Category Archives: Stranger Beside Me

Serial Killers to Spree Killers: a Cultural Shift?

ted_bundyWe finished up Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me last week in the True Crime course. And while we read the graphic novel Torso which dealt with a series of related murders in Cleveland during the 1930s, the figure of an actual killer was vague at best. With The Stranger Beside Me you get a much more intimate portrait of a man who is regularly referred to by the author as attractive, brilliant, and even compassionate (Rule meets him at a Seattle crisis hotline). Running parallel to this storyline is a quickly accumulating body count of young, attractive women that are being brutaly attacked, sexually assualted, and ultimately murdered. As a result of this book you become all too familiar with the many faces of Ted Bundy.

It’s through this dichotomy between savage predator and urbane citizen that Bundy seemed to make such an indelible impact on our cultural psyche. Even in 1980 when this book was published and Bundy had already been convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the term serial killer was not yet in popular use. The emergence of the figure of the serial killer as a popular one is in many ways synonymous with Bundy’s heinous murders of the 1970s—and concomitant with the popularity of Rule’s book. He represented the frightening fact that insanity and brutality can also come in sheep’s clothing—the pretty face of an emerging cultural category that would find its apex in the 1980s. Interestingly enough, the Slate article  “Blood Loss: the decline of the serial killer” argues we have seen a decline in the number of serial killers since the 1980s, which may have very well have been reinforced by the sensationalized media coverage of criminals like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer, to name a few. In could be argued that the 1990s and 2000s have seen the popular emergence of a new violent trend in the U.S.: spree killings. It is, unfortunately, pretty easy to rattle off a bunch of such incidents: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora movie theater, and most recently Newtown to name jsut a few. The sense of the arbitrary nature of these violent acts becomes just that much greater.

It’s hard to even concieve what one can understand something about a culture in such a shift of arbitrary violence? Part of the True Crime class has been about trying to read through the telling of crime to understand who we are as a culture at any particular moment—but I find it really hard for our moment. I’ve likened Bundy and the serial killer crazy to the emergence of the predatory capitalism of the 1980s, it’s a fairly trivial way to deal with such horrific arbitrary violence, but at the same time sense needs to be made. But how about spree killings? How do we make sense of Columbine or Sandy Hook? Can we?

I’m not so sure, but Forensic Psychologist Paul Mullen argues that it is part of an emerging cultural script that became popular during from the late 1960s and has already accelerated since. It’s not necessarily the idea that violent video games and movies produce psychokillers, but as David Dobbs suggest more discerningly when talking about the Aurora movie theatre shootings, “culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction.” And in the U.S over the last 10 to 15 years that culture seems to be framed by “a right-wing, militiarized expression of violence” to quote Mullen. While these arguments don’t explain the horror, the do try and drill downwand and take a broader cultural look at the conditions that make this possible. And, ideally, a space to try and deal with them beyond more violence, executions, and prisons.

A True Crime Book List

B001D23SXA-IxaDh-200x300Thanks to this tweet from Mary Kayler, I found this list of the nine most disturbing True Crime books. I was happy to see that three of which are part of the True Crime course syllabus Paul Bond and I came up with for this semester. In addition to In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter (actually we watched the TV movie which is awesomer), and The Stranger Beside Me, there were at least two others I would consider if I were to teach this course again that are on that list. For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz provides an account of the Leopold and Loeb murder of the 1920s, something that would have worked well this semester to
6c3de2df9f9bed0c2d9382ca35269f91
frame the broader issues of the intellectualization of crime, thrill killing, queer studies, and a broader sense of a declining moral coda in the 20th century. The other book that I would consider is Columbine (2010), an account by Dave Cullen of the school shootings that shook the nation in 1999—but have almost become routine 15 years later. I think a book look this would help us start dealing with mass shootings like Virginia Tech, Aurora,  and even Newtown a bit more. It just still seems so raw and horrible to have to try and actually wrestle with. All the more reason we should, I guess.9170

I felt like I read Gommorah by Roberto Saviano because Antonella was reading it, and I got to hear all the gruesome details about the seemingly boundless brutality of Cosa Nostra. Unlike the U.S., Italy has far fewer romantic notions about organized crime. They understand how ugly it is through and through. And, to be fair, this is an itialian True Crime book, our class focuses on the current empire ;)

9781101608630.340x340-75That leaves three more books from the list. Joe McGinness’s Fatal Vision, which I had considered for the syllabus early on but left it out because for a survey of U.S. crime narratives over 300 years we were getting far too focused on the 1970s and 80s. Nonetheless, it is a truly disturbing book, but not oen I want to really tackle given it’s like a true crime version of The Shining wherein Jack Torrance wins.

The account of the Unabomber, A Mind for Murder by Alston Chase, is actually one I usually wouldn’t have all that much interest in reading. However, from the description it seems to blame the monster Kaczynksi became on academia, which might be just what I need these days.

0393325563Alston Chase’s gripping account follows Ted Kaczynski from an unhappy adolescence in Illinois to Harvard, where he was subject not only to the despairing intellectual currents of the Cold War but also to ethically questionable psychological experiments. Kaczynski fled academia to the edge of the wilderness in Montana, but Chase shows us that he was never the wild mountain man the media often assumed him to be. Kaczynski was living in a book-lined cabin just off a main road when he formulated the view of the world that he used to justify murder.

Adjunct culture made him do it!

last-victim-jason-moss-paperback-cover-artThe Last Victim by Jason Moss is a book about how John Wayne Gacy tried to kill the author when he went to visit him in jail. Really? There’s a book about this? How shocking, as if the 33 boys and young men he sexually assaulted, murdered, and buried beneath his house were not enough evidence he might have violenet tendencies. What’s more, during high school I read the mass paperback Killer Clown by Terry Sullivan which scared the hell out of me for a long time. Gacy was a dark, dark hole of humanity, one serial killer is enough for any true crime course.

All that said, however, thanks to Paul Bond our True Crime class was very much on the cutting edge of new true crime work given one of the works we assigned, “Mad Love: The Ballad of Freddie and Allie,” was just nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize for creative nonfiction.

 

From Mansonism to Bundyism

manson_clapping_better 01
The 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter ends on a fear-mongering tear about “the social compost heap” from which Charles Manson sprang that may lead to an even more “virulent strain” of “Mansonism.” [This usage of Mansonism pre-dates, and I imagine was the inspiration for, the other Mansonism of the 1990s.] It’s probably the best bit in the entire film, and it lays bare the moral at the heart of the film: Manson introduced a special variety of hippie that will endlessly mutliple and grow increasignly more aberrant and antisocial. They represent  a “virulent strain” of the youth movement that is coming of age presently, and that the viewer must be particularly wary of these mutants. Here is the clip, watch it through:

According to Helter Skelter, the idealism of 1960s youth movements in search of social justice, peace, and a better future effectively devolves into anarchic, violent cults led by fervent fanatics. A pretty effective narrative to stem popular support for any socially responsible activism during the 1970s. In fact, Vincent Bugliosi’s final commentary on this “era of madness” (which just as well could refer to the 1960s more generally as it does to the Manson murders) was probably the scariest thing about the TV movie when I watched it as a kid in 1976. The rabid Mansonites were out there multiplying wildy in mass orgies. It’s an image somehow akin to what 1950s youth must have felt when watching the xenophobic horror and scifi films of that era, namely Them! (1954) or  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But the difference now was the threat was from within (somethign John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing updates brilliantly about the films from the 1950s).

Such a message of paranoia and fear in Helter Skelter informs the general public’s idea of the hippies as the modern incarnation of violent commies. And it gets even more interestingly when set against another burgeoning identity group of the era: the yuppies. The emergence of this category of young, conservative, upper-class urban professionals was the oppositie extreme to the feral Manson hippies. White, clean-cut, all-American capitalists who are living the dream of social status and conspicuous consumption. The posterchildren for a re-worked vision of class consiousness that would ultimately celebrate the idea of material privilege in the mainstream media of the 1980s. Something that reaches its logical extreme with Bret Easton Ellis‘s 1991 novel American Psycho, but it can’t get there without first passing through Bundyism.

Ted Bundy on Trial

American Psycho

Ted Bundy in many ways was the prototypical yuppie during the late 1960s and early 1970s. A staunch college Republican who openly denounced student movements. In Ann Rule’s  The Stranger Beside Me (1980) she notes Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Meg Anders, was asked by police what he had said when asked about the lug wrench with a taped handle he kept in his car (which he used to crush the skulls of women he abducted) he answered, “You never know when you can get caught in the middle of a student riot” (193).  A bizarre transference of his aggression onto the socially oriented activism of the day.

Yet, he seemed to use the unviersity as a cloak of privelege as well as a hunting ground for his victims. He hid within an affectation of culture, and dressed the part of a prep—complete with turtleneck, blazer, white tennis shoes, and corduroys. What’s more, he resisted any communal idea of organizing, he was an individualist. His determination to become successful was described in by Ann Rule as “an almsot Horatio Alger-like metamorphosis” (21). What’s more, he is described by Rule as anything but a radical:

He believed totally in the orderly progression of changes in the system of government through legislation. His stance made him something of a loner among the work-study students working at the Crisis Clinic. They were semi-hippies, in both their garb and their political views, and he was a conservative Republican. (36)

I love the way Ann Rule delineates the two foci of “semi-hippies”: clothes and politics. Can’t the same might be said of Yuppies? In this regard Ted Bundy really is a stand-out. He’s the very opposite of Manson, and in many ways scarier. He’s a clean-cut kid with predatory appetite that represents the most primal vision of a political rhetoric around social Darwinism that seems to buttress a system that amasses its fortunes in terms of human trophies, or  said another way disinvestment. He is the logical extreme of  such a system of accumulation. Without God, without fate, and within a very flimsy world tied together by a fragile lattice of coincidence, survival of the fittest is all you have left. It’s the horror at the heart of the vision of the serial killer that explodes throughout the 70s and 80s—we’re being preyed on by forces out of our control. We’re supine in the face of chance, we can only hope to survive the predations of the most twisted among us. It’s a view of the world Ann Rule seem to buy into, one wherein weakness is a trait that must be culled at all costs:

Had the man who approached these young women divined somehow that he had come his victims in a time when they were particularly vulnerable, when they were not thinking as clearly as they usually did? It would almsot seem so. The stalking, predatory animal cuts the weakest from the pack, and then kills at his leisure.

is Rule suggesting here that the common condition of the women who were abducted, beaten, raped, and then mutilated by Bundy might have been avoidable? Are we blaming the victims here? If only these women weren’t so vulnerable, if only they had a sense of how savage the world truly is, if only we were more scared of that stranger beside us. Ted becomes the one in total charge, the figure of pwoer—the women become the “weakest of the pack.” And this metaphor of nature’s culling of the weak tends to reinforce the most conservative political rhetoric. The strong will survive and the weak shall perish. It’s the montra of the corporate world, and it’s been an enduring a vision of our  society for the last forty years that in many ways could be considered at the opposite end of the spectrum from the revolutions of the 1960s. In such a predatory world there’s no sense of community, no support for the vulnerable, and a return to a pre-civilized moment in which humanity is on par with animals on the hunt. It’s the closest thing to a worldview in Rule’s book, and it’s probably the best way to sum up the escalation of U.S. political culture as we enter the 1980s. And like Bugliosi’s view of Mansonism, it’s equally feral, just far less distinguishable from normalcy.

And there is so much more. Bundy’s defining romance with Stephanie (a girl from an affluent family) that ultimately a source of rejection. After undergraduate, she no longer considered theirs a viable, longterm realtionship based on his prospects (which might be read as class). The whole thing kinda reads like the plot of a John Hughes film from the 1980s. It’s as if Bundy was the other side of Manson, the bizarre horror of submersed class consiousness as well as the worst of sensationalized violence against women. As Bundy is coming into the national scene as a media sensation, so are slasher movies. The popular vision of violence against women is another cultural touchstone. The deranged killers of the slasher cycle of films that represent so much psychic baggage of a decade of deeply scarring turmoil, from Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve  (1971)through Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and many many more. Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that’s why they call it cutlure. And the struggle between the horrific carciatures of Manson and Bundy might be exactly the political battle we are still fighting today, to borrow from Mike Caulfield‘s awesome comment here that inspried much of my ramblings above :)

But let me end this post somewhat haphazardly with another quote from Ann Rule’s book that captures for me an image of Bundy’s life that I believe supports my theory of him as the proto-typical yuppie. In this scene during May, 1975 Ted is entertaining people he used to work with in Washington in his partment in Salt Lake City:

The trio from Washington found Ted’s apartment very pleasant; he’d cut pictures out of magazines and tried to duplicate the decor he favored. He still had the bicycle tire, hung from the meat hook in his kitchen, and he used that to store knives and other kitchen utensils in a mobile effect. He had a color television set, a good stereo, and he played Mozart for them to accompany the gourmet meals he prepared.

It almost seemed like a scene out of some bratpack movie from the 80s like St Elmo’s Fire. The attention to decor, the Moart accompanied by gourmet good, not to mention the hifi system. Ted is about things, he is about possessions and appearance, but as this passage also makes clear he is also has a meat hook that holds knives and maybe even the cleaver he brings on his midnight forays. Part of the vision here is out of  style magazine, and the other part a slasher film—Ted is the premise of a cultural flashpoint of consumption, predation, and affectation that would come to define the next 15 years of U.S. culture. If Helter Skelter killed the hippie, then The Stranger Beside Me gave the yuppies their first serial killer, but certainly not there last ;)