kids doing this?’
The LaDues say they never knew their quiet, seemingly nonviolent son was watching gory execution videos. They knew he played video games and they knew he watched YouTube. He didn’t have a smartphone. They used to check his computer history, though, and saw no evidence of the disturbing content. Now, they said, they understand John LaDue was adept at hiding his dark obsessions.
“It was very disturbing to hear the kid we knew … say, ‘After I watched these, I started to actually like them,’ ” David LaDue said.
They want other parents to know how easily accessible it is, they said.
“I want to be clear,” David LaDue added. “I don’t think it excuses anything, but lord help me, why are kids doing this?”