Why America loves serial killers: They give us an alibi for our murderous culture.

Scrutinizing culture.
April 28 2011 3:26 PM

Why America Loves Serial Killers

They give us an alibi for our murderous culture.

Police investigate on Jones Beach Island. Click image to expand.
Police investigate on Jones Beach Island 

Long Island again. Serial killer(s) again. The media have—a little too overeagerly—been conjuring up the specter of "the Long Island serial killer," even though those five words compress at least two unproven assumptions: There's no proof that the remains of up to 10 victims (so far) found on the sandy barrier island that parallels Long Island's South Shore were killed by a Long Islander, or even by a single individual. Or that they were killed on Long Island. For all we know, they were killed by a Yale comp lit professor, who deconstructed them in Connecticut and carried them to Long Island where he "unpacked" them from the trunk of his Prius.

But even if the perp or perps came from elsewhere, at least one of the presumed murdered prostitutes, Amber Lynn Costello, operated out of a seedy home in Long Island's West Babylon. It was she who was the subject of murderous speculation in a chat room that made the front page of the New York Daily News: "HOOKER SLAY EXCLUSIVE, WEB OF L.I. SICKOS, Inside secret site where johns plotted revenge." It's indisputable that these "sickos" did come from Long Island and apparently patronized the murdered hooker from West Babylon. (There's a name to deconstruct!)

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But it's evident that in tab world, Long Island and serial killer seem to go together. I feel a certain responsibility for that, having thrown a spotlight on the L.I./serial killer connection back in the '90s in a lengthy essay for the Times magazine, when my "Guyland" homeland—as I fondly called it in tribute to the way the L.I. accent rendered it: "Lawn Guyland"—had begun sprouting corpses (20 or so) from serial killers like Joel Rifkin. It was a time when Long Island also had to endure the embarrassingly seedy Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco scandal—and the three made-for-TV movies based on the case of Fisher, the "Long Island Lolita."

Why, I'd asked back then, had the peaceful, boring suburb I grew up in (though my long-form birth certificate proves I was born in Manhattan) turned into a tabloid hell? "Long Island Babylon," I called the piece, and, boy, were Long Islanders mad at me. You can't go home again.

Dudes, own it! I didn't kill them. It wasn't as if I was proposing a giant statue of a serial killer similar to the huge Long Island Duck that graces the tail end of the real Long Island (meaning the Un-Hamptons). I was just reporting—but the conjunction of Long Island and serial killers seems to have stuck.

Still, for a while things seemed to have simmered down out on the Guyland. Yes, we had tabloid outbursts like "the love judge," Solomon Wachtler, an eminent jurist who went cuckoo and dressed up like a cowboy, the better to blackmail his mistress. (A scandal whose best exegesis can be found in Laura Kipnis' recent book.) And, yes, the Guyland has continued to have a steady stream of bizarre spouse-slayings and would-be spouse-slayings: one inept but really, really angry spouse or another clumsily trying to hire a hit man to rub out the other, a hit man who often turned out to be an undercover cop. (What happened to the do-it-yourself spirit?)

But a recent Slate piece has offered evidence that serial killing in general has diminished, although it did proffer the caveat that the past decade's apparent declining crop of killings may not account for victims still buried unfound. And the Times quoted a self-proclaimed serial killer expert who said they were making a comeback (though, thankfully, he didn't blame Long Island):

Vernon J. Geberth, an author and former New York Police Department homicide commander who has analyzed more than 300 serial killings in the United States, said popular culture, not the locale, was to blame.

"I don't think it's strange at all," Mr. Geberth said. "I think that people fail to realize that we have more serial murders today than ever before. We've taken the most reprehensible members of society and given them star status. We've raised a generation of psychopaths. As a result, we have an increase in serial murder."

So what is it—more or fewer of them? Long Island or American culture in general? Fascinating that nobody can agree on whether the number is increasing or decreasing. Of course, "serial killer experts" have a stake in convincing us they are still on the rise, but it's hard to argue with Mr. Geberth's point about the culture and the "star status" we've given them.

I'm not saying I blame it on Jonathan Demme (although I once did) but I think the "star status" in the culture can be traced back to Silence of the Lambs and the way it made a star out of Anthony Hopkins' campy Hannibal Lecter by emphasizing his charming eccentricity rather than his cannibalism (or by making his cannibalism a charming eccentricity). Ever since then, serial-killer chic has achieved a stranglehold (so to speak) over American popular culture. Demme certainly didn't intend this, but his undeniable skill and reputation as a "classy" filmmaker mainstreamed his Lecter and opened the door to a torrent of less artful purveyors of serial-killer fare. And ever since, from Lecter to Dexter, through all the CSIs, the Michael Connelly novels (best in class but still), and, yes, the vampire craze (a thinly disguised serial killer cult for 'tweens), it's clear we love us our serial killers.

But why? Especially when you consider that almost every single one of them depends on the graphic depiction of the terrorizing, slicing, and dicing of attractive young women. (Maybe there's your answer: It's where sick misogyny goes to die.) But I have a theory that includes but subtends that. Because if it were only the appetite for terrifying and murderous violence against women, it could be focused on one woman at a time. It's the serial nature of it that is the attraction, the source of the "star status."

My theory is one I derived after my investigation of America's greatest fake serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, for a 1990 Vanity Fair story that can be found in The Secret Parts of Fortune. (Unfortunately, Henry is probably best known through the credulous film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.) It was an investigation that took me into Death Row holding cells in Huntsville, Texas, and Starke, Fla. (That was where I interviewed Henry's "running buddy," Ottis Toole, one of the worst humans I've ever been in a room with. Toole claimed—falsely, I believe—that he killed and ate the son of "America's Most Wanted" TV host John Walsh.) And, for good measure (in a later story), I was led by an FBI man into a burnt-out crack house in Detroit, the burial ground of a real serial killer.

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