Today, I’m going to talk about something uncomfortable! It’s not politics. As more and more people discover this, it’s about time I come clean to the public about my slightly disturbing if 100% scholarly fascination with people who kill other people. Specifically, people who kill more than a sum total of three or more individuals. I’m talking about serial killers.
I’m not alone. If I was alone, there wouldn’t be countless documentaries, biographies, television shows, thrillers…all based on true crime. There are real life monsters who committed atrocities more terrible than anything you find in fiction and we are positively fascinated by their characters, motivations, modus operandi, and psychological anomalies. If I hadn’t been such an academic klutz in my early years and buckled down in college, I may have pursued criminology, criminal psychology, or forensics. It isn’t enough for me to watch a re-enactment or a movie. In fact, I am oddly enough completely disinterested in slasher films and thrillers. Except for Dexter, but is that really a slasher or a thriller? More like a dark comedy/drama. I think I liked Dexter because it told the story in the first person. The villain is the hero. How Miltonian. That’s what I like. I prefer to get to know the real thing. I want to see interviews. I want to hear what the criminal psychologist has to say about them. I want to read their biographies. I want to read their literature. Their notes, diaries, and journals. I want to read about the details of their crimes, no matter how gruesome. Hoo boy, are some of them positively heinous. Those with a weak stomach can keep reading. I won’t go into the details of horrific murders. That’s not what this post is really about. This is about understanding why we seemingly glorify people who have demonstrated no regard for life, human or animal.
I don’t like using the word “glorify” to describe my interest in serial killers. I’m not worshipping them. I’m not going around and preaching that Charles Manson was right all along. I’m not repeating their crimes. I don’t have a copy of the Unabomber’s Manifesto on a pedestal. To claim that biographies and television specials are a form of glorification is ignoring the most important thing about serial killers. We cannot even begin to catch a killer until we understand them. It’s crucial that we write these biographies and air these specials. We have to get their names out there, even if it means we will inevitably remember the name of a monster for decades to come. There is no way to prevent a killer from killing. What we can do is understand how they think and prevent them from taking more lives than necessary. People will always kill other people. They will maim, torture, and rape. It’s inevitable. It’s history. Human beings are animals. But what if instead of letting thirty people die during an investigation, we catch a serial killer after only five or six murders? What if there’s a pattern? Almost every infamous serial killer has demonstrated an obvious pattern.
Take Ted Bundy, for instance. Everybody knows Ted. He was smart, handsome, and well-to-do. Murdered over thirty women and defiled their bodies in unspeakable ways.
No, he wasn’t some wild-eyed, slack-jawed beast with a chainsaw. He was calm and calculating. He mastered the art of changing his appearance. He committed crimes in multiple jurisdictions. He was frustratingly difficult to catch. Now, we know his entire family history and his motives. Criminologists studied him like they would study a wild animal. We know he went after women. Nothing extraordinary. Most male serial killers go after women. But Ted Bundy had a system. He often faked injuries to subdue his victims and gain their trust. He pursued attractive, college-aged women with long hair parted down the middle. He took advantage of kind-hearted girls. He mutilated corpses and practiced necrophilia, essentially leaving a trail of horrific bread crumbs. Most importantly of all, he had a family history that suggested serious unresolved issues with maternal acceptance. He got away with at least thirty murders that we know of. The real body count could be much higher. We’ll probably never know for sure because he was executed on January 24, 1989. Luckily, he was interviewed so many times before his execution that criminologists probably know Ted Bundy better than Ted Bundy knows himself. That’s important. We have to know them better than they know themselves. That’s the best way to outsmart a killer. To get ahead of them. To anticipate their next move. If a killer can’t grasp what it is that makes “the power of the sickness build within him,” then it’s important that somebody who studies the human mind for a living works it all out for him. It won’t cure Ted Bundy. It’s unlikely anything could have cured Ted Bundy or any other Ted Bundies that follow his example. There is no cure for being completely devoid of human empathy. Could he be rehabilitated? Could he learn to contain his sickness? To take out his perversions in some alternative, healthier, non-murderous way? Could he take up a trade from the security of a federal penitentiary that actually benefits society? Who can and can’t be rehabilitated? Who should and shouldn’t be eligible for parole in fifty years? That’s the real question, isn’t it? How will we know if we try to stifle the learning process? Remember the victims. Honor the victims. They are the ones who truly suffered. Make sure nobody forgets what they went through and how important they were to the people who loved them. But in that process, remember who took their lives. Know them well. You can’t cure, treat, or even detect cancer just by eulogizing the dead.
That being said, a lot of people have asked me the question that anybody with a fascination in anything will eventually be asked: Who’s your favorite serial killer? I always respond with another question. Favorite in what way? The one I find most brilliant? (Zodiac, duh.) The one with the most brutal crimes? (Ugh, probably Bob Berdella.) The creepiest one? (Gacy. The clown thing. Shudder.) It’s a hard question, but not without an answer. I won’t disappoint you or give you the runaround. I want to give an obvious answer like Charles Manson, oh bore. The Godhead of serial killers. You just need to say the word “serial killer” and his wild face comes to mind. Yeah, he was interesting. Interesting in that he never actually killed anyone. No less guilty as far as the scales of justice are concerned, but his hands are virtually free of blood. Now that’s fucking interesting. Still, is he my favorite? Eh. He’s a little conventional.
No, my favorite serial killer is probably Edmund Kemper, perhaps a story for another day. One that always rather interested me, though, is David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz. He’s an interesting hodgepodge of serial killer tendencies and non-tendencies. Low self-esteem, but not unattractive. Taunted police with notes a la Zodiac Killer. Unlike Zodiac, Berkowitz was ultimately caught. He had his own unique symbol—a signature. He terrorized the entire city of New York, but only amounted to a body count of six, although he wounded another seven. Six, or even thirteen, people dead is a tragedy, but hardly a record worth bringing a city like New York to its trembling knees. In 1975, one year before the Berkowitz murders, the homicide count for the city of New York was 1,996. So why did the Berkowitz spree attract so much infamy? Was it because there was a pattern? Was it because they all happened in the same borough? Within the same few blocks? Was it the creepy, threatening letters? Interesting how a pattern will attract attention, isn’t it? I actually find his impersonal methods most interesting. Serial killers typically like to get intimate with their victims. They hunt them, stab them, strangle them, torture them, take mementos, violate their corpses…I’ll stop. These violent methods prolong the experience. It makes the taking of human life that much more savory for someone with that perversion. David Berkowitz did no such thing. He killed with a single 0.44 caliber revolver. He was bad at it. He wounded more people than he killed. It was generally accepted that he went after female victims, but he actually shot at five males and killed one of them. Why, though? He claimed a number of reasons for his murderous rampage, from demonic possession to a general bitterness towards society and feelings of rejection, especially from women. He even claimed that he wished to stop couples from copulating in vehicles to prevent another illegitimate child like him. Still, he never acted out his hatred in anything more than a shooting. He never kidnapped or maimed. He wasn’t a rapist. He tried to stab two women, failed, and never tried it again. He didn’t have the drive to learn how to stab or strangle. To do it again and again until he got good at it. His fear of failure—of getting caught—was much stronger. He just wanted to take their lives as quickly and as impersonally as possible. That was it. Plain and simple. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was proactive lazy. He revised his confession to make it sound like he was the leader of a cult, like Manson. He claimed he killed only three people, while the other killings and the failed attempts were carried out by cult members. He didn’t regret killing. He regretted being bad at it.
So, where is he now? Dead? Executed? Murdered by an inmate? Nay. He’s still in prison. Alive. He’s a born-again Christian now, working for the prison ministry. He counsels troubled minds and assists inmates with special needs. He helps them eat, dress, and bathe. Is it faux? Is he playing nice so they let him out? That would be the obvious suspicion, except that he denied himself parole in 2002 and has repeatedly refused to go to all subsequent parole hearings. He claims he “deserve[s] to be in prison for the rest of [his] life.” Doesn’t seem he wants to be let out at all. Sounds like he knows himself—his illness. He sounds, I daresay, rehabilitated.