Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Culture

Natural Celebrities

Book cover: Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture
Book cover: Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture

David Schmid, an English professor at SUNY-Buffalo, looks at the phenomenon in Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture.  Tracing its dramatic rise to the 1980s, he describes how serial killers have become such iconic figures as to inspire bestselling books and critically acclaimed movies.  He notes that we have a socially-approved narrative about the killers (they're bad), along with a "disavowed" narrative (they're fascinating) that remains beneath social consciousness but contributes to an "unstable combination" and supports the current glamorized status of serial killers in our culture.  Schmid relates this to the media's attempt to "give a face to the faceless predator."  The serial killer case is just made for the media, evident since the nineteenth century, and it's no surprise that they have reached celebrity status.  "The serial killer," he says, "is the exemplary modern celebrity, widely known and famous for being himself."

Carl Panzram
Carl Panzram

Schmid points out that while most celebrities become famous for what they do — acting, playing baseball, getting rich, inventing a popular program — the serial killer becomes famous as much for who he (or she) is. And they know it, and revel in it.  Some will even confess to crimes they did not do in order to up their standing.  Henry Lee Lucas is a good case in point.  They look for authors to turn their pathetic activities into books and movies that make them larger than life and give them stand-out roles in society.  Some hope to get rich, or at least become notorious enough to be kept alive for a while longer to be studied.  In discussing Carl Panzram's letter in 1929 about turning his writings into a book, Schmid states that it suggests a "highly developed awareness of the market of murder-related products."  Panzram actually advises the would-be author to end it with a photo of himself in his grave or the electric chair, because that will "make a hell of a good book."

Yet it's not just about what the killers desire to have happen; their audiences are all too willing to oblige.  "In order to understand why there is such a vibrant market in contemporary America for ...serial murder in particular," says Schmid, "we have to appreciate that the famous serial killer effectively and economically satisfies a double need...the need for representations of death and the need for celebrities."

In other words, Americans yearn for celebrities that are also associated with death imagery.  Given that we're also a culture quite frightened about death, that desire indicates a complex psychological process in play that yields an overall feeling of dread: we're attracted to the very thing that repulses or frightens us.  "By and large the attraction has been disavowed," Schmid points out, "and repulsion has been allowed to construct the image of the serial killer as a monstrous outsider."

That's one theory, anyway.  Accurate or not, there is a vocal segment of society that firmly and consciously disavows this glorification.


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