“We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.” -Ted Bundy

Book Examines Celebrity and Serial Killers

‘Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture’

From University of Buffalo

Filed In

Issues / Controversies

If you log on to Internet auction sites these days, you will find a variety of “murderabilia” on sale for anywhere from $5 (a lock of Charlie Manson’s hair) to $10,000 (one of John Wayne Gacy’s clown paintings). If you’re broke, but stuck on Gacy, you can pick up a bag of dirt from his infamous crawl space for $10.This might seem ghoulishly commercial, but it is just one manifestation of America’s century-long obsession with serial killers.

This compulsive preoccupation and its use in American culture is the subject of a new book by David Schmid, Ph.D., associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo.

Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture” (University of Chicago Press, August 2005) is unlike the plethora of books, films and television shows that examine who these people are, why they kill and how.

“The answers to those questions are deeply colored by the psychosocial needs of both author and audience,” Schmid says, “and often tell us more about those needs than about the subject in question.”

“Natural Born Celebrities,” in contrast, is an in-depth study of how our construction and lionization of the serial killer as a cultural figure reflects Americans’ unconscious, but deeply held, fears about human nature, power and sexuality.

Celebrity Killers

Schmid points out that despite the fact that this country produces 85 percent of the world’s serial killers, Americans consistently represent them as “other” than themselves — as loathsome, monstrous, utterly alien creatures.At the same time, he says, we treat them as icons, celebrity performers and fetish figures. Entire industries revolve around them; they entertain us in a variety of ways while providing a handsome living for the FBI, true-crime writers, novelists, filmmakers and television producers, not to mention John Walsh.

Emphasizing ‘Creepiness’

“We can hardly deny it,” Schmid says. “We collect their nail clippings, photos and dirty clothes. We watch their trials and listen to their victims on the morning news. We compete online for serial-killer board games and action figures; gobble up endless hours of cable programming and films featuring their lives and deeds, and read hundreds of best-selling books about one serial killer after another, even though we know the outcome before we open them.”We do it all because we are compelled to resist the idea that these characters, so familiar, so endemic to America, are at all like the rest of us,” Schmid says.

By emphasizing their “creepiness,” he adds, we can deny that they share many of our values and obsessions and, except for the fact that they act out the worst of them, frequently live unremarkable lives among us.

Serial Killer Industry

“Even when our serial killers appear remarkably ordinary, the ‘serial killer industry’ reassures us that they are not.”Despite American’s denial, Schmid says their fantasies and compulsions represent values embedded in our culture, values that permeate our institutions and entertainments: the utter and often brutal supremacy of the white patriarchal system; misogyny; deep ambiguity and anxiety about the body, sex and sexual orientation; a relish for violence; fear of powerlessness and loss of control, and obsession with celebrity.



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