Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Culture


"We, On Death Row" poster

Around 2000, Benetton decided on a bold move: they would create a $20 million ad campaign, "We, On Death Row."  They hoped to zero in on the barbarity of capital punishment with ads depicting twenty-six convicted killers in their prison clothing, with the emphasis on the idea that they were now the victims.  Campaign mastermind, Oliviero Tosconi, indicated that they were focusing on the issue of capital punishment, because it was "unreligious."  That is, it defied one of the Ten Commandments.

This campaign, featured on billboards and in magazine, provoked a public outcry, from victim's rights groups to civil suits filed by several states for deception to gain access to the prisoners.  An assembly in California demanded a boycott, while Sears, Roebuck & Company halted sales of Benetton products.  This controversy is similar to others in which a commercial enterprise claims its right to make a buck, even if others are offended, while victims and their relatives protest such dehumanizing treatment.

Those who oppose the sale of items from or about murderers say that the profit made is "blood money," and that people ought to be ashamed of enriching themselves off violent crimes.  It re-victimizes the victims and their families.  In fact, sometimes the family members attend the exhibits, purchase the art, and immediately destroy it.  In 1994, protesters gathered in Naperville, Illinois to participate in the burning of 25 of Gacy's paintings.  When Elmer Wayne Henley's work was hung in a Texas gallery in 1998, protesters showed up with signs reading, "Hang Henley, not his art."

  Many people who see such pieces as part of an art exhibit call it tasteless, sensationalistic, obscene, and exploitive.  They say it poisons the memory of the victims.  "What people have found so reprehensible about art produced by serial killers," says Harold Schechter "is not the subject matter itself....  What inspires such widespread disgust is the mere notion that convicted lust killers are allowed to be treated like minor celebrities and enjoy the ego gratification of having their work put on display."

Book Cover: Extreme Killing
Book Cover: Extreme Killing

In Extreme Killing, Fox and Levin indicate that this cultural devotion to killers has a real drawback: "By granting celebrity status to villains, therefore, we may be inadvertently providing young people with a dangerous model for gaining national prominence."  In fact, more than one young killer has indicated that the hope for fame was what inspired him to begin.

Still, we continue to glamorize them, and some celebrities will dip into serial killer culture to sweep those audiences into their own.  Talk show hosts, whose names and faces are known, may look to the popularity of serial murder to find an angle. 


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