It would have been newsworthy if Michael Brea, a young actor from the television series Ugly Betty, had killed his mother with a gun. But when he slashed her to death last November in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a 3-foot-long Masonic blade, his crime made the front page: A sword nut gone berserk.
Brea's choice of weapon may not have been his greatest derangement—"I didn't kill her, I killed the demon inside her," he insisted afterward—but it was certainly odd. In the United States, at least, murderers tend to shoot people: Two-thirds of the nation's homicides—about 10,000 per year—are committed with firearms. Drug dealers use handguns to protect their turf; athletes keep them in their pants. Among cops, shooting is contagious. When teenagers snap, they bring guns to school.
Knives are less common, but more intimate—the tool of muggers, rapists, prisoners, and old-fashioned street toughs. The hijackers on 9/11 may have used box-cutters, which would have been easy to hide in their carry-on bags. But a 3-foot blade? It's the plaything of a deviant mind. A man with a sword has no interest in concealment and no hope of escape. He might try to hide his weapon—by hanging it from his neck, let's say, under an overcoat—but that's playing against type: A sword isn't sneaked to the scene of the crime; it's lifted from the mantel at the moment of need. Because, really, there's nothing more grandiose and theatrical than the vorpal blade. It's the weapon of dueling gentlemen and swashbuckling adventurers, of knights in armor and the horse lords of Rohan.
That is to say, the sword is the weapon of nerds. It's also the weapon of schizophrenics. And, most of all, it's the weapon of schizophrenic nerds.
Consider how Michael Brea described his mother's slaying in November: "I felt like Neo from The Matrix." Then he added, "It's a powerful sword"—as if his murder weapon had been forged by goblins. It's said there are crimes of passion and crimes of logic. Brea's was one of science fiction and fantasy.
Same goes for the Florida man with shoulder-length hair who killed his girlfriend's stepfather with a samurai sword in 2008—and then told the police that he was a Wiccan high priest. Or the supermarket bagger in Irvine, Calif., who killed two people with a katana in 2003 and was obsessed with Highlander, a film and television series about immortal, time-traveling swordsmen. Or the South African boy who sliced up his schoolmates with three swords while wearing a monster mask (and suffering anxiety about an upcoming exam).
That's not to say demented nerds are responsible for every act of sword-based violence. Just before Christmas, a guy in Terre Haute, Ind., used a samurai sword to chop off another man's fingers in a street fight. Earlier in the year, someone in Cheyenne, Wyo., robbed a convenience store with a 3-foot katana. And in February, a Kentucky psychiatrist stabbed one of his patients with a sword at his office building. It may be that none of these men believed he was a Jedi knight or a level-20 paladin, but the mere fact of their armament suggests membership in a geeky and aggressive subculture. Men who collect swords are the same ones who become obsessed with kendo and historical re-enactments—if they're not too busy playing D&D or SoulCalibur. Which is to say: It may not make you a lunatic to have an ornamental blade hanging on your living-room wall. But it's a pretty good sign that you're a dork.
The archetypical sword murderer, for his part, is a 20- to 40-year-old white male who still lives with his parents. He's often a paranoid schizophrenic, and he often expresses himself by killing his mother or father.