Online shopping is all the rage these days and the murderabilia industry in particular, which specializes in selling serial killer artifacts, is booming. At Spectre Studios, sculptor David Johnson sells flexible plastic action figures of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy and plans to produce a figure of Jack the Ripper in the future. Although some might think that making action figures of serial killers is tasteless, Johnson hastens to assure the potential consumer that he does have standards: “I wouldn’t do Osama bin Laden . . . I have some personal qualms about that” (Robinson). At Serial Killer Central, you can buy a range of items made by serial killers themselves, including paintings and drawings by Angelo Buono (one of the “Hillside Stranglers”) and Henry Lee Lucas. For the more discerning consumer, Supernaught.com charges a mere $300 for a brick from Dahmer’s apartment building, while a lock of Charles Manson’s hair is a real bargain at $995, shipping and handling not included.
The sale of murderabilia is just a small part of the huge serial killer industry that has become a defining feature of American popular culture over the last twenty-five years. This industry is, in turn, a prime example of what Mark Seltzer has described as “wound culture,” consisting of a “public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound” (1). According to Seltzer, the serial killer is “one of the superstars of our wound culture” (2) and his claim is confirmed by the constant stream of movies, books, magazines, television shows, websites, t-shirts, and a tsunami of ephemera that has given the figure of the serial murderer an unparalleled degree of visibility and fame in the contemporary American public sphere. In a culture defined by celebrity, serial killers like Bundy, Dahmer and Gacy are the biggest stars of all, instantly recognized by the vast majority of Americans.
Not surprisingly, murderabilia has been the focus of a sustained critique by the (usually self-appointed) guardians of ‘decency’ in American culture. On January 2, 2003 The John Walsh Show, the daytime television vehicle of the long-time host of America’s Most Wanted, featured an “inside look at the world of ‘murderabilia,’ which involves the sale of artwork, personal effects and letters from well-known killers” (The John Walsh Show Website). Featured guests included Andy Kahan, Director of the Mayor’s Crime Victim Assistance Office in Houston, Texas; ‘Thomas,’ who was horrified to find hair samples from “The Railroad Killer,” the individual who killed his mother, for sale on the Internet; Elmer Wayne Henley, a serial killer who sells his artwork to collectors; Joe, who runs “Serial Killer Central” and sells murderabilia from a wide range of killers, and Harold Schechter, a professor of English at Queens College, CUNY. Despite the program’s stated intention to “look at both sides of the issue,” the show was little more than a jeremiad against the murderabilia industry, with the majority of airtime being given to Andy Kahan and to the relatives of crime victims.
The program’s bias was not lost on many of those who visited Joe’s Serial Killer Central site and left messages on the message board on the day The John Walsh Show aired. There were some visitors who shared Walsh’s perspective. A message from “firstname.lastname@example.org,” for example, stated that “you will rot in hell with these killers,” while “Smithpi@hotmail.com” had a more elaborate critique: “You should pull your site off the net. I just watched the John Walsh show and your [sic] a fucking idiot. I hope your [sic] never a victim, because if you do [sic] then you would understand what all those people were trying to tell you. You [sic] a dumb shit.” Most visitors, however, sympathized with the way Joe had been treated on the show: “I as well [sic] saw you on the John Walsh show, you should [sic] a lot of courage going on such a one sided show, and it was shit that they wouldnt [sic] let you talk, I would have walked off.” But whether the comments were positive or negative, one thing was clear: The John Walsh Show had created a great deal of interest in the Serial Killer Central site. As one of the messages put it, “I think that anything [sic] else he [John Walsh] has put a spark in everyones [sic] curiousity [sic] . . . I have noticed that you have more hits on your page today than any others [sic].” Apparently, even the most explicit rejection and condemnation of serial killer celebrity finds itself implicated in (and perhaps even unwittingly encouraging the growth of) that celebrity.
John Walsh’s attack on the murderabilia industry was the latest skirmish in a campaign that has been growing steadily since the late 1990s. One of the campaign’s initial targets was the internet trading site eBay, which was criticized for allowing serial killer-related products to be sold online. In support of such criticism, conservative victims’ rights and pro-death penalty organizations like “Justice For All” organized online petitions against eBay. In November 2000, Business Week Online featured an interview with Andy Kahan in which he argued that the online sale of murderabilia should be suppressed: “The Internet just opens it all up to millions and millions more potential buyers and gives easy access to children. And it sends a negative message to society. What does it say about us? We continue to glorify killers and continue to put them in the mainstream public. That’s not right” (Business Week). Eventually bowing to public pressure, eBay decided to ban the sale of murderabilia items in May 2001, forcing the industry underground, where it continues to be pursued by the likes of John Walsh.
Apart from highlighting how far the celebrity culture around serial killers has developed (so that one can now purchase the nail clippings and hair of some killers, as if they are religious icons), focusing on the ongoing debate around the ethics of murderabilia also emphasizes how difficult it is to draw a neat line between those who condemn and those who participate in that culture. Quite apart from the way in which John Walsh’s censoriousness brought more visitors to the Serial Killer Central site, one could also argue that few individuals have done more to disseminate information about violent crime in general and serial murder in particular to mainstream America than John Walsh. Of course, this information is presented in the unimpeachably moral context of fighting crime, but controversial features of America’s Most Wanted, such as the dramatic recreations of crime, pander to the same prurient public interest in crime that the program simultaneously condemns. An ABCNews.Com article on murderabilia inadvertently highlights the difficulty of distinguishing a legitimate from an illegitimate interest in serial murder by quoting Rick Staton, one of the biggest collectors and dealers of murderabilia in the United States, who emphasizes that the people he sells to are not “ghouls and creeps [who] crawl out of the woodwork”, but rather “pretty much your average Joe Blow.” Even his family, Staton goes on to say, who profess to be disgusted by what he does, act very differently in practice: “The minute they step into this room, they are glued to everything in here and they are asking questions and they are genuinely intrigued by it . . . So it makes me wonder: Am I the one who is so abnormal, or am I pretty normal?” (ABCNews.Com).
To answer Staton’s question, we need to go back to 1944, when sociologist Leo Lowenthal published an essay entitled “Biographies in Popular Magazines,” an essay he later reprinted as a chapter in his 1961 book, Literature, Popular Culture And Society, under a new title: “The Triumph of Mass Idols.” Lowenthal argues that biographies in popular magazines underwent a striking change between 1901 and 1941, a change that signals the emergence of a new social type. According to Lowenthal, the earlier biographies indicate that American society’s heroes at the time were “idols of production” in that “they stem from the productive life, from industry, business, and natural sciences. There is not a single hero from the world of sports and the few artists and entertainers either do not belong to the sphere of cheap or mass entertainment or represent a serious attitude toward their art” (112-3). Sampling biographies in magazines from 1941, however, Lowenthal reaches a very different conclusion: “We called the heroes of the past ‘idols of production’: we feel entitled to call the present-day magazine heroes ‘idols of consumption’” (115). Unlike the businessmen, industrialists and scientists who dominated the earlier sample, almost every one of 1941’s heroes “is directly, or indirectly, related to the sphere of leisure time: either he does not belong to vocations which serve society’s basic needs (e.g., the worlds of entertainment and sport), or he amounts, more or less, to a caricature of a socially productive agent” (115).
Lowenthal leaves his reader in no doubt that he sees the change from “idols of production” to “idols of consumption” as a serious decline: “If a student in some very distant future should use popular magazines of 1941 as a source of information as to what figures the American public looked to in the first stages of the greatest crisis since the birth of the Union, he would come to a grotesque result . . . the idols of the masses are not, as they were in the past, the leading names in the battle of production, but the headliners of the movies, the ball parks, and the night clubs” (116). With Lowenthal in mind, when one considers the fact that the serial killer is generally seen, in Richard Tithecott’s words, as “deserving of eternal fame, of media attention on a massive scale, of groupies” (144), one is tempted to describe the advent of celebrity serial killers as a further decline in the condition of American culture’s “mass idols.” The serial killer’s relationship to consumption, however, is too complex to allow for such a hasty judgment, as the murderabilia industry indicates.
Throughout the edition of The John Walsh Show that attacked murderabilia, Walsh showed clips of Collectors, a recent documentary about the industry. Collectors is distributed by a small company named Abject Films and on their website the film’s director, Julian P. Hobbs, discusses some of the multiple connections between serial killing and consumerism. Hobbs points out that the serial killer is connected with consumerism in the most basic sense that he has become a commodity, “a merchandising phenomenon that rivals Mickey Mouse. From movies to television, books to on-line, serial killers are packaged and consumed en-masse” (Abject Films). But as Hobbs goes on to argue, serial killers themselves can be seen as consumers, making any representations of them implicated in the same consumerist logic: “Serial killers come into being by fetishizing and collecting artifacts – usually body parts – in turn, the dedicated collector gathers scraps connected with the actual events and so, too, a documentary a collection of images” (Abject Films). Along with Rick Staton, Hobbs implies that no one can avoid being involved with consumerism in relation to serial murder, even if one’s reasons for getting involved are high-minded.
For example, when Jeffrey Dahmer was murdered in prison in 1994, the families of his victims were delighted but his death also presented them with something of a problem. Throughout the short time Dahmer was in prison, there had been persistent rumors that he was in negotiations with both publishers and movie studios about selling his story. If such a deal had ever been struck, legal restrictions would have prevented Dahmer from receiving any of the money; instead, it would have been distributed among his victims’ families. Dahmer’s murder obviously ended this possibility, so the families explored another option: going into the murderabilia business by auctioning off Dahmer’s property, including such banal items as his toothbrush, but also many items he had used in commission of the murders, such as a saw, a hammer, the 55-gallon vat he used to decompose the bodies, and the refrigerator where he stored the hearts of his victims. Although the families’ motives for suggesting this auction may have been noble, they could not avoid participating in what Mark Pizzato has described as “the prior fetishization of such props and the consumption of [Dahmer’s] cannibal drama by a mass audience” (91). When the logic of consumerism dominates, is anyone truly innocent, or are there just varying degrees of guilt, of implication?
The reason why it is impossible to separate neatly ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ expressions of interest in famous serial killers is the same reason why the murderabilia industry is booming; in the words of a 1994 National Examiner headline: “Serial Killers Are as American as Apple Pie.” Christopher Sharrett has suggested that: “Perhaps the fetish status of the criminal psychopath . . . is about recognizing the serial killer/mass murderer not as social rebel or folk hero . . . but as the most genuine representative of American life” (13). The enormous resistance to recognizing the representativeness of serial killers in American culture is fundamental to the appeal of fetishizing serial killers and their artifacts. As Sigmund Freud has explained, the act of disavowal that accompanies the formation of a fetish allows a perception (in this case, the Americanness of serial killers) to persist in a different form rather than being simply repressed (352-3). Consequently, just like the sexual fetishists discussed by Freud, although we may recognize our interest in serial killers “as an abnormality, it is seldom felt by [us] as a symptom of an ailment accompanied by suffering” (351). On the contrary, we are usually, in Freud’s words, “quite satisfied” (351) with our interest in serial killers precisely because we have turned them into celebrities. It is our complicated relationship with celebrities, affective as well as intellectual, composed of equal parts admiration and resentment, envy and contempt, that provides us with a lexicon through which we can manage our appalled and appalling fascination with the serial killer, contemporary American culture’s ultimate star.