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I Had No Other Thrill or Happiness’

It was said of Bundy that he could have had a career in Republican politics. It was said of Bundy that he was simply too normal to be the serial killer responsible for a growing number of rape-murders in Washington in the early 1970’s and then (after Bundy moved to Utah) in Utah in the mid-1970’s. (When Bundy was tried for first-degree murder in the deaths of two young women in Florida, he would claim insanity”—“diminished responsibility”—as a defense.) In short, Bundy was the exact antithesis of the stereotypical sex-fiend loser, the man who wreaks revenge on women because, like “Son of Sam” Berkowitz or Joel Rifkin, he was ignored or scorned by women, the proverbial outcast at life’s feast; nor had he any reason to be violently angry at society for having brutalized and marginalized him, like, for instance, the Satanists Richard Ramirez (Los Angeles’s “Night Stalker” of the 1980s) and Charles Manson. Bundy’s first probable killing, according to Rule, was the murder of a little girl in 1961, when he was fifteen, for which he was never suspected. His last victim, in Florida, in 1978, was a twelve-year-old girl.

Elated by his courtroom performances, in which he intermittently acted as his own lawyer, Bundy successfully appealed his Florida convictions for an astounding ten years, costing the state between $6 million and $7 million in legal fees. As the date of his execution neared in early 1989, Bundy began suddenly to confess to his murders as a way of negotiating another stay of execution, a shrewd maneuver which yet did not succeed. Now blaming the baleful influence of pornography for his crimes, Bundy confessed to twenty-eight murders; experts believe he probably killed as many as one hundred young women. Though clearly, by his own admission, under the sway of the sexual compulsion “to cause great bodily harm to females,” Bundy was a clever petty thief and con man who planned his savage murders rather like theatrical adventures. (He often wore disguises, including a plaster cast on his leg.) He was not a multiple personality in whom memory is fractured and inaccessible. Above all, Bundy took enormous pleasure in media attention, both before and after his arrests. As Rule notes,

It was only after the killings that Ted realized just how newsworthy he was. He began to exalt in the thrill of the chase, and it became a part of the ritual, a part even more satisfying than the murders themselves. His power over the dead girls lasted such a short time, but his power over the police investigators went on and on…How often he would talk to me of being in the limelight, being the Golden Boy.

How proud Bundy would be to consider the numerous books written in his honor, the most abidingly popular being Ann Rule’s admirable if distressing work. One can imagine him smiling as he reads, on the back of the paperback, that a reviewer for The New York Times has called him “the most fascinating killer in modern American history.”


The death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover?”

Edgar Allan Poe,
“The Philosophy of Composition”

I wished I could stop but I could not. I had no other thrill or happiness.”

Dennis Nilsen

The serial killer has come to seem the very emblem of evil, for his crimes are flagrant and self-delighting violations of taboo, so excessive as to beggar any measure of punishment. Merely “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is inadequate here. The burgeoning chronicles of serial killing are unnervingly illuminating and suggest that beneath a mask of civility, as Voltaire argued against the naive idealism of Rousseau, the nature of man is that of a beast of prey; indeed, of madness itself. Yet to examine the mind of the serial killer is to examine the human mind in extremis, and should anything “human” be alien to us? Where the “human” crosses over into the “monstrous” is after all a matter of law, theology, or aesthetic taste. (Or politics. Recall that US Army lieutenant William Calley, who led his platoon in a slaughter of between three and four hundred unarmed civilians, including children, in My Lai, Vietnam, on March 16, 1968, was court-martialed and sentenced to life imprisonment as a first-degree murderer—but pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1969, presumably because mass murder committed in US Army uniform is something other than mass murder.)8

Our fascination and revulsion for the “monstrous” among us has to do with our uneasy sense that such persons are forms of ourselves, derailed and gone terribly wrong, as the autistic personality is oneself deprived, by a fatal trick of brain chemistry, of the ability to relate to others through language, eye contact, touch; as the schizophrenic is a mirror of oneself trapped in a dream life endured in consciousness. The psychopathic serial killer is a deep fantasist of the imagination, his fixations cruel parodies of romantic love and his bizarre, brutal acts frequently related to cruel parodies of “art.” The serial killer’s immersion in fantasy; his apparent helplessness in the face of his compulsion—in some cases, like “Son of Sam,” the killer claims to hear demonic voices; the ritualistic and totemic elements of his grotesque “art”; the seemingly insatiable need to orchestrate, and reorchestrate, a drama of hallucinated control; the mystical-erotic “high” released by the consummation, after a lengthy period of premeditation—all suggest a kinship, however distorted, with the artist. It is as if the novelist, playwright, visual artist were incapable of translating his fantasy into words or images but was compelled, by powerful unconscious urges, to locate living individuals to perform for him, at his bequest.

And there is the actual “art”—the totemic rituals that led an anonymous ax-murderer in 1985, in New York, to arrange his victims’ skull fragments in identical patterns, or “The Babysitter” of Oakland County, Michigan, in 1976, to bathe and scrub his child-victims and lay their bodies in formal funeral positions to be discovered. Among Ed Gein’s numerous macabre ornaments were skulls on bedposts and a belt of female nipples. Jeffrey Dahmer painted his victims’ skulls and took Polaroid photographs of their dismembered body parts, arranged as “still lives.” John Wayne Gacy,9 now on Death Row in Illinois, has painted hundreds of primitive, cartoon-like images of his clown alter-ego Pogo, a gigantic, malevolent smiling figure—“A clown can get away with murder,” Gacy has said. And there is Dennis Nilsen’s self-pitying verse, written in homage to the sixteen young men he’d drugged, strangled, fondled, masturbated over, and at last dismembered—“I try to smile/Despite the vengeance looking at me,/Covered in your tomato paste,/A man of many parts/I try to forget./Even the perfume of your passing/Lingers on./ More problems now/ With all your bits and pieces…/I try to smile/ But you’re not smiling now./ In April death is dead/And all the new life lives/Upon our garbled inquest.”

Killing for Company includes as much as any reader will want of Nilsen’s verse, stream-of-consciousness prose ramblings, and “Sad Sketches,” romantic line drawings of the naked, mutilated bodies of his young male victims, which he frequently covered in body makeup and photographed as well, afterward boasting to Masters, “I did it all for me. Purely selfishly…I worshipped the art and the act of death, over and over.” The banal rhymes of a typical Ted Bundy poem, addressed to one of many woman friends, suggest the shallowness of the man’s soul: “I send you this kiss/deliver this body to hold./I sleep with you tonight/ with words of love untold. /I would love you, if I might/with words that unfold/these arms to press you tight.” Even Joel Rifkin, Long Island’s most recent tabloid killer, who killed at least seventeen prostitutes, turns out to be an impassioned, prolific scribbler of verse as an adolescent: “A siren temptress calls me near/ a stranger beyond darkness haze/ pleading from within the shadows/ and though I be helpless to help her/ help her I must…” (See New York Post, October 8, 1993, for more of the same.) As Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert dryly observed in Lolita, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy…style.”

Yet not, it seems, female murderers, an estimated 8 percent of American murderers, who are rarely sentimental, still less morbid. Sexual fetishes, the great passion of the male psychopath, seem not to engage them at all. They kill for money, or because they are in positions where killing is easy (babysitting, nursing) and they have a grudge against the world. Most often, they are merely the distaff half of a murderous couple whose brainpower is supplied by a man; often, like the slavish females of Charles Manson’s harem, they are willing disciples of a cult-leader, sexually and emotionally bound. The most famous, or infamous, necrophile in American literary history is, of course, and unfairly, a woman—the redoubtable Emily of William Faulkner’s Gothic tall taleparable, “A Rose for Emily,” who sleeps in secret for decades with the mummified remains of the Yankee seducer who meant to betray her, and whom she poisoned before he could escape. Here are the elegiac cadences of Edgar Allan Poe put to a use more subtle than ever in Poe:

For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and abiding dust.

(Contrast Poe’s characteristic death-intoxicated erotic work—“Lenore,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Sleeper,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” “Berenice,” among others—in which the deceased beloved is imagined in abstract, melodramatic language so lacking in specificity as to seem hardly more than Poe’s fevered fantasy.)

Necrophilia in actual women, however, certainly in women serial killers of record, would seem to be virtually nonexistent. Even heterosexual necrophilia is a rarity. (How most accurately to characterize the California “Co-ed Killer” Edmund Kemper, who murdered numerous young women in the early Seventies, dissected their bodies, and raped various organs; who killed two of his grandparents and his mother, whose decapitated head he preserved as both a masturbatory object and a dart board?) Homosexual necrophiliacs demonstrate a curious, compulsive, surely self-defeating habit of storing or burying the remains of their victims in their residences, beneath floor-boards (like Dennis Nilsen) or in closets and deep freezers (like Jeffrey Dahmer). The horrific crawlspace beneath John Wayne Gacy’s house was so packed with decaying bodies that the stench pervaded his property, yet Gacy only began dumping bodies into the Des Plaines River as a last resort—he would rather have kept them at home. “It may be that when I was killing those men I was killing myself,” Dennis Nilsen observed. Naturally, one would not want to physically abandon oneself.

  1. 8

    In his dress uniform cap, his upraised hand smeared with a simulation of blood, Lieutenant William Calley is represented in True Crime trading cards. The body count of between three and four hundred victims makes him second only to James Warren Jones (of Jonestown) with a body count of 912 cultist victims of “imposed suicide.”

  2. 9

    John Wayne Gacy, homosexual torturer-murderer of at least thirty-three young men and boys, was a successful Chicago building contractor, involved in Catholic parish activities, Jaycees good works, and Democratic politics (his proudest photograph shows the portly Gacy with Rosalynn Carter in 1978). Gacy killed and buried twenty-nine of his victims in the crawlspace beneath his suburban house. Several times young men managed to escape him after having been raped and tortured, but because they were homosexuals, and because Gacy was so highly regarded in the community, police declined to press charges. (Gacy was finally caught when he killed a fifteen-year-old neighborhood boy—a “good” boy. (See True Crime: Serial Killers, Time-Life Books, 1992.)

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