Arrivederci Ripper

So serial killers are over.The observation is not original. A few years, James Ellroy, the dark prince of American noir, said it to an interviewer: "Serial killers are over." He was explaining why he would never write another novel about a serial killer. He said that "serial killer," as a literary trope, has lost its generative power, its creative energy, that there's nothing new to say about serial killers. Ellroy said that he thought the image had peaked (as it were) in the novels of Thomas Harris, in the person of his now-immortal Dr. Hannibal Lecter; if you aren't going to write something better than Silence of the Lambs, Ellroy said, don't bother.At the time, I found the proposition unlikely -- the culture was not that far removed from the 1980s, when America, not without reason, was obsessed with serial killers: The Hillside Stranglers. Bundy. The Freeway Killers. Gacy. Green River. The Night Stalker. The Atlanta Child Murders. The FBI was said to have issued estimates that 35 serial killers or 50 serial killers or [a very large number] of serial killers were loose among the population at any given time. And for a while in the 1970s and 1980s it indeed seemed that the country was ankle-deep in homicidal sex maniacs, each one darker, weirder, scarier than the last. But you should never argue about murder with James Ellroy, and now I think he was right, although (as is usually the case with Ellroy) he was ahead of the culture.The Ellroy interview occurred in 1997, which as it happens is about the time the culture's serial-killer mania was at its height. Historians of crime will remember the 1980s as the Decade of Serial Killers -- see the above list, which is by no means complete -- but cultural historians will likely consider the 1990s as the "Serial Killer" Decade, because it was in the '90s that the notion of serial murder moved out of the forensics laboratory and into the pop culture mainstream. That murderous concept, from a cultural standpoint, has been extraordinarily productive. In the world of pop music, for example, there is a record label called Serial Killer (punk rock, of course); Snoop Dogg has a song by the same name. Too Much Joy, the snarky ironic Scarsdale pop-punk band that was an inspiration for our very own [Danger Bob][1] -- perhaps some of you were in the audience with me at the Bottleneck the night the sons slew the fathers -- released Son of Sam I Am in 1988, which became their major-label debut when Warner Bros. picked up them up two years later, and followed it up in 1991 with their best record, Cereal Killers. It's a popular trope for band names, too: The Serial Killers, Serial Rhyme Killers, Serial Killing 101, the Nightstalkers, the Ted Bundys, Ted Bundy's Volkswagen, the Hellside Stranglers and the Hillside Stranglers, for example. Acid Bath, the gruesomely pathetic G.G. Allin and Kansas City's Season To Risk all released albums with artwork by Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy. (Since the 1990s [art from serial killers][2] has become an established commercial genre.)Television embraced serial murder almost as soon as producers figured out what it was. There is hardly a daytime soap opera that has not featured long story arcs about serial killers. There is not a single primetime news show that has not done a serial killer segment, and some of them have done several. PBS jumped on the bandwagon early, airing a NOVA episode called "Mind of A Serial Killer" in October 1992. The acme of TV's engagement with the trope came with the 1996 premiere of Profiler, a primetime series about a fictional FBI unit dedicated to pursuing -- uh huh -- serial killers, which starred Ally Walker in the title role of a forensic psychologist with a special insight into the minds of -- yep -- serial killers. The show ran for four seasons on NBC and is now in daily syndication on CourtTV. And of course the plethora of true-crime shows -- Forensic Files, The New Detectives etc. -- are actually dependent on murder of all types to provide programming, and are particularly fond of serial homicide cases. But it is in film that serial murder exercised its greatest cultural influence. The Internet Movie Database has indexed more than 300 films that contain "serial killer" in their plot summaries, almost all of them English-language films and most of them staggeringly bad. (In a forthcoming column we'll introduce the Pop Culture Essential 25 Websites, and [IMDb][3] will be Number One.) The data set is flawed for a number of reasons, not least that the term "serial killer" was not in general use prior to about 1980, but it's the best data we have, and it's revealing. In 1980, four serial killer movies were released. In 2000, the genre's cinematic peak, 22 serial killer movies were released. Fifty such films were released in all of the 1980s; more than 125 -- a little more than one a month -- in the 1990s. There were 11 such films this year, and so far seven scheduled for release next year. Serial murder is a powerful dramatic device, and the annual number will probably never drop to zero, but the high point is behind us. The tide has crested.(Forgive a short tangent: Whenever you see "culture" or "cultural" in TWIATITC, assume it is preceded by "pop." The constant repetition becomes stylistically awkward, but no matter where we go and whatever we talk about, celebrities or dictators or serial killers or [ performance artists eating babies][4], Scooby-Doo is always with us.)Lately there has surfaced considerable evidence of our collective dispassion about serial murder. Most striking to me is the limited public attention devoted to the DC Snipers case. I'm not suggesting that the case is being ignored, in fact I think it's been [covered very well][5], but in recent weeks there's been a sharp competition for coverage between several high-profile courtroom proceedings -- the Laci Peterson homicide, MJ, the Snipers, Kobe, that curious business with Rosie O'Donnell, various corporate swine going under the indictment knife -- and while the Snipers proceedings have drawn serious ongoing attention, they're a long way from being the chief topic of conversation on the late-night chat show circuit. This is curious, given that so far as I know, Muhammed and Malvo are the only instance ever of a real-life mobile metropolitan sniper, long a favorite plot device in fiction and film.Two other serial murder cases have surfaced on the cultural radar only long enough to have a cup of coffee before slipping back into the archives: In King County, Washington, a man named Gary Leon Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 counts of first-degree in return for a guaranteed life sentence, thereby closing the Green River Killer case, which has been America's largest open homicide case for almost two decades. (The plea has created an interesting legal question for the state of Washington, because of course if they aren't going to kill a guy like Ridgway, how can they kill anyone else? Will they say of some future defendant that he's worse than the Green River Killer? To their credit, the county has posted online a detailed account of the case and the plea bargain, but before you look at it, know that I found it one of the most [deeply disturbing documents][6] I've ever read.) Although a notable and long-awaited development in law enforcement history, Ridgway's arrest blew no media gaskets, hardly suggested the furor that surrounded the murders for so many years.Similarly, the simmering question of whether or not Albert DeSalvo was in fact responsible for the murders attributed to the Boston Strangler [ popped up again][7] for a brief period in when the son of one of the murder victims published a book presenting evidence (some of it quite compelling) that DeSalvo could not have committed the murder. Robert Ressler, the criminal profiler who popularized the term "serial killer" at the FBI in the '70s, isn't even convinced that the 11 murders (or 13 murders, or however many murders) attributed to the Strangler are the work of a single killer. That DeSalvo might be innocent of the murders -- that there might not have been a "Boston Strangler" at all -- prompts a yawn from the media universe, from the culture. It was a long time ago."Serial killer" has lost the shock of the new; the bloom is off the hemlock. There will be other serial killers, of course, no doubt more brutal and gruesome than the existing bunch, but the culture has assimilated the concept. It can't scare us anymore than it already has. There will be more serial killer novels and serial killer movies and serial killer television shows, but the rate of increase has flattened out, the concept has found its place, and so, in pop culture terms, it's over. Serial killer [action figures][8]? Unseemly, but old hat. We're over it.Nonetheless, during its generation-long cultural ascent "serial killer" was a strikingly fecund operator, and was so long before Ressler popularized the term. The image of the murderous sexual predator entered the culture abruptly and in a big way in the autumn of 1888, when in a period of about three months five women were murdered and mutilated in London's East End. All of the women were prostitutes; all were killed in the act. As the murders unwound the media lost its collective mind, but it was merely reflecting its host culture, because all of London lost its mind. The Queen lost her mind. Everyone lost their minds. American papers covered the murders like they were happening in Des Moines. The killer was dubbed [Jack the Ripper][9], the name taken from one of the many dozens of letters mailed to newspapers and the police claiming to be from the killer. (Nearly all of the letters were obvious fakes, but one or two continue to tantalize.) Although the police had several suspects, no charges were ever filed. The Ripper murders are the most famous non-political unsolved murders in history, probably because they mark the debut of a new cultural demon: Enter the serial killer.The Ripper case introduced many of the characteristics that would be associated with serial murder evermore: Stranger murders. Prostitute victims. An investigation complicated by multiple jurisdictions. Messages left at the scene of the crime. Letters purporting to be from the killer. None of this had ever happened before. Some of it remains unusual -- real-life serial killers rarely communicate with the public, for example -- but all of it has been bundled into the cultural perception of "serial killer" for more than a century. Jack the Ripper was an instant cultural archetype.This new social illness spread slowly at first. A barbaric doctor named Herman Mudgett built a murder castle in Chicago in the 1880s complete with an autopsy room for disposing of the bodies of his victims; he called himself H.H. Holmes and eventually confessed to 27 murders, including the murders of three children. In the early years of the twentieth century, a maniac with an axe terrorized New Orleans' Italian community; the number of his victims is uncertain, and he was never caught. Henri Landru, a nondescript French clerk, lured women with promises of marriage, robbed hundreds and murdered 10; he entered history as "Bluebeard." All notorious cases, all sensations at the time, all more or less forgotten today.Things kicked up considerably after the First World War. There was a nasty spate of culturally consequential serial murder in the 1920s during which two notorious killers were apprehended in both Germany and the United States. In this country, a cretin named [Earle Leonard Nelson][10] went on a rampage in 1926-1927 and killed about two dozen people, nearly all of them women in their 50s and 60s, and [Carl Panzram][11], another cretin, reset the national bar of evil in the Roaring Decade by murdering about 30 people, many of them boys. (Panzram attained a permanent place in penny-dreadful history in 1930 by rushing up the steps of the gallows at Leavenworth and cursing his hangman for sloth. "Hurry up, you bastard," he snarled. "I could kill ten men while you're fooling around.") In Germany, a nasty piece of work named Fritz Haarmann terrorized Hanover with 27 murders before being captured in 1925, and a man named Peter Kurten killed a number of children in Dusseldorf in the same period. (Both men were guillotined.) The age of the victims, and the gruesome details of Kurten's confession after his apprehension, ensured that his case received immense publicity; Kurten, whom the press dubbed the Dusseldorf Vampire, was probably the most notorious serial killer between Jack the Ripper and the Boston Strangler.But his was hardly a household name then and isn't now; Haarmann, Nelson and Panzram are quite forgotten by all but the people who update the websites. Their crimes, horrific as they were, did not make a permanent cultural impression anything like that of the original Ripper killings. No significant body of reporting grew out of the phenomenon. It didn't even have a name, really, and it's hard for reporters to talk about something that doesn't have a name. The world was not prepared to hold long communal conversations about the motivations and actions of these killers -- the phenomenon was too new, too shocking. The trope's cultural life was fueled not by the killers who inspired it, but by writers and filmmakers: which is to say, by artists. A novel and two films provided society with the beginnings of a cultural grammar with which to talk about the new monsters in our midst.Marie Belloc Lowndes was a successful commercial British novelist in the early years of the last century. She had a good pedigree and was very well-connected; her brother was the poet Hillaire Belloc, and she was married to Frederick Lowndes, editor of the Times of London. Belloc Lowndes wrote a number of novels, but her immortality rests entirely upon one: [The Lodger][12]. Published in 1913, 25 years after Jack the Ripper killed his last victim and slipped into history's night, The Lodger offered the first fictional "solution" to the Ripper mystery, and did so in a context loaded with modern overtones: A killer with a knife stalks London's young women, and a middle-aged couple who operate a boarding house are growing ever more suspicious that one of their lodgers is the killer. The Lodger was a sensational and enduring success throughout the English-speaking world. Over a period of years and through a number of editions it sold more than a million copies, which in the early twentieth century was a colossal level of commercial success; it became as much a part of the popular consciousness then as Harry Potter is today. That is but one of several reasons that The Lodger_is one of the most important and significant novels in the history of pop culture. Lowndes cemented the serial killer in pop consciousness more than a half-century before he had a name, and not as a nauseating, incomprehensible real-life sex criminal responsible for hideous evil, but as a new dramatic construct, an image, a trope, an icon available for creative manipulation._The Lodger was successfully adapted for the London stage under the title Who Is He?, and sitting in the audience during a performance one night in 1926 was a 27-year-old British film director just back from a visit to Germany, where he observed the work of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, masters of German expressionist silent cinema. Alfred Hitchcock had steadily worked his way up the filmmaking ladder and by 1926 had directed two films, but it was his decision to adapt Lowndes' novel for the screen that truly launched his career. Years later, Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut, "The Lodger was my first film." His first thriller, as well, and it introduced a number of Hitchcockian trademarks: The innocent man wrongly accused, the ambivalent attitude toward police, the Maguffin, the director's cameo. It also includes the first example of Hitchcock's dazzling artistry, a smashing scene in which he conveys the ratcheting anxiety of the suspicious couple as they listen to their lodger's endless nervous pacing in the room above by replacing the room's ceiling with a sheet of glass and shooting from the floor below; we see the pacing, see the couple's reaction, can almost hear the metronomic footfalls. It is one of the great scenes in all of silent film. (The heroine was a blonde, and the killer, called The Avenger, stalked blonde women, but that particular Hitchcock obsession had already surfaced; he instructed the female lead in his first film to go blonde.) The Lodger was a major critical and box office success and so was its director, who two years later was the first British director given the opportunity to make a sound film and went on to become one of the titans of world cinema. Jack the Ripper made Alfred Hitchcock possible.Back in Germany, Fritz Lang was enjoying his own spectacular success with Metropolis, which placed him in the front rank of international film well ahead of Hitchcock. In 1930, given the opportunity to direct the first big German sound film, Lang made M_, an expressionist masterpiece inspired by a newspaper account of the crimes of Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf Vampire. _M was the Silence of the Lambs of its time, a terrifying shocker about an hysterical city afflicted with a serial child-murderer. The movie made Peter Lorre, in the role of the killer, a huge star, and had a profound effect on the development of film noir. The voters at the Internet Movie Database have ranked it number 50 in their list of the [top 250 films of all time][13]; it is one of only three films in top 100 made before 1935. (City Lights, Duck Soup.) M_ is an excruciatingly suspenseful movie and a pointed critique of 1930s German society as the Nazis rose to power. As Roger Ebert observes in [his review of the restored version][14], "When you watch _M, you see a hatred for the Germany of the early 1930s that is visible and palpable." It remains immensely influential; Dick Wolfe's Law & Order: SVU is a gloss on M_.Lowndes, Lang and Hitchcock popularized the "serial killer" cultural trope, the taxonomic icon to which all later references are indebted, and their work is vastly better remembered than the real-life crimes of Nelsons and Panzrams of the time. (Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote "Macheath" as a sort-of serial killer in 1928's _Threepenny Opera -- "Mac the Knife" -- but Brecht was too busy critiquing capitalist culture to spend much time on the subject; it is perhaps the first occasion on which a serial killer was used for simple dramatic effect.) And in 1960, a generation after he made The Lodger, Hitchcock officially kicked off postmodern Serial Killer Mania with Psycho.The years between The Lodger and Psycho were not without their share of real-world maniacs. In England, John George Haigh killed nine woman before he was apprehended and hanged in 1949 -- he claimed to drink a glass of blood from each of his victims -- and John Reginald Christie killed eight women, including his wife, and in 1953 was also hanged. In the United States in 1957, an insane Wisconsin farmer named Ed Gein was discovered to have killed two women and disinterred eight or ten more. A lunatic cannibal necrophiliac with a mommy fixation and a goofy demented grin, Gein was born for Hollywood. He died in an asylum.Gein's impact on the culture was strikingly disproportionate to the notoriety of his crimes, which quickly passed into folklore; most people believe Gein killed sackfulls of people and ate all of 'em. But for [Robert Bloch][15], snowbound at home, listening to radio news reports of the grisly results of the police search of Gein's cabin, the reality was quite enough. A friend of H.P. Lovecraft and already a celebrated author of horror and fantasy tales -- his "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" was a radio staple -- Bloch reimagined the grotesque events in Wisconsin in a novel, Psycho, that although not a bestseller attracted excellent reviews and considerable professional attention. In 1959 Bloch sold the film rights on a blind bid from a production company, and only after the deal was done (for $9,500) did he learn the production company represented Alfred Hitchcock.That a grubby little man like Ed Gein could inspire a film like [Psycho][16], which is one of the seminal films in all of pop culture history, is testament to the power of the image of the serial killer, an example of the generative capacity it no longer possesses: There can't ever be another Psycho, as Gus van Sant [demonstrated][17] a few years ago. There is nothing that can be said about Hitchcock's oh-wow film that hasn't been said already. (It is number 21 on the IMDb Top 250, ranking behind Hitch's own North by Northwest at 19 and Rear Window at 13; in this case, and several others, I must demur from the opinion of IMDb's voters, however well-informed. The suggestion that The Empire Strikes Back (14) is a better film than Psycho beggars belief.) The shower scene is the greatest Hitchcock ever shot and is thought by many the greatest scene in movie history, a scene so disturbing, so new, that it immediately opened the door to examinations and depictions of violence much more graphic than had ever been attempted by mainstream cinema in the past, launching a period in which Hollywood shook off the last vestiges of the Production Code and released a series of ground-breaking movies -- Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Dirty Harry -- that changed film forever. In [Medium Cool][18], his excellent history of 1960s film, Ethan Mordden argues that Psycho was the breakthrough film that liberated Hollywood in the Radical Decade, that allowed film to finally grow up. Ed Gein made Sam Peckinpah possible.Two years after Psycho rocked the world, the authorities in Boston found the first strangled woman in what became the case of the Boston Strangler. By 1962 the nation's television networks had attained something like continental coverage and there was satellite bandwidth available for international broadcast, thus the Strangler was the electronic news media's first serial murder case, and the first post-Psycho serial murder case. It grew slowly, but by the end of 1962 there were ongoing national news reports about the panic in Boston as the number of victims steadily rose. The killings continued throughout 1963 and 1964 -- one victim was murdered three days after the assassination of the President -- and when in spring 1965 DeSalvo, then in custody for rape, confessed to the stranglings, it produced an international sensation. F. Lee Bailey, the brash criminal defense attorney who came to fame defending Dr. Sam Shephard, the inspiration for The Fugitive, took DeSalvo's case and presided over DeSalvo's official confession. The result was the first serial killer media circus of the television age, a circus boosted by the fact that the story was easy to cover, confined as it was to a single modern city. (Nelson and Panzram were transient killers, and Nelson managed to get hanged in Winnipeg, which in 1930 wasn't a development likely to sell a lot newspapers. Getting hanged in Winnipeg today, on the other hand, would attract no end of attention.) The Boston Strangler, by Gerold Frank, appeared in 1966, the year after DeSalvo confessed, and became an immediate bestseller. It was the first American book-length account of a serial murder case to follow Psycho, the first to follow Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which appeared the year before, and it shares some of the earlier book's non-fiction-novel sensibility. Frank was that rarest of things, a respected entertainment writer. His 1954 collaboration with Lillian Roth, a one-time Ziegfeld Girl and star of stage and screen who fell victim to alcoholism and abusive men, in the writing of her hit autobiography, I'll Cry Tomorrow, made him a pioneer of the celebrity as-told-to autobio and was filmed with Susan Hayward, whose performance as the troubled, declining star won her a Best Actress award at Cannes. In 1958 he collaborated with John Barrymore's daughter Diana (Drew's aunt) on her own tortured-celeb-autobio, Too Much Too Soon, which was adapted for the screen and shot with Dorothy Malone as the high-living party girl. In 1959 he teamed with Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Graham in the writing of Beloved Infidel, an account of Graham's love affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald in the alcoholic twilight of his life; it too was filmed, with Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr. None of this seemed like practice for the first big true-crime serial killer book, but that's what Franks produced in The Boston Strangler. That Frank, a writer associated almost exclusively with film, the most powerful of cultural engines, was the writer to produce The Boston Strangler is telling; it demonstrates the degree to which the notion of serial murder -- still formally nameless -- had seeped into the popular consciousness. His book was immediately adapted for the screen and filmed in 1968 under the direction of Richard Fleischer. Hollywood jumped on the Strangler murders in a big way, and it hadn't waited for Frank's book -- [The Strangler][19], an exploitation quickie from Allied Artists Pictures with Victor Buono as the mommy-obsessed killer, started shooting in September 1963 while the murders were ongoing, and was released before DeSalvo confessed. The adaptation of Franks' book was an altogether different kind of film. Fleischer, the son of Max Fleischer, the animation genius who created Betty Boop, and the nephew of Dave Fleischer, the animation genius behind Popeye, was no stranger to big movies. By 1968 he'd already directed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings, Barabbas, Dr. Doolittle and Fantastic Voyage -- and he'd demonstrated a gift for dark material in work like 1952's The Narrow Margin (one of the great B-pictures) and Compulsion, in which Orson Welles played a thinly disguised Clarence Darrow in a 1959 retelling of the Loeb-Leopold murder case. But Fleischer had produced this body of work, as Leonard Maltin notes, "without evidence of any particular personal style," and nothing in his past suggested anything like [The Boston Strangler][20].Fleischer's film was stark, documentary-like, with overtones of cinema verite, and it told its story with an innovative split-screen effect that had attracted a lot of hipster film attention the year before in Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls. Fleischer's multi-panel matte technique created the effect of four films running on the screen at once, a commonplace today but a daring technical and visual approach in 1968. And oh! that Tony Curtis! His performance is extremely powerful, one of the two or three best of his career, his "Albert" a chilling, creepy, entirely modern sociopath. There is no better demonstration of the culture's growing intellectual comfort with serial murder in the 1960s than the journey of Tony Curtis from Some Like It Hot to The Boston Strangler. The film was released to rave reviews in October 1968. Two weeks earlier, George Romero had released Night of the Living Dead. The times they were a'changin'.All this, and still our murderous phantom has no name. In the '60s, the Strangler murders were often as not viewed as an undifferentiated example of the bizarre outbreak of sensational American violence that started after the Second World War. (The earliest of the really gruesome incidents occurred in Camden, NJ in September 1949, when an insane mommy-obsessed war veteran named Howard Unruh walked down the street shooting every person he encountered, killing 13 people, including a toddler, in less than 15 minutes, but things didn't get really crazy until the 1960s, when boomers got driver's licenses.) In July 1966, while the public was still digesting Albert DeSalvo's confession, an unspeakably vicious psychopath named Richard Speck broke into a nursing school dormitory in Chicago and murdered eight young woman in a single night; three weeks later, an insane former Marine named Charles Whitman murdered his mother and wife and carried a number of weapons to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower on the Austin campus, from which vantage point he opened fire, shooting 45 people and killing more than a dozen in about ninety minutes before being shot dead by Austin police officers. In 1969 came Charles Manson and his girls, who by themselves soaked up all of America's available freaky-killer bandwidth for several years. (The Manson murders had as great an immediate influence on popular culture as all serial killers combined, and like serial murder spawned an entire genre of film -- slasher movies -- but we will save all that for another time.)The 1960s also witnessed was is indisputably the most intriguing serial killer case ever: [the Zodiac murders][21], which terrorized San Francisco beginning in December 1968. Zodiac killed at least seven people (perhaps nine) over a little more than a year, but he wrote weird and (aside from the disputed Ripper letters) unprecedented letters to the police and press until at least 1974 in which he claimed to have killed 37 people. Zodiac was not a conventional sex killer. He claimed in his letters, the first few of which were written a bizarre symbol code that the National Security Agency was unable to break (the code was cracked by a husband-and-wife team of amateur cryptologists), that he was "collecting souls" to serve him as slaves in the afterlife. Zodiac -- his letters usually began with the chilling "This is the Zodiac speaking" -- sometimes dressed in a hooded costume, signed himself with a cross superimposed on a circle, killed with both a knife and a gun, and staged his murders with references to both Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and a famous short story, "The Most Dangerous Game," by a writer named Richard Connell. "The Most Dangerous Game," about a shipwrecked American hunter who falls into the hands of a mad aristocrat who has abandoned hunting wild game in favor of hunting humans, has been filmed more than a dozen times and ripped off perhaps a hundred more. Zodiac refers directly to the story in one of his several letters to the press.All of this is quite normal for a Hollywood character and almost unheard of for a real-life criminal. The case received intense but relatively short-lived publicity while the murders were taking place and made a major media figure of Inspector Dave Toschi of the San Francisco Police Department, who was already a northern California celebrity for his good looks, media savvy, unconventional demeanor and aura of cool. (Toschi is generally accepted as the model for Peter Yates' [Bullit][22], and Steve McQueen insisted that Frank Bullit's fast-draw shoulder holster be modeled on Toschi's.) The killings dropped out of the headlines by the mid-'70s but lived on in popular culture. In one of his letters, the killer said that he had seen William Freidkin's The Exorcist -- he called it a "satirical comedy" -- and the reference so affected William Peter Blatty, author of the novel, that he incorporated the character into his Exorcist sequel, Legion, published in 1983 and filmed in 1990 as The Exorcist III.In one of his letters, Zodiac threatened to hijack a school bus and kill all the passengers, and now, no doubt, some readers have put together the pieces: Zodiac/"Scorpio," San Francisco, crazy modus operandi, unconventional detective inspector, school bus full of kids... the Zodiac case produced one of the great films of the 1970s: Don Seigel's 1971 tour de force, [Dirty Harry ][23]. Derided at the time of its release by Pauline Kael as "fascist medievalism," Seigel's stupendously successful film was Clint Eastwood's movie-star coming-of-age and remains one of the greatest serial killer movies ever made; Andrew Robinson's "Scorpio" (a Hall of Fame performance, still creepy today) targeted schoolchildren, just as Scorpio threatened to do, and audiences cheered when Harry Callahan finally blew him away. The real Zodiac was never caught.Everything -- media, cops, concept -- came together at the time of the American Bicentennial. In July 1976, two young women in the Bronx were shot in a car by an unknown assailant; one of them died. A young man in the company of a young woman was shot in October, also in a car; in Queens; he recovered, although doctors installed a metal plate in his head. In November two young women were shot on the street; one recovered, the other was left a paraplegic. In January 1977 the killer attacked another couple in Queens, shooting the girl to death, and by spring the NYPD knew they had a psycho on the loose. All of the victims had been shot with a .44 Special revolver, and the press dubbed the shooter the .44 Caliber Killer. He killed another woman in March and a young couple in April. It was after the April murder that the media learned that the killer had sent a letter to police announcing himself as "Son of Sam," and the summer of 1977, the summer of the famous blackout, became the [Summer of Sam][24]. When it was over, David Berkowitz, a halfwit arsonist, had killed six people, blinded one, paralyzed another and wounded seven more. He claimed to be acting on orders from a black Labrador retriever named Harvey. By the time of the Son of Sam case, which occurred in the media capital of the universe, humans like Berkowitz had a name: "Serial killer." Berkowitz is serving a 364-year sentence in Attica and is born-again. He [claimed to be quite upset][25] with Spike Lee's movie._ Dirty Harry_ and Son of Sam set the tone for the decades to come. America overflowed with out-of-the-box criminal violence, violence of a kind hitherto unknown anywhere, and it was reflected in popular culture. The wretched Ed Gein, for example, inspired yet another cinematic landmark, and launched the career of writer/director Tobe Hooper, with 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As the 1980s passed in a river of homicidal blood, films and television became completely enamored of serial murder, and in beating the trope to death over the next 20 years managed to hit every imaginable cliche. Serial killers were portrayed as specializing in loopy forms of murder, and a short survey of film plots reveals productions about killers who: decapitate victims, dismember victims, "brutalize their victims and drain them of blood," hold their victims in a "secret area" for 40 hours before drowning them, chop up their victims to "use their body parts to create a body for Jesus," and my personal favorite, the killer who slays his victims "by landing them with giant fishhooks." (1986's [ _ Blood Hook_][26], from Troma Films, of course.) Profiler featured an episode about a killer who posed his victims in tableaux intended to replicate classical paintings, and David Fincher's Seven was about a loon who in his murders commemorated the Seven Deadly Sins. Killers were presented who were obsessed with particular kinds of victims, and thus we were treated to films in which maniacs killed only: prostitutes (of course), dancers, cheerleaders, "top models," "victims with medical problems," "highly respected people," one-armed men, cabdrivers, martial-arts masters(!), "busty women," brides, newlywed couples (on their wedding night), bus conductors and -- bliss -- "[big-haired rockers][27]."The effect on the publishing industry was perhaps even greater -- Amazon lists [more than 10,000 titles][28] related to serial killers -- and it was a novelist, the vastly gifted Thomas Harris, who took the trope to its highest and most successful level. His Lecter novels -- Red Dragon appeared in 1981, Silence of the Lambs in 1988 -- were international bestsellers (his "Buffalo Bill" was yet another dramatic incarnation of Ed Gein) and led to the 1991 release of Jonathan Demme's extraordinary film of [Silence of the Lambs][29], which taught us all just how scary is Sir Anthony Hopkins. Film these days reaches farther than literature, and Hopkins took Harris's horrific demented Dr. Lecter to the whole world. Ellroy was right: "Serial killer," long the subject of appalled fascination, experienced a sort of cultural apotheosis.And then it was over. Finally.Some jackometrics data collected Friday night:["serial killer"][30]: 623,000 [Lee Malvo][31]: 17,500 [Laci Peterson][32]: 87,900 [Dirty Harry][33]: 159,000.[asparagus][34]: 496,000 That last is to provide some perspective. Thanks for reading.(Readers interested in watching any of the films referenced above, including classics like M_ or _The Lodger, can find virtually all of the titles mentioned in this essay at Liberty Hall.) [1]: [2]: [3]: [4]: [5]: [6]: [7]: [8]: [9]: [10]: [11]: [12]: [13]: [14]: [15]: [16]: [17]: [18]:'s [19]: [20]: [21]: [22]: [23]: [24]: [25]: [26]: [27]: [28]: [29]: [30]: [31]: [32]: [33]: [34]:


tomking 17 years, 11 months ago

Fascinating. Creepy. Didn't Alice Cooper eat dead babies in the 70s?

Kelly Powell 17 years, 11 months ago

Would the bender family count as serial killers? They were a family here in kansas during the pioneer days who would invite a traveler to their house for dinner(they had a good looking daughter named carrie who would do the luring) have him sit at a table with his back against a canvas partition.... and then the father would cave his skull in with a sledgehammer.....

Patrick Quinn 17 years, 11 months ago

I think the Bender daughter was named Kate, and they certainly count as a sort of serial killer collective. They were never caught, although reports of their popping up around the West surfaced for years.

Alice Cooper never ate a dead baby as far as I know, altho eating a live baby was a regular part of his show in the '80s.....

Aufbrezeln Eschaton 17 years, 11 months ago

Wow. It's content like this that keeps me from dismissing the internet as an intellectual wasteland. Thanks!!

Aufbrezeln Eschaton 17 years, 11 months ago

Yes, the "Bloody Benders" most certainly count. Coolest features: It was masterminded by the 15-year-old daughter Kate (I think that was her name, I only smoked pot on that damned historical marker about a thousand times)--she wasn't just the bait, and that they somehow made it out of town just hours before the lynch mob. Oh, and in the 70's and 80's a kick-ass barbecue restaraunt stood on the site of the original inn.

erinjones 17 years, 11 months ago

wow. that was long. and i wasn't properly referenced for my dead baby eating performance artist.

that said...good work! now i can be even more frustrated at my lack of television. and dead bolts.

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