BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Bloody murder has been a quintessentially
American preoccupation since John Newcomen sailed in on the
Mayflower and was whacked by a fellow colonist.
What followed in America from the 17th century to the present,
says cultural analyst and author David F. Schmid, Ph.D., is a form
of "entertainment by murder," a ghastly enthrallment that conflates
some of Americans' favorite preoccupations: consumerism,
titillation by celebrity gossip and violence.
"Despite our overdeveloped lusts for the 'dark side,'" he says,
"Americans seem to have no sense at all of how weird our engrossing
interest in the macabre appears to those outside this country."
The British-born Schmid is an associate professor of English in
the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo,
where he teaches classes in popular culture and cultural studies.
He is the author of "Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in
American Culture" (2005) and has two books in progress: "The
Scarlet Thread: A History of Homicide in American Popular Culture"
and "Mean Streets and More: Space in Crime Fiction."
"It is not only serial killers, but all kinds of murderers, that
Americans find compelling," Schmid says.
"The thrill and horror evoked by murder narratives bring us
close to these 'others,' who hold us in their thrall because on the
one hand, they are so like us, and on the other, so different.
"We fetishize the lives of celebrities and shopping is a
national sport, but most of us are unfamiliar with the fact that
throughout our history, Americans have consumed murder on a grand
scale. It is a diversion that is familiar and comfortable to us.
When I first came to the States, I was stunned by just how
pervasive preoccupation with violence was among ordinary
"Most societies, perhaps all, find murder and murderers of
compelling interest," he says, "but Americans have taken this
fascination to another level entirely."
Schmid says American crime literature and Americans' thirst for
murder narratives harkens back to the mid-17th century, when
scaffold sermons by the intellectual stars of Puritan New England
began to be preached.
"Later they were collected, printed and sold to an eager
public," he says.
"Over time, these were expanded to include the lives, last words
and dying confessions of assorted murderers. Trial notes,
biographies of victims, bits of poetry and other material
eventually were included as well.
Up to the mid-19th century, hundreds of such accounts were
published in New England alone. Among the most popular was the true
crime magazine "The American Bloody Register," based on England's
"Newgate Calendar," both of which combined moralism with explicit
details about various crimes.
The popular culture of the next 100 years was marked by lurid
newspaper murder reportage; horrifying dime novels, penny dreadfuls
and other popular outlets, not to mention additional stories of
Western gunslingers and detectives. Scores of murder ballads like
"Pretty Polly" and "Tom Dooley" described the specifics of awful
crimes, and enjoyed a wide audience as well.
Schmid says these narratives replaced the inclusive Puritan
narrative of forgiveness and redemption even for murderers with one
that posited criminals as marginalized others, threatening because
they are perceived as situated outside of the boundaries of normal
society, unrestrained and capable of anything.
Other scholars agree, suggesting that the appetite for
increasingly ghastly information about murder followed the decline
of the Puritan ministry and its Calvinist ideals and their
replacement by a consumer culture suffused with romantic, literary
and legalistic ideals.
Schmid says, "Today's consumer culture offers a murder fix
through a variety of media including tabloid newspapers, violent
video games that permit us (through virtual technology) to "become"
killers and through fictional films about psychopathic cannibals
and other vicious murderers.
On television, cable stations such as "Court TV," shows such as
"CSI" and "The Sopranos," as well as a seemingly endless stream of
news programs and documentaries, all feature coverage of homicide.
Like celebrity gossip programming, these shows often include the
ever-popular invasion of privacy by camera.
True-crime Web sites offer such details as online autopsy photos
of the rich and famous and those who became famous because of their
gruesome deaths. Scores of true-crime blogs offer perpetual
discussion of the same.
"Our appetite apparently cannot be sated," Schmid says, "which
raised the question for me of 'What's really going on here?'
"There are many reasons for this collective obsession today," he
says, "but one reason is that -- let's face it, most of us -- in
our own culture and others -- lead relatively boring, uneventful
"As bizarre as it sounds, and although we may not want to admit
it to ourselves," Schmid says, "many Americans engage routinely
with murderous pop culture because it provides them with excitement
in the midst of an otherwise mundane existence. Whether it be
Hannibal Lecter or Tony Soprano, our homicidal heroes are here to
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