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!)

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.

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.)

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.

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