Probing the Mind of a Serial Killer
The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy
Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer
Killing for Company: The Story of a Man Addicted to Murder
A Father’s Story
Hunting Humans: The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers
True Crime, Vol. 2: Serial Killers & Mass Murderers
“The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.”
“I’m in charge of entertainment.”
It was shortly after the New Year of 1976, in the affluent Detroit suburbs of Oakland County—Birmingham, Royal Oak, Franklin Village, Berkley—that the nude, violated corpses of abducted boys and girls began to be found, like nightmare artworks, by roadsides or in parking lots or snowy fields. The children, objects of intensive local searches, had been taken in daylight close by their homes or schools; they ranged in ages from ten to sixteen. By March 23, despite highly publicized police vigilance, there were to be at least seven victims. Most of the children had been sexually assaulted and then killed, by diverse means—shooting (handgun, shotgun), strangulation, suffocation, carbon monoxide poisoning, bludgeoning. What linked the murders and gave to them their particular signature was their mock-ritualistic nature; the killer had taken time to meticulously wash and scrub several of the children, either before or after their deaths; their bodies had been laid out for public discovery in funeral positions; in several cases, their freshly laundered clothes had been neatly folded and placed nearby. Because the murderer’s scrupulosity suggested a cruel parody of solicitude, local media baptized him “The Babysitter.”
To live in a narrowly bounded area in which a “serial killer” is operating, with seeming impunity, is an experience virtually impossible to explain, or to forget. If there is any personal connection with the victims, it alters permanently one’s sense of the world. In 1976, though the “hippie” Manson family had been execrated in the press, the very term “serial killer” was relatively unknown: yet to burst upon America’s consciousness, though already in rehearsal, were “Son of Sam” (first murder, July 1976), Ted Bundy (first national notoriety, late 1970s), Henry Lee Lucas (first national notoriety, early 1980s), “The Green River Killer” (first known killing, 1982). I was not acquainted with the families of any of the murdered children, but among my Birmingham, Michigan, friends were several who were and I remember the atmosphere of those days, and weeks: the talk, the emotion, the visceral dread; the horror and astonishment that such acts should happen there, in a suburban world so attractive, so affluent, so exclusive, so “policed.” Detroit, its inner core still bearing the war-zone look of the race-motivated riot of 1967, was the region of “senseless” violence, not its white suburbs.
I remember, en route to a luncheon at a friend’s house, driving out of my way into an adjoining residential neighborhood to pass the home of one of the murdered children—how typical the street of handsome, primarily colonial houses, how typical the house where tragedy had struck, motiveless as a shaft of lightning. If we are not safe here, then where? To live in an area in which a serial killer is stalking his victims is to feel oneself trapped within another’s mad, malevolent dream, for the serial killer behaves with the logic of dreams—his madness yields a distinct pattern, yet is unpredictable, and seemingly unpreventable.
After March 23, 1976, the chain of murders ceased. “The Babysitter” was never apprehended and the case, in theory, remains open.
Somehow it has happened that the “serial killer” has become our debased, condemned, yet eerily glorified Noble Savage, the vestiges of the frontier spirit, the American isolato cruising interstate highways in van or pickup truck which will yield, should police have the opportunity to investigate, a shotgun, a semiautomatic rifle, quantities of ammunition and sixpacks and junk food, possibly a decomposing female corpse in the rear. Serial murder has emerged as the “crime of the 1990s” and our collective fascination is matched by a flood of luridly packaged paperback books on a vertiginous assortment of killers from “Adorno, George” to “Zon, Hans Van.” (See Hunting Humans, Volumes 1 and 2.) The enormous critical and popular success of the Hollywood film The Silence of the Lambs, an entertainingly improbable reimagining of of some of the crimes of the psychotic Ed Gein,1 both heralded the phenomenon and contributed to it. Even the San Francisco poet Thom Gunn has written oddly sentimental verse apparently celebrating, if not Jeffrey Dahmer’s numerous murders and cannibalizations of young men in Wisconsin, Jeffrey Dahmer’s imagined passion:
I beg from memory each limb,
Each body-part that spoiled with time:
The sidelong hungry look of him,
From him a stammer, from another
A single bicep blue with Mother,
From one a scalp, with hair’s regalia,
From one large hands and lazy grin,
From someone reddened genitalia,
And last, the image of the chest
From my original conquest,
The cage once tented in its skin,
Now great free-standing ribs that I’m
Leaving as bare bone rather than
Refleshing, best part of the best,
Only Love, Iron Man.
Songs for Jeffrey Dahmer2
If statistics are reliable, they are certainly alarming: from 1970 to the present, there have been more serial murders reported than in all previous American history combined. In the years since World War II, the annual solution rate for homicides has dropped from 90 percent to 76 percent—that is, one in every four murders remains unsolved.^3 Of these approximately 20,000 unsolved murders, the FBI estimates that at least 3,500 are committed by serial killers who will kill again, and again, and again, so long as they are capable, since these are individuals whose self-definition, whose sole happiness, is bound up with killing. The FBI also estimates that there are at least five hundred serial killers currently at large and unidentified in the United States and that, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States produces an astounding 75 percent of the world’s serial killers.4 “These people are the crème de la crème, the ultimate challenge to society and law enforcement,” says an FBI special agent, adding, with no apparent awareness of the irony of his remark, “We’re not interested in causes, and we’re not interested in cures. We’re interested in identification, apprehension, incarceration and prosecution.”5
Of the diverse materials considered here—hardcover and paperback books, newly published and reprinted; a low-budget English documentary film on America’s “first female serial killer”; a facsimile of “the controversial trading cards they couldn’t ban” (i.e., True Crime: Serial Killers and Mass Murderers, Vol. 2)—all warrant interest, if only clinical interest. Milwaukee Journal crime reporter Anne E. Schwartz’s study of the necrophiliac-necrophagist Jeffrey Dahmer, psychologist Jack A. Apsche’s study of Philadelphia “Bishop” Gary Heidnik, and former Manhattan prosecutor David Heilbroner’s account of the one-man crusade by Louisville lawyer Steven Kenney to expose the serial killer “practical nurse” Virginia McGinnis make for compelling if painful reading; Lionel Dahmer’s self-lacerating memoir of his failed relationship with his son Jeffrey, written with the assistance of the mystery novelist Thomas H. Cook, is a melancholy, unnerving document; perhaps a classic of its rarefied genre, Brian Masters’s revoltingly detailed account of the homosexual necrophiliac English killer Dennis Nilsen, a best seller in England when first published in 1985, is reminiscent of the hybrid prurient-speculative work of Colin Wilson (Order of Assassins, The Encyclopedia of Murder)—depravity examined through the lens of a serious intelligence. Ann Rule’s memoirist account of the life and career of the infamous Ted Bundy, whom Rule had known as a friend and colleague at Seattle’s Crisis Center, has gone through thirty printings since its original publication in 1980 and has attained the status of a genre classic, like Joel Norris’s more recent Serial Killers, part textbook and part psychobiological polemics. Hunting Humans is the Who’s Who of the genre—first published in 1990, and many times reprinted.
In the burgeoning recent literature of serial murder, Norris’s work is considered a milestone. Cerebral yet passionate, judiciously if doggedly argued, based upon a medical-psychological model, Serial Killers contains detailed case studies of, among others, Henry Lee Lucas who in 1984 was convicted of eleven murders, including that of his mother; Bobby Joe Long, found guilty of fifty rapes, and nine murders in 1985; and Charles Manson, whom Norris interviewed at San Quentin. Norris makes the point that serial killers, the overwhelming majority Caucasian males between the ages of twenty and forty, are—unsurprisingly—physically and psychologically damaged individuals; most of them have suffered brain injuries from childhood beatings, and most of them are visibly scarred; nearly all are chronic alcoholics and drug users. (Manson, for example, was an unwanted, battered child, already pathologically brutalized by the age of twelve.) None of them is “sane” if to be “sane” is to exercise volitional control over one’s actions. For all of us, but tragically for the abused, Norris thinks, heredity, biology, and environment are fate, and there is no escape from severe childhood trauma.
According to Norris, the compulsive killings of serial killers constitute “morality plays” in which, repeatedly, with different victims, the same tale is enacted; committing and recommitting murder may be interpreted as
a sum total of the perceived childhood horrors and [the killer’s] chronic damaged physical condition…the survival pattern of a person who has never developed the channels for emotions such as fear, lust, and rage and is driven by them as if…within a primordial neurological soup, an unstructured conscious dream world in which there is no logic and no social order.
The killer employs ritual as a kind of “behavioral skeleton—much like an insect” to provide an architecture for his fantasies. In Norris’s harshly determinist cosmology, as brainlessly mechanical as any state of nature envisioned by Thomas Hobbes, the serial killer has no free will, no free intelligence, no “self” apart from the psychopathological predicament of his fate. The serial killer is an active pathogen in the organism of society; serial killing is a “disease,” indeed an “epidemic” in urgent need of diagnosis and treatment by professionals. Predictions involving potential serial killers should be the result of “interdisciplinary projects” in the fields of biochemistry, neurology, genetics, social psychology, and criminal justice. (Norris is of this professional class—a psychologist and consultant on criminal cases in Georgia and Florida.)
Because, in Norris’s indefatigably detailed scheme, the serial killer reacts to stimulus as a tropism and does not behave as a rationally functioning human being, his actions can be codified and predicted. According to Norris there are seven “key phases” of serial killing:
The “aura” phase, involving compulsive fantasizing, withdrawal from reality—“The killer is simply a biological engine driven by a primal instinct to satisfy a compelling lust.”
The “trolling” phase, involving an active search for prey, a series of “compulsive, frenzied, and paranoiac behavior patterns” in which the killer becomes hyper-alert and focused; an obsessive “weaving” as if laying out a net as “neurons deep in the primitive brain begin to fire and cause a turbulence of early memories and primal emotions to mingle with live sensory data.”
The “wooing” phase, in which victims are disarmed by winning their confidence and luring them into a trap.
Ed Gein (1906–1984). Gein, obsessed with the thought of "turning female" in some way, at first raided local cemeteries to bring back body parts to his home in Plainfield, Wisconsin, where he lived alone as a recluse. Eventually Gein began creating his own corpses, in the mid-1950s. When he was apprehended, police found in his cluttered house skulls, noses, lips, labia, many decorative displays of human bones; human skin used for lamp shades, wastebaskets, chair upholstery. For ceremonial occasions such as dancing beneath a full moon, Gein wore a human's scalp and face, a skinned-out "vest" complete with breasts, and female genitalia strapped above his own. His name virtually unknown, Gein has nonetheless passed into American mythology as the model for Psycho and, less directly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as The Silence of the Lambs.↩
Threepenny Review, Fall 1993.↩
Joel Norris, Serial Killers, p. 19. But since American methods of police investigation, including highly sophisticated forensics, are far and away superior to methods in nearly all foreign countries, it may simply be the case that serial killers, notoriously difficult to trace, are more readily identified in this country than elsewhere. Similarly, "murder" itself may be underreported in other countries.↩
"Serial Murder and Sexual Repression," by David Heilbroner, Playboy, August 1993, p. 147.↩
Ed Gein (1906–1984). Gein, obsessed with the thought of “turning female” in some way, at first raided local cemeteries to bring back body parts to his home in Plainfield, Wisconsin, where he lived alone as a recluse. Eventually Gein began creating his own corpses, in the mid-1950s. When he was apprehended, police found in his cluttered house skulls, noses, lips, labia, many decorative displays of human bones; human skin used for lamp shades, wastebaskets, chair upholstery. For ceremonial occasions such as dancing beneath a full moon, Gein wore a human’s scalp and face, a skinned-out “vest” complete with breasts, and female genitalia strapped above his own. His name virtually unknown, Gein has nonetheless passed into American mythology as the model for Psycho and, less directly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as The Silence of the Lambs.↩
Threepenny Review, Fall 1993.↩
Joel Norris, Serial Killers, p. 19. But since American methods of police investigation, including highly sophisticated forensics, are far and away superior to methods in nearly all foreign countries, it may simply be the case that serial killers, notoriously difficult to trace, are more readily identified in this country than elsewhere. Similarly, “murder” itself may be underreported in other countries.↩
“Serial Murder and Sexual Repression,” by David Heilbroner, Playboy, August 1993, p. 147.↩