This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

America’s fascination with murder

Schmid studies how preoccupation with violence permeates popular culture

Published: September 6, 2007

Contributing Editor

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, 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, an associate professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences, 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 Americans.

"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 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.

"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," Schmid says.

On television, cable stations such as Court TV and 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 lives.

"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 stay."