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Violent fantasies not uncommon

NEW YORK — Teachers and fellow students were horrified by Seung-Hui Cho’s violent screenplays — bizarre tales of suburban mothers brandishing chain saws and high school teachers raping their students. In retrospect, they are the bizarre product of a mind on the brink of mayhem.

But psychologists and psychiatrists say such stuff is no indicator of imminent violence like Cho’s murderous rampage at Virginia Tech. If it were, practically every writer in Hollywood would be a menace to society.

‘‘I don’t think you can take a wild leap from something somebody writes,’’ said Stanton E. 8Samenow, a clinical psychologist and author of the book ‘‘Inside the Criminal Mind.’’

Psychologists and psychiatrists agree that there is no way to definitively predict future violent behavior. Yet there are often warning signs, and specialists say people should trust their instincts when they feel threatened by a co-worker, neighbor, or acquaintance.

Psychological studies have shown that perfectly normal college students often have violent ideas and fantasies.

In one recent survey 47 percent of undergraduate students reported having had at least one homicidal fantasy. In another, more than two out of three said they had fantasized about killing someone, and 30 percent of men reported having such imaginings frequently.

‘‘Studies have clearly demonstrated that many more people have homicidal and sexually violent fantasies than act on them,’’ psychiatrists David M. Gellerman and Robert Suddath wrote recently in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Some specialists have even suggested that violent fantasies may be therapeutic in psychologically healthy people, a mental means of blowing off steam.

Still, there may be hints in a person’s writing to indicate a potential for violence. For example, a writer might reveal his ignorance of social norms in a fictional story that goes too far in breaking taboos, said Gregory K. Moffatt, a psychology professor at Atlanta Christian College.

‘‘You look at the lines that are being crossed and how flagrantly they are being crossed,’’ Moffatt said.

For example? Chopping up the baby sitter is a staple of the horror genre. Chopping up the baby is not.

Cho’s screenplays are bizarre and absurdist, but whether they violate taboos is a matter of interpretation. In one, a boy verbally abuses his stepfather and fantasizes about killing him. When the boy tries to choke the stepfather with a cereal bar, the much bigger man kills him with a single blow.

Another screenplay centers on three underage teenagers who are gambling in a casino and complaining about their much-hated teacher, Mr. Brownstone. Some of their comments are quite graphic. Then Mr. Brownstone appears just as one of the students hits the jackpot and conspires with casino security to steal the $5 million pot.

Cho is not the first killer to have his writing scrutinized after his crime.

‘‘Vengeance is coming,’’ Kimveer Gill wrote in a blog entry before shooting six people to death and injuring 19 more in Montreal last year. ‘‘A light drizzle will be starting up. The clouds will be grey, so grey. Just the way I like it. ..... Bodies litter the streets. Some have been decapitated, others hung off bridges and overpasses.’’

Joseph Edward Duncan III was much more explicit when he wrote in May 2005: ‘‘I am scared, alone and confused, and my reaction is to strike out toward the perceived source of my misery, society. My intent is to harm society as much as I can, then die.’’

Four days later, Duncan allegedly killed three members of a family in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and kidnapped two children ages 8 and 9. He sexually assaulted both and later killed one of them before being captured in Montana with the surviving child. Investigators later tied him to four unsolved murders in two states.

Duncan was clearly a threat. He had spent years in prison on sexual assault charges and was a registered sex offender.

But Cho, though he had been investigated for sending unwanted e-mails to women and had a history of mental illness, did not have a record of violence.

Several of Cho’s professors were alarmed enough to recommend him for counseling. One even concocted a code-word system to notify her assistant if she felt threatened during tutoring sessions.

But it wasn’t just Cho’s writing that alarmed them; his behavior in class was considered odd and menacing. Some of his classmates have said they sensed he could be dangerous. They even joked about the possibility that he might ‘‘go postal.’’

Psychiatrist Julie Holland, a veteran of the overnight shift at the psychiatric emergency room of New York’s legendary Bellevue Hospital, said she once joked that a patient might hurt her. Five minutes later she got punched in the face.

‘‘The little jokes, the little nervous twitters,’’ Holland said. ‘‘It’s not something to be ignored.’’