Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Culture


On the Friday night before Halloween in 2005, in (appropriately) Salem, Massachusetts, archivist Shane Bugbee offered what he referred to as a symposium on serial killers.  He promised an insightful lecture on what makes serial killers tick, the availability of merchandise like serial killer action figures, an entire museum collection that would feature such things as Ed Gein's truck and tombstone and a rope that Ted Bundy had used in a murder, video footage of serial killers, and "decadent finger food."  The cost was $75 per person, a price that might make anyone think that Bugbee had quite a lot to offer.

Yet Salem Mayor Stanley Usovicz called the show an "outrage," according to the Boston Globe, and said that it represented marketing at its "lowest level."  He thought that it tarnished the city's good reputation.  Co-author of this article, Karen Pepper, attended the event in the interest of reporting it as a manifestation of serial killer culture, and wrote an opinion piece for the Globe.  We excerpt it here:

"Last Friday night I attended an outrage... Even the witches of Salem cried 'Havoc!' and turned up their broomsticks in protest. But as I immediately learned, this advertised installment of Salem's Halloween Festival of the Dead was only outrageous in the way the event's host, high school drop-out and ex-con Shane Bugbee exploited the culture's fascination with serial killers for his own personal gain...

Ed Gein, older (r)
Ed Gein, older (r)

"When I arrived, this is what I saw: a pick-up truck parked out front with a crudely handwritten sign on the passenger's side window declaring it to be the car that serial killer and grave-robber Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) 'hauled the bodies of the dead from their graves.'  This claim was dubious (since Gein had a Ford sedan). It was owned by a plumber from Wisconsin, a self-proclaimed 'Ed Gein expert.' 

"Once we were admitted inside, we snacked on finger foods which the hosts claimed had come from the recipes of serial killer Dorthea Puente (whom he denied was a serial killer). The 'Bizarre Museum of Murderous Murderabilia' consisted of a few black velvet paintings of serial killers done by a friend of Bugbee's, a couple of drawings by serial killers such as Arthur Shawcross and Danny Rolling, alleged fragments from Ed Gein's tombstone, a paltry assortment of serial killer trading cards, and some unremarkable photos of stab wounds. That was it. 

"Although I was disappointed by the sham murderabilia, I was still somewhat hopeful when we were asked to sit and watch the 'grotesque video footage of serial killers.' This proved to be a plug for a new documentary Bugbee was shopping around. He showed footage from Charles Manson's trial, the Heaven's Gate Initiation tapes, home videos from the Columbine shooters, footage of a man torturing a mouse (!), and of two men having sex, with one superficially stabbing the other. I asked Bugbee to identify the stars of the ironic snuff film in which nobody died. He became visibly irritated. "I don't know who the men on the tapes are!" he said. Following the video, he asked if the audience had any questions. Perhaps the most glaring and obvious question, the one that was foremost on all our minds, was: Where were the serial killers?

"As David Schmid tells us in his recent book, Natural Born Celebrities, '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.'  I went in hoping to see an array of merchandise and expertise on a culture that interests me, but what I saw instead was what seemed to me a fraudulent attempt to capitalize on the a subject and setting almost guaranteed to draw a crowd.  For bait-and-switch hucksters such as Bugbee, serial killers will always remain a profitable scam."

Indeed, as long as people are fascinated with murder, there will be a market for items associated with the most notorious cases.  But Buyer, beware.


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