Shopping with Ted
The serial killer is our best customer
By J.M. Tyree | Issue #20
Investigators rewarded Henry Lee Lucas with a strawberry milkshake every time he confessed to a new murder. At the height of his celebrity in the mid-1980s, Lucas had more than 600 homicides to his name, a number that would have made him one of the busiest killers in human history. He and his partner in murder, Ottis Toole, claimed they had roamed the country at the behest of a satanic cult. Although Toole said he liked to eat his victims, Lucas refused to join in, joking to the press that he didn't like the taste of barbecue sauce.
Lucas became a media sensation. He interviewed for a true-crime book based on his story (Hand of Death: The Henry Lee Lucas Story), inspired the 1990 film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and spawned a host of other infotainment products. For Lucas, a lifelong drifter who had once lived in a chicken coop, the confessions were a ticket to a lowbrow version of the highlife. His jail perks included a carpeted cell, premium cable channels on a personal television set, and take-out from the Sonic drive-in. In a sense, he had achieved the couch potato's dream lifestyle, while simultaneously becoming a product himself, the dream villain of TV land.
The only problem, according to reporter Ron Rosenbaum, was that the confessions were bogus. In a brilliant Vanity Fair essay dissecting the case, Rosenbaum called Lucas "the best liar in American history." All along, investigators had been inadvertently feeding Lucas details of the crimes to which he confessed. Institutional inertia kept the facts hidden while the hoax mounted. As Joyce Lemons, the mother of a murder victim falsely attributed to Lucas, told Rosenbaum, "Henry had been everybody's ticket to glory, there were all these book contracts." .
The Lucas media circus was made possible by the super-predatory serial killer, a monster-myth that had been recently developed for political expediency. In 1983, the U.S. Senate's Juvenile Justice Sub-Committee on child kidnapping and serial homicide, chaired by Arlen Specter, concluded that 3,600 "random and senseless" murders had occurred in 1981. Although the subcommittee had twisted crime statistics to reach this number, Time magazine duly produced a story on this "new breed of killer." The serial killer, as public menace, was born. These murderers without motives, as Richard Rhodes notes in his 1999 book Why They Kill, served the bureaucratic purposes of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, which was tasked with defining and profiling the serial killers they had helped label. Serial killers also served a law-and-order penal agenda: Lock up these unredeemable fiends and throw away the key. .
Meanwhile, the fictional serial killer was turning into stock footage, thanks largely to the Hannibal Lecter franchise. Readers and movie audiences are now trained to recognize the psychological patter of profilers hot on the trail of cunning pattern-killers, both in the true-crime and fake-crime genres. As the case of Lucas shows, reality and fiction have become hopelessly intertwined. .
The myth could not have developed without real cases, and the classic killers--figures like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, "The Nightstalker" Richard Ramirez, and Jeffrey Dahmer--became subjects of intense public interest. Sensational coverage of murder trials, of course, is nothing new; in a sense, serial killers satisfy old lusts for spectacle and outlaw celebrities. But something about them jibes with our cultural moment. Rosenbaum, for example, called Lucas "a prototypical eighties phenomenon" and "the criminological equivalent of junk bonds." Serial killers perhaps represent the Wal-Martizing of crime; inhuman and mechanistic, they leave a nationwide chain of identical horrors in their wake, on a grand scale with which local operators can no longer compete. The key trait of serial killing, after all, is volume, the sheer scale of the body counts.
Yet on the national scale, serial killers are practically irrelevant as a real threat to the populace. Serial killers are responsible for no more than about 200 murders per year, according to the FBI, while eye cancer causes approximately 2,000 deaths each year. But eye cancer lacks the drama of cannibalism, psychopathology, and sexual deviance. Serial killers, like any other larger-than-life villain, give us someone to hate. Paradoxically, they both terrorize us and make us feel safe, in part because they are numerically rare, and in part because of the illusion that law enforcement superheroes are out there hunting down the bad guys. It is difficult, therefore, to draw any clear distinction between the fictional serial killers consumed in multiplexes and video stores, and the actual killers whose trials and executions sell newspapers and television spots for detergent and antacids. Crime has always moved the merch, but the serial killer seems especially suited to the era of hyper-media coverage, live images from basements filled with bodies, TV reporters posted outside courthouses and prison walls..
Granted that the real gore is still confined to the tabloid gutter, serial murderers make ideal low-budget fodder for late-night cable infotainment, with lurid simulations and reconstructions passing for educational docudrama about law enforcement techniques. The bottom line from marketing: murder, whether fictional or real, makes viewers watch ads.-
Serial killers, as cultural products, perpetuate the vision of the criminal as animal, someone who has forfeited his membership in the human race. Such a concept of radical evil can be comforting, as it puts an immovable boundary between us and them. Yet serial killers generally seem to live like most people, most of the time. They are imbedded the same consumer culture that immerses everyone else--they shop at the same stores, watch the same TV. Fellow customers at Dahmer's supermarket probably didn't think twice when he dropped Clorox bleach, Soilex, and Odor-Sorb into his cart. Only when his apartment turned into a crime scene did these cleaning supplies become the ultimate anti-product placement. It is not impossible to imagine Dahmer appearing in a commercial for Odor-Sorb or giving Soilex a true-life testimonial in a late-night infomercial. And when he bought a second freezer unit for his apartment, his family became curious about the purchase but not curious enough to investigate.
Consumer culture, even while it exploits their crimes for public titillation, also provides the killers with a shared databank of cultural references, sometimes recycled with a chilling and unintentionally comic effect. Charles Manson, a serial-killer prototype, based an entire paranoiac political prophecy of apocalypse and race war on the Beatles' song "Helter Skelter." His access to the record, and his misinterpretation of the phrase, relied on a new system of global trade where pop culture was interchangeable between continents, even if the lyrics on hit albums were not always in the native idiom. Would things have turned out differently if Manson had known that a helter skelter is actually a British amusement park ride? Equally bizarre is Ramirez's remark to the press upon learning that he would face execution: "I'll see you in Disneyland." Chances are he was mimicking the annual Disney ad in which the quarterback who just won the Superbowl tells the camera, "I'm going to Disneyworld!" Disneyland, as a corporate stand-in for heaven, or slang tag line for some fabulous unrealized future, might just be hell.
To see serial murderers saturated in consumer culture places them firmly among us. Ted Bundy, for example, was obsessed with socks. During the period leading up to his capture, Bundy used stolen credit cards to go on shopping sprees, bingeing on new clothes, especially tube socks. Apparently one of his ambitions in life was to acquire enough socks to wear a new pair every day. The dream seems absurd, in part because it is so easily attainable. At the same time, Bundy appears to be a real-life American Psycho, whose shopping fetish highlights the national obsessions regarding new socks and clean laundry. Why do we bother buying white socks in the first place; why do we try to keep them white; why do we lament their pinkish discoloration in the wash; why do we bleach them and throw them away when they turn gray? They're a particularly American interest. Hardly anyone anywhere else in the world wears them; they are a signature feature of the American tourist abroad.
The fact that we're conditioned to crave new clothes does not usually involve any irresistible desire to strangle people with them. Shopping with Ted, however, makes him seem more human, and in a particular way identifies him with consumerist culture in late twentieth-century America. Bundy's sock compulsion, though freakish, connects him with the culture of "buying in bulk," the Price Club spree that assuages our fear of running out by stocking up. In Bundy's case, it was probably evidence of pathology but one not limited to psychopaths by any means.
A peculiar relationship exists between serial killers and mass production/consumption. The end product, in theory, is always supposed to be identical. The serial killer is an assembly line producing human corpses with a signature M.O.--the killer's brand. The killer is himself also a product, both as a consumer raised in a particular social milieu and as a consumable artifact of that same culture.
Yet the most obvious fact about serial killers is the most subversive: they are human beings. As cardboard villains for our consumption, they fulfill a need for someone to hate unequivocally, without mitigation, hesitation, or sympathy. The putative subhumanity of murderers, of course, makes their extermination socially acceptable. When Ted Bundy was put to death in 1989, for example, gleeful "Fry-Day" cook-outs were held across the country. Apparently the prospect of Bundy's imminent electrocution didn't keep people from brandishing burger flippers and meat forks; they wanted the event to be a kind of TGIF BBQ. The spectacle of execution became a media event with the pagan flavor of a blood feast, a symbolic act of cannibalism. Reports described people "charging up" the national grid by using more electricity that night in order to "help" kill him. This mass consumption somehow magically increased the amps being delivered to the condemned. It begins to sound like a fable--you consume to fight against the life force of evil, and the more you consume, the more utterly will the evil be destroyed. But, by an imploding logic, the moment when we celebrate killing is when we most resemble the killers themselves.