Murder! Bodies! Blood!
Many of us take pleasure in things that we’d just as soon not expose to the light of day — large collections of ABBA records, a fondness for Family Ties reruns, perhaps. But my “guilty pleasure” is truly that — I find the stories of serial killers, homicidal maniacs, and the reasons behind their “guilty pleasures” arresting to read. Many people go through a phase of being interested in “true crime” at some point in their lives, but generally move past it, not wanting to dwell too long on the dark side of human nature. Not me.
I think my fascination with the topic started with a viewing of Helter Skelter, starring Steve Railsback as Charles Manson. He was quite good as the lunatic leader of a bunch of losers, but the image that stayed with me all these years was that of the maid running up the driveway of the Tate household screaming “Murder! Bodies! Blood!” after she discovered the hacked bodies of the dead. I immediately read Vincent Bugliosi’s book upon which the movie was based, as well as the far superior The Family by former Fug Ed Sanders. From that point, there was no stopping my obsession. I devoured anything that I could find on the subject, from the great works of Thomas Thompson (Celebrity, Blood And Money, et al) to quickie supermarket exposes on Albert Fish.
The more I read, I discovered that what interested me about the subject was (thankfully) not some vicarious thrill at the suffering of others, but rather the study of just what makes a human mind step outside the common pathway of everyday life and kill — over and over. When reading accounts of Chicago’s John Wayne Gacy, you see a picture of him with Rosalyn Carter, in recognition of his work in the Junior Achievement organization. Smiling and seemingly happy, you’d never know that this same man dressed in a clown suit, called himself “Pogo,” and had scores of bodies buried in his crawlspace. Where does a man (and serial murder is almost exclusively a male pastime) step off the sidewalk of life we call normal and start slaying? My readings taught me about the supposed “serial killer triad” found in the childhoods of mass murderers — wetting the bed at a late age, lighting fires, and torturing small animals. But millions of children do these things and don’t end up like Jeffery Dahmer, who in his teens killed a hitchhiker and kept his head in a box.
As I grew older, I continued to read about this haunting subject, discovering many of the “greats” of the genre, including Jack Olson, Mark Bledsoe, and Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood is as good as this type of book gets, which means it generally scares the crap out of you. I read about such “infamous” killers as Charles Whitman, Ted Bundy, and the abovementioned Albert Fish, a real piece of work who stymied the first attempt to serve his death sentence via the electric chair because of the large amount of pins and needles the sick bastard had stuck under the skin of his crotch — in hopes, he said, of “increasing the sensation.”
Two events in my life caused me to reconsider my addiction to the darker side of human nature. One was the simple fact that I lived in Atlanta during what became known as “The missing and murdered children” time in Atlanta during the late 1970s and early 1980s. While it was evident early on that I was not in danger of becoming a victim, just having it occur in my town (and in areas I knew quite well) was a bit unsettling. But more importantly, I became a father, and somehow holding a kid on your lap while you read tales of murder and mayhem seemed somehow unseemly. I certainly didn’t want to somehow influence my child into growing up to be the next Charlie Starkweather or Henry Lucas.
Even though I still occasionally peruse a “true crime” title now and then, it is no longer with the fervor of my youth, and since becoming a father I can no longer read any book that describes incidents involving children, but I still read and wonder what causes this sort of aberrant behavior. Certainly, a Bundy or an Ed Gein has sociopath written all over them, but many have no concept of right or wrong (or don’t give a damn) and still don’t kill. What pushes these people a few steps further into the planning, stalking, and killing of another human? For that matter, what the hell makes me continue to read this crap? A morbid fascination with the dark side? The seductive lure of pure evil? Or do I just need to something to read as I sit at home at night, using my next-door neighbor’s skull as an ashtray?