Crime And Criminals Blog - Crimes, criminals, scams and frauds.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hollywood And American Obsession With Serial Killers, Part II

The Devil is My Sponsor

A murder in Philadelphia in 1895 implicated a man named H. H. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Mudgett. He passed himself off as a doctor and in his wake there were numerous deaths. Arrested for the Philadelphia murder, Holmes sat in jail while detectives in Chicago went through his three-story "hotel" there.

Not far from the site of the "White City," the name by which the 1892 Chicago World's Fair was known, Holmes had used his "castle" to let rooms to young women arriving in town to attend the fair. The building included soundproof sleeping chambers with peepholes, gas pipes, sliding walls, and vents that Holmes controlled from another room. Investigators found secret passages, false floors, rooms with torture equipment, and a specially equipped surgery. There were also greased chutes that emptied into a two-level cellar, and a very large furnace. Holmes would apparently place his chosen victims into the special chambers into which he then pumped lethal gas and watched them react. Sometimes he'd ignite the gas to incinerate them, or place them on the "elasticity determinator," to see how the human body would stretch. When finished, he presumably slid the corpses down the chutes into his cellar, where vats of acid and other chemicals awaited them. He would deflesh them and sell the bleached skeletons to medical schools.

To exonerate himself, Holmes decided to pen a book about his innocence, Holmes' Own Story, but no one believed him. He then wrote a confession, paid for by the Hearst newspaper syndicate, admitting to 27 murders. He insisted that he could not help what he'd done. "I was born with the Evil One as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world," he lamented. Yet he expressed no remorse.

At trial, Holmes used his intelligence and charm to defend himself during the first day, but proved unable to establish saw the jury. Convicted and sentenced to death, Holmes went to the hangman's noose on May 7, 1896. Even there he changed his story, and he claimed to have killed only two. No one knows how many people he actually murdered, but the number may top one hundred.

Several books were written about Holmes, but Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a 2003 bestseller, sold film rights to Paramount, in part because he describes the development of the World's Fair as well — the "white city" - giving the story a larger cultural context. Kathryn Bigelow is attached to the project, for Cruise/Wagner films, according to media reports.

For those who can't wait for it, other movies about clever serial killers are already available.

Game Over

In 2004, the world was introduced to "Jigsaw," a serial killer who enjoys torturing via forcing people into situations where they must kill one another to survive — as he watches. His alleged motive is to make them better appreciate their lives, and indeed, they do have some lessons to learn.

James Wan directed and co-wrote Saw, setting the action in a windowless industrial washroom. Two men revive from a stupor, find themselves chained, and learn from audiotapes why they're there. One is required to kill the other by a specified deadline. While they try to stage this death, their tormenter discovers it easily enough. As the movie unfolds, they learn how their lives have crossed in negative ways. The game grows more complex as more people enter and various clues to Jigsaw's identity and motive are revealed.

Not based on any killer in particular, no claim is made that these films are psychologically realistic, which is a good thing, because while psychopaths are clever and generally love their games, they don't tend to tie all their resources up in trying to teach others to live better lives. Such a moral code is generally of little interest to them. (Psychopaths do have moral codes, to be sure, but they're emotionally empty lists of rules.) In addition, Jigsaw has advanced cancer (thus, his motive), and would probably have little concern for such issues, not to mention strength to get all the items needed to rig up the games.

In 2005, Saw II came out, also in October, and Saw III followed the same pattern in 2006. Darren Lynn Bousman directed it. Leigh Whannell, who co-wrote the original, also co-wrote this one with Bousman. More deadly games are in store for people trapped in a house in which sarin gas has been released. Those who fail to follow the rules learn the consequences.

The third film joins Wan, Whannell and Bousman together and features Jigsaw's protege as the mastermind of more vicious games. The ending indicates that viewers can expect future entertainment along these lines.

It's All in the Mind

The Internet Movie Database lists more than 800 movies and television series associated in some way with serial killers. By this writing, there are probably more, including the loveable "Dexter" on Showtime, a vigilante killer of serial killers. Several films are based on actual killers, such as John Christie, Keith Jesperson, Karla Homolka, Ted Bundy, Albert DeSalvo, and Andrei Chikatilo. Others simply play off the public's fascination with this type of repetitive murder. In fact, the intelligent, clever serial killer is so hackneyed now that movie critics complain when they see it.

Some films are made to probe the inner mind of a repetitive killer, and American Psycho (2000) may be the ultimate attempt at this goal. Adapted from Bret Easton Ellis's novel by the same name, the movie diverges in this regard: it's most likely meant to portray a fantasy (although this remains ambiguous). In both versions, however, the lead character, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), is clearly a narcissist obsessed with one-upping everyone else toward the goal of his won perfection. While accomplished in his daily life, he also spends hours immersed in violent, gory fantasies of killing and mutilating people — especially when he sense he's losing ground to others. In one scene, a reference is made to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Bateman reveals his mastery of the details of serial killer lore.

No one knows this part of him, and it seems impossible that he could be so caught up with this violence while also retaining his decorum as a businessman. Yet criminologists know that many serial killers are this compartmentalized. Dennis Rader, also known as BTK, was the perfect illustration of this: he was Bateman's manifestation in the real world (although not quite as refined or successful.)

In 2005, Rader was arrested and charged with the eight BTK murders that dated as far back as the 1970s (including a family), as well as two others not officially linked with BTK at the time they were committed. He pled guilty and recounted with obvious relish the details of his crimes in open court. His arrest and the revelation of his background and stability added a new dimension to the typical ideas about serial killers. While not unique for being a family man holding down a job while also killing people, that he had communicated so often early in his murder career and then let decades pass before communicating again was unprecedented. He wanted people to know what he'd done, because in his mind, he had worked to perfect his "art." Analysts went over and over the details in an attempt to understand his motives and psychological make-up.

But no serial killer has commanded as much attention and inspired as many books and articles as Jack the Ripper.

That's where we'll go next

Katherine Ramsland

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D. has published twenty-five books. She holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and philosophy. Currently she teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.


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