The era of the Serial-Killer-As-Star coincided almost perfectly with my formative years, which may explain a lot. The archetype was Gary Gilmore, the first man to be executed in the United States after almost a decade and the subject of a much-ballyhooed Playboy interview. Gilmore was a worthless thug who had capped a lifetime of destructive behavior by murdering two innocent young men, two hard-working husbands and fathers who had never done him the slightest bit of harm. But he was tall and handsome, at thirty-six he was still almost-young, and he had cracked a few books during his many years in prison. Actually, you could find better looking, better educated men almost anywhere in America except on Death Row, but here he was in a forum usually reserved for Grammy winners, Oscar winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Nobel Prize winners – and the Serial-Killer-As-Star was born.
The next example of this sort of thing was David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz. Minus his Charter Arms .44 caliber revolver, Berkowitz was a fat slob who probably wouldn’t have dared say boo to any of the people he murdered, his six confirmed kills were not even a blip on the charts of New York City homicides – but the media treated him as if he were the Number One Threat to Western Civilization.
After Berkowitz the torch was passed to law-school dropout Ted Bundy. Again, you could find better looking, better educated men almost anywhere in America except on Death Row, but the media built him up as if he were the missing Kennedy brother. In that nothingburger of a made-for-TV movie The Familiar Stranger, one character actually hails the young Theodore Bundy with the greeting, “Ted! Seattle’s answer to JFK!” (Come to think of it, given the behavior some of the Kennedy men have shown themselves to be capable of, I no longer find that comparison quite as far-fetched as I once did, but never mind.)
After Bundy came John Wayne Gacy, Peter “the Yorkshire Ripper “ Sutcliffe, Wayne Williams, and a whole slew of others, but none of them ever had the same media presence of these original three. The capstone to this enterprise was laid by Norman Mailer, whose paean to Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song, ran on for 1136 pages. (Holy moley, 1136 pages to tell the story of this worthless thug? Historian Edward Gibbon chronicled the decline and fall of the Roman empire – a saga that extended for thirteen centuries, across three continents – in just a little more than that.)
The Executioner’s Song was turned into a made-for-TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones, but the serial killer would soon be passé. The new paradigm of the senseless killing was the drive-by shooting, which yielded to the workplace shooting, which in turn yielded to the school shooting. God knows what’ll be next.
Statistically speaking, serial killing and spree killing are such rare phenomena, any program to identify prospective perpetrators is bound to produce many false positives for every actual perpetrator out there. In the absence of any specific threat, I’d say the best course of action is not to worry about it. Your chance of being offed by one of these guys is probably below your chance of being struck by lightning. And for precisely that reason, I think we need to be deeply skeptical of anyone who uses prevention of serial killing or spree killing as justification for his pet cause.
We don’t know what makes a serial killer, and I doubt these guys themselves can shed much light on the matter. Anyone remember Ted Bundy’s exit interview? (For his confessor, he chose Doctor James “Focus on the Family” Dobson.) At last, we were going to get a glimpse into the working of the mind of the Arch-Criminal. Here he was, just hours away from the electric chair, and what did he have to say for himself? He said, in effect, “Well, it’s not MY fault, Gosh darn it, it’s everybody else’s fault for letting me look at all those dirty pictures when I was a kid!” The guy was the very embodiment of the phrase, “The banality of evil.”
Photos via Wikimedia Commons