Why America Loves Serial Killers
They give us an alibi for our murderous culture.
I should mention before laying out this theory that I hesitate to return to the subject, because almost anything you write, even about fake serial killers, contributes to the myth. But this Long Island story hits even closer to home than the previous ones. The Jones Beach island sand-pit burial ground that has been the locus of recent victims is just a few miles from the home I grew up in, in Bay Shore, Long Island. My high school friends surfed at Gilgo Beach, where four bodies have been exhumed from the dunes. (Yes, there was surfing on the Guyland, though not by me. Homie don't surf.)
And my family and friends had spent summer weekends on beach blankets getting sunburned and eating fried clams at Jones Beach, just down the road. I'd always thought that the blacktop that traversed the island, Ocean Parkway, had a lonely, bleak beauty. Now I feel a kind of resentment that the stupidity of serial-killer culture has stained the nostalgia-inducing primal scene of my past by making stars out of serial killers, making it seem like a kind of local profession.
More importantly, I think that all the literature, fictional and pseudo-scientific, has not articulated what I believe is the real reason why our culture seems to love serial killers.
So please allow me to introduce you briefly to the fake serial killer who opened my eyes to our longing for real ones. Yes, longing—that's what I've come to believe the Henry Lee Lucas case demonstrates.
Looking back on it, it's hard to believe that Henry, a homeless drifter, not too bright but with rat-like cunning, was able to take in so many, including the vaunted Texas Rangers, and the supposedly highly trained psychologists who quoted Henry's bogus self-analysis as gospel in textbooks, some of which are still in use even after his vast hoax had been exposed.
Henry was no angel; let's be clear about that. Convicted of murdering his mother in Michigan, he took to the road after his release from the state pen there. In the months before his star turn as super serial killer began, he had been living in a converted chicken coop in a weird religious cult called "The House of Prayer" in North Texas. (I'm not making this up.)
Picked up by the local sheriff on suspicion of murder of a young female travelling companion, Henry would later claim he started confessing to multiple murders in order to put an end to what we'd now call "enhanced interrogation" techniques in his holding cell (kept naked in an artificially freezing cell with just a metal bedframe, etc.).
So he started confessing and once he started he didn't stop for years. Not just the murder he was wanted for, but for random unsolved slayings, cases the cops had never been able to close. And once he started confessing he got himself transferred to better quarters, and the more he kept confessing to local unsolved murders the better his conditions got and the further down the line he put his eventual trial conviction and date with the Big Needle on Huntsville's death row. Eventually he got himself a comfortable cell with premium cable TV and unlimited takeout menu selection for grub, so he kept on confessing, and soon the sheriff had become a law-enforcement star because he had a star serial killer cracking cases for him.
The sheriff, one W.F. "Hound Dog" Conway, an ex-Texas Ranger, eventually brought in his fellow rangers and soon Henry blew up big, statewide, nationwide, confessing to multiple, dozens, scores of unsolved murders throughout America. It was amazing, the number of them—usually lone young women whose bodies were found in the culverts beneath interstate exits, identity undetermined, often because they'd been abandoned by their families once they became runaways or sex workers. Nobody wanted them but Henry and Hound Dog, the rangers, the so-called "serial killer psychologists," the superoverrated FBI "serial killer profilers" (another bogus legacy of Demme's Lambs—they almost always get everything wrong or offer the obvious "He's probably an unmarried male who lives alone." Duh!), and their enablers among the psychiatrists who could make a quick buck out of pop-psych serial-killer books.
The rangers were grateful for Henry because he substantially raised their "case closed" percentages, and soon they were going from bringing in lawmen from around the country to whom Henry would confess to unsolved murders to taking Henry around the country like a touring rock star, arriving in towns to "take cases." Meaning gullible or greedy lawmen would show him some corpse photos of some poor hapless murder victims whose bodies nobody wanted and Henry would say, "Yep, I remember doing her" and provide enough vague details to clear the case. Nobody looked too closely into it, as they just liked the way Henry expeditiously closed the books on nagging, unsolved deaths.
Eventually, he got up to claiming he'd killed 300, 400, 500, or 600, until …
The big recantation. Nobody's exactly sure why, although it had something to do with some born-again woman named Sister Clemmie who at first believed and tried to save Henry's soul and then became suspicious—and then a local DA began looking into some of Henry's confessions with a skeptical eye and in a dramatic standoff, Henry finally confessed his confessions were frauds.
What followed was a major blow-up that ended with a six-month-long judicial hearing in El Paso, a Texas State Attorney's investigation, and major embarrassment for the Texas Rangers, the serial killer "experts," and all others who profited from Henry's lies. Eventually, after years of litigation, then-Gov. George Bush was forced to commute the death sentence Henry had gotten for himself, and he eventually died in jail, though not after confessing to me, during my death row visits, his fake confession methodology. He'd developed a con man's skill at getting the cops, all too eager to close a case, to ask him more and more specific questions that Henry could accede to. ("Was she wearing socks, Henry, any memory of orange socks?" "Why, yes, come to think of it," etc.)
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of police on Jones Beach Island by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.