Friday, October 26, 2007

Time to Give it a Rest?

I may have just ended my recent phase of reading serial killer books. As I've mentioned on the blog now and again, I've spent much of this year intermittently reading non-fiction about some of the most heinous and dark members of the human species. I'd be lying of I didn't admit that I found much of the stuff I learned compelling, and that I received a certain jolt from wrapping my head around these pattern criminals. I've often said that I don't believe in the concept of "evil', and I wanted to test just how far my convictions extended. If there is any behavior that can be characterized in that way, I would have to nominate sadistic sexual predation and murder. Yet there is something so perverse about people that engage in these practices that I'm tempted to conclude that their actions have more to do with mental illness than any inversion of contemporary morality. Understandably most folks don't have space within their psychic schema to incorporate necrophilia, cannibalism, mutilation and dismemberment.

It makes sense that the vast majority of the population will go their entire lives without feeling a desire to study serial killing in any detail. The real-life stories of these perps transcend the offhand ruminations of the typical member of society. Even with a full imagination and the bleakest intentions, there is much I would have never thought of had I not read the historical accounts of the actions of some of these individuals. Jeffrey Dahmer is an illustrative example- in an attempt to create zombie partners for his twisted sex life, he drilled holes in the skulls of his victims and poured boiling water and acid in the openings. Furthermore, in the months before he was caught (while his compulsions were accelerating), he began to build an altar with reconstructed skeletons using bones from the young men he killed. The purpose of this mad construction was to harness energy to use ritualistically in controlling future victims.

There is no doubt in my mind that Dahmer was legally insane. While it's true that he was able to hold down jobs while in the midst of his madness, I don't think its a stretch to assume there was something inherently abnormal in his psychology. You'd only do the type of things that he did if you believed they would actually work. My reading of the secret hobbies of other serial killers further reinforces my viewpoint that the word "evil" is both imprecise and irrelevant when trying to explain the activities of these people. Such a categorization fails to provide the insights necessary to investigate, understand or prevent such extreme actions. After all, why bother examining these phenomena if we are going to lump them in with other more prosaic practices that we have either considered or engaged in? If, on the other hand, we intend to cite them as a benchmark for the limits of human behavior- then such a label as 'evil" becomes meaningless. If it requires such extreme examples to call ourselves "good" in comparison, then we might need to re-evaluate our entire conception of morality. This is a scale for a very small minority.

At any time in America, there may be several dozen active serial killers. (Please note that the definition of such a criminal is limited to someone who kills three or more victims, with a "cool-off" period between killings) This thought may be frightening until you consider the vast population of our nation. Truly you have a much greater chance of dying in a car accident, or while crossing the street, then becoming the victim of a future Ted Bundy. If you are neither a prostitute or a promiscuous gay male, your odds of avoiding such a fate improve even further. Yet with the extent to which serial killers have become part of our modern popular entertainment, it's easy to believe that these shadowy figures lurk on the periphery of our everyday lives. Such a belief is obviously magnified when one becomes obsessed with the burgeoning literature of multiple murderers.

So after concluding Harold Schechter's The Serial Killer Files, I have decided to give the subject matter a break for awhile. This encyclopedic compendium of mayhem and monsters overwhelms the reader with historical details and profiles of some of the most dangerous humans to stalk the planet. It is a wealth of information, and disputes many of the assumptions prevalent in our society. Serial killers have existed throughout history- the current rash in activity is not unprecedented, as many of our most strident cultural warriors would have you believe. Reading Schechter's work is truly enlightening, if a bit overwhelming. At the same time- because the book is structured into chapters detailing factors such as motive, methodology, definitions, and profiling- The Serial Killer Files can be annoyingly redundant in its repeated mention of specific criminals and crimes. It's one thing to have one's head filled with the most prominent serial killers like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson... and it's entirely different to be familiar with the lives of Herbert Mullin, Joel Rifkin and Peter Sutcliffe. When one can recognize these obscure figures as if they were the lineup of this year's World Series championship team- it might be time to step away from the blood puddles.

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