Why America Loves Serial Killers
They give us an alibi for our murderous culture.
I'd spent weeks in El Paso reading the transcripts of the hearings and it was so clear that Henry pulling a scam from beginning to end that the question I've wondered about ever since was: Why? Why had he succeeded in fooling so many for so long?
Why is there an unhealthy air of excitement whenever a new serial murderer like the Long Island killer or L.A.'s "Grim Sleeper" turns up? Why is American culture so perversely in love with the idea that there are swarms of serial killers roaming our interstates (and now our interwebs—many of the L.I. victims were solicited by Craigslist, the serial killer of newspapers)? Ever since I saw The Silence of the Lambs, I felt that it and its successors played to, preyed on, some dark impulse in the culture to dramatize the terrorizing of women, but there is more, I think.
What I learned from Henry is that there are real constituencies for serial killers. Cops who get to use one guy to improve their closed-case stats—that's obvious. Then, more touchingly, heartbreakingly, there are the victims' families, some of whom I've talked to, some of whom clung to the belief that Henry wasn't faking it because his confessions gave them that "closure" they so desperately sought. Closure is a modern buzzword much overused, but it reflects an ancient human need when a child is killed, one that dates back to the closure at the end of the Homer's Iliad when the brokenhearted King Priam begs for the return of the body of his slain hero son, Hector—so that he can begin to put an end to his deeply lacerating mourning.
And then there are those pseudo-scientific charlatans, the "serial killer profilers" made heroes by The Silence of the Lambs and the bullshit best-sellers they write who claim to have fathomed the source of human evil in bromides like "low self-esteem" and "abusive family situations." The profilers get to be heroes because they convince Americans that however much evil is out there, however many serial killers, these specters are not unfathomable. Rather, they are explicable, capable of capture both physically and psychologically by these brilliant knights in scientific armor who can put the killers under the microscope and deliver us from evil.
And, finally, there is American culture itself. Serial killers are an alibi for our nation. Think about it. What would you rather believe? That there's a single lone sicko like Henry killing 500 hapless victims? Or that there are 500 murderers still at large (by virtue of Henry "taking" their cases) who have already gotten away with one murder and may be cruising into your town right now looking for another?
What paints a more disturbing picture of American culture? The one serial killer driven by inner demons or the 500 murderers driven by a sick and murderous culture that produces 500? And yet the latter, alas, seems closer to the truth. A sick and murderous culture that, I'd argue, comes full circle by creating actual serial killers, killers who have taken as their role models the fake ones on our screens. America has made serial killing a self-replicating phenomenon.
Don't turn away: Serial killers are America's alibi, and every time you pay your 12 bucks for another serial-killer movie or put one on your Netflix queue, you're feeding the beast.
You're an accomplice. In making serial killers giggly, kitschy chic, we're all accomplices.
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.