A Bullet in the Chamber: A Jungian Perspective on a Murderous Gun Complex

A Bullet in the Chamber: A Jungian Perspective on a Murderous Gun Complex

original-36Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend on Valentines Day. He was devastated and cried uncontrollably at his first court appearance and frequently at his bail hearing. His affidavit stated that that he believed that there was a burglar in his bathroom whom he shot, only to realise to his horror that he had shot Reeva Steenkamp.

Whether his version of events is true or whether, as the state claims, the killing was in fact intentional, i.e. murder, remains undecided. Opinions differ; hopefully the pending court case will answer some of these questions, particularly for the family of Reeva Steenkamp. Either way a tragedy has occurred that has cost a young woman her life and, in all likely hood, a young man his career as one of the most exciting and iconic sportsmen to emerge from South Africa. Not to mention the cost to the community of ‘differently abled’ athletes and South African in toto.

Considering this case through the lens of Jungian psychology offers a unique and illuminating perspective on the events of that fateful day.[1] From a Jungian perspective, we can say that Oscar had a ‘murderous gun complex’, regardless of whether he consciously intended to kill Reeva or not.

Let us look at what emerged in the news[2] post this shooting:

  • His initial application for a gun license was rejected and at the time of the shooting he had 6 applications pending for a variety of weapons
  • He nearly shot a friend at a restaurant whilst looking at someone else’s gun
  • His Nike advert was titled “Bullet in the chamber”
  • He apparently kept his gun on him at all times
  • He told The New York Times that when a house security alarm went off recently, he grabbed the gun he kept by his bed and crept downstairs. It turned out to be nothing.
  • In November, he tweeted about mistaking his washing machine for a burglar. (“Nothing like getting home to hear the washing machine on and thinking it’s an intruder to go into full combat recon mode into the pantry!” he wrote)

We observe in this list a series of seemingly diverse facts and situations that share a thematic constellation. They converge very clearly on the theme of shooting a gun, and, as fate would have it in this case, killing someone in the process. So whether it is true that he woke up and was filled with terror because he believed that there was a burglar in the bathroom, or whether he had an emotional meltdown due to an argument, the fact of the matter is that his gun complex possessed him. It wanted to shoot someone and it did. What I think we can say with a reasonable degree of confidence is the act was one of temporary insanity. It is hard (impossible maybe) to view it as a calculated cold blooded murder. For if it was in fact an act of murder, then it was also an act suicide as well; Oscar may just as well have shot himself afterwards.

Complexes lie in wait to usurp the ego at times of lowered consciousness, e.g. emotional stress, fatigue, being drunk or high, etc.

So what are complexes, where do they come from and how do they behave?

A (very) brief history of  Complexes[3]

Carl Gustav Jung, founder of Analytical Psychology, initially called his system Complex Psychology. A number of events and interests led Jung to investigate and develop the theory that the human psyche is populated by complexes.

Jung’s first real experience of a neurotic complex occurred when he was around 12 years old. He was knocked down and lost consciousness during a playground scuffle. The result was that he was sent home and realized that this was an effective way to avoid going to school. Subsequently, he had a number of fainting spells when required to do homework or go to school. However, he overheard his father speaking to someone about this issue and how concerned they were about his ability to support himself when he was older. This made him realize how important his studies were and he set to correct this neurosis by forcing himself to study Latin. He eventually managed to stop the fainting spells. This experience sparked his initial interest in the psyche and the power of the mind over the physical body.

The Spiritual angle

Jung’s mother was believed to be psychic and a medium. She often spoke with a different voice and had access to knowledge that was directly unknown to her. This had a profound impact on Jung who himself as a young boy entertained the idea that he had another personality living inside of him.

Jung wrote his dissertation in 1902 on his cousin Helen Preiswerk who was a medium and performed many séances. Helene also often spoke as someone different named Ivenes who was more intelligent and mature. This was the grounding of Jung’s later work on the second personality and individuation. This also sparked his interest and research on complexes, and his belief that complexes were autonomous personalities within the psyche.

The Student years and early work

Jung studied medicine and became increasingly more interested in psychology. During his studies, he was exposed to “Psychopathia Sexualis” by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In addition to this, Pierre Janet and his concept of Abaissement du niveau mental, Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams”, From India to the Planet Mars by Théodore Flournoy, and “The Visionary of Prevorst “by Justinus Kerner, peaked his interest and influenced his subsequent development of complex theory.

At the age of 25, Jung started working at Burghölzli, a renowned psychiatric hospital in Zurich.

Whilst at Burgholzli, he researched and published his work on the Word Association Test. Initially invented by Sir Francis Galton in 1879, Jung realized the effectiveness of this test and elaborated and defined it considerably. This test identified areas in the patients’ psyche where there was a neurosis.

The test consisted of a number of random pre-selected words read out to the patient. The patient was then required to respond to each word read out to them, with a different word of their own selection.

Jung established that any reaction whether emotional or physical, but also the time delay in responding, indicated that there was a neurotic complex active in relation to the word read.

So what is a complex anyway?

Jung has left a comprehensive body of work on complexes. His research and work on complexes resulted in a dense theorem which is well documented. The main points[4] regarding complexes are as follows:

  • A complex is a grouping together of emotions, beliefs, ideals, images around a specific idea. These complexes populate the psyche and can be either (partially) conscious or unconscious.

  • Complexes come about as a result of a split in the psyche. This split can be caused by trauma, but most often it is the result a moral split. This happens when the subject has an inner conflict regarding an event. The whole being is incapable of assimilating or understanding a situation and this dilemma results in a split. Consciously there is one position, but unconsciously there is another position.

  • Complexes can be conscious or integrated into consciousness, e.g. a talent. Alternatively, they can be unconscious and unknown to the ego consciousness.

  • Unconscious complexes have their own goals and intentions that oppose the conscious ego. These complexes are autonomous and assert influence over the ego consciousness which affects and influence the ego consciousness ability to make decisions and challenge the ego’s autonomy. A neurotic complex will create a problem for the ego consciousness. This problem will trap the subject by not allowing it to let go of it. The subject will then be stuck in the problem and not able to move on or resolve the issue.

  • A psychotic complex totally overpowers the ego and the subject will not be able to function normally within society; at least not whilst in the grip of that complex.

  • Complexes usurp power from the ego when consciousness is lowered. Consciousness is lowered when a person is subjected to high levels of stress, physical exhaustion, emotional upheaval, inebriation or drugs. When consciousness is lowered, the complex will exert itself and express itself in saying inappropriate things or displaying inappropriate behaviour. The ego often remains unconscious of the behaviour by immediately blocking it out or forgetting what happened. But if it is remembered, the subject will be confused as to why they behaved in that way. They will not take responsibility for the behaviour and blame it on an external event or often say they were not themselves. In primitive cultures it would often be referred to as being possessed.

  • Identifying a complex can be achieved by becoming aware of the subjects’ emotional responses and projections. When there is an emotional response to an individual or organization, the subject is projecting their own unconscious content onto the external party. This is a good indication that there is a complex present. The complex can also present itself through fantasies and dreams.

  • Unconscious Complexes can be integrated into consciousness, if identified, accepted, articulated and assimilated. By becoming conscious of the complexes active in your own life, the projection onto the other is removed. This process of becoming conscious grounded Jung’s later theories on individuation.

C.G. Jung’s lifelong dedication to developing his theory on complexes has made a significant contribution to the field of psychology. This theory on complexes has developed into a system with which to explore our own psyches and also offer tools that makes transformation a real possibility by becoming conscious of who we really are[5].

Applying this theory to your own life

In simple terms, as a teacher of mine was fond of saying, we are not masters in our own house. This does not suggest that we,( or Oscar in this case), bear no responsibility for our actions. That is going too far, that is a cop out. The old line…

“The devil made me do it,”

that many a scoundrel has used as the last line of defense, does not void said individual of responsibility. Nevertheless there is something to it. Our psychologies are home to a few angels, if we are so blessed, and, almost undoubtedly, to a plurality of demons. These characters will act for themselves, quite literally, and not infrequently their agenda will be quite contrary to your conscious agenda.

Recognizing this uncomfortable truth about yourself is a good starting point. The image of your psychology being made up of many small islands (each island being a complex) around a central island being the ego is a useful way of imagining this. Your psychology is not as unified as you may believe it to be.

With this recognition in place the process of identifying these complexes can begin. Identifying and entering into an inner dialogue with them[6] is time well spent.

Far better surely than the awfully high price of having them unconsciously direct your life. Although the Oscar Pistorius case is a dramatic one, and not everyone necessarily harbors violent or murderous complexes, it is illustrative of how the unattended, unconscious or repressed complex can take the reins. And in doing this, it can lead you down a path you may well not have chosen in a more lucid and coherent frame of mind.


[1] In doing such an analysis we naturally run the risk of error and speculation. We accept this. This analysis is not intended as the final word on the matter or even the most correct or best way to interpret these events. Rather the more modest claim that such an analysis is helpful, both in shedding light on what may have occurred and providing us some insight into our own potentially ‘murderous complexes’.

[2] Whilst every attempt has been made to accurately convey the information that has emerged, naturally we rely here on the accuracy of the news reports themselves. As such no claim is made by the writer as to the accuracy of these reports only that these have appeared in the news in connection with this incident.

[3] Or, more precisely, a brief history of the theory of complexes.

[4] But by no means a complete list.

[5] Bibliography:

Samuels, A., Shorter, B., Plaut, F., 1986, A critical dictionary of Jungian Analysis, London, Routledge

Jung, C. G., 1963/1995, Memories Dreams Reflections, London, HarperCollins

Jung, C. G., 1966/1993, Vol. 16, London, Routledge

Jung, C. G.1969/2008, Vol. 8, London, Routledge

Crovitz, H. F.,1970, Galton’s walk: methods for the analysis of thinking, intelligence, and creativity, New York, Harper & Row

Hayman, R.; 1999/2003, A life of Jung, London, Bloomsbury

[6] Note, entering into an inner dialogue, not repressing them which is a decidedly bad idea. What you are looking for here is a negotiated settlement between you, as the ego, and the complex.

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Comments (23)

  • Georgina Pilkington Reply

    This is a useful explanation for people who want to understand how good people can do bad things.

    February 27, 2013 at 7:24 am
  • Joyce Reply


    February 27, 2013 at 8:15 am
  • Margaret Reply

    Hi Steve, thanks for some very interesting thoughts! I find it sad for my grandchildren – who held Oscar in such high esteem – we encourage them to emulate heroes! I wonder how this affects their psyches?

    February 27, 2013 at 8:20 am
    • Anja Reply

      @ Margaret. On 16 Feb we had a wonderful discussion on our Facebook page about this very issue. Please go and view it http://www.facebook.com/AppliedJung.


      February 27, 2013 at 9:39 am
  • Lara Griffiths Reply


    February 27, 2013 at 8:57 am
  • cathy Reply

    thanks for this insight…. i like the idea

    February 27, 2013 at 9:02 am
  • Anna Reply

    Very interesting information around complexes

    February 27, 2013 at 9:35 am
  • Robert Goldberg Reply

    A fascinating and useful article. However, factor in these more “earthly” considerations, widely reported on the news: 1) the incredibly high, often violent crime rate in Pretoria, and 2) Pistorius’ newfound fame and wealth, making him a likely target. What Jung might say about this determined athlete’s ability to receive these great changes in his life might make for another entire article. However, any analysis of these events in Pistorius’ life must necessarily include these possibly mitigating factors. While I enjoyed the article as a general treatise on complexes, it is very early in the game to speculate.

    February 27, 2013 at 10:55 am
    • Stephen Reply

      Robert: thanks for the feedback and yes fair comment. It is early and no doubt both more information and disinformation are yet to emerge. I will say this though, the point Anja makes in the post is that even if we accept OP version of what went down that night, the idea that the complex had its way stands. The concept here is that the complex acts independently of (and contrary to) the conscious will. So there are two ways this could happen:

      1. OP suffered what may be termed temporary insanity wherein he was consciously ‘absent’ during the shooting; or alternatively
      2. He was conscious of his actions (to a degree at least) but nevertheless his desire to shoot someone got the better of him causing a massive error in judgement.

      Now whilst he may not be found criminally culpable in the second case (or at least not of murder),a terrible tragedy occurred driven, if you accept the theoretical premise, by an unconscious complex. Even in this case it is very hard to imagine or empathise with his actions as being lucid, reasonable and responsible.
      If we did think it was genuinely reasonable we best prepare for onslaught of similar cases as every SA firearm owner wakes to fire at the first noise he hears in the dark. Admitedly crime is endemic but still…

      I like your idea about ‘the determined athlete desire ability to receive these great changes [challenges possibly?] in his life”. Further to that we had quite a lively debate in this vein on the FB page a few weeks ago. Emotions are running high as they tend to do in these cases. As you suggest, time will reveal more.

      February 27, 2013 at 6:27 pm
  • Allan Reply

    Wow! steve, I i had read this, i would not have needed to go to last night’s class. On a more serious note – i had a lot of wow moments reading it – Thanks

    February 27, 2013 at 2:07 pm
    • Stephen Reply

      All part of my Machiavellian plan Allan; why do you think I only post the blog the day after class :-)!

      February 27, 2013 at 6:32 pm
  • Fernando Perez Reply

    Richard Rose called this process of “error and speculation”, retire from untruth. By this, he meant the casting away of erroneous/hypocritical/false ideas and its subsequent replacement with less-untrue self-concepts. I have found that the danger lies in not detecting the impermanent nature of the process. I found your work absorbing.

    February 27, 2013 at 3:18 pm
  • Thomas Harris Reply

    Is this :-
    1) Insightful comment on OP’s possible psycho pathology?
    2) The Complex module of psycho 101?
    3) An extract from Jungs auto biography?

    I dont think it serves any one of these objectives particularly well

    February 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm
    • Stephen Reply

      Thomas opinions differ (thank god for that). Your critical comment whilst virulent lacks substance, so difficult to make a meaningful reply to. My answer to your three questions in the absence of any substantiation for them is:

      1) Yes it is a comment on OP possible psycho pathology. Whether or not it’s insightful, I will not presume to say.
      2) Not quite sure what the ‘complex module of psych 101’ is… but yes it is meant as an application of Jung’s theory of complexes on something topical and, as Anja suggests, illustrative of the theory.
      3) No this is not an extract from Jung’s biography (auto or otherwise) it is rather a very brief history, such as practicable in the limited space, of how this theory developed.

      February 27, 2013 at 6:43 pm
  • Herman Lategan Reply

    Thank you, I found this fascinating and informative.

    February 28, 2013 at 6:42 am
  • Richard Reply

    Thank you for a very insightful article.
    I am not trained in any form of psychology, but do like to read many angles on the “Why did you do it?” factor. I am by no means a student of Jung and would like to thank you for explaining so simply what his theory on complexes is and how it works. In OP’s case however – I still cannot help but to think that this theory is also a means to minimise why he did what he did or even perhaps explain why. Granted – it’s not every day we all have an opportunity to blast holes into a door, but I think there also might be some other factors at play here for instance, a heated argument, or perhaps alcohol – I don’t know. But it certainly wasn’t an accident.

    February 28, 2013 at 1:37 pm
  • Lenore Reply

    Interesting reading!!

    February 28, 2013 at 2:34 pm
  • Tobias Louw Reply

    An interesting perspective. I may be repeating what I said earlier, but I was wondering whether there is any reason why Oscar would, being only one of about 30 athletes in that Nike advertisement, be the only one with such a complex personality? (In terms of the theory, virtually nobody is excluded). Does the fact that a person carries a gun in South Africa for self-protection, make him or her a likely murderer? (Don’t think so, as stats say that only a small portion of those actually ever fire a gun in self-defense). Is the so-called “gun-complex” one that Jung actually identified? And then perhaps the most basic of all questions: can one ascribe a specific complex/neurosis to another without a thorough, direct examination? (I fear not). I happened to have a conversation some years ago with one of the psychologists who did a long-term examination of Tsafendas. Was told that their conclusion what that “he was not mad” (to put it in layman’s terms). Perhaps if he was a psycho-analyst, the conclusion will have been different? From a scientific point of view, the jury is still open whether the approach from the unknown (e.g. the Unconscious) to explain the known (world of appearances and contingent experience, things and behaviours), or the other way around, is the more justifiable.

    March 1, 2013 at 8:30 am
  • Stephen Reply

    Tobias thanks for your comment. You raise a number of interesting points; I will do my best to address these in turn.

    1.In your questioning of the unconscious as a theoretical posit you bring the entire theory of complexes into question. This I think is a fair point; does the unconscious exist and if it does can it be used as an explanatory tool?
    Naturally I believe it does, as did Jung of course as part of the psychoanalytic movement. I find it hard to imagine how psychology can proceed without it. Nevertheless certainly some schools of psychology do and they seem to get on quite well without it. Still I would be inclined to say sufficient empirical evidence exists that the onus would now be the disproving rather than proving of its existence to one so inclined.

    2. Your question: can one ascribe a complex or any other condition without a thorough, direct examination? We’ll of course one can, as we have just done :-). Seriously though you mean of course does one have the right to, or rather can one make any legitimate claim about such an ascription. Certainly we do not intend this as an official diagnosis of Mr. Pistorius’ mental condition and we are not planning to hand this in to court. Not being clinicians it would be somewhat presumptuous I think :-).
    Is there sufficient justification to make the claim we make in this post. I think there is, with the qualifications we note in place. Does this mean this is a roil hoil diagnoses, no of course not. Rather it is an interpretation of certain select facts in the public arena. That being said, if I was on the OP defence team this is a possibility I would investigate.

    3. To the main thrust of your argument though and the one you raised on FB as well. Certainly any of the facts noted at the beginning of the post, which we take as suggestive of a ‘murderous gun complex’ (our coinage not Jung’s) on their own would be insufficient to draw any meaningful inference from. Taken together however we suggest these facts are suggestive of such a complex. More importantly is this accurate? Who can ever say with absolute authority? I guarantee you there is not entry in the DSM for a ‘murderous gun complex’! Does it mean that it doesn’t exist; well that is a more challenging question. I think viewed through a psychoanalytic lens quite possibly it does. Could we be wrong? YES of course we could!

    Lastly, returning to the first point regarding the unconscious, I really enjoyed your question about whether can we explain the known from the unknown or vice versa. This is such a rich and inviting question that any cursory reply I give here will insult it, so I will leave it unanswered. But not because it is not a potentially fruitful and stimulating line of enquiry, it is, and maybe one day we can pursue it further.

    Once again, thanks for your thoughts.

    March 1, 2013 at 10:00 am
    • Ilona Reply

      Stephen, to address this murderous gun complex I would say that something like this may exist in our psyche. I can remember my dream, where I was tracing an unknown young man killing people with his gun. Everybody in the town was terrified, but he was shooting people mischievously, just for fun, hidden somewhere on the top floor of a shopping centre. When I saw how young and irresponsible he was, I got angry and rushed toward him. Having taken his gun I threw it away and started to beat him with my fists. He did not managed to escape nor shield from the blows. But finally his girlfriend came to perform my summary execution.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:40 pm
  • George van der Merwe Reply

    A valuable contribution to the discussion! Thanks.

    March 2, 2013 at 7:15 am
  • raggles Reply

    Your thoughts on such complex as primarily cultural and not simply of this man’s personal psychological bent.

    August 23, 2013 at 10:45 pm
  • Imad Abou Khalil Reply

    Thank you for the valuable and enlightening article!

    June 4, 2022 at 10:00 am

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