There is a small house in the two-street town of Pennsburg, eastern Pennsylvania with a collection of art you would possibly never find in a public library. Across the walls of a room downstairs are photos of injuries and mutilation, various types of skulls, fantastical animals, and folkloric landscapes. Guess what makes these arts stand apart from others? All of them were painted by serial killers.
Just the way some of us would collect rare coins or stamps, John Schwenk collects these artefacts of murderers. Among his possessions are a portrait by John Wayne Gacy, known as the Killer Clown who raped and murdered at least 33 boys and young men in Chicago during the 1970s, a drawing of a skull by Richard Ramirez aka the ‘Night Stalker’ responsible for numerous murders and sexual assaults in California in 1984 and 1985, as well as pieces by Charles Manson, leader of the criminal cult the Manson Family responsible for the brutal killing of the pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others around Los Angeles in 1969.
His possessions also include thousands of letters from serial killers on death row, many of which are personally addressed to him. He has received ‘gifts’ from them which range from locks of hair, a prison shirt, a prison ID card, a set of false teeth, some unused dental floss and other dark objects that would surely send a chill down our spine.
“I’m interested in what possesses somebody to kill another human being, and to do it numerous times,” BBC quoted John as saying.
If you are one of those people who binge-watch TV series, you cannot deny that watching true crime shows is your guilty pleasure. Be it Netflix’s Mindhunter or Making a Murderer, true crime television shows tantalize millions of people.
We may be disturbed by blood and grotesque murder scenes, but we are equally drawn to them. Serial killers and mass murderers terrorize us, and yet we want to learn about them even if it means spending a couple of sleepless nights.
But what is it that fuels our eternal fascination for serial killers?
A sneak peek into Netflix’s Night Stalker
Recently, Netflix released a four-part series called Night Stalker, which details the grisly crimes of serial killer Richard Ramirez, who was known by that name in the press. Ramirez was an American serial killer, serial rapist, kidnapper, pedophile, and burglar, whose home invasions and murder crime spree terrorized the Greater Los Angeles area and later the residents of the San Francisco Bay Area from June 1984 until August 1985.
Ramirez’s victims were chosen seemingly at random. There was no specific pattern to the age or gender of his victims and survivors. He stabbed some of his victims and shot others, but the one thing he always enjoyed was seeing the fear in someone’s eyes before killing them. On a number of occasions, Ramirez abducted and sexually assaulted children, and later let them go.
In the four-part docuseries Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer, director Tiller Russell examines the Night Stalker case from the perspective of two LA County Sheriff’s Department detectives. After five months of an intense investigation and manhunt, they hunted down and caught Ramirez.
The notorious serial killer was tracked down by a young, amiable cop called Carrillo, who became a a detective at a relatively young age, along with Frank Salerno, a veteran detective known for working on the biggest murder cases.
When Carrillo came up with the theory that the very same man was involved in the series of murders as well as the child abductions and assaults, he was scoffed at by many of the LA area’s police detectives. Salerno, however, trusted his instincts and supported him through the investigation, especially after the two became partners.
Night Stalker reveals the varied crimes of Ramirez and the manhunt to nab him through archival footage, crime scene photos, and interviews with Carrillo, Salerno, and media members who reported on the case at the time. Some of Ramirez’s survivors too shared their horrifying experiences in the series.
Our strange obsession with serial killers and true crime shows
It’s nothing new, this hysteria surrounding crimes and criminals. We are drawn towards true crime documentaries because this is the closest we can get to serial killers and understand their psychology.
“They represent something larger than life, something truly cartoonishly monstrous, like the horror stories you’re told as a child,” suggested James Hoare, editor of Real Crime. This is a monthly magazine whose first two issues featured “the world’s deadliest serial killers” and Charles Manson.
“Everybody responds to the idea that there’s something nasty out there,” said Schechter, who calls tales of serial killers “fairy tales for grownups. “There’s something in our psyche where we have this need to tell stories about being pursued by monsters.”
To delve deeper into the topic, Platocast spoke to Anuja Kapur, a renowned Criminal Psychologist. She is the founder of ‘Nirbhaya Ek Shakti’, a centre for assistance for rape survivors – it provides assistance to victims in the form of counselling, legal aid, vocational courses, and rehabilitation. She was recently felicitated by International Association of Research and Developed Organisation for her work in the field of Indian Criminal Psychology.
“Tales of crimes depicted in true crime TV shows are mostly morbid stories of prolific serial killers who have become popular culture legends,” Anuja says. “It is normal for us human beings to be drawn towards their crimes, and in turn understand their psychology, just as we enjoy watching and reading thrillers.”
Besides Night Stalker, various recent TV shows deal with the crimes of notorious serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy (The Killer Clown), and David Berkowitz (Son of Sam).
“To begin with, these stories give us an adrenaline rush like no other. It is chilling and you instantly become a cop in your head, or a detective, an FBI agent or a criminal profiler. You keep telling yourself: ‘Oh my goodness, this is exactly what I thought’, or ‘this is what is going to happen next’. The thrill is never-ending,” Anuja says.
“Crimes are a part of society we haven’t been able to erase. Rapes and murders happen around us all the time, so when we watch these shows, we understand how vulnerable we are and in a way we try to learn to fight the evil,” she adds.
To put it simply, the most heinous of crimes committed by serial killers decade after decade are terrible to behold, and yet we cannot seem to look away due to the thrill of the spectacle. Serial killers are so extreme in their brutality, and their behaviour is so unnatural and intriguing, that we are riveted by them.
“Another aspect that interests us is the investigation that goes into nabbing the perpetrators. These are stories of grit, determination and perseverance of the cops and detectives who work day and night to solve cases that haunt society. It is not an easy task, and their sense of responsibility is unparalleled,” Anuja says.
“Serial killers are people whose behaviours are beyond society’s comprehension, but that is what makes us compelled to understand them,” she adds.
Another very important aspect of our obsession with serial killers has to do with the fact that these people blend into society so effectively that you may sit next to one in a bus without the slightest idea about it.
Take Ted Bundy for example — he came across as a very average guy in person, as we get to learn from his survivors. He is good-looking, even charming — he is anything but a visibly scary predatory monster. It is horrifying because literally anyone, a friend or a relative, could be a killer and we would not even know.
“The public is drawn to true crime documentaries because they trigger fear, which is a powerful emotion in all of us. When it comes to crime shows in the form of pop-culture entertainment, we get to experience the presence of serial killers in an environment that is controlled, making the threat exciting,” says Anuja.
So in strange ways, horrific as they are, serial killers and true crime shows are more compelling than we like to admit. So why wait? Start binge-watching Night Stalker on Netflix today!