Austin Harrouff

What does Austin Harrouff tell us about masculinity in Millennials?

Many of you may have read about Austin Harrouff in the media recently, although you might better recognise him by one of the disturbing sobriquets given to him by journalists: ‘Frat Boy Face Eater’ and ‘Cannibal Frat Boy.’ Last August, Harrouff was responsible for the deaths of John Stevens, a 59-year-old landscaper, and his wife, Michelle Mishcon, 53. Both had been beaten and stabbed and when police arrived at the scene they found Harrouff biting lumps of flesh from the man’s face.

In itself it’s a rather grim, grisly story but it’s one that appears to be much more complicated than first thought. Many media outlets at the time incorrectly reported that he was he was under the influence of bath salts or flakka, otherwise known as the zombie drug ravaging parts of the US, including Florida where Harrouff is from. But toxicology reports have quashed this assumption, finding no evidence of either drug in his system, even though his behaviour indicated otherwise.

Although Harrouff had told paramedics he had smoked marijuana and consumed alcohol on the day of the murders, they found no trace of these in his system either. It’s believed he is currently receiving treatment in jail but there doesn’t seem to be any clarity on what he’s been treated for, other than sleep deprivation and depression, although issues of ‘mental illness’ have been repeatedly mentioned. Many now are wondering how this handsome, All-American ‘frat boy’ spiralled so out of control he became famous for all the wrong reasons.

One hypothesis — and I need to be careful about speculating on a very open case — is that Harrouff was displaying schizophrenic behaviour and that on the day he murdered Stevens and Mishcon, he might have had a psychotic breakdown that triggered the condition. Reports of how he heard voices telling him what to do and that he was running from a ‘demonic figure,’ the catatonic state that he fell into lasting 11 days after he was arrested, the mono-tonal voice he spoke with in police interviews and reports of unintelligible, animal-like groaning and laughing inappropriately suggest a catastrophic breakdown.

There are other indications in his profile that he may be schizophrenic — at twenty he is in the ‘danger zone’ for onset of the illness; a school essay he wrote that can be found online talks about being very shy, lacking in confidence and social skills; a number of his peers at Florida State University raised concerns about his strange behaviour; phone calls released between Harrouff and his father suggest a young man far below maturity than others in his age group, one who often sounds like a scared little boy.

Particularly telling is Harrouff’s YouTube channel — like a number of young American males he has sought validation in making short videos to an invisible audience which he published online. Imitating the likes of online personalities such as Cameron Dallas, Nash Grier, Taylor Caniff and the Dolan twins, Harrouff made similar videos were being muscled and topless seems to be a pre-requisite for getting likes and follows. These internet stars have made careers out of being very attractive ‘personalities’ but who have very little talent beyond ‘bro humour.’

But Harrouff’s videos make uncomfortable viewing — he clearly lacks confidence and social media skills, he often seems extremely agitated, his voice is flat and emotionless, there is a surprising lack of humour or self-deprecation typical of other Youtube stars, and his sense of self-worth seems to come from being ‘muscular’ and ‘popular.’ It also appears that before murdering two innocent people, his videos were getting no views and now they have going viral. As one Youtube commenter chillingly put it, ‘His YouTube career finally took off.’

Harrouff also talks considerably about steroid use, suggesting that this is something he has done before but goes on to say; ‘I think that steroids really aren’t for me. Honestly, I used to think that I needed steroids to be a bodybuilder, to be this thing, to this symbol, to be this lie.’ It’s very revealing that he equates living up to an image of male physical perfection as being a lie — the pressure on young men to have a certain body type becomes a mask behind which the self withdraws and being bombarded with images of ripped models in the media might be contributing to a collective inadequancy among young men.

Another notable aspect of Harrouff’s video presense is how he quickly adopts a ‘voice’ or a personality’ as though he isn’t comfortable being ‘him’. Whether he’s pretending to be Texan, Russian, or British, these accents allow him to impersonate someone else instead of being Austin. There are other videos in which he sings with a very mediocre voice along to the Beatles or his own songs. The end goal? I suppose like many YouTube stars, the desire is fame but like many Millennials, the assumption is that you can have no talent and still make millions.

Is Harrouff an extreme example of what young male Millennials across America and the Western World are turning into? The pressure to have a certain body type and to take extreme measures such as steroids to get there, the pressure to be popular and sociable, the pressure of being seen as strong and masculine (in one video, he repeatedly states, ‘I’m not a pussy,’) the pressure of unattainable life goals such as internet fame or being Justin Bieber are all creating monsters of some kind. Is the real horror here that he had to murder innocent people to attain that notoriety, like some real-life Patrick Bateman?

What is most revealing in terms of what Harrouff has said since the arrest is, ‘I just want to be a normal kid again.’ There’s something rather heart breaking in that statement, knowing that it can never be possible. He will likely spend the rest of his life in jail or if he is diagnosed as being paranoid schizophrenic, that’s a condition that will have to be carefully managed for the rest of his life in a secure facility. But really what’s most pathetic in all of this is Austin’s struggle to be a ‘normal kid’ like all his male peers is probably what pushed him over the edge in the first place.