The subject of serial killers is always interesting, and having both done a good deal of research on the topic, fellow horror novelist Jared S. Anderson and I got into an in-depth back-and-forth e-mail conversation about it. After re-reading the e-mails, we thought it might be interesting to use as a blog post. Jared and I have both written about killers and what follows is Part One of our own thoughts as well as what we learned along the way.
Here is the first question he asked me. It got the ball rolling and turned into a more of a mountain than a ball, really…
JSA: Who is your favorite serial killer, and why?
TT: Let me look through my serial killer trading cards. . . Seriously, I have a lot of favorites. I’m more interested in the ones like Ted Bundy who easily pass for normal, than the creepier types like John Wayne Gacy. The triad of Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes and the less well known Austin Ripper (aka The Servant Girl Annihilator) intrigues me. Of the three, only H.H. Holmes was captured. Holmes was active between 1886 and 1894, when he was captured. He built a huge “murder hotel” and was most active during the Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893. He is often referred to as America’s first serial killer.
But he was not America’s first, despite the title. That dubious honor more likely goes to the Austin Ripper, who was never captured. He was active from 1884 through 1885, and was named “The Servant Girl Annihilator” by writer H.H. Munro (Saki), who was living in Austin, Texas at the time.
There’s a reasonable chance that the Austin Ripper moved on and became Jack the Ripper, active in London in 1888. The crimes were similar. Some, including H.H. Holmes’s descendant, postulate that Holmes was the Ripper, but other than similar handwriting, there is currently a lack of compelling evidence.
I think these – particularly the two Rippers – fascinate me because of the mystery. There’s so much room for conjecture.
Jared, who is your favorite?
JSA: If I had to choose a favorite, I’d also go with Jack the Ripper. Because his identity is unknown, we can fill in our own blanks about who he was. He murdered so openly it’s hard to imagine he was sane, and yet, whoever he was, he clearly didn’t stand out from the crowd so much that he gave himself away.
Another one who has always fascinated me is Jeffrey Dahmer. Whereas killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy exhibited a lot of typical sociopathic personality traits such as a firm conviction they’d done nothing wrong, a heightened sense of ego, etc., Dahmer never denied or tried to justify his actions. I find that fascinating. He simply admitted what he’d done, and accepted the consequences. I read a lot about Dahmer when I was researching, and I was surprised to find that a good number of researchers believe Dahmer’s conscience was intact. That’s hard to fathom considering the crimes he committed, but there’s just something different about him that makes him a bit of an anomaly.
TT: That’s a very good point. He’s worth further exploration!
JSA: I also have a particular fascination for the killers who fit into society so well as to go unnoticed. When we think of serial killers, I think a part of us believes we’d know one when we saw one, and I don’t believe that’s entirely true. When I was researching serial killers, I would look at photographs or watch videos of certain killers, and try to determine if, in all honesty, I would be able to sense anything dangerous about them. While I have a hard time believing I wouldn’t have been a little creeped out by John Wayne Gacy, I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have given killers such as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer much notice. To me, these guys appeared to be perfectly normal, intelligent men.
I was intrigued though, while reading a book about Ted Bundy, by how many women who’d met him claimed they just felt something wasn’t “quite right” about him. Many of the women who evaded Bundy did so simply because some inner voice warned them against him. So, on that token, I wonder if there isn’t some kind of instinct inside all of us that tries to protect us. The question, though, is, would we heed that instinct, or just ignore it?
TT: I think we all have an instinct, but defining it is difficult. The best explanation of our “knowing” I’ve ever read comes in Gavin DeBecker’s book, The Gift of Fear. People who listen to their instincts are much more likely to live longer, safer lives. The trouble is, we often tend to denigrate our feelings as silly nonsense. We go ahead and get on the elevator with the man in the business suit who looks entirely normal even though our instinct is to run. I wonder what Bundy’s “tell” was. Eye contact? Lack of it?
JSA: I don’t know. No one I read about ever explained what it was exactly that made them uneasy. Just a “feeling.” It’s interesting. So why do you think, as a society, we’re so interested in serial killers?
TT: They walk among us, they look like us, they sound like us, but they are not like us. I think the otherness is a big part of the fascination. If you’ve ever found yourself dealing with someone who does not react like ninety percent of the population, you already understand this. I knew a writer many years ago, not long after my first book came out, who wrote a first novel and sold it. He was overjoyed. But the book was very long and his editor suggested cutting one of the characters in order to shorten it. He asked me about it — I’d read the manuscript — and without a clue about what I was stepping into, I said I thought cutting was a great idea. This was a character that was non-essential and anything important he did could be moved to the main hero. I told the writer my thoughts.
Holy crap! The shit hit a dozen fans. My jaw dropped as I watched this guy go ballistic. He ranted and raved and said nobody understood. And then he screamed and cried. Okay, I knew none of this was normal, but I wouldn’t have called it insane behavior, just a tantrum. But then, I saw his insanity when he said the editor wanted him to kill his father. Evidently he’d named this character after the long-dead parent and somehow this brought Daddy Dearest back to life. At this point, I stopped answering his calls. It was my first brush with insanity and I didn’t like it.
However, it’s fascinating, isn’t it? Serial killers hide the insanity, but we know it’s there. Certainly not in the form I saw with the new writer, but they are even further removed from our emotions and morals than he was. They are foreign.
What kinds of experiences have you had with crazy?
JSA: I’ve met, and in a couple cases, known, people whom I’m certain totally lacked a conscience. The interesting thing is, the majority of sociopaths are not violent. To lack a conscience, and have a murderous temperament is a rare–and pretty unfortunate–blend of psychological problems. That’s not to say sociopaths who aren’t violent aren’t dangerous, they are. It’s just that most sociopaths are what are termed “blue collar” criminals, and are more likely to be found committing various–and usually very crafty–small crimes, rather than outright murdering folks. If you get the chance, read The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout. According to her and the studies she’s researched, one in every 25 people has no conscience. This book is a kind of if you think you’ve never met one, you’re wrong wake-up call.
I found when writing Sterling Bronson (in Beautiful Monster) that creating ways to make him sneaky and underhanded was actually harder than making him a killer. I never diagnosed Sterling in the book, because I wanted readers to be able to fill in their own blanks, so I’m not saying he was an outright sociopath, but in order to write him, I had to understand, to the best of my ability, the way these people think. It wasn’t easy, and in a lot of ways, it wasn’t fun, but overall, I’m pleased with his outcome.
You’ve written about serial killers a few times. What kind of research did you do, and what was your experience in the fictionalization of a monster?
TT: One of my serial killers is definitely not without conscience, but a prisoner of his own desires. The others are traditional psychopaths. In researching, I read everything I can about a multitude of serial killers and their pathology. I find interviews with sociopaths very interesting. I also like to talk with profilers, cops, and other experts and read books like Mindhunter, written from their expert perspective.
I rather enjoy writing from the killer’s perspective — I find it freeing and, sometimes, very therapeutic. Certainly it’s a disturbing process, but I like it. A lot. I tend to dream in character points of view while writing and those are more disturbing — and useful — than anything else.
JSA: Ha! Glad I’m not the only one who dreams of his characters… even the killers! Tell me one of your dreams and I’ll tell you one of mine.
There is more of this to come later. We don’t want to overwhelm you, so we’ve decided to post this in small installments! Next time, Jared and I will discuss dreams and writing, as we’ve both utilized our dreams as a writing tool and, since dreaming of serial killers makes for great stories, we also got pretty heavily into that discussion. So…to be continued!