BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If you log on to eBay or http://www.murderauction.com
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
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
"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.
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.
"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
"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.
"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.
"One way that true-crime narratives deny the similarities
between them and us," says Schmid, "is through the popular image of
the so-called 'mask of sanity.' It is a device that turns the
killer's apparent ordinariness into the most compelling sign of
evil by depicting it as a façade hiding the 'truth' of the
serial killer's identity.
"This is not enough to undermine and demonize their apparent
normality, however. One of the more recent innovations in true
crime narratives is the search for, and presentation of, signs of
deviance in the killer's childhood, however spurious.
"The consumer of true crime takes great comfort in the
deterministic logic that binds these children to their evil fate
from their very earliest days," Schmid says. "It distances our
'good families' from these products of 'bad families,' again
allowing us to deny that we or society at large is implicated in
To describe the manner and means to which Americans have used
our serial killers over the past century, Schmid extricates the
interrelated strands of a complex cultural tapestry and examines
each individually and in relation to one another. Among the topics
he covers are:
* The Victorian origins of the American serial killer as a
* The FBI's historical and disturbing use of serial killers as a
* The enmeshment of serial killers in the Hollywood star
* How and why we perpetuate myths about these killers
* The purpose of conflating aliens, devils and serial killers in
television crime dramas
* Where you can pick up Ted Bundy's autopsy and burn photographs
for a song
* The historical relationship between media technologies, fame
* The dialectic between normality and monstrosity in true crime
narratives (demon spawn vs. an especially roguish example of the
* The queering of serial murder in true crime -- Jeffrey Dahmer,
John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wournos
* Serial killing and terrorism inside the U.S. before and after
Schmid notes that since 9/11, Americans have developed a new
obsession with actual and fictional terrorists of many stripes. He
argues, however, that despite the fresh flow of popular culture
dedicated to terrorism, "The celebrity serial killer will continue
to be durable and highly visible in American popular culture.
"This is because, paradoxically, and thanks to the figure's
long-standing presence on the American scene, the serial killer has
a familiar and even comforting quality compared with the radical
"otherness" of the terrorist," Schmid says.
"After all, however we appear to despise the idea, serial
killers are us."
As a faculty member in Department of English in the UB College
of Arts and Sciences, David Schmid teaches classes in 20th-century
British and American fiction, popular culture and cultural studies.
He has published articles on a variety of subjects, including
Dracula, crime fiction and African-American literature anthologies,
and currently is working on a book-length project, "Mean Streets:
Space in Detective Fiction."
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the
State University of New York.