"True crime" is a recently coined term used to refer to nonfictional accounts of actual crimes, usually murders. There has been little systematic study of the genre or its readers; critics and publishers offer contradictory theories about true-crime literature. Although the term and the popularity of the genre are relatively new, factual accounts of crimes are not. True-crime accounts date back as far as the 18th century, and such writers as Edmund Pearson, William Roughead, and Jonathan Goodman described the exploits of criminals earlier in the twentieth century. Critics agree that Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) gave birth to the genre. Called a nonfiction novel, the book was a not-strictly-factual account of the murder of a Kansas family in which Capote focused on the killers—not the victims, as was the norm previously—in attempting to explain why the killers acted as they did. Capote's work and Norman Mailer's book The Executioner's Song (1980) are considered classics of the genre.
In the 1980s, the true-crime book market enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. Many critics suggest that the advent of tabloid television, the desensitizing of violence, and the rise in media coverage of crimes led to an increase in demand for factual accounts, particularly of serial killings. Although some critics contend that the popularity of the true-crime genre is a uniquely American phenomenon, other commentators point out that true-crime books are very popular in England, a country with a low homicide rate. Some scholars have suggested that readers are reassured by writers' descriptions of killers as monstrous and inhuman, placing them outside the realm of normal society. However, writers like Capote and Mailer have focused almost sympathetically on how incidents in the criminals' youths transformed them into killers. Most commentators agree that the most popular true-crime books feature victims who are ordinary Americans, not unlike the readers themselves; focus on a crime which is violent and gruesome; end in a conviction of a criminal; and offer commentary on some aspect of contemporary society. Some of the most popular true-crime writers today are Ann Rule, Jack Olsen, and Joe McGinniss.
Baker, Mark: Bad Guys: America's Most Wanted in Their Own Words (nonfiction) 1996
Berkow, Ira: The Man Who Robbed the Pierre: The True Story of Bobby Comfort (nonfiction) 1987
Bolitho, William: Murder for Profit (nonfiction) 1926
Capote, Truman: In Cold Blood (nonfiction) 1966
Davis, Don: The Milwaukee Murders (nonfiction) 1991
Defoe, Daniel: True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the late Jonathan Wild; not made up of Fiction and Fable, but taken from his own Mouth, and Collected from Papers of his own Writing (nonfiction) 1725
Egginton, Joyce: From Cradle to Grave: The Short Lives and Strange Deaths of Marybeth Tinning's Nine Children (nonfiction) 1989
Elkind, Peter: Death Shift: The True Story of Nurse Genene Jones and the Texas Baby Murders (nonfiction) 1989
Englade, Ken: Beyond Reason: A True Story of a Shocking Double Murder, a Brilliant and Beautiful Virginia Socialite and a Deadly Psychotic (nonfiction) 1990
Goldfarb, Ronald: Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes: Robert F. Kennedy's War against Organized Crime (nonfiction) 1996
Graysmith, Robert: The Sleeping Lady: The Trailside Murders Above the Golden Gate (nonfiction) 1990
Hammer, Richard: The CBS Murders: A True Story of Greed and Violence in New York's Diamond District (nonfiction) 1987
Jesse, F. Tennyson: Murder and Its Motives (nonfiction) 1924
Kaminer, Wendy: It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture (nonfiction) 1995
Lewis, Craig A.: Blood Evidence: A Story of True Crime in the South (nonfiction) 1990
Linedecker, Clifford L: Night Stalker (nonfiction) 1991
Mailer, Norman: The Executioner's Song (nonfiction) 1980
McGinniss, Joe: Fatal Vision (nonfiction) 1983; Blind Faith (nonfiction) 1989; Cruel Doubt (nonfiction) 1991
Michaud, Stephen G., and Hugh Aynesworth: The Only Living Witness (nonfiction) 1989
Mones, Paul: Stalking Justice (nonfiction) 1995
Olsen, Jack: Son: A Psychopath and His Victims (nonfiction) 1985; Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell (nonfiction) 1989
Pearson, Edmund: Studies in Murder (nonfiction) 1924
Potter, Jerry Allen, and Fred Bost: Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders (nonfiction) 1995
Roughead, William: Malice Domestic (nonfiction) 1928
Rule, Ann: Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder (nonfiction) 1987
Snimomura, Tsutomu, and John Markoff: Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw—by the Man Who Did It (nonfiction) 1996
Thompson, Tommy: Blood and Money (nonfiction) 1976
Wolfe, Linda: Wasted: The Preppie Murder (nonfiction) 1989
William Goldhurst (essay date Fall 1989)
SOURCE: "The New Revenge Tragedy: Comparative Treatments of the Beauchamp Case," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 22, Fall, 1989, pp. 117-27.
[In the following essay, Goldhurst remarks on several literary treatments of the Beauchamp-Sharp murder case, which transpired in Kentucky in 1825.]
Poe's strategy of setting an American literary situation in a remote and exotic environment has a special and complex application in the verse drama Politian, written in 1835. Set in Rome during the Renaissance, the play is a retelling of the Beauchamp-Sharp murder case, which took place in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1825 and is known to historians as the Kentucky Tragedy. The story has attracted the notice of numerous authors from Poe's day to our own, including Thomas Holley Chivers, William Gilmore Simms, Charles Fenno Hoffman and Robert Penn Warren.
The lurid aspects of the sordid affair needed little blowing up to please sensation seekers of the period. Sex and violence are the foundation, while seduction, pregnancy, desertion, slander and revenge all play vivid roles in the elaboration. There is no single climax: but a bloody murder and then a trial ending in a guilty verdict, a suicide pact, and a public hanging are high points of intensity near the conclusion.
Two components of this story line are perhaps more compelling than the others: the idea that the seducer must die, and the character of Ann Cooke, who offered herself to Beauchamp on the condition that he kill for her. Of course young Beauchamp made her quarrel his own, and swore that he was acting on moral principle, as if Sharp had wronged not only a provincial maiden, but all decent men and women. Most likely Beauchamp eventually came to believe his own internal propaganda; but it was Ann Cooke who breathed life into his anger and kindled his blood lust.
According to Beauchamp's Confession, Cooke told him her heart would cease to ache only when Colonel Sharp was killed and not by a stranger to her tragedy, but by her agent acting under her direction. She was willing to kiss the hand of the person who avenged her, Ann was; and furthermore would remain forever in his debt. Later Beauchamp taught her how to shoot his pistol and she contemplated killing Sharp herself. But this plan was soon scrapped and the agent idea reinstated. When Beauchamp inquired if he should kill Sharp's brother, too, Cooke said no—not because she cared to spare the innocent, but knowing how the brother worshipped the colonel, she thought he would suffer more if left alive.
Eventually the plan was put into effect, Sharp was tricked into opening his front door and stabbed in his own vestibule, and a triumphant Beauchamp returned to an ecstatic Ann Cooke, who fell to her knees, kissed Beauchamp's hand, and begged to hear all the details of "the glorious deed."
At the end, Cooke visited Beauchamp in prison, bringing laudanum. The does did not "take," and upon recovering they agreed to use a knife, which Cooke had smuggled into the cell. "I can refuse her nothing she prays of me to do," writes Beauchamp as his execution hour approaches. He raises the dagger and plunges it into his side, but Cooke deflects the blow, grabs the blade and directs the thrust into her own abdomen. Cooke dies of her wound; Beauchamp goes bleeding to the gallows.
The Letters of Ann Cooke provides an interesting glimpse (if they can be believed) into Cooke's feelings as she went from innocent maid to mistress to avenger. On the fatal night of her seduction, Sharp invited her to a ball, where she was "carried away" with the lights, the music, the dancing, and the wine her escort forced upon her. Acting under the influence of all these powerful and unaccustomed stimuli, Cooke says her "reason was subdued by the power of a resistless passion," etc. Before the year was out, she heard that Sharp intended to marry someone else. When she learned from Sharp himself that this was true, she sank to the floor in a faint and spent the next several weeks in her bed with a raging fever. Some months later, her baby died and Ann Cooke began to lapse into "a settled melancholy."
Eventually she emerged from her depression sufficiently to entertain Beauchamp's proposals. Yet she told him she felt she could never again experience happiness in this life, so deep was the trauma Sharp had inflicted. She believed Beauchamp thought her "degraded and unworthy" because she had been another man's fool.
Still, she was beginning to enjoy life again until she learned of Sharp's latest treachery: he was circulating a story that her baby was fathered by a negro and had even had a forged birth certificate drawn up as proof of her indiscretion. According to the Letters, it was at this point that Cooke invoked the Erinyes. "We took a solemn oath," she says, "that nothing but the heart's blood of the slanderer and betrayer should atone for the deep and horrible injury he had inflicted." As Beauchamp evolved from visitor to suitor to fiancé he and Cooke shared her gradually mounting anger over the mjustices done her by Sharp. In calmer moments, she reminded Beauchamp that the world regarded her as "guilty and polluted." He responded by insisting that she was the innocent victim of a scoundrel's treachery.
They marry. The plan to avenge her wrongs is set in motion. Sharp is killed. Beauchamp is tried and convicted. Cooke commits suicide in his presence and he is soon afterward hanged as a felon.
Ann Cooke represents the dark side of the naive American Frauendienst—the habit of dehumanizing women of the time by investing them with an unrealistic purity, spirituality and vulnerability. Individual women who swallowed the mythology whole and then exaggerated its effects could easily assume a becoming narcissism with attendant feelings of self-pity over life's injustices and a brutal attitude toward the men who had wronged them.
The real Ann Cooke is difficult to identify. Certainly she did not resemble the portrait circulated by Sharp's defenders, where she is pictured as a "waning flirt of 35" who had lost her front teeth and had no chin, etc. Most likely she was average in appearance, if not beautiful, and Sharp did seduce her and then left her to marry another woman. Perhaps a healthy attitude at that point might have been a sense of shared irresponsibility. But the very definition of seduction, with its implication that the man took advantage, pressured the woman to succumb, etc. involves the idea of misconduct on the part of the male acting out a power charade against the passive female. From this assumption to: the seducer must pay! is only a short logical step.
To be sure, the early American seduction novels placed some of the blame upon the female victim, implying or stating explicitly that she was guilty of romantic fantasizing or frivolity. Still, the notion of exploitation of the female persisted, with many of Poe's contemporaries sharing the view that seducers deserved to die for offending against morality and violating the integrity of the social structure.
George Lippard certainly endorsed this view. His The Monks of Monk Hall concludes with the murder (or as Lippard would have us believe, the execution) of the seducer Gus Lorrimer by Byrnewood Arlington, brother of Lorrimer's victim, Mary Arlington. Byrnewood gloats over the corpse of the seducer with typical Lippard verbosity: "Ha, ha! Here is blood warm, warm, aye, warm and gushing—that gushing of the Wronger's blood!" And so on.
Earlier, Mary's seduction is accomplished with all the imagined sentiments of the stereotyped sexual villain. "Force—violence" muses the handsome Lorrimer, who says he has deeper means than force. "My victim is the instrument of her own ruin—without one rude grasp from my hand, without one threatening word, she swims willingly to my arms!"
Not only did Lippard celebrate the murder of Lorrimer in his novel, but his inflamed rhetoric resulted in a wave of public opinion (according to Leslie Fiedler's Introduction to Monks) that led to passage of an anti-seduction law in New York state in 1849. Death to the seducer became an ingrained formula in the urban consciousness at least, often invoked to explain the sudden or mysterious death of popular controversial figures. An irate husband or brother beat him to death: so people whispered about Poe following his collapse in Baltimore. Years later the same rumor would be circulated about Louis Gottschalk, who in fact suffered peritonitis from months of overwork.
"The seduction of a poor and innocent girl is a deed altogether as criminal as deliberate murder. It is worse than the murder of the body, for it is the assassination of the soul. If the murderer deserves death by the gallows, then the assassin of chastity and maidenhood is worthy of death by the hands of any man, and in any place," says the Monks author.
Lippard's revenge melodrama has much in common with the Kentucky Tragedy: the author might have had Sharp and Beauchamp and Cooke in mind when fashioning Lorrimer, Byrnewood and Mary. One conspicuous difference, however, is in his portrayal of the ruined maid. Mary Arlington, while suffering from severe depression after her "fall," assumes that her pollution and worthlessness are irredeemable; but unlike Cooke she tries to prevent any moves toward retaliation. "The wrong has been done," says Mary to her brother, "but do not, I beseech you, visit his (that is, Lorrimer's) head with a curse—." In Lippard's scheme of things, most women are pure, long-suffering, uncomplicated, and forgiving. The concept of a vindictive woman he found not unthinkable, but offensive.
Other authors of Poe's time discovered similar difficulties in attempting to portray Ann Cooke in drama or fiction. After all, weren't women, according to the popular stereotype, flawless, as well as spiritual, sentimental, loving, caring, uplifting, weak, helpless, ill, refined and self-sacrificing? How, then, with this idealized image in the popular mind, depict a vengeful, vindictive, obsessed, insane, bloodthirsty female without surrendering reader sympathy in the portrayal? It would seem that Poe and his contemporaries in this extremely revealing instance had three alternatives: 1) paint her black, make her the villain; 2) change her character, as Lippard did, omitting whatever ugly motives and emotions readers might find objectionable; or 3) complicate her character; make her vindictive, but with mitigating traits—confusion, distraction or insanity, Most authors, as we shall see, chose this third alternative.
In his verse drama Conrad and Eudora; or The Death of Alonzo, (1834), Thomas Holley Chivers believes along with Lippard that the crime of seduction is grievous and deserves to be punished by death. Early in the play Conrad (Beauchamp) is talking to a friend who says Alonzo (Sharp) is guilty of murder, treason, rape because he seduced Eudora and thereby "ruined the sweetest thing on earth." Conrad has a moral scale upon which he measures the degree of a seducer's guilt: "If she loved him well, and he deceived her / The crime falls heavier on his heart / Than on them both, did both love equally." Later another friend tells Conrad that "a woman's virtue robbed, like loss of sight. / Can never be restored." When Conrad says he will try to cheer Eudora up, the friend says "You can not mend a broken egg." Still later, the Innkeeper hears that Conrad might be the man who murdered Alonzo and suggests that the fault might be Eudora's; he flatly asserts that no man should be killed over a woman. But when he is told that Alonzo promised to marry Eudora and then ruined her, he says: "Then damn him—let him die." All Chivers's characters are in accord on the severity of Alonzo's crime.
The character of Ann Cooke as portrayed by Chivers is predominantly vengeful and vindictive, as she appears in Beauchamp's Confession. In fact she seems more bloodthirsty in Conrad and Eudora than she was in real life. After Conrad confronts Alonzo for the first time, issuing a death threat but relenting and letting Alonzo go, Eudora says:
Had I been with thee, he had died so sweet
Where he within this proud arm's reach—this stroke
Should be effected and bring his lowness low.
I'd tramp me in his blood, and smile with joy.
Of course, earlier Eudora tells her mother, "I would not harm the simplest thing on earth!" But she follows this statement with a lengthy speech about how deeply she has been wounded by Sharp, for whom she feels "endless hate"; and she closes with a promise to pursue him to the ends of the earth to make him pay with his life. Her mother replies: "Oh! my child! my child! thou art run mad!" Eudora denies that she is mad, but reminds her mother that "Revenge in woman hath no limitations!"
But a moment later Eudora breaks down and asks her mother to teach her how not to hate. Eudora's mother says: "Thou art distracted—oh! that I were dead!" By such means as these the playwright can have it both ways. The heroine is possibly estranged from her true nature (passive and loving) by reason of insanity. At the same time she is sane but driven by extreme emotions to act our her homicidal plan, which makes for good melodrama.
The key to this solution was provided by Cooke herself (or by the anonymous author of The Letters) when Ann says that Beauchamp spoke to her about the cruel treatment she had received from Sharp. "That was a chord that was never struck without producing agony and madness." The single sentence inspired more than one author of the time who was struggling with the problem of making Cooke palatable.
Greyslaer: A Romance of the Mohawk, by Charles Fenno Hoffman, originally published in 1840, is so long and diffuse that one can truthfully say the Kentucky Tragedy is buried in the narrative. Hoffman's novel is devoted more to the theme of America's emerging independence from Great Britain, with an emphasis upon Indian ways and outlaw life along the New York frontier, than it is to the affair of a wronged woman. Nonetheless some of the familiar ingredients are immediately apparent. The seduction of the heroine, Alida de Roos, leaves her scarred, psychologically speaking, for years. After her "fall," her eyes have a "bright and glassy stare," as if to indicate that she lives in a state of shock. She confesses to the hero, Greyslaer, that she is practicing with a pistol in order to avenge herself on someone; at which point Greyslaer says he loves her and would willingly become the agent of her revenge. In this version of the story, as in Monks of Monk Hall, the seduction of Cooke-Alida is accomplished by means of a faked marriage ceremony; and the villain undergoes character-splitting, emerging as the German immigrant Voltmeyer and the rejected suitor Bradshawe. When Alida and Greyslaer fall in love, the sentiment has a softening influence: she yields up all thoughts of retribution, and his hunger for revenge grows fainter as he enlarges his circle of acquaintances and meets more sophisticated men and women.
However, when Bradshawe hears that Alida and Greyslaer are contemplating marriage, he circulates the story that Alida has borne a child to an Indian. The slander "unhinges" Greyslaer and he begins to think of nothing but revenge. Eventually he confronts Bradshawe, but they are interrupted by Voltmeyer, whom Greyslaer kills. Arrested for this crime, Greyslaer receives a visit in prison from Alida. She expresses regret that she ever planted the idea of revenge in his mind. He says it was all an "hallucination" of her earlier years. She begs him to give up all thought of harming Bradshawe. (Later Bradshawe is shot and killed in battle.)
Hoffman's intention in Greyslaer was clearly to humanize the main characters of the Kentucky Tragedy. Alida's passion for blood is lukewarm most of the time; she is basically the sweet and loving woman of the sentimental tradition. Greyslaer's obsession with vengeance is short-lived and the result of temporary insanity. The author has an obvious affection for both characters; and at the end he has them fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. Like Chivers, Hoffman wants his heroine both ways—sweet and vicious. But instead of accommodating this concept by making Alida insane when she concentrates on murder, he transfers the madness to the hero and has his heroine achieve true feminity through the love of a good man. Still, for all the thought that went into Hoffman's portrayal, Alida remains a flat character, undeveloped and relatively uninteresting. In this work, at least, the author is better at portraying action than character.
The most interesting, fleshed-out depiction of Ann Cooke appears in William Gilmore Simms's novel, Beauchamp or The Kentucky Tragedy, published the same year as Greyslaer. Beauchamp is introduced as a young attorney who under extreme circumstances is capable of wild behavior. Cooke is sensitive, melancholy and capable of subtle feeling: at first she resists falling in love with Beauchamp because she fears she will use him to fulfill her "dark purpose." As other authors of the period attempted by various means to present a two-sided or ambiguous Ann Cooke—by having her basically loving, with her revenge obsession emerging out of temporary insanity, so Simms makes his heroine a combination of paradoxical traits—strength and weakness. After telling Beauchamp her story and making murder a condition of intimacy, she faints. She was "wonderfully strong," says Simms, but she was "yet a woman"—a diagnosis that explains her "sinking to the sward unconscious."
Later, her vengeful impulse becomes softened, as with Hoffman's heroine, under the influence of love; but Simms gives his heroine additional motives that help to round her out. She wants Beauchamp to avoid Sharp because she fears the consequences of their actions. In all the treatments of these characters from that period, including the real life models, none express this sort of very likely apprehension about the community's reaction to the murder of a high state official. The usual presentation shows Cooke and Beauchamp relishing the idea of homicide with only faint thoughts, or none at all, about consequences. The way Simm's Cooke is drawn, she qualifies as the most intelligent and the most human of all the portrayals. She is also long suffering and tolerant, far beyond what one would expect from a knowledge of the original. Simms's Cooke releases Beauchamp from his blood oath and begs him to remain with her in the country, obscure and happy, rather than highly visible in town, where he is bound to confront Sharp.
Toward the conclusion, by a complex twist of the plot, Sharp winds up a houseguest in the Beauchamp home, his crime against Ann concealed from her husband. Sharp renews his attempts at seduction of Ann; he promises to make her husband's fortune, then threatens to tell Beauchamp the truth if Cooke does not yield. Carried away by physical desire, ironically Sharp does not stop to consider what will happen to him if he reveals his part in Ann's ruin. Simms is the only author of the period to display the feelings involved in the Kentucky Tragedy in an ironic light.
Simms also portrays Sharp more realistically than the others. In Beauchamp's Confession, in the Letters, and in fictional or dramatic portrayals, Sharp is an abject coward. In Simm's novel, he is gutsy, sneaky and opportunistic.
The actual homicide is committed by a "maddened" Beauchamp; Cooke has begged him to leave her and avoid risking his life for her. After Beauchamp departs on his mission of murder, Cooke delivers a soliloquy showing her confusion. What good will come of this crime? she asks. But then, thinking of the way Sharp intruded into her home, even at this late stage of their history, she wonders if she will ever be free of his evil presence. Cooke concludes the speech with the idea that it might be best to kill Sharp, after all; and Simms concludes the passage by saying: "the world will not willingly account this madness. It matters not greatly by what name you call a passion which has broken bounds and disdains the right angles of convention." Unmistakably one senses that the highly civilized Simms wishes he could alter the story a la Charles Fenno Hoffman, and spare his heroine the guilt of complicity and the gruesome fate of the real Ann Cooke. Not that Simms creates profound characters in Beauchamp, but his Sharp and Cooke are deeper and more lifelike than other depictions of the period.
Poe's Ann Cooke, called Lelage in the verse drama Politian, bears little resemblance to her real-life counterpart in the Kentucky Tragedy. Instead of the depressed, melancholy, vindictive and obsessed heroine of the Letters and the Confession, Lalage is much simpler, less visible, and more pathetic than Cooke or any of her fictional incarnations.
We first hear of her from one of the servants in the home of the Duke di Broglio, Lalage's custodian:
I saw her yester eve thro' the lattice-work
Of her chamber-window sobbing upon her knees
And ever and anon amid her sobs
She murmured forth Castiglioni's name
Rupert, she loves him still!
Later, as if to emphasize her sense of what today we call low self-esteem, her servant-girl abuses her, leaving Lalage to bemoan her altered physical appearance and imminent death as a "ruined maid." Today's readers might identify all of these character traits as obvious neuroses, but the nineteenth century audience found the pathetic heroine appealing. Or was Poe playing psychologist here, consciously endowing Lalage with sick attitudes because he believed Ann Cooke to be unappetizing? We know Poe was not satisfied with Politian, that he left if unfinished, and years later in a review of Simm's Beauchamp he observed: "Historical truth has somewhat hampered the artist." Poe might have experienced the same difficulty himself, attempting to create a sympathetic heroine from a model he could not admire.
As for Lalage's vengeful feelings and craving for the blood of her seducer—elements that form the foundation of the living story—Poe has a scene where a friendly monk enters Lalage's apartment and asks her to think of her soul and pray. Lalage says she can only think of her present misery. When the holy man offers her a crucifix, she draws a dagger and holds it high by the blade. "Behold the cross wherewith a vow like mine / Is written in Heaven!" she cries, adding that the deed, the vow, and the symbol of the deed should tally. Thus Poe preserves the essential character element of vengeful feeling, but reduces it to an oblique reference and a metaphorical gesture. Still later, in Scene VII, after Politian has declared his love for Lalage and she has revealed to him the cause of her anguish, he begs her to come away with him to America. Lalage replies: "A deed is to be done—Castigioni lives!" To which Politian says "And he shall die!" Then he exits in a rage.
The speech that follows is extremely revealing of Poe's attitude toward his heroine. Although Lalage displays none of the fury of Ann Cooke, she has stipulated that Politian avenge the wrong she has suffered by killing Castiglioni. The fact that the promise is exacted offstage is itself significant, for it spares the audience a view of the vicious original while adhering to the basic story line. Furthermore, as soon as Politian exits on his homicidal mission, Lalage immediately regrets their compact. She calls out,
Thou art gone—thou art not gone, Politian!
I feel thou art not gone—yet dare not look,
Lest I behold thee not; thou couldst not go
With those words upon thy lips….
Next, after showing Lalage as a tender and regretful, non-violent version of Cooke, Poe has her conclude the speech with something of Cooke's resolution:
Gone—gone [referring to Politian]
Where am I? 'tis well—'tis very well!
So that the blade be keen—the blow be sure—
'Tis well, 'tis very well—alas! alas!
The final exclamations reverse the image of the heroine yet again, so that the audience might conclude that Lalage is a) in a distracted, deeply confused state of mind or b) at the mercy of forces she can not control, even though she is an active participant in and inspirer of the events that now overwhelm her.
At the conclusion, when it is clear that Politian is planning to murder Castiglioni while his marriage ceremony is in progress, Lalage cries, "Farewell, Castiglioni, and farewell my hope in heaven."
All these details of presentation—from Lelage's introduction into the drama singing sweet and mournful tunes, to her suffering abuse from her servant, to her eliciting the fateful pledge from Politian offstage, to her swearing an oath the content of which is left unspecified, to her terrible confusion when Politian goes off to avenge her, to her obvious repentance at the conclusion—accumulate to create a much softened, pathetic, vulnerable and humanized Ann Cooke. Poe's attitude toward women as ethereal, as evidenced in such early poems as "Al Aaraaf" and "To Helen," might explain his reluctance to deal with the ugly aspects of the Kentucky Tragedy, while his concern over audience reaction to his work might also have played a part in the Lalage characterization.
Of all the treatments of Cooke considered here, Lippard's is the most innocent and at the same time the most insipid. Chivers's is the most bloodthirsty, but this is mitigated (in Conrad and Eudora) by the possibility that she is mad. Hoffman's portrayal is the most sentimental and nonthreatening; Simm's is the most intelligent, rounded, and interesting, while Poe's is unquestionably the most pathetic.
Elizabeth Mehren (essay date 8 April 1990)
SOURCE: "Making a Killing Off True Crime," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, Vol. 237, April 8, 1990, p. 9.
[In the essay below, Mehren suggests why the true-crime genre is so profitable, noting that there is no shortage of supply or demand.]
Hours after Chuck Stuart splashed into Boston Harbor from the Tobin Bridge last January, the phone at our house began ringing with fierce determination.
Stuart was the hero-turned-villain of Boston's spiciest murder in years: the man who first insisted that he and his seven-months-pregnant wife had been shot by a black assailant who leaped into the back seat of the Stuarts' Toyota Cressida, but who later, it seems, turned out to have done the shooting himself.
Our telephone was ringing so insistently because my husband and I both are journalists. Apparently that fact alone—or that plus our Massachusetts residency—qualifies us to be described as true-crime writers. This is at least what one would infer from the telephone calls that came to us from an extraordinary parade of half-frantic agents, publishers, editors and movie producers:
"Hello, is your husband there?"
"No, I'm sorry, he's not."
"He's not. Well, hmmm, would you like to write a book?"
"No, I'm sorry, I think not. Would you like to speak to the dog?"
The calls would have been at least a boost for the ego were it not for the fact that just about anyone with even tangential involvement with any Boston-area newspaper or magazine, or anyone who is based in this area and does any reporting at all, seems to have faced the same flood of solicitations. One reporter at the Boston Globe told me that he received 11 inquiries about possible books or movies—and that was just in the first week after Stuart's apparent suicide. A reporter at another paper put me on hold while she took another call from still another Hollywood producer.
"It's not a question of 'tasteless' or 'tacky,'" one editor remonstrated when I used those words before referring him to our 73-pound Samoyed. "It's a question of people wanting to read this story. And it's a helluva story."
But of course it is not just this story. More and more, readers and publishers seem to be swimming in the same collective pool of blood and gore. It is hard to say which came first, the supply or the demand. But it is clear that the thirst for real crime—true crime, gory, gross and disgusting crime—appears to be insatiable.
"My theory is that it is somehow connected to the rise of tabloid television," Neil Nyren, editor-in-chief and publisher of G. P. Putnam's Sons, said. Putnam's is the publisher of one of the titans of true-crune writing, Joe McGinnis, of Blind Faith and Fatal Vision notably.
The reason those two books by McGinnis did so well is the same reason so many people were interested in the Stuart story, Nyren suggested. Chuck and Carol Stuart had worked themselves up from blue-collar beginnings to all the comforts of true yuppiedom. They had a house with a swimming pool and a wreath made out of teddy-bears on the front door. Chuck Stuart, a former dishwasher, wore suits from the fanciest men's store in Boston and had his prematurely graying temples touched up at a salon overlooking the Boston Public Garden.
"That's part of the fascination, that this could be the neighbor next door," Nyren said. "You rarely think, 'This could happen to me.' But you do think, 'This could be my neighbor.'"
Harry MacLean, the author of the best-selling In Broad Daylight (Harper & Row, cloth; Dell, paper) about the 1981 murder of the town bully in a small town in northwest Missouri, agrees. MacLean was "just another hack lawyer" practicing in Denver when he decided to switch to true-crime writing, in part because of what he saw as the universal appeal of the genre.
In a recent lecture about true-crime writing at the Tattered Sleeve bookstore in his hometown of Denver, MacLean said he turned the question on his audience of nearly 200 people and asked them why they like to read this stuff. Their answer confirmed his suspicions.
"For one thing, they said a lot of these stories involve ordinary people, the people next door," MacLean said. He noted that he was calling from Foster City, Calif., where he was investigating a case involving "a fireman and a housewife."
Echoing that motif, Pocket Books Hardcover has been promoting one title as an example of "ordinary people, extraordinary crimes." The book, Without Mercy: Obsession and Murder Under the Influence, by Gary Provost, deals with a waitress at a pancake restaurant who joins her homosexual supervisor in plotting two brutal murders. Carlton Stowers' Innocence Lost, also from Pocket Books Hardcover, recounts the murder of an undercover policeman posing as a high school student in a small Texas town.
The reading public's appetite for this kind of book truly does seem insatiable. Day after day, press releases come in announcing new books about "shocking deaths," murders in a pediatric intensive-care unit, matricide, fratricide, patricide, psychopathic killers and crimes of vengeance, jealousy, avarice or old-fashioned passion.
But the flip side of the phenomenon is that not only does the public expect this kind of delicious fodder, so do the subjects. It's as if anyone with the slightest involvement in a potentially marketable crime of any kind figures that he or she can, pardon the expression, make a killing off it.
MacLean said that one reason he chose to back away from the Charles Stuart case, for example, was that "I heard that the assistant DAs were faxing their stories out to Hollywood." It was "too bizarre," he said. It seemed that "the process was going to taint the story."
Lawyers and crime victims—even friends and relatives of crime victims—now flock to literary agents and true-crime writers on their own. It may be that they actually enjoy the attention, that this is their personal and proverbial 15 minutes of fame. But as MacLean observed, "It feels kind of sick, in a way."
Conversely, many print journalists, not notoriously among the most overpaid of professionals, have come to see the perfect true-crime story as the vehicle that will vault them out of penury and into the ranks of true-crime giants—writers, they say in wistful tones, such as Truman Capote or Norman Mailer. Words like miniseries or feature film invariably accompany discussions of books about true crimes. The implication is that even the most starving of starving journalists will be able to junk that old Toyota and cruise around in the Mercedes he or she secretly covets.
Covering a story they think might be lucrative, journalists come to feel possessive about the cast of characters. It becomes "my murder" or "my book." Certainly this has been true in a number of recent well-publicized crimes, such as the Steinberg murder-and-child-and-wife-abuse case in New York City; the preppie murder in New York City; Boston's Stuart case; the Yom Kippur murders in Los Angeles.
Not every true-crime book is a guaranteed ticket to financial heaven, however. Books that come out as little more than a string of newspaper articles seldom make big waves. As greedy as readers may be for these stories, they do demand writing skills from the authors.
What most captures the public fancy is a book that transcends the facts of a single case and deals with bigger themes. Ideally, the story also should serve as a mirror of some segment of American life as well.
The "sudden burst" in true-crime stories "caught us by surprise," Neil Nyren said, so much so that "there's no way to tell where it's going."
But as long as there is tabloid television, and as long as there are savory stories to tell, the pace seems unlikely to slow.
In the meantime, my dog would like it known that he is a very good writer and that he is thinking of hiring an agent.
Rosemary Herbert (essay date 1 June 1990)
SOURCE: "Publishers Agree: True Crime Does Pay," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, June 1, 1990, pp. 33-6.
[In the following essay, Herbert discusses the characteristics of the true-crime genre, focusing her analysis on who reads it and why.]
What's black and white and read all over? The answer is true crime. According to many top executives, editors and publicists, the success of this category is so phenomenal, it's almost criminal! As PW made the rounds of publishing houses and crime writers, the same word was used repeatedly to diagnose the current health of the genre: "hot." And feverish activity in the field seems to be contagious, with at least 30 trade imprints seeking to satisfy the true crime cravings of readers from all segments of the American population.
Both frontlist and backlist are booming, and mass market titles seem to do equally well in bookstores and ID markets. Hardcover and paperback publishers agree, however, that the real explosion within the genre is happening at the paperback end of the business. Putnam v-p and publisher Neil Nyren says, "In hardcover it's pretty much the same as it's always been. There are certain titles that become very strong, but the majority sell at moderate levels. It's in paperback that true crime has really blossomed during the past two years." Barry Lippman, president and publisher, Macmillan adult trade, adds that "the unusual thing about the genre is that there are both good hardcover and paperback audiences."
Even recently established houses are getting in on the act. The newly founded Knightsbridge, for example, has taken a hefty gamble this spring in releasing a first printing of 200,000 hardcover copies of Daniel J. Blackburn's Human Harvest: The Sacramento Murder Story. Human Harvest is typical true crime fare, in which an elderly lady is alleged to have murdered other residents of her retirement home and buried them in her garden.
But the veterans aren't exactly resting on their laurels. Dell just released Jack Olsen's latest paperback, Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell—about a local gynecologist's systematic rape of a large portion of the women in a Mormon community—in a print run of 950,000, a decision made before it won an Edgar in late April as the best nonfiction book of 1989. And St. Martin's, another stalwart, printed an initial 275,000 copies and has gone back to press for another 25,000 of its May release, Murder in Boston by Ken Englade, which bills itself as an "interim report" on the as-yet-unresolved Stuart case.
Dell's president and publisher, Carole Baron, says, "We've been doing true crime paperback originals and reprints all along, for at least eight or nine years. Typically, when we published Jack Olsen's Son: A Psychopath and His Victims back in 1985, we did it neither as a 'lead lead' nor as a 'mid-midlist' title. Then we found that it was really backlisting, unlike many mass market books. So it's been around since 1985 in many, many printings."
If the bestseller lists are any indication, it appears that a wide range of true crime publishers have their fingers on the pulse of many Americans' taste in nonfiction. And Berkley Books' v-p and editor-in-chief Leslie Gelbman says, "There's no question that the surge of true crime bestsellers over the past few years has given publishers and booksellers an opportunity to expand the category. There are now special sections in bookstores, and publishing programs devoted to true crime; and the books don't have to be top of the list to sell or to be profitable."
In Cold Blood
Among our interlocutors, there was strong general agreement about which books are classics of the true crime genre and which authors have been particularly exciting in recent years. Again and again Truman Capote's 1966 novel In Cold Blood is cited as the genre's real progenitor, although it was a "fictionalized" account of a brutal murder. According to Neil Nyren, "There may already have been some true crime books, but Capote's marked a watershed. It was the first one to make the genre really respectable. In Cold Blood, Blood and Money by Tommy Thompson [Doubleday 1976 and Dell, third printing 1989] and Fatal Vision by Joe McGinnis [Putnam 1983 and Signet 1984, with 2.3 million copies in the Signet edition] are the three giants of true crime and there will be others to come. I think the first hint of the trend might have been when Ann Rule's books started selling very well in paperback, including books that had been published years and years before. It was as if all of a sudden a whole library was there to sell." Rule was first published in NAL's True Crime Annals in 1983, under the pseudonym Andy Stack; presently several of her titles, including Possession and The Stranger Beside Me, are with the Signet imprint. Many agree that Rule's success set the stage for those who followed.
Who Reads True Crime—And Why
Just what lures so many readers into literature concerning aberrant and extreme behavior, matricide, patricide and even infanticide? Why the healthy appetite for blood and gore? Priscilla Ridgway, executive secretary of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), reckons that "media coverage about some pretty dreadful crimes has inured the public to their horror and tweaked interest." Neil Nyren agrees that "the rise of tabloid television—basing program content on true crime—has had a symbiotic relationship with the rise of the books in paperback."
Irwyn Applebaum, president and publisher of Pocket Books, is pleased to see that readers' appetites are not yet "sated by some of the other media," including daily news reporting and television programs such as 911, Cops and "some of the other cinema vérité or pseudo-cinéma vérité." In fact, an interesting example of the television/publishing connection was the Harper Paperback April release America's Most Wanted by Jack Breslin, which describes the making of the popular television program of the same name.
Avon president and publisher Carolyn Reidy speaks for many when saying, "I don't know if more crimes are actually being perpetrated or whether more are being detected and reported, but something is making them greatly impinge on our consciousness, which in turn is fueling the desire to know how and why all of this is happening. Therefore, it's almost self-protective to wish to understand how it happens."
Nyren, for his part, believes successful titles must have an immediacy "that gives readers the feeling this is something that could be happening in their neighborhood." Charles Spicer, senior editor at St. Martin's, adds, "Frankly, there's an element of voyeurism, the appeal of gossip and a 'there but for the grace of God go I' frisson." All agree that the hallmark of successful true crime is nonfiction that packs all the traditional appeal of the novel.
Just who are the readers of true crime? Maryann Palumbo, v-p for advertising, promotion and publicity at NAL, says the genre appeals "very much to a middle America kind of audience." Bantam v-p and mass market publisher Lou Aronica believes the books are reaching "a broad section of the market. There are very literate, studied pieces like Joe McGinnis's work and then there are the far more lurid, National Enquirer kind of projects. They sell equally well—but I cannot believe that the same readers [turn to both]." All agree that the crossover of readers of mystery fiction into the true crime area is insignificant, since, as Applebaum put it, "Readers who like their details filtered through fiction are often after a more genteel depiction of crime."
The Serial Phenomenon
How often does the discussion at a publishing conference center not on the bottom line but rather on metaphysical questions of good and evil? At the recent MWA/John Jay College Symposium on true crime, that was certainly the case. According to Richard Hammer, author of The CBS Murders: A True Story of Greed and Violence in New York's Diamond District (Morrow 1987 and NAL 1988), and Ira Berkow, author of The Man Who Robbed the Pierre: The True Story of Bobby Comfort (Atheneum, 1987), the personalities of the murderers, rapists and other criminals depicted within the books vary wildly. Some have surprising senses of humor, others are extremely intelligent and still others are just plain nasty, seeming to lack any sort of human conscience. In a society where many taboos have broken down, true crime stories seem to satisfy a hunger for clearly defined bad guys and good guys or, as it were, forces of good and evil in our lives.
Patricia Daniels Cornwell, whose novel Postmortem (Scribners, January 1990) draws on her experiences as a crime reporter and computer analyst in the Virginia medical examiner's office, subscribes to the latter theory, nothing that an informal subgenre seems to have sprung up around the ultimate in really bad guys, the serial killer.
Some of the more notable books focusing on serial murders are the recently released From Cradle to Grave: The Short Lives and Strange Deaths of Marybeth Tinning's Nine Children by Joyce Egginton (Morrow, 1989; Jove, May 1990), and Ann Rule's Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder (NAL, 1987 and Signet, 1988), both dealing with infanticide perpetrated by disturbed mothers upon their own offspring. And Death Shift: The True Story of Nurse Genene Jones and the Texas Baby Murders by Peter Elkind (Viking, 1989 and Onyx, May 1990) examines infanticides carried out by a pediatric nurse in San Antonio, Tex.
Other studies of serial murders look at killers who seem to choose victims more randomly, although evidence often reveals that even in these cases there is method in the madness of their selection processes, as in the murderous work of David J. Carpenter, whose deeds are chronicled by Robert Graysmith in The Sleeping Lady: The Trailside Murders Above the Golden Gate (Dutton, April 1990). Carpenter went on a three-year rape and killing spree along hiking trails in the Bay Area and was captured after one of the greatest manhunts of this century.
All in the Family
"In looking over the books that have worked particularly well over time, I don't think there's any question that murders explored within the context of family life offer the most drama, the most titillation, and I think, probably reach to people's deepest fears," advises Roger Cooper, senior v-p and publisher of the Berkley Publishing Group. Wasted: The Preppie Murder by Linda Wolfe (Simon & Schuster 1989, and Pocket Books, August 1990); and Beyond Reason: A True Story of a Shocking Double Murder, a Brilliant and Beautiful Virginia Socialite and a Deadly Psychotic by Ken Englade (St. Martin's, May 1990), deal with young people who have everything that money can buy but who lack discipline and direction and are not convinced that their parents love them. They end up forming dangerous liaisons with other disturbed young adults that eventually lead to murder.
Both of these authors document the mentalities of their subjects and present a picture of the legal and social ramifications of the crimes. Avon's Carolyn Reidy notes that for many people, part of the appeal of these books "lies in the realization that the rich can be victims, too."
Many titles take a peek at family murder with a regional dimension. Craig A. Lewis's Blood Evidence: A Story of True Crime in the South (August House, June 1990) is an example of a regional murder story in which the atmosphere of a particular place—in this case, Shreveport, La.—adds a special character to the book as a whole.
The Woodchipper Murder by Arthur Herzog (Holt, 1989; to be published in paperback by Zebra) investigates a Connecticut scene of the crime and a case in which a husband who lies about the disappearance of his wife is quickly caught up in a net of incrimination. And Murder in the Carolinas by Nancy Rhyne (John F. Blair, 1988) proves that local cases can have universal appeal, presenting, rather unusually, 13 cases of family treachery in an anthology format.
And Warner senior editor Rick Horgan highlights another aspect that seems to contribute to the popularity of many titles: "The more innocent and vulnerable the victim, the more likely the success of the book." Abandoned Prayers: The True Story of Obsession, Murder and Little Boy Blue by Gregg Olson (Popular Library, December 1990) is a case in point. It's the story of a young boy murdered by his father, an Amish man who, the publisher tells us, "disappeared from his community and crisscrossed the country abusing his child. The locals who discovered the boy's corpse buried him under a headstone marked 'Little Boy Blue.'" This is a clear example of a book with an extremely sympathetic victim.
Another title that looks at innocent victims—but this time outside the family—is the story of a disturbed woman who gunned down school children at play in Illinois in 1988, Murder of Innocence: The Tragic Life and Final Rampage of Laurie Dann by Joel Kaplan, George Papajohn and Eric Zorn, is scheduled for hardcover publication from Warner this fall.
Drugs, the Mafia and Spies
Harper & Row publicity director Karen Mender points out that most publishers do not distinguish subcategories as such within true crime. But readers are often drawn to a particular type of book within the true crime spectrum, for instance, drug-related titles. A notable example is Kings of Cocaine: An Astonishing True Story of Murder, Money, and Corruption by Miami Herald reporters Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen (Simon & Schuster, 1989 and Harper Paperbacks, May 1990). Unusually long for the genre at 680 pages, this book documents the workings of the $8-billion-a-year Colombian drug cartel.
Espionage-related crime is chronicled in such books as Clifford Stoll's The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (Doubleday, 1989 and forthcoming from Pocket Books, November 1990). While many true crimes are cast in the form of police procedurals, this book recounts the stalking of a computer "hacker" who was methodically prowling national networks to gain access to American databases. The computer-whiz author becomes the hero of his own story.
Mafia crime also has its share of reading fans. The Plumber: The True Story of How One Good Man Helped Destroy the Entire Philadelphia Mafia by Joseph Salerno and Stephen J. Rivele (Knightsbridge, 1990) and "Please Don't Kill Me": The True Story of the Milo Murder by William C. Dear and Carlton Stowers (Houghton Mifflin, 1989 and Ballantine, 1990) are examples of this category.
Aiding & Abetting: Promoting Crime
Donna Gould, publicity director at Berkley, is convinced that true crime is "a publicist's dream." And while many have already credited television with igniting the public's interest in the genre, publicists also see television as an ideal medium for further promoting their wares. Susan Richman, v-p and director of publicity at Macmillan, finds that national talk shows are very receptive to true crime authors, "especially if the writers are accompanied by one or more of the principals in the crime." Adam Rothberg, senior publicist at Pocket Books, says, "I think that by its very nature, the subject of true crime makes it attractive to certain media outlets that otherwise are often not interested in working with books: the television tabloid shows as well as tabloid magazines."
But Michaela Hamilton, executive editor of NAL/Dutton, warns of the perils of overexposure. "I think it's very tricky to bring a book out on a case that's gotten front-page headlines, because in so many cases consumers feel they already know the story inside out before the book appears."
The True Colors of True Crime
Virtually every category of publishing today seeks to have a look that announces to the reader, subliminally or otherwise, the sort of book to expect. In true crime you absolutely can tell the book by its cover, both in cloth and paperback. The jacket of a true crime hardcover tends to reflect the more probing, psychological nature of its content through a softer, more sensitive portrait of an individual or of the scene of the crime, while a paperback jacket tends towards the more lurid, with bloody photographs of the victims or perpetrators, and screaming headlines. But both share one predominant attribute: they are black, white and red all over.
But between the covers, are these books solely concerned with blood and gore? The emphasis on the grisly varies, of course, but a significant majority have another agenda as well: they explore the darkest corners of our lives and try to give them some meaning or context. Ann Rule, the author most often cited by publishers as a major influence today, has a good insight into the genre's fans: "I've taken an informal poll of readers who come to my autographing sessions, and find that very many of them are women. Often they confide, 'I don't know why I'm fascinated with these books about terrible crime!' And I ask them, 'If you found a spider in your bathroom what would you do with it?' And do you know, most say they would gently remove it, and let the spider go free outdoors!"
In the end, perhaps the broad middle American audience keeps reading true crime to understand the extremes of human behavior, to be advised of danger and, yes, to experience a visceral horror that makes us grateful for our more ordinary lives.
Jane Caputi (essay date Fall 1990)
SOURCE: "The New Founding Fathers: The Lore and Lure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Culture," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 1-12.
[In the essay below, Caputi discusses the place of serial killers in contemporary culture.]
Jack the Ripper
He was the first.
—cover blurb from a 1988 collection of stories on the Ripper
Ted Bundy—A Man With Vision
—A Man With Direction
—A Prophet of our Times
—flyer advertising a student program on Bundy, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, April, 1989
Freddy's [from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" Series] fame—make that notoriety—was confirmed by the National Coalition on Television Violence, which in a recent survey found that children ages 10 to 13 are more familiar with Freddy and his Paramount counterpart Jason of "Friday the 13th" than with such famous historical figures as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. Jason was recognized by 72 of the 100 children surveyed and Freddy by 66, while poor Honest Abe was identified by 36.
Recently, as I watched an MTV show, "The Week In Rock" (Sept. 16, 1989), I was taken aback as the announcer commented, "Now for some news from Boston—home of baked beans, B.U., and at least one renowned serial strangler." How blithe, normalizing, and easy a reference to atrocity. Yet, why should I have been surprised? Just one year earlier, in autumn, 1988, Great Britain and the United States "celebrated" the centennial of the crimes of "Jack the Ripper." Mourning, which might seem appropriate to the occasion, was notably absent (except in feminist demonstrations and writings). Rather, light-hearted Ripper paraphernalia, such as a computer-game, T-shirts, buttons, mugs, and a blood-red cocktail, appeared throughout England. Most strikingly, in both the United States and England, the legend of the Ripper was ubiquitously retold and millions were refamiliarized with its elements—in a massively promoted made-for-TV movie, innumerable newspaper accounts, an exploitation thriller, Jack's Back, and scores of new books on the master killer.
This recent mythicization of the Ripper continues a process that has been in motion since 1888. Elsewhere, I have argued that "Jack the Ripper" is father to an "age of sex crime" and that his status as an ambiguous (both heroic and monstrous) cultural icon legitimates male violence against women. The crimes of the Ripper have provided a cultural category for a new type of crime (the territorial, ritualistic, nicknamed, serial sex slayer) and acted as a role model for subsequent killers, including "The Boston Strangler," the "Son of Sam," the "Yorkshire Ripper," the "Green River Killer," the "Hillside Strangler," and so on—killers who then go on to generate legends and attract cult-like behavior of their own. Serial sex killers such as these are celebrated (sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly) along a cultural gamut including made for TV movies, rock 'n' roll songs horror fanzines, jokes, pornographic magazines such as Hustler, and extreme sadist publications. Simultaneously, a parallel cult can be discerned in the adulation given (primarily by teenage boys) to the fictional screen counterparts of the modern sex killer, such as "Freddy Krueger," the child molester/murderer from the Nightmare on Elm Street movie and television series, and "Jason," the hockeymasked multiple murderer from the Friday the 13th film series.
While such mythmaking proceeds unabated, serial murder itself has become an increasingly prevalent reality in modern, Western life. Justice Department official, Robert O. Heck, sums up the general situation:
We all talk about Jack the Ripper; he killed five people [sic]. We all talk about the "Boston Strangler" who killed 13, and maybe "Son of Sam," who killed six. But we've got people [sic] out there now killing 20 and 30 people and more, and some of them just don't kill. They torture their victims in terrible ways and mutilate them before they kill them. Something's going on out there. It's an epidemic.
Although Heck's statement is superficially correct, his language works to obscure what actually is going on out there, for the "people" who torture, kill, and mutilate in this way are men, while their victims are predominantly females, women and girls, and to a lesser extent, younger men. As these hierarchical lines indicate, these are crimes of sexually political import, crimes rooted in a system of male supremacy in the same way that lynching is based in white supremacy. That recognition, however, is impeded by longstanding tradition for, as Kate Millett noted in her classic work, Sexual Politics:
We are not accustomed to associate patriarchy with force. So perfect is its system of socialization, so complete the general assent to its values, so long and so universally has it prevailed in human society, that it scarcely seems to require violent implementation. Customarily, we view its brutalities in the past as exotic or "primitive" custom. Those of the present are regarded as the product of individual deviance, confined to pathological or exceptional behavior, and without general import. And yet … control in patriarchal societies would be imperfect, even inoperable, unless it had the rule of force to rely upon, both in emergencies and as an ever-present instrument of intimidation.
The most commonly analyzed form of such patriarchal force is rape. Early feminist analysts of rape asserted that rape is not, as the common mythology insists, a crime of frustrated attraction, victim provocation, or uncontrollable biological urges. Nor is it one perpetrated only by an aberrant fringe. Rather, rape is a direct expression of sexual politics, a ritual enactment of male domination, and a form of terror which functions to maintain the status quo. Similarly, the murders of women and children by serial killers are not the result of inexplicably deviant men. On the contrary, sexual murder is a product of the dominant culture. It is the ultimate expression of a sexuality that defines sex as a form of domination/power; it, like rape, is a form of terror that constructs and maintains male supremacy.
Heck's statement invokes shared knowledge of a tradition of serial murder beginning with Jack the Ripper, that, as he puts it, "we all talk about." Indeed, we all do. In this essay, using several representative killers, I will trace some of the ways that modern culture talks about the sex killer. I will survey the folklore and popular culture representations of these killers (both actual and fictional), and interpret these for what they tell us about male supremacy, cultural constructions of monstrosity and horror, as well as fears of the future.
Father to An Age
Two women cops working twice as hard for half the glory … TONIGHT: Decoys for a Jack the Ripper.
—TV Guide ad for the premiere episode of Cagney and Lacey, 1982
Imagine … a study of feminism from the point of view of Jack the Ripper … a novel that bristles with irony and wit.
—New York Times, review of Confessions of a Lady-Killer (1979)
A third class of strangers are so utterly beyond the pale that they seem alien not only to the group, but to the human species. I refer to monsters, indicated by names like: pervert, degenerate … psychopath … fiend, demon, devil … Jack the Ripper.
—Orrin Klapp, 1962
[Jack the Ripper] that great hero of my youth, that skilled human butcher who did all his work on alcoholic whores.
—Charles McCabe, San Francisco Chronicle, 1971
Jack the Ribber
—a restaurant in New York City
I need some help here. Some hands. Just send me anybody. Jack the Ripper. I'll take anyone who's good with a knife.
—Hawkeye on M∗A∗S∗H, c. 1973
And Jezebel the nun, she violently knits, A bald wig for Jack the Ripper, who sits, At the head of the Chamber of Commerce.
—Bob Dylan, "Tombstone Blues," 1965
The ghost of Jack the Ripper hovered over Washington today.
—ABC Nightly News, 29, Nov. 1984 (in reference to Federal budget cuts)
Husband: Who's there?
Voice: Jack the Ripper.
Husband: It's for you dear.
—The Benny Hill Show, c. 1980
Mrs. Hanson … had always worn an extra enforcement of petticoats against an ever-potential Jack the Ripper.
—Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life, 1933
Traces of the Ripper's presence constantly intrude into urban women's consciousness. Walking down my street in Manhattan recently, I came upon graffiti emblazoning the Ripper's name on a side of a building. That same week the Lesbian Herstory Archives forwarded to me a threatening letter from "Jack the Ripper" "THE ORIGINAL JACK not a cheap imitation. I've conquered death itself and am still on this earth waiting to strike again."
—Judith Walkowitz, 1982
As just this brief sampling of references indicates, the figure of Jack the Ripper preoccupies this culture in the form of a pervasive and particularly all-embracing metaphor (though, obviously, with different meanings for women and men). The mythic Ripper inspires awe and laughter, he is viewed as both hero and monster, and he is hailed by many as a key innovator, not only in the annuals of true crime, but also in the imagination of modern horror. In a recent discussion of that genre, two of its practitioners, writers Harlan Ellison and Gahan Wilson, traced the origins of modern horror to Jack the Ripper:
ELLISON: Everything that scares us today dates back to Jack the Ripper. He is still the operative icon of terror. He may be small potatoes by current standards … but the Ripper started it. He created the form.
WILSON: Just as no one paints landscapes the same way since Turner, a creative monster like the Ripper changed the landscape of what scares us. He inspired generations.
Wilson and Ellison seem quite vicariously thrilled by the Ripper, if not actually heroizing him as a "creative monster" who blazed their path into the realms of horror. But, of course, this is an expedient and gender specific thrill; as men, they personally have little to fear from the Ripper and do not have to suffer any consequences of that aggrandizing mythicization.
The crimes of the Ripper occurred in the Whitechapel district of London, an area well-known as a center of poverty and prostitution. The still unknown killer has been credited with as many as twenty murders, although probably only five were the work of the one man; others were imitative or unconnected crimes. The killer made no attempt to cover up his actions. Rather, he left the bodies on display, out on the open street in four instances. Furthermore, he (or, far more likely, someone pretending to be the killer) advertised his crimes by writing letters to police, press, and citizen groups, nicknaming himself in one letter, taunting the police, predicting future crimes, and even mailing in half of a human kidney to the chief of a Whitechapel vigilance group (the letter writer claimed to have eaten the other half). The victims, all prostitutes, were not raped; their throats were slit from behind and then the sexual and other organs were severely mutilated. While similar atrocities indubitably had occurred before, indicated, perhaps, in legends of werewolves and vampires, or tracked as isolated incidents of "lust murder" in the nineteenth century, it was not until 1888 in London that the idea of a sexually motivated criminal, specializing in mutilation, dismemberment, and murder, first took shape as a cultural icon.
Many have asked why Jack the Ripper, more than other sex criminals, has left such a mark? Nigel Morland avers: "The melodramatic name of Jack the Ripper … is largely the reason for his immortality, that and the imaginative folk lore which has always surrounded him." In truth, the identity of the Ripper never has been established; this evocative anonymity has been a source for much of the Ripper lore as self-proclaimed "Ripperologists" and "Ripperophiles" continually sift over the known information, proposing improbable and often highly romanticized possible identities (e.g., a member of the royal family).
Another factor, along with this anonymity, further enabled the mythicization process: the crimes of the Ripper stand as one of the first media events. As historian Judith Walkowitz noted: "One cannot emphasize too much the role of the popular press, itself a creation of the 1880s, in establishing Jack the Ripper as a media hero, in amplifying the terror of male violence, and in elaborating and interpreting the meaning of the Ripper murders to a 'mass' audience." A key feature of that elaboration was the wedding of the crimes to traditional horror images and formulae. "Unable to find historical precedents for the Whitechapel 'horrors,' commentators resorted to horrifying fictional analogues." Here are the beginnings of the Ripper mythos—the sex killer as human monster, master criminal, immortal being—as well as the origins of his role as a stock character in twentieth century literature. Jack the Ripper has been a recurring figure in popular and serious fictions (beginning with Frank Wedekind's Die Busche der Pandora, 1904, and Marie Belloc Lowndes' story "The Lodger," 1913), in films (e.g., Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time, 1979), television dramas, (most notably as an immortal alien entity on Star Trek), and songs (e.g., Link Wray's "Jack the Ripper," 1959, Screamin' Lord Sutch and the Savages, "Hands of Jack the Ripper," c. 1969).
Still, the reasons why the Ripper has become so solidly entrenched as a cultural icon go beyond his colorful nickname or the fortuitous collaboration of the 19th century popular press. His enduring popularity, instead, primarily is rooted in the patriarchal foundations of the modern world and his essential meaning is as an emblem of misogynist terrorism. Horror writers might expediently celebrate the mythic ripper as a "creative monster" who "inspired generations"—I assume they mean of horror writers. Yet, the Ripper legend also has inspired generations of misogynist men, both armchair criminals who enjoy identifying with the Ripper in the various fiction portrayals as well as actual killers who directly indicate that they were emulating the Ripper.
As time goes by, the Ripper's mythic representations have only increased and a bibliographic essay listing all of the forms in which the Ripper makes an appearance would run well into hundreds of items. Three interconnected themes recur in this accumulated Ripper Lore: (1) the immortality of the Ripper; (2) the confusion of the historical and fictional criminal; and (3) the establishment of a sex-murder tradition, built upon the Ripper's original crimes.
In 1905, British children jumped rope to this chant: "Jack the Ripper's dead/ And lying on his bed. He cut his throat with Sunlight Soap/ Jack the Ripper's dead." Still, that is one of the very few times the Ripper has died in the popular mind. Rather, his primary persona is that of an immortal and continually lethal presence. This notion was introduced to a mass audience by Robert Bloch in his 1942 short story, "Your's Truly, Jack the Ripper" and subsequently has been imitated countless times. In the 1979 film, Time After Time, Jack the Ripper actually travels into the present through his unsuspecting friend H. G. Wells' time machine. The horrified Wells is finally able to dispatch him via that very machine, sending him, as perfectly befits a mythic creature, "into infinity, where he really belongs."
A startling juxtaposition of stories in the Oct. 30, 1979 issue of US Magazine illustrates both the second and third themes. The first, a news story on a series of sex slayings in Yorkshire claims: "A New Jack the Ripper is Terrorizing England." On the very next page, a headline for a story on the film Time After Time reads: "The Stars Really Fall in Love in a New Jack the Ripper Flick." This placement collapses the "New Jack the Ripper" almost imperceptibly into the "New Jack the Ripper Flick," as if there really were no substantial difference between the two. Such juxtapositions may lead us to consider the ways that the incessant mythicization/heroization of the misogynist killer encourages the emergence of "New Jack the Rippers," men eager to fill out the archetype of the criminal genius/monster, whose exploits are reviled but simultaneously celebrated in the popular culture.
A number of writers from a variety of perspectives have surveyed the lore surrounding the Ripper and it is not my intention to recapitulate that material in any greater depth here. Rather, having established the prominence and prevalence of Ripper lore, I want to concentrate on the much less analyzed personae and lores of several men who come from the "generations" inspired by Jack the Ripper, killers such as Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz.
"America's Jack the Ripper"
So let's salute the mighty Bundy,
Here on Friday, gone on Monday.
All his roads lead out of town.
It's hard to keep a good man down.
—An Aspen folk singer, celebrating Bundy's first prison escape, 1978
In 1981, when the Reader's Digest published an original article on Ted Bundy, its cover blurb announced: "Caught: America's Jack the Ripper." In some ways, this seemed mere hyperbole. The two killers were not that alike: Bundy selected college coeds, not prostitutes, as his victims and he hid the bodies, rather than display them. Nevertheless, just as Jack the Ripper seemed to personify the underside of Victorian England, so too Ted Bundy epitomized his society, presenting a persona of the superficially ideal, all-American boy. Ironically, it was just months after the 1988 centennial celebration for the mythic father of sexual murder, that the focus effortlessly shifted to that paradigmatic son, Bundy—to the drama leading up to his execution, January 24, 1989, and the revelry that accompanied it. In the days preceding his death, Bundy's story dominated the mass media, memorializing and further mythicizing a killer who had already been the subject of scores of book chapters, articles, five books, and a made-for-TV movie (where he was played by Mark Harmon, an actor whom People Weekly once gushed over as the "world's sexiest man"). On the morning Bundy went to the electric chair, hundreds (from photographs of the event, the crowd seemed to be composed largely of men) gathered across the street from the prison. Many wore specially designed costumes, waved banners proclaiming a "Bundy BBQ." or "I like my Ted well done," and chanted songs such as "He bludgeoned the poor girls, all over the head. Now we're all ecstatic, Ted Bundy is dead." The most common journalistic metaphors for the overall scene were that of a carnival, circus, or tailgate party before a big game.
This sort of spontaneous outpouring of folk sentiment regarding Ted Bundy was not without precedent. In the late 1970s, when he was awaiting trial for the murder of Caryn Campbell in Aspen, Colorado, Bundy managed to escape twice. The first time he was caught and returned to custody; the second time he was successful and traveled to Florida. But upon the news of his escapes (particularly the first) a phenomenal reaction occurred. All observers concur: "In Aspen, Bundy had become a folk hero." "Ted achieved the status of Billy the Kid at least"; "Aspen reacted as if Bundy were some sort of Robin Hood instead of a suspected mass murderer. A folklore sprang up out of the thin Rocky Mountain air." T-shirts appeared reading: "Ted Bundy is a One Night Stand." Radio KSNO programmed a Ted Bundy request hour, playing songs like: "Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady." A local restaurant offered a "Bundyburger" consisting of nothing more than a plain roll: "Open it and see the meat has fled," explained a sign. Yet after his second escape, the FBI took Bundy seriously enough to name him to their 10 Most Wanted List, seeking him "in connection with 36 similar-type sexual slayings throughout several Western states."
Just as Bundy's young, white, generally middle-class victims were stereotypically (and with marked racist and classic bias) universalized as "anyone's daughters," Bundy himself was depicted as the fatherland's (almost) ideal son—handsome, intelligent, a former law student, a rising star in Seattle's Republican party. And although that idealization falls apart upon examination—he had to drop out of law school due to bad grades; he was chronically unhappy and habitually abused alcohol; he was a nailbiter and a nosepicker—it provided an attractive mythic persona for purposes of identification. As several feminist analysts have noted, a recurrent and vivid pattern accompanying episodes of sensationalized sex murder is ordinary male identification with the sex killer, as revealed in "jokes, innuendoes, veiled threats (I might be the Strangler, you know)." Such joking followed Bundy's murder of two sorority women at the Chi Omega House at the University of Florida, Tallahassee. As one woman who lived there at the time remembered:
Probably the most disturbing thing was the series of jokes and innuendoes that men traded about the murders. My boyfriend at the time was a public defender, and it was his office that represented Bundy at trial. He heard a lot of comments by virtue of being male and working close to the investigation that I probably would never have heard otherwise. We talked recently and he said there were basically two kinds of humor about the killings: (1) sorority-related jokes (2) jokes which connected the violence of torn-off nipples and bite marks on the victims to Bundy's sexual "appetite" as in "eating" the victims sexually or sometimes, literally. One such joke was: "What do you get when you have a Tri Delt, a Chi O, and a Phi Mu? A three-course dinner for Ted Bundy." What could possibly be behind this kind of humor? I really don't buy the theory that these jokes help to reduce the stress of a horrible event. I think they just reduce the horror of the event in order to make it acceptable.
After his first escape, the male identification was with Bundy as a rebel, an outlaw hero. When he was on trial for murder in Florida, as the joking there indicated, he provided fodder for some sadistic sexual fantasies. But subsequently, Bundy did the supremely unmanly thing of confessing to his crimes and manifesting fear of death. No longer qualifying as hero, Bundy was now cast into the complementary role of scapegoat. The "bloodthirsty revelers" who partied outside as Bundy was executed, through their objectification and disrespect for the victims and lust for death, still mirrored Bundy, but now delightedly demanded that the all-American boy die as a token sacrifice for his and their sins.
Elements, frequently obscure, of Bundy lore now can be found in various places. Students in a popular culture class tell me that they are sure that the name of the family (Bundy) on the Fox network's parodic sitcom "Married With Children" deliberately recalls the notorious Ted Bundy and is a subtle reference to the down side of "happy" American family life. The punk band, "Jane's Addiction," on a 1988 album, includes a song, "Ted, Just Admit It." (This was before Bundy had confessed.) Here, they sing of television news being "just another show with sex and violence" and chant over and over that "sex is violent." But I encountered the most startling mythicization of Bundy last spring at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I teach. There I found a flyer advertising a program on pornography, held in the dorms and sponsored by a student group, showing the tape of Bundy's last interview. The flyer displayed a likeness of the killer under the logo: "A Man with Vision. A Man with Direction. A Prophet of Our Times … Bundy: The Man, The Myth. The Legend (sic)." Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this program, having gotten the flyer only after the fact. I was given the names of two male students who organized the program, but my attempts to find and contact them were unsuccessful; they were seniors and the semester had ended. Therefore, I cannot say with certainty what the tone of the program was. The flyer itself combines elements of a seemingly serious agenda, e.g., "film, informed speakers, discussion" with patently "sick" humor, e.g., the references to Bundy as a visionary prophet. The sponsor for the event was the Entertainment Program Committee, a dormitory student group, so I imagine that it was put on primarily as a way for, primarily male, students to get together to joke about Bundy, particularly his claim that pornography led him to sexual violence.
As previously noted, the mystery behind the actual identity of Jack the Ripper has generated a considerable amount of his lore. Although his identity is clear, other factors about Bundy provide legendary fodder. Bundy confessed to thirty murders, yet he also has been implicated in at least twenty other murders by the authorities; moreover, without much corroborating evidence, some relatives of missing women are sure that their loved ones were killed by Bundy. For example, Sophia Mary Healey disappeared at Royal Gorge in Colorado in 1979. The Denver Post reports that her mother "clings to the notion her daughter was murdered or abducted by a man seen entering the park in a tan VW immediately after Healey. That man, she believes, was notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, who had recently escaped from a Colorado jail." Like his predecessor, Jack the Ripper, Bundy has become something of a "collective for murder." Finally, Bundy was "illegitimate" and his mother has never revealed the identity of his birth father. Such obscure paternal origins are an open invitation to mythicization as happened recently when an article in Vanity Fair (May 1989) broadly suggested (without any actual evidence) that Louise Bundy was impregnated by her abusive father and Bundy was thus a child of incest.
Finally, the greatest myth surrounding Bundy is one that we encounter nearly everywhere in the mainstream press—the concept that Bundy, and others like him, are complete "enigmas." This was constantly reiterated in refutation of Bundy's claim—which he had made consistently since his capture in 1978—that pornography had influenced his evolution into a sex killer. For example, Playboy approvingly quotes one of his lawyers, James Coleman: "He [Bundy] didn't know what made him kill people [sic]. No one did." Similarly, a New York editorialist, after pooh poohing the "deadly dangers of nude centerfolds, X-rated movies, and bottom-rack periodicals," averred: "I don't believe that Ted Bundy or anyone else understood what made him commit and repeat the crimes he confessed to, which were rape murders of an unimaginable violence and cruelty." First of all, such cruel violences are verifiably imaginable (and even erotic and/or entertaining) in this culture—consider the pornographic snuff film or soft-core snuff, such as the slasher film; Bundy's fame is more than matched, particularly among children, by that of the extremely cruel and violent fictional serial killers, Freddy Krueger or Jason. Secondly, a feminist analysis would not find Bundy and his ilk to be inexplicable deviants, but rather, logical, if extreme, products of a systemically misogynist culture: one that promotes an ideology of male supremacy; objectifies women; repeatedly associates violence and virility; eroticizes weaponry and various forms of violence and murder; and immortalizes and heroizes such men as Jack the Ripper.
Bundy ceaselessly demanded that people see him as just like them, as "sharing a common humanity." As he told evangelical minister Jim Dobson in his final interview: "Those of us who are … so much influenced by violence in the media, in particular pornographic violence, are not some kind of inherent monsters. We are your sons, and we are your husbands, and we grew up in regular families." While part of Bundy's appeal is his overwhelming facade of normalcy, another sex killer from the 1970s deliberately cultivated a diametrically opposed persona—that of the inherent and committed monster.
"I am the 'Monster'"
I am deeply hurt by your calling me a wemon [sic] hater. I am not. But I am a monster. I am the "Son of Sam" … I am the "Monster"—"Beelzebub"—the chubby behemoth.
—David Berkowitz, letter to police (1 April 1977), printed in the Daily News, 5 June 1977
During his spree as the "Son of Sam," the killer who randomly shot young women as they walked alone on the street, or sat in parked cars with other women or men, David Berkowitz wrote highly dramatic and disturbing letters to both police and press, letters which were subsequently printed in the daily papers. One such letter was sent to columnist Jimmy Breslin of the Daily News:
Hello, from the cracks in the sidewalks of New York City and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed on the dried blood of the dead that has settled into these cracks.
Hello from the gutters of New York City, which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood.
Don't think that because you haven't heard from me for a while that I went to sleep. No, rather, I am still here, like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest; anxious to please Sam.
The first day that just a part of that letter was printed, the Daily News sold a record-breaking 1,116,000 copies, a record that stood until the day Berkowitz was apprehended in mid-August. Actually, an extraordinary number of newspapers was sold throughout that entire summer as the Post and the News vied in a circulations war, turning their most sensationalist attention to this story. So intense was their coverage that the New Yorker charged the city's tabloids with what we might think of as "self-fulfilling publicity," of possibly encouraging the killer, or another of like mind, to strike again "by transforming a killer into a celebrity … into a seemingly omnipotent monster stalking the city." While such criticism may seem to be merely enacting the social class differential between the prestigious magazine and the tabloids, a few years later, Berkowitz indicated that the New Yorker might have been right. He avowed that after his fourth shooting:
I didn't much care anymore, for I finally had convinced myself that it was good to do it, necessary to do it, and that the public wanted me to do it. The latter part I believe until this day. I believe that many were rooting for me. This was the point at which the papers began to pick up vibes and information that something big was happening out in the streets. Real big!"
The attention of the people of New York throughout the summer of 1977 was riveted on the "Son of Sam." Men wearing T-shirts bearing the police sketch of the suspect's face walked the streets. Talk of the killer had become "the staple of conversation." Then mayor Abraham Beame summed up the melodramatic fascination of that time: "Son of Sam. I even liked the name and that in itself was terrifying. I knew it would stick—would become his trademark—you could see it all building, the fears of the people, including my own, and the headlong rush of the press to create a personality, someone they could build a story around." Significantly, that movement to create a narrative was facilitated not only by Berkowitz's self-articulated monstrosity, but also by his style and choice of victims, for the killer who preyed on parked teenage couples seemed the very embodiment of that most common bogeyman of teenage horror—the stalking maniac of the popular urban legend, "The Hook." In journalistic accounts of the shooting of several Berkowitz's victims the basic elements of "The Hook" clearly structure the narrative. The boy and girl pull into a lover's lane to neck and begin to talk about the killer. The boy plays it cool but the girl gets scared and begs the boy to leave. The boy doesn't take her fear seriously, but finally agrees. Just then the killer approaches and shoots them.
After Berkowitz was captured in August, 1977, reminders of the terror continued to haunt New York women, some deliberately planted by big business. Berkowitz had claimed that he "liked to shoot pretty girls," a remark that was widely quoted in the press. Incredibly, just a few months after his arrest, Max Factor introduced a new face moisturizer called "Self-Defense." As the billboards throughout the city threatened: "Warning! A Pretty Face Isn't Safe In This City. Fight Back With Self-Defense." In this campaign, the cosmetics firm unabashedly tried to cash in on the fear generated by the sex killer, and, at the same time, implanted some all by itself.
Again, in Albuquerque, I have observed several references to Berkowitz in the local youth subculture. Currently, one of the most popular local punk bands is called "Cracks in the Sidewalk"; it is common knowledge among their fans that the name derives from Berkowitz's "hello from the cracks in the sidewalk" letter to Jimmy Breslin. When Berkowitz was caught, he claimed that he was possessed by demons and under orders to kill from a man named "Sam" who communicated with him through a barking dog. (Later, he confessed that he had made all of this up.) Ten years later, on public access cable television in Albuquerque, a group of local amateur filmmakers showcase their works (frequently short horror films featuring a serial/slasher killer) on a program they call "Son of Sam Theater." A man, who bears some resemblance to Berkowitz, hosts the show. He holds a dog hand puppet whom he calls Sam and talks with during brief addresses to the audience. Occasionally, another man will enter and chat with him, proclaiming himself to be another serial killer, e.g., Ed Gein (the murderer on whom the killer in Psycho was based). The general tone is one of high camp and hilarity, as when "Berkowitz" slashes "Gein" to death with a knife in a mode reminiscent of Psycho's famous shower scene.
This cross referencing between actual serial killers and horror film is itself significant. For the most common monster of contemporary horror film is a serial killer, beginning with Norman Bates in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). We now see the immortal or at least regenerated serial killer in Silent Rage (Michael Miller, 1982), in the phenomenally popular Freddy and Jason of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series, as well as Child's Play (Tom Holland, 1988) and Shocker (Wes Craven, 1989).
"Pop Culture Heroes"
Freddy is pollution. Freddy is evil. Freddy is what's wrong with the world…. Racism, pollution, child molestation, child abuse, alcohol, drugs.
Nowadays, the good guys seem to be fighting a losing battle, and teenagers appear to like it that way. Jason, the goalie-masked, knife-wielding fiend of the "Friday the 13th" series of movies, and Freddy Krueger, the hideous-looking killer in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies are pop-culture heroes.
—New York Times, Oct. 1989
Our heroes and their narratives are an index to our character and conception of our role in the universe.
As noted earlier, a key factor in the mystique of Jack the Ripper has been his incorporation into the horror genre as a stock character. Indeed, by the latter part of the twentieth century, one of the most common monsters, as Robin Wood has observed, is a "human psychotic." Moreover, even the traditional monsters—the vampires, werewolves, and phantoms—now are being overtly portrayed as sex killers. If patriarchal legend has immortalized the Ripper (and is in process on Bundy, et. al), his screen brethren too are deathless, surviving seeming demise in feature after feature, resurrecting to dispatch those intrepid teenage girls who vanquished them in earlier installments, and gloating, as does Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street IV, "I am eternal."
Like Bundy and Berkowitz (and their fictional forbear, Norman Bates), Freddy and Jason have identifiable mothers—but not fathers. Jason, the young son of a female cook at a summer camp, drowned while the camp counselors neglected him in favor of sexual satisfaction. His mother begins a vengeance campaign in the first Friday the 13th (Sean Cunningham, 1980), only to be beheaded by the sole surviving girl. Jason, however, isn't dead. In Part II, we meet him as a deformed teenager who keeps a candle-lit shrine to his mother's head. His first action is to gore to death the surviving girl from the original film and then to begin the silent reign of terror that has lasted through seven sequels (he doesn't even get his famous hockey mask until Part III). The loquacious Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street originated as a child molester and murderer in an affluent suburban community. Tried for his crimes, he was freed on a technicality, so some local parents got together and burned him death. Now Freddy preys upon the children of these parents through their dreams. In Nightmare, Part III, we meet Freddy's mother, a ghostly nun who explains that as a young girl working in a madhouse, she accidentally was locked in with the inmates and repeatedly raped. Freddy was thus, "the bastard son of a hundred maniacs."
It is mythically necessary to leave the paternity of these killers nebulous and even multiple, for their true father is indeed a collective entity—the patriarchal culture that has produced the serial killer as a fact of modern life. Moreover, these deranged sons must themselves stand in for that absent father, assuming the punitive paternal role. As Wes Craven (director and writer of the first Nightmare on Elm Street) has indicated: "Freddy is the most ruthless primal father. The adult who wants to slash down the next generation."
In Craven's original conception, Freddy was "the most evil human being you can imagine, someone who goes after children." he had no plans to make Freddy invincible and eternal; rather, as he planned it, the extremely resourceful heroine of the first film, Nancy (Heather Langencamp), defeats Freddy by denying him, by turning her back on him and forbidding him reality. However, producer Nick Shaye wanted sequels and insisted upon a ludicrous ending where Freddy resurrects and the teenagers are doomed. (The heroic Nancy is killed off in Part III). Craven points out that under Shaye's direction, the movement was to "soften Freddy and make him a little bit more of a buffoon…. Now in a sense, he's embraced by younger kids. And they can make fun of him. In a way he's dangerous and in a way he's a joke. It's probably safer to deal with him that way." Craven's rationale is the same one that is used to explain the disturbing joking about serial killers such as Ted Bundy. Yet, it is women who would most need to find ways to manage fear about sex killers and in my experience women rarely if ever make these jokes. Such joking is a means of normalizing the sex killer and identifying with him. Softening Freddy only softens and makes palatable the sexual abuse and murder of children. Incidentally, Freddy is not the first serial killer to be perceived as ironic and witty; that role was originally written for the mythic Jack the Ripper. Nor is he the first figure to double as buffoon and evil terror. John Wayne Gacy, rapist, torturer, and killer of thirty-three boys and young men, frequently performed for children as a clown.
Most commentators speak quite loosely about the "kids" who embrace these filmic killers, yet we should be wary of the facile generic and the gender differences it conceals. Although there is no comprehensive study of the demographics of the slasher film audience, all observers agree that it is mostly between the ages of twelve and twenty and largely male. Without undertaking extensive interviews, it is difficult to discern in any conclusive way what Freddy and Jason mean to the, disproportionately male, children and teenagers who are so fascinated by these films in which a couple making love signals an imminent assault, where there are virtually no permanent survivors, and where both sexes are targets, though it is on the women's bodies and (usually more prolonged) deaths that the camera lingers. Film critic Robin Wood discusses the types of identification operating for the slasher film audience, but first distinguishes these current products from traditional horror:
There the monster was in general a creature from the id, not merely a product of repression but a protest against it, whereas in the current cycles the monster, while still produced by repression, has essentially become a superego figure, avenging itself on liberated female sexuality or the sexual freedom of the young…. Where the traditional horror film invited, however ambiguously, an identification with the return of the repressed, the contemporary horror film invites an identification (either sadistic or masochistic or both simultaneously) with punishment.
One element operating in viewers' masochistic identification is to pledge allegiance to the punitive father, hoping quite hopelessly that this will save you. We see this in the stories of those women who "fall in love" with killers such as Ted Bundy (his wife actually married him after he had been convicted of the Chi Omega murders). The other, and probably more common, strategy (the sadistic one) is to identify with the violator and his role, to be titillated by his excesses and turned on by his depredations.
In October, 1988, nineteen-year old Sharon Gregory was murdered in Greenfield, Massachusetts, when an eighteen-year-old white man, Mark Branch stabbed her over fifty times. Branch, at the time, was undergoing psychological counseling due to his obsession with slasher films; he particularly identified with "Jason" the murderer of the Friday the 13th series. When his home was searched, police found over 75 slasher videos, and 64 similar books, three knives, a machete, and three hockey goalie masks, like that worn by Jason. Branch eluded the police for about a month and then hanged himself in a local woods. Perhaps significantly, the murder took place around Halloween. This factor created additional havoc in Greenfield and caused town officials to ask parents to cancel traditional trick or treat activities. The officials requested this not because they were afraid Branch would strike again: "Instead, they are afraid pranksters may dress up as Jason … and scare young children or cause edgy residents to overreact and hurt someone in the dark." Branch's sadistic identification with Jason (as well as the expected pranksters' identification with Branch) is, assuredly, extreme, yet not completely unexpected. A hero, after all, is a role model, one who acts out the fantasies of his fans, one who inspires emulation.
For obvious reasons, Freddy and Jason are often discussed together: each is a powerful and compelling contemporary symbol of evil. Yet, the two series and the two monsters are quite distinct. The Friday the 13th movies are pure gorenography; the thin stories and cardboard characters exist only to give flesh to the slaughter scenes. It is difficult to imagine anything but sadism to be behind an identification with Jason. But, the original Nightmare on Elm Street movie (and to some extent the sequels), although not free of the slasher film's fixation on the coupling of teen sex with elaborate female death, is far more visually and philosophically interesting. Freddy is no mere death machine. As Robert Englund (the actor who plays Freddy) puts it: "He is the nightmare in suburbia. He is the nightmare in white America and he's reminding you that you can't escape IT!" As such, Freddy may invite some identification as a completely unrepressed individual, a revolutionary figure who disregards and destroys traditional mores and values, one who exposes as fraud the image of the happy nuclear family and ideal suburban community.
A rather astonishing poem, "A Nightmare on Sesame Street," seems to stem from such a perspective and displays a sense of apocalyptic humor akin to Freddy Krueger's own. It was written by a ten year old African-American boy in 1988 and turned in as a classroom assignment (along with his accompanying illustration).
It was a pleasant day, everybody was happy. "Play Ball," shouted Big Bird one bright sunny day. But his friends disagreed. Which game should they play? Grover spoke first. He said, "Please let's play catch." But Henry suggested a quick soccer match. "Hey buddies," said Ernie, holding his bat, "how about baseball?" I'd really like that. "I agree," Betty Lou said, flexing her mitt. But Oscar retorted, "Not enough grit." Cookie completely ignored the debate. While he munched on a frisbee that looked like a plate. "I get a kick out of football," said Bert. But Oscar continued, "Not enough dirt." "My racket is tennis," said Oscar persisting. Big Bird interrupted, "Let's try coexisting!" We'll take turns," Big Bird said averting a brawl. And that's what they did. And they each had a ball … until … There he was Freddy Cruger (sic). He said, "A is for Aim, B is for Blades. C is for Cut and D is for Dead. He popped Grover's ball then he sliced him. He stabbed Ernie and threw him somewhere. He stabbed Bert when he said he wanted to play football. He sliced Cookie Monster's cookies. "What's going on here," said Big Bird. "Run," said Henry. "He will kill you." "Nonsense, I'll ask him to be my friend." "Will you be my friend," Big Bird said. Not a chance, ffft ouch I'm, dying. Cruger kills the rest of the people at sesame street. And his next stop is Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
This piece certainly bespeaks a rage against the TV-version of banally happy children's culture and experience. Yet if this poem is a rebellion, it is one that is programmed for self-defeat. For Freddy Krueger—the child molester and murderer—is no genuine stranger to that world, but a direct product of it. He is the alter ego, not the true opposite, of that other cultural icon, the all-knowing and authoritative suburban "good dad"; Krueger is Ward Cleaver unrepressed, running amok, wielding a cleaver. He is the incestuous/alcoholic/abusive/murderous father, hidden behind the placid facade of Elm Street, U.S.A. Moreover, he is the consummate "nuclear father," threatening imminent apocalypse.
By killing women and children, Freddy and Jason, as well as the actual killers whom they reflect, are symbolically destroying life and the future itself. Robert Englund tells the (again predominantly young male) readers of the skateboard magazine, Thrasher:
Child Killer? What are children? Children are the future. Freddy's killing the future. Freddy hates beauty. He hate youth. He hates the future … It's kinda political y'know. Freddy hates the future. He's killing the future. Parents are weary. They don't want to defend the future anymore. The kids see it, and Freddy's killing the kids.
Killing the future. Psychologist Robert J. Lifton points out that the fear of "futurelessness" (the belief that oneself and the world has no future) is a condition particularly afflicting children and teenagers in the nuclear age. It is commonly accepted that monsters from 1950s horror and science fiction—Godzilla or giant ants—were metaphors for "the Bomb." Yet, current film monsters continue to carry those nuclear meanings. As murderer of the future, Freddy is a symbolic evocation, not only of the reality of rampant child abuse and murder, but also of the everyday potential of nuclear annihilation, of radical futurelessness.
The delirious embrace of the sex killer (factual or fictional) is a phenomenon closely related to what Lifton has described as the "nuclear high": the desperate attempt to deny or escape destruction through identification with the agent of that destruction. Thus, the consummately lethal nuclear weapons are mythicized as beautiful, awesome, even divine, as the "only form of transcendence worthy of the age." Lifton illustrates this "nuclear high" by pointing to one of the final images of Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1963), "in which man rides bomb to its target while uttering a wild Texas yodel." Interestingly, an episode of "Freddy's Nightmares," (a television series spin-off from the films), tells the story of a young girl who dreams presciently of nuclear holocaust. Throughout that episode, our commentator, Freddy Krueger, appears, first with a mushroom cloud coming out of his head, and then out in space, riding a nuclear missile down to the planet Earth to blow it up. He takes off his hat and waves it, calling "Yee ha," clearly in homage to that well-known Dr. Strangelove scene. Then, he reconsiders, turns the missile around, and says, "Nah, I'd rather get you little buckaroos one at a time." Freddy, we then realize, is something like a personalized nuclear bomb.
One other fact must be mentioned: in Dr. Strangelove, the madman general who engineers world nuclear destruction is the aptly named General Jack D. Ripper. How fitting that these icons of sex murder so frequently merge with those of nuclear annihilation, for both of these atrocities are apocalyptic—both kill the future. Moreover, both are based in male supremacist sexuality and are marked by the equation of "unimaginable" cruelty and violence with power, eroticism, and ecstasy. Freddy Krueger and Jason join Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy as the founding fathers and sons of an unremittingly apocalyptic culture, pointing to a future consisting of no safe sex ever, beaches spiked with toxic waste, extinct species, global warming, and nuclear war.
Atomic scientist Leo Szillard once commented regarding the heroization of his fellows after World War II: "It is remarkable that all these scientists … should be listened to. But mass murderers have always commanded the attention of the public, and atomic scientists are no exception to this rule." Yet, why must mass murderers rule our attention. Like the originally efficacious heroine in the first Nightmare on Elm Street, we might instead ourselves take command and deny them that aggrandizing focus. Such denial would not be the passive and self-defeating kind that merely pretends that they don't exist, but an active denial, one that negates their lure, deconstructs their lore, and does not perpetuate, but diminishes their reality.
Gayle Feldman (essay date 17 May 1991)
SOURCE: "11 Houses Bid, Doubleday Wins Shot in the Heart," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 238, May 17, 1991, pp. 33-4.
[In the essay below, Feldman discusses the interest surrounding Mikal Gilmore's upcoming book Shot in the Heart.]
Perhaps it's not so surprising that on April 23-24, 11 houses engaged in feverish bidding, and one house—Doubleday—finally agreed to pay a reported $700,000, for the right to publish a nonfiction book based on a 100-page proposal by a Rolling Stone senior writer named Mikal Gilmore. True, $700,000 for a first book is rather a lot of money, and 11 houses in an auction are rather more than the norm. It was a little unusual that three seemingly very different Random House Divisions—Knopf, Crown and Turtle Bay—were reportedly each willing to offer more than $600,000 for the prize. And this is the first occasion that this writer has ever heard of when a literary magazine—Granta—snapped up the rights to extract and reprint part of a proposal—which Bill Buford did just over a week after the auction occurred.
But in these days when novels about serial killers reverberate through the editorial pages and reach the bestseller lists; when movies about serial killers become box-office smash hits; and when America's love affair with the gun—Brady bill or no Brady bill—is as fatally potent as ever, a book by the brother of Gary Gilmore is certainly not lacking in hard-boiled commercial potential. The story, however, doesn't end there.
For at a time when so much that is written or portrayed about violence and killing in this country is purely exploitative, Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart hopes to be something else again. Yes, his brother murdered many innocent people and then, in 1977, became the first judicially executed prisoner in America in over a decade—at his own urging. Yes, his brother's life and death were chronicled after a fashion by no less than an American literary lion—Norman Mailer in The Executioner's Song—and subsequently in a television film. But what enthused so many publishers about the 100-page proposal is neatly summed in the subtitle, "The Story of an American Family, in Murder," for Gilmore very much places the emphasis on "family."
In a quiet but intense telephone interview a week after the auction, Gilmore told PW, "I never kid myself that a book can change the world—I don't have any high aims that way. I know there are a lot of people who will look at a story like this and regard my family as extremely abnormal—an American family gone wrong. But I also believe that we were an extreme example of an American norm that isn't clearly recognized.
"I want people to understand that murder is a complex event—it very rarely occurs just as a single solitary response born of the moment. The seeds were sown long before, in the murderer's family and emotional history and environment, and also in the way the culture around that family embraces or punishes violence. We do live in a time and place where violence is seen as an effective means to deal with our problems, while at the same time it is greatly feared and thought to be out of control.
"The usual response is that if we could just put people away who commit these crimes we would be okay. I understand that impulse, but it doesn't seem to stop the crimes or the violence. I think you have to understand the sources of murder, and that in some ways we are all part of it."
Agent Richard Pine, who "essentially spent about a year selling this proposal," looks back on the week of the auction as one unique in his experience. "It was as though the publishing business had fallen in love. Even the people who didn't get the book [Houghton Mifflin and Hyperion were also offering serious money] wished us well. There was a lot of metaphorical back slapping.
"And yet, this is the one book I thought Mikal was never going to write. I always thought his books would be about the world of music, the world he's written about for Rolling Stone since 1976. But in the end, I guess he had to start his book career with this one."
Gilmore himself muses, "It came as a surprise to me that I would do this book. For many years, I put myself at a distance from my family; I felt they were a bad-luck outfit and that the only way to escape was to reject them. In some ways, that really did save me. But as we all know, our families catch up with us. Certainly, in 1977, with what happened to Gary, it caught up with me in a pretty forceful way.
"Later, I tried rejecting the family all over again. It was painful and shameful—I told myself I didn't have to be shaped by it, didn't have to be known as Gary Gilmore's brother. But I kept going through cycles of depression and disappointment, often tied to hopes of marriage and family that didn't work out. My past kept caving in on me and I realized that I was more of a brother to Gary than I had ever anticipated, that some of the dark forces in his life were also in mine. We had both been shaped by a longing for family, a longing that broke each of us in different ways. I realized that if I didn't figure out where I learned these patterns, I wouldn't be able to go on with my life in an effective way."
Gilmore went into "serious therapy," and recognized that "this was a story I wanted to write as a first book. I had tried over the years to write books about music and each time I would grind to a halt in confusion and despair. But I wrote this proposal in eight or nine days, and odd though it may sound, doing it was a real pleasure. I surprised myself with what came out: it was liberating."
Although the attention he will no doubt receive—the labeling as "Gary Gilmore's brother"—will not be something he anticipates with pleasure, Mikal says he's "very much looking forward to" the actual writing of the book.
Looking forward is also something the folks at Doubleday are doing a lot of regarding this book. From publisher Steve Rubin to editor-in-chief David Gernert to acquiring editor Paul Bresnick, the pleasure at snaring this project is palpable. Gilmore makes it clear that Doubleday's was the winning bid not solely by dint of being the highest, but also because Bresnick is editing Greil Marcus, whom Gilmore calls his "favorite living American critic. I figured if an editor was working with Greil, understood him and could handle him, that was a good sign. I can be strong-willed myself, and I want this to be handled seriously."
The manuscript is due in early 1993, with fall publication anticipated. Doubleday bought North American rights, and already Pine has sold British and Commonwealth rights "for a six-figure sum in pounds" to Viking Penguin. Although a lot can happen between the writing of a proposal—even one a hundred pages long—and the delivery of a finished manuscript, the odds seem fairly good on this project making it through to the home stretch. David Gernert reckons that Doubleday's Herman Gollob said it best: "Not only is Shot in the Heart a potential bestseller—more importantly, it has the potential for becoming a classic as well."
Jack Miles (essay date December 1991)
SOURCE: "Imagining Mayhem: Fictional Violence vs. 'True Crime'," in North American Review, December, 1991, pp. 57-64.
[In the following essay, Miles discusses the popularity of true-crime literature, what its popularity suggests about American culture, and the moral issues raised by the genre.]
During the 1980s, America got tough on crime. As a result, our prison population has doubled, and the U.S. now ranks first in the world—ahead of South Africa and the Soviet Union—in the proportion of its populace behind bars. Does this mean that ours is the most criminally violent society in the world? Or are we simply the most punitive society in the world?
Criminal violence in America, flourishing despite massive efforts against it, defies easy comprehension. As anyone knows who has watched a jury being empaneled for a murder case, it is difficult, these days, to find twelve Americans whose lives have not been touched by violent crime, both menacing and deeply baffling, crime as public topic and as private experience quite literally forces itself upon us. And yet, even knowing this, someone who observes—as the book editor of a major newspaper is uniquely able to observe—the torrent of violence-preoccupied popular literature in our country can only wonder at what it may mean, or portend.
The recent controversy over Bret Easton Ellis's "spatter novel" American Psycho (1991) brought the relationship between crime on the page and crime in the streets briefly to the front of the national mind, but there was much to wonder at long before that controversy broke. Ellis has shocked readers, especially female readers, with his scenes of torture and mutilation; but Stephen King—by every measure the most popular writer of his generation and perhaps of this century—makes only somewhat milder scenes a staple of his writing. The Stephen King Encyclopedia (Spignesi, 1991) contains a special section on "death, torture, and mutilation" in his work. As I write, Mary Higgins Clark—a novelist who receives almost no critical discussion but whose contracts run to the high eight digits—is no. 2 on the fiction best seller list with Loves Music, Loves to Dance (1991), a novel that, like Ellis's, is about a serial killer. All this may mean nothing, but then again, it may mean something after all.
At the 1991 American Booksellers Association convention, I learned that three contracts have been signed for books by different authors on the slaying of San Francisco pornographer Artie Mitchell. A fourth contract, brokered by the biggest-bucks agent in town, may soon follow.
You don't get four books on any single subject under contract at the same time unless publishers are confident the public has an insatiable appetite for that subject. True, the public at all places and times has never been less than bloody-minded: Look at the corpse-strewn closing scenes of Shakespeare's tragedies. But have all publics been quite so bloody-minded as the American public is just now? Or do our bloody popular literature, our quick recourse to war, our restoration of the death penalty against the pattern of all the other industrialized democracies, and our vast and steadily growing prison population spring from some common, uniquely American cultural root? It is the thought that the answer to this question may be affirmative that makes a book editor hesitate over how much attention to devote to horror and gore. Negative reviews or reviewer neglect may be no more than flies on the carapace of a juggernaut like Stephen King. Civic responsibility dictates nonetheless that the reviewing media be on guard both against worsening the impact of crime on its actual victims and against enhancing the likelihood of further crime. Both outcomes are at the very least conceivable.
"Language is a pistol," Ben Cheever is quoted as saying to his sister, Susan, in her recent memoir Treetops (1991). "A pistol is a fine thing if you use it to defend yourself, or for robbing from the rich if you are poor. It's not so fine if you shoot your little son and daughter with it." In John Cheever's story "An Educated American Woman," a little boy apparently modeled on Ben dies as a result of criminal neglect by his mother. In Cheever's story "The Hartleys," a little girl apparently modeled on Susan is brutally dragged to her death in a ski lift. All three of the Cheever children resented the use that John Cheever made of them and their mother in his fiction at the time he was writing it, and they continue to resent it now, many years later.
All three, I hasten to add, are not unacquainted with the typical defenses of such use. Susan writes of her father: "Suggestions that his or other writers' characters were modeled on real people infuriated him. 'You are reducing literature to gossip,' he would say." And Susan astutely joins her father's words to a long and apposite quote from Philip Roth's subtle Deception, including the line "because you're you doesn't mean I didn't make you up." Plainly, the children of John Cheever are not unsophisticated about the nature of fiction. Nonetheless Fred Cheever does not shrink from saying that what John did to his wife and Fred's mother, Mary, through his work "is a major wrong. It's right up there with slavery." Literary sophistication seems not to preclude deep resentment when one ends up feeling, as Ben Cheever does, "as if I was a minor character in someone else's book."
What have the Cheever children to do with the popular literature of violence? I submit that they give unusually articulate expression to the sort of feeling that the victims, including the collateral victims, of crime have when they find themselves built into quasi-novelistic "true crime" melodramas, and it is with these works rather than with blockbuster novels that I would begin this discussion.
John Cheever did not put his wife or children into his fiction under their real names, nor for that matter did he ever write a "true crime"—or, as it would have to have been, a "true misery"—version of his own and their lives. Whatever his children may have suffered, it has not involved actual violence. All the more reason to assume, however, that those whose sufferings have indeed included actual violence must harbor an even more intense resentment against those who have retailed their sufferings to the world.
The victims of the crimes that "true crime" writers put on display rarely have their opinion about these works solicited. But their situation is worth a moment's thought; for if these works have any social utility, they ought to have it first and foremost for those most directly affected by the crimes in question. And "true crime" continues to be a boom area in American publishing.
On April 9, 1991, a Los Angeles Times reporter married to a New York Times reporter and living in Boston published a piece in the Los Angeles Times Book Review entitled "Making a Killing Off True Crime." She polled an assortment of industry leaders on the growing popularity of this genre, taking as the occasion for her piece the media feeding frenzy that followed the slaying of Carol Stuart by her husband, Charles, and Charles Stuart's suicide after his failed attempt to pin the blame on a fictitious black assailant. Both Elizabeth Mehren and her husband, Fox Butterfield, received book offers by telephone, offers of which Mehren wrote as follows:
"The calls would have been at least a boost for the ego were it not for the fact that just about anyone with even tangential involvement with any Boston-area newspaper or magazine, or anyone who is based in this area and does any reporting at all, seems to have faced the same flood of solicitations. One reporter at the Boston Globe told me that he received 11 inquiries about possible books or movies—and that was just in the first week after Stuart's apparent suicide."
The so-called Son of Sam law has permitted crime victims in New York state to lay claim to their victimizer's royalties, but surely it is of some note that sales of crime stories have risen so high that such a law had to be passed in the first place. When sales were smaller, no one noticed or cared; but sales have been growing.
A public consensus has formed around the thesis that criminals should not profit even in this way from their crimes. There is, however, little in the way of a consensus around the notion that the victims of crime should not have their suffering compounded by popular entertainments built around their trauma. And, by and large, popular entertainment is just what "true crime" is as a genre.
"True crime" writers, no surprise, have a rather more exalted view of what they do. Janet Malcolm, in a sensational series in The New Yorker, accused Joe McGinniss of bad faith in his dealings with convicted murderer Jeffery McDonald, the subject of McGinniss's book Fatal Vision. When the paperback edition of Fatal Vision appeared in 1989, it contained an epilogue in which McGinniss replied to Malcolm, comparing his deceptions to the disguises that a spy behind enemy lines might adopt. Quoting from a letter he had received from a former criminal investigator, McGinniss wrote:
"In a very real sense, whether one is appointed by government, law enforcement bureaus or Life, itself, certain persons are called forward as undercover agents to investigate crucially important crimes. They are required to enter a variety of alien or enemy territories for the purpose of gaining vital information as to the ways and means used by adverse, hostile or criminal forces for injurious or illegal purposes. A disguise, in such matters, of one sort or another, becomes mandatory. In every case such undercover work is literally impossible without inducing trust in those to be investigated: a trust which, by its very nature, must be abused or betrayed in service to a larger purpose of reporting the truth…."
McGinniss may count himself lucky to have such an uncritical supporter. The fact remains that this defense of "true crime" and its deceptions is grotesquely overblown. McGinniss did not write his book to bring a criminal to justice. At no small cost to others, Jeffrey McDonald had already been brought to justice when McGinniss began to write about him and was in fact behind bars when McGinniss conned him. Fatal Vision is not a public service, it is—like most "true crime" offerings—a public entertainment. Like McGinniss, however, most "true crime" authors do not identify themselves as entertainers but as unofficial intelligence agents. Ours is a nasty job, they imply, but someone has to do it. Someone has to stare the horror in the eye so that we may all know what it looks like. Society would be content to live in a fool's paradise were it not for the messages we bring from hell.
Inconveniently, of course, the very fact that these works command an immediate and large audience and that likely "properties" such as the Stuarts and the Mitchells arouse such hot competition suggests that the public already knows what true crime artists would teach them. True crime books, in fact, frequently address cases around which huge and essentially in-the-know audiences have already gathered: It is just this which makes these properties so commercial. More important, many of these works are written with little real regard for the victims. The focus, as in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which all but created the genre, is usually on the criminal. Even when attention shifts to the victims, direct or indirect, it is rarely attention that arrives at a time when they want or need it.
Joe McGinniss's later book, Blind Faith, describes the struggle of three young brothers to face up, during the course of a long trial, to the fact that their father has murdered their mother. How do they feel about having their trauma in all its most intimate aspects made as public as McGinniss made it in his book? After Janet Malcolm attacked McGinniss in her New Yorker article, one of these brothers wrote the Times that McGinniss had conducted himself as a consummate professional and a trusted friend in his dealings with the family. I tried several times to reach this young man by telephone and invite him to give a fuller exposition of his views in print, but he never returned my calls, and I think I know why. The youngest of the three brothers, only twelve when McGinniss was trying and failing to secure his cooperation, has never admitted that his father was guilty. Perhaps the older brother decided, on a moment's reflection, to defer to the younger brother's painfully different feelings about what McGinniss had done.
Detailed and protracted portrayal of a murder and its aftermath almost inevitably renews the pain and the humiliating exposure of those close to the murderer's victims, whatever may be the gain in such portrayals for society as a whole. Endorsements of true crime books and movies are sometimes forthcoming from such collateral victims of the actual crimes, but to quote Susan Cheever again, "If someone doesn't mind if you murder them, that doesn't make it all right to murder them."
"True crime" books, like all books, must be evaluated one at a time, but I confess that my skepticism about them has steadily grown. I find that more often than not they feed rather than check the personal and social pathologies they depict. Obviously, this broad subject matter deserves the best attention we can provide it, but these works excuse themselves from both the difficult challenge of sociological or criminological analysis and the even greater challenge of true art. Other things equal, a vividly detailed, quasi-novelistic, non-analytic, non-judgmental depiction of real people in their real agony may be the more deplorable the more entertaining it becomes. The facts do not speak for themselves. What they do for themselves is divert, and diversion is not what the case requires.
McGinniss is a writer of real talent, who has grown more skillful with each successive book. His Blind Faith makes poignant and compelling reading. And yet I wish he had not written it. We learn nothing of social utility through it, precisely because of the abstentions he enforces in the interests of a smooth narrative surface. I feel of my own warmly emotional initial response to the book rather as I might feel of my response to an illustrated pornographic essay portraying, against their will, people whom I actually knew. That is to say, the subject matter, if handled with sufficient pictographic virtuosity, may induce an almost autonomic response; but at even a single remove, one cannot help thinking about the feelings of real people thus involuntarily exposed.
It has been a progressive disenchantment with true crime and pornography (or what we might call true sex) that has left me, a bit to my own surprise, progressively more tolerant of explicit sex and violence in fiction. The portrayal of violence and sexual abuse in fiction may have several justifications, but one surely is that it obviates the need to talk about violence and sexual abuse in the persons of the actually violated and abused.
Susan Cheever, without denying her own bitter memories and after hearing out her two brothers about their father's work, comes to a similar conclusion after a discussion with her husband.
"'There's nothing wrong with what your father did in those stories,' he says….
"'You don't think a writer should be bound by any rules at all?' I ask….
"'Just what he can get away with,' my husband says….
"My husband has never been negatively written about in fiction—never seen his intimate physical and emotional flaws skewered on the page to create a character. I don't think he'd like it. But as we talk, I realize that I have always agreed with the extreme position he's taking…. I realize as I argue with my husband that I take what my father did with his family as a license for what I do."
I believe that Susan Cheever has taken the correct position, and she is the more persuasive as she takes it because she has so fully earned it. More is involved, however, in "getting away with it" than just getting away with it legally. There is, in other words, a reply lying in wait for the writer in Philip Roth's Deception who says,
"Because you're you doesn't mean I didn't make you up."
The reply is:
"Yes, it does mean you didn't make me up—because you aren't as good a writer as you think."
A strong writer may re-invent characters who already exist, but who can deny that a weak writer, unable to invent, may resort to low-grade, cub-reporter copying, not to speak of exploitation or vendetta? And whether any writer in any given book deserves to make what we may call Roth's Boast is not for the writer to judge. This judgment is, quintessentially, the critic's to make.
For a sense of outrage comparable in tone and intensity to what the Cheever children felt about their role in their father's work, we need look no further—in fact, we should look nowhere else—than to the outrage that writers feel toward their reviewers. "I've ended up feeling as if I was a minor character in someone else's book," Ben Cheever says: me, my whole life, years of time, an entire personality. What the word "minor" conjures up is not so much the experience of misrepresentation as that of diminution. This is just how writers feel when entire novels are reduced to raw material for someone else's occasional essay, which is, of course, just what a book review is. That "skewering" to which Susan Cheever alludes may or may not take place; the shrinkage, however, cannot fail to take place and with it the transformation of one writer's full and finished product into another writer's raw material.
This is, of course, precisely as it should and must be in criticism. What art does to life—shattering it and reconstructing it—just that does criticism do to art. The fact that your novel exists does not mean that I have not invented it. But the analogous and severe conditions also apply. That is, a strong critic may re-invent the novel he criticizes, but a weak critic may certainly fall from that tightwire into a tarpit of distortion, reductionism, condescension and slander. Nothing is forbidden. You just better be good.
All this bears on the current glut of "true crime" pseudo-fiction and actual fiction on criminal themes in at least two ways.
First of all, it needs to be noted that the moral ante, so to call it, is much higher for "true crime" writers than it is for novelists. "True crime" writers may begin with a set of givens that novelists must invent. Still, if a novelist must reach a high pitch of invention before the work into which a reinvented real person has been inserted can pass muster as art, a "true crime" writer must reach some other kind of high pitch—call it what you will—before the re-use of real people under their own names can pass muster as something other than exploitation. There may be a social utility in such writing; but recall that when psychiatrists write up their cases for the professional literature, they change the names. If the authors of "true crime" wanted to spare the victims or collateral victims of violent crime further unwelcome notoriety, rather than building on just that notoriety to build the audience for their books, it would certainly be possible for them to change names as well. There were good reasons behind the convention, now so little observed, of changing the names to protect the innocent. Fiction, which typically changes much more than just the names, gives no hostages here. "True crime" gives many.
Second, it should be noted that similarities between individuals in real life and in fiction are not the only similarities that count. There are also group resemblances. Any woman may feel, as she reads a torture-murder scene in Bret Easton Ellis's "spatter novel" American Psycho, a shudder like the one the young Susan Cheever felt when she read John Cheever's story "The Hartleys." What Ellis merely dreamed, some armed and sadistic reader may dream and do. Fiction, whether "didactic" or not. cannot fail to teach if a given reader chooses to learn. William Butler Yeats wondered: "Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the British shot?" Ellis's early readers have wondered whether he might not send men out to do much worse than fight the British.
American Psycho was published in Spring, 1991, to reviews expressing truly unprecedented contempt and disgust. Simon & Schuster had belatedly canceled its contract to publish the book. Vintage Books, a Random House imprint, picked it up; but in the interim copies of the proofs found their way into circulation, and the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization of Women created headlines by recording excerpts from the book on a call-in number and calling for a boycott of all Random House books. The boycott went nowhere, but the critical rejection of the work was nearly total.
The much-noted violence against women in American Psycho is indeed against women as such, but Patrick Bateman, Ellis's protagonist, also kills an Asian just because he is an Asian, a child because he is a child, and so forth. He despises blacks, the homeless, Jews, homosexuals, and ultimately even himself. What makes the novel an artistic failure is, however, not the misogyny and racism of its protagonist but its lack of a plot, of even a single character other than Patrick Bateman himself, of a workable prose style or an ear for the spoken word, and of any insight into criminal madness. The violence of the novel is not required by the rest of what happens in it: instead, the violence makes up for what the rest lacks. Imagine someone playing "Chopsticks" on the piano for hours at a time: FOODfoodfood FOODfoodfood CLOTHESclothesclothes CLOTHESclothesclothes GABgabgab GABgabgab KILLkillkill KILLkillkill FOODfoodfood FOODfoodfood, etc. Now imagine that at every tenth occurrence of KILLkillkill, a gun is fired three times. You may be as bored as ever, but that gun will keep you from going to sleep.
American Psycho has a texture rather than a plot, but to say that about it is to name something that might join it to certain avant-garde trends in contemporary musical composition and painting. The publisher who canceled Bret Easton Ellis's contract is the same one that has published Mary Higgins Clark's Loves Music, Loves to Dance. It may be that Ellis's offense was not the offending scenes alone but their conjunction with presumptively serious literary ambitions, ambitions beyond anything to which the smoothly commercial Mary Higgins Clark seems to aspire. The editor who came to Ellis's rescue was Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., perhaps the most hallowed imprint in American publishing. I may be wrong, but I doubt that Mehta would have rescued Clark.
And despite its crippling flaws, American Psycho has a few dazzling moments. There is a rare, if bizarre, talent at work, first of all, in the book's notorious mutilation scenes themselves. They leave one physically nauseated: their effect is like what the effect of first surgery is said to be on beginning medical students: it takes talent to duplicate that effect. But there is a similarly rare talent on display in at least one or two other scenes. One of these is an almost Proustian tour de force presenting the astounding array of products that late-twentieth-century America can mobilize for the narcissism of a wealthy and pretty young man at his three-hour morning toilette. If Tom Wolfe was born to shop, Bret Easton Ellis was cosmically predestined to shop. An abuser of various substances, Bateman owes his deepest narcosis to material abundance itself. The worst of his atrocities does not awaken him from it, nor does it awaken his friends. When he tries to confess, or at least mention, his pathology to them, they literally cannot hear him through the din of plenty.
These few moments are not enough to save the novel; but to have recourse to the artistic failure of American Psycho is to duck the moral question. Granted that this novel is such a misbegotten object that no allowance should be made for its purported offenses against taste and morality, can we imagine any novel artistically, intellectually strong enough to justify a scene like the following:
I start by skinning Torri a little, making incisions with a steak knife and ripping bits of flesh from her legs and stomach while she screams in vain, begging for mercy in a high thin voice, and I'm hoping that she realizes her punishment will end up being relatively light compared to what I've planned for the other one. I keep spraying Torri with Mace and then I try to cut off her fingers with nail scissors and finally I pour acid onto her belly and genitals, but none of this comes close to killing her, so I resort to stabbing her in the throat and eventually the blade of the knife breaks off in what's left of her neck, stuck on bone and I stop. While Tiffany watches, finally I saw the entire head off—torrents of blood splash against the walls, even the ceiling—and holding the head up, like a prize, I take my cock, purple with stiffness, and lowering Torri's head to my lap I push it into her bloodied mouth and start fucking it, until I come, exploding into it. Afterwards I'm so hard I can even walk around the blood-soaked room, carrying the head, which feels warm and weightless, on my dick. This is amusing for a while but I need to rest so I remove the head, placing it in Paul's oak and teak armoire, and then I'm sitting in a chair, naked, covered with blood, watching HBO on Owen's TV, drinking a Corona, complaining out loud, wondering why Owen doesn't have Cinemax.
Is it possible that someone, somewhere, reading a passage like that one, may be led to do what Ellis merely imagines? It is indeed possible; and, notably enough, Ellis presents Patrick Bateman as obsessively interested in the stories of actual serial killers, especially Ted Bundy. It is as if Ellis were building into his own book a reminder of what might be the extrinsic, public-safety argument against its publication (though it may also be significant that what Bateman follows is "true crime" and not fiction). Given that possibility, is it nonetheless possible to imagine a novel that, morally and artistically, could earn the right to include such a scene?
I believe that the answer to that question is Yes. In High Risk: An Anthology of Forbidden Writings (New York: Plume, 1991: edited by Amy Scholder & Ira Silverberg), one of the contributors recalls the first pornography he ever produced. It was a little short story he wrote on a ruled pad while sitting on his family's front porch. He left it, unfinished, while he went to get a drink in the kitchen. When he returned, his grandmother rebuked him: "How dare you even think these things!"
If torture as imagined by a novelist and represented on the page is nothing more than the vicarious experience of being a torturer or, worse, a prelude to actual torture, then it is the product of a diseased or abused imagination. But "thinking these things" may have worthier purposes than those, and thinking can never dispense with imagining. Given the right context, I, for one, think that even such a scene—even given the mentioned risks—could indeed be justified.
One of the artistic shortcomings of American Psycho, of course, is that it refuses to make do with just one such scene. Bret Easton Ellis may perhaps regret that the atrocity descriptions in his book, which scarcely constitute a sixth of it, have so monopolized critical discussion of the book. But the fault is in the book far more than in the criticism. Extraordinary violence has just that effect: Its noise and horror tend to block out everything else. I once heard Isaac Bashevis Singer comment on the effect of explicit sexual description. He had nothing against such writing, he said, but he rarely attempted it because the risk was so great that readers would be distracted from everything else he might be trying to tell them.
A single such scene, even a single such incident conveyed by other means than blow-by-blow description (no one's description deserves the adjective blow-by-blow more than Ellis's), can carry a great charge of meaning. Such is the case in Paul Theroux's recent novel, Chicago Loop. Theroux's protagonist, like Ellis's, is a psychotic killer of a particularly grisly sort: He kills a woman by literally biting through the tendons in her neck. This killer is also, potentially, a serial killer. He has other murders obsessively on his mind. But just one actual murder—and that one conveyed in a far more artful way than by step-by-step, quasisurgical description—is as much as Theroux requires for the deeply disturbing psychological profile he proceeds to draw. Like Patrick Bateman, Theroux's Parker Jagoda is a wealthy, obsessive businessman, flirting with homosexuality, incapable of responding sexually to the principal woman in his life and toying, oddly, with the husks of political liberalism. But Parker Jagoda, driven mad by remorse and revulsion, descends to transvestism, adopting the name and seeking to repeat the experience of the woman he murdered. This quest, this struggle at the heart of the novel, gives it structure and provides it suspense. American Psycho, largely without structure and entirely without suspense, is burdened with perhaps twenty slayings. No wonder readers have reacted as they have.
Again, however, I do not mean to duck the moral question by moving to the artistic one. If fiction is to exist at all, novelists must have the freedom to fail, and publishers must have the right to make mistakes. Speaking less as a critic than as a citizen concerned about the violence of American society, I want novelists to enjoy the greatest latitude in imagining violence because, as it seems to me, the risks are smaller in that medium than in any other and, without running some risks, we cannot hope to achieve any understanding.
It may be, as noted, that someone could be incited to violence by his or her reading of American Psycho. But consider how much greater the potential harm would be if American Psycho were a "true crime" pseudonovel and its ghastly descriptions had been put together from police reports and photographs. (Such photographs are, by the way, a familiar tool of the "true crime" trade.) The insult to the memory of the victims and the renewal of the mental trauma in the survivors would represent certain, actual harm far greater than the potential harm of criminal imitation.
Fiction remains, I believe, a uniquely powerful and—particularly as measured against its power—a uniquely safe medium for the representation of criminally violent behavior. We tend to think of drama and, especially, of the cinema of gory special effects as more powerful than mere words on a page, but I will go so far as to say that the more horrendous the subject matter, the further fiction surpasses cinema or drama as a vehicle for it.
A scene like the one quoted earlier could only be presented on a stage by a departure from drama-as-usual. Most likely, in today's dramaturgy, it would be achieved by some kind of mime and would require a more than usually active exercise of imagination on the part of the audience. It could not possibly be as detailed and literal as it is on the printed page.
On the screen, it could be done by special effects; but the closer the enactment came to reality—with real power drills, real chain saws, real mace, real acid, etc.—the greater would be the risk to the actors. Stuntmen and stuntwomen do sometimes suffer injury and even death. In any event, no matter how perfect the illusion, there would be an inevitable break in every viewer's perception of the action. When the actor playing Patrick was talking to the actor playing Torri, he would produce real words with his real lungs, throat, and mouth; and she would hear them with her real ears. But when he walked around the room with her severed head impaled on his erect penis, whatever our eyes saw, our minds would know that it was not really her head or his penis. A perceptual discontinuity of this sort is simply unavoidable.
The involvement of real people in the dramatic or cinematic presentation of imagined people thus imposes a surprisingly low ceiling on what a dramatist or film-maker may enact of the violence he has imagined. We are accustomed to tolerate pornography as the staging or filming of real rather than simulated sex acts, but real rather than simulated torture and murder?
Here we draw the line. The techniques of stage and screen must change at this point, while, very notably, the techniques of fiction need not. Not only are the techniques that Bret Easton Ellis uses to convey Patrick Bateman's non-criminal activities the same as the ones he uses to convey his criminal activities, those techniques are the same ones he would use if these were the crimes of an actual person and Ellis were reporting them. I mean simply to say—though I insist that the point is a crucial one—that in every case the sole technique is words on a page.
There is thus something uniquely undiminished about fictional violence: It seems, on the page, far more like real violence than theatrical violence seems like real violence on the stage or—given the perceptual break and despite the pictorial vividness—even filmed violence seems like real violence on the screen. If one endorses in principle the thesis that the imagination and representation of violence may be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem of actual, widespread social violence in this country, then it is precisely in fiction that such representation should be welcomed, for it is there that the representation can go furthest with least risk—albeit not without some risk—to any actual person.
Within the ominously large American popular literature of violence, accordingly, works like (but better than) American Psycho deserve greater attention, in principle, than works like Blind Faith. The protection of the innocent aside, the best reporter cannot report what anyone is thinking in the silence and privacy of his or her own mind. Novelists can indeed do that; and when the mind being imagined and entered is a criminal mind, a novelist may attain what no crime reporter, certainly none who sticks to the truth, can attain.
Something in me, I confess, recoils at the parade of talented novelists reaching the conclusion, one after another, that to write at all these days a novelist must write about the most violent and hideous kinds of crime: Paul Theroux, Peter Mathiessen, Don De Lillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Denis Johnson … the list is long. Bill Gray, the writer character in De Lillo's Mao II says of terrorists: "The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous." There is a mawkish machismo in the notion that to be successful a writer must be dangerous, and Bill Gray is not without his real-life analogues.
But if crime novelists need not be feared as dangerous dudes, they may nonetheless be honored for taking up a genuinely difficult assignment. There is indeed a nasty job here that by no means everyone is ready to do. The writers I have just named can, when they want to, go toe-to-toe with Stephen King or Bret Easton Ellis both in explicit, dripping gore and in the more elusive mood of paranoia and horror. What sets them apart both from the commercial giants of fictional violence and from the merchants of "true crime" is psychological depth. Putting on—living in—the mind of a bloodthirsty killer cannot be either easy or especially enjoyable for a normally humane man or woman.
"True crime" writers are barred from the further reaches of this exercise by the nature of their genre. No contractual release, no set of interviews, however searching, no inference from past actions and words can make the reconstructed interior monologue of a criminal anything other than a doomed exercise of hubris. When the writer begins writing the subject's thoughts, either the writer becomes a novelist and forgoes the thrill factor and market boost of true crime's truth, or he fails. You-as-you and you-as-I-have-invented-you cannot co-exist under the same name in the same book. They are not the same person.
It is, finally, because the interiority of another person cannot be directly known that it must be invented. Invention is our only form of access, and it is the novelist's privilege. Few novelists, unfortunately, are really up to that task when the interiority to be invented is of a criminal character. Most novelists aren't criminals and don't really know what criminals are like. "Write what you know" is the first rule of fiction, and most novelists don't know crime. What they tend to know, obviously enough, is literature. A policeman-turned-novelist like Joseph Wambaugh knows more than most, but even he knows policemen better than he knows criminals. The challenge is massive and built in. Novelists who overcome it deserve very serious attention indeed.
Writers who simply linger over the lurid exterior of crime, by contrast, whether "true crime" writers or novelists, do not deserve serious attention at all; and some of them should almost certainly be seen as symptoms of some kind of national obsession. Los Angeles, in an average year, loses proportionately more of its population to murder than Belfast lost in the very worst year, 1972, of its political violence. More than a little American fiction simply gapes at this carnage, and the same goes for most "true crime." One need not draw a specifically cause-and-effect connection to postulate some connection between these words and these deeds. Surely, in other words it cannot be entirely a coincidence that a country as violent and dangerous as ours favors the popular entertainments that we favor. Safer countries do indeed seem to have gentler literatures. If "true crime" ever had a message to deliver, we have all long since received it.
Lingering critically over the lingerers over crime-as-spectacle serves little purpose. Much crime fiction and perhaps most "true crime" nonfiction is so entirely without an agenda that there is little to discuss: There is only a questionable entertainment to promote. On the other hand, those few novels that take up the personal and social pathologies behind American crime in depth are probably the most serious fiction now being written; and fiction, as argued earlier, is the medium of choice in this area. The best novelists may rarely find it necessary to "go as far" as Bret Easton Ellis goes in American Psycho simply because they will not find his literalist direction the right one. But if and when they do, the risk will be worth the potential gain. Novelists represent the national imagination at its most powerful, and this country is dying from a lack of imagination about its own bloody behavior.
Jane Caputi (essay date Winter 1993)
SOURCE: "American Psychos: The Serial Killer in Contemporary Fiction," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 16, Winter, 1993, pp. 101-12.
[In the following essay, which won the Kathleen Gregory Klein Award in 1992 for best unpublished work of feminist criticism, Caputi remarks on the depiction of serial killers in contemporary literature, focusing on such themes as feminism, ecocide, and the place of serial killers in apocalyptic narratives.]
[The Silence of the Lambs is] no more than escapist entertainment, brilliantly made.
—Caryn James, New York Times (10 March 1991)
[Jeffrey Dahmer] was a quiet man who worked in a chocolate factory. But at home in apartment 213 a real-life Silence of the Lambs was unfolding.
—cover blurb, People Weekly (12 August 1991)
Despite the reigning cliché, fiction about serial killers constitutes anything but "escapist entertainment." First of all, these texts frequently mirror actual crimes, suggesting that the border between representation and reality is more porous than conventional thought allows. Thomas Harris's 1981 Red Dragon anticipated the 1985 crimes of the "Night Stalker," just as his The Silence of the Lambs uncannily mirrored Jeffrey Dahmer's atrocities. Second, what are we allegedly escaping when we fall into these narratives? Are women eluding our fears of random, or not so random, sexual violence? Are any of us evading thoughts of chemical contamination, economic depression, the devastation of the rainforests, the imminent decline of the American empire, nuclear waste, nuclear war or fears of the end of the world? Hardly. Quiet as it's kept, serial killer fiction is, as the New York Times noted in April 1991, "all the rage" because it allows us not to escape, but to face and sometimes even to befriend these interconnected modern terrors.
Elsewhere I have argued that the contemporary era is an "age of sex crime," marked by an increasing rate of serial sex murder and the ascendancy of the serial killer to mythic/heroic status (The Age of Sex Crime ; ["The New Founding Fathers: The Lore and Lure of the Serial Killer," Journal of American Culture (1990)]). The founding father of the age is the unknown British killer, "Jack the Ripper," who murdered and mutilated five prostitutes in London 1888. The Ripper's crimes were not immediately recognized as a series of "sex crimes" because he did not rape his victims. Nevertheless, within a few years (with the theoretical aid of both Freud and Krafft-Ebing), the assaulting weapon was understood as a phallus and the murder and mutilation of a female body were comprehended to be the "equivalents of the sexual act." Subsequently, patriarchal culture has enshrined "Jack the Ripper" as a mythic hero; he commonly appears as an immortal figure in literature, film, television, jokes and other cultural products. Such mythicization terrorizes women, empowers and inspires men, even to the point where some choose to emulate him, and participates in a cultural propagation of frequently lethal misogyny. The unprecedented pattern laid down during the Ripper's original siege now is enacted with some regularity in the United States: the single, territorial and sensationally nicknamed killer; socially powerless and scapegoated victims; a signature style of murder or mutilation; intense media involvement; and an accompanying incidence of imitation or "copycat" killings. Ripper-type killers include: the "Boston Strangler," the "Son of Sam," the "Hillside Strangler" and the "Green River Killer," to name only a few. Moreover, new branches of serial murder practice continue to be refined, such as the housebound killer (John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer) or the traveling "killer on the road" (Henry Lee Lucas or Ted Bundy).
In 1984, Justice Department official Robert O. Heck warned Americans that we were in the grip of an "epidemic":
We all talk about Jack the Ripper; he killed five people (sic). We all talk about the "Boston Strangler" who killed 13, and maybe "Son of Sam," who killed six. But we've got people (sic) out there now killing 20 and 30 people and more, and some of them just don't kill. They torture their victims in terrible ways and mutilate them before they kill them. Something's going on out there. It's an epidemic.
Although Heck's statement is superficially correct, his language works to obscure what actually is going on out there, for the "people" who torture, kill and mutilate in this way are virtually all men, while their victims are predominantly females, and to a lesser extent younger men. As these hierarchical lines indicate, these are crimes of sexually political import, murders rooted in a system of male supremacy in the same way that lynching is based in white supremacy. Moreover, whether the victims are female or male, when murder itself becomes a sexual act, this is the paradigmatic expression of a belief system that has divided humanity into two erotically charged and unequal gender classes, thereby constructing sex itself as a form of masculine domination and defeat of the feminine, even when the feminine is embodied by males.
A surge in serial murder is recognized by criminologists to have begun in the 1950s and has become a characteristic phenomenon of the late twentieth century in the United States. Correspondingly, the mythic serial killer—the preternatural, enigmatic, eternal genius—has become an ever more common figure in film and fiction. My previous study of 1970s male-authored serial killer literature analyzed the ways that these narratives reiterated and refined the mythos of the serial killer and legitimated misogyny and femicide. Here, I will address three related themes as they occur in several key works from the 1980s: 1) the role of feminism—in the text itself or as ideological context for reception of the work, 2) serial murder's relationship to ecocide, that is normal, civilized depredations against the Earth, and 3) the serial killer as a central figure in a confluence of apocalyptic narratives, a glaring sign of the (end) times of the world as we know it. Finally, I will explore the themes and implications of several recent works featuring women who, avenging sexual abuse, commit murder against men.
On December 6, 1989, at the University of Montreal, 25-year-old Marc Lépine, dressed for combat and heavily armed, rushed the college of engineering. In one classroom, he separated the women from the men, ordered the men out, and shouting "You're all fucking feminists" opened fire on the women. During a half-hour rampage, he killed 14 young women, wounded nine other women and four men, then turned his gun on himself. Lépine resented women's advancement in a traditionally male profession and blamed women for "ruining his life"; his suicide note included a hit list of prominent Canadian feminists. As I read of this atrocity, I wondered if Columbia University English professor George Stade was satisfied with the news. His 1979 novel, Confessions of a Lady-Killer, a work that Mark Schechner in the New York Times described as "a study of feminism from the point of view of Jack the Ripper," blatantly celebrates one man's deliberate targeting of feminists as the victims of a proudly anti-feminist serial killer. Its protagonist introduces himself at the outset: "My name is Victor Grant. I am the hero or villain of the narrative to follow, depending on whether you are a feminist or a human being." Denying humanity to one's scapegoats is the classic legitimation for mass murder and that is precisely what Grant has in mind. His wife, Samantha, has left him, run off to work on a feminist magazine and establish her own...
(The entire section is 65996 words.)
David Lodge (review date 11 January 1980)
SOURCE: "From a View to a Death," in The Times Literary Supplement, January 11, 1980, pp. 27-8.
[In the following review, Lodge discusses The Executioner's Song.]
What the American short-story writer Leonard Michaels calls "the condemned prisoner story" (in a book, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, which contains and alludes to several examples of the genre) has exercised a powerful fascination over the modern literary imagination. This is not surprising. Capital punishment, and the ritual associated with it, dramatize the inevitability and finality of personal death with a stark intensity that...
(The entire section is 14654 words.)
William K. Beaver (essay date September 1990)
SOURCE: "Writing True-Life Crime," in The Writer, Vol. 103, September, 1990, pp. 17-19.
[In the essay below, Beaver discusses how to write a successful true crime article.]
The true-life crime genre originated in the late 19th century and has grown in popularity ever since. After nearly forty true-life detective magazines were born and died, modern magazine and book publishers discovered that a solid audience exists for the true-life crime story. Books like The Preppie Murder or The Stranger Beside Me consistently find their way to the bestseller lists.
(The entire section is 4581 words.)
Boyer, Allen D. "The Trials of Dr. Sheppard." New York Times Book Review (8 October 1995): 26.
Reviews Mockery of Justice.
Huddleston, Eugene L. "Literary Nonfiction: Extending Its Definition." Midwest Quarterly 33 (Spring 1992): 340-56.
Discusses the nonfiction novel as a genre and comments on the legal problems faced by nonfiction writers.
Mortimer, Penelope. "Lusting after Ghosts." New Statesman (23 November 1979): 812.
Offers an unfavorable review of Norman Mailer's The...
(The entire section is 110 words.)