Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Serial Killers in Real life

By Jamie Freveletti

Here’s the promised blog about John Wayne Gacy, one of the most notorious serial killers in history. He lived in the suburbs of Chicago, and before he was done had killed 33 men and boys.

William Kunkle, the State’s Attorney charged with prosecuting Gacy, took a job as a partner in my first law firm. Each year Bill would gather the new associates together and give a presentation about the Gacy trial, complete with a slide show of the evidence found on the Gacy property. Gacy buried his victims in his backyard, and bulldozers were brought in to uncover the evidence. Because the speech was given during lunch time, Bill ordered in pizza. As each slide appeared on the large screen, I found myself unable to eat. (Bill, if you’re reading this and still giving the Gacy speech, you might want to rethink the pizza angle).

These images are burned into my brain. Some were so horrific; I wondered how Bill, the police, and especially the families of the victims, could sleep at night. Perhaps they don’t. I read that Bill watched Gacy die by lethal injection and described it as a privilege to be there. After viewing the slides, I can see why he felt that way. It was like staring into hell. I’ve never discussed these photos in detail outside of that conference room, and I doubt that I ever will. No one should have that floating around in their head. I won’t inflict it on you, either.
To this day I have a hard time reading fiction with serial killer plots. Once you’ve seen the actual results of these killers, you’ll never read fictional killers or the new, detailed and violent story lines that a reviewer recently derided as “torture porn” without thinking that the serial killer is added as a form of antagonist shorthand. They don’t convey the true horror of a serial killer, and they don’t convey enough empathy for the victims. And, inevitably, the serial killers in fiction kill women, not men. Yet, the statistics show that 40% of victims of serial killers are men. Gacy’s victims were all male.

Of course, another part of me is glad that the writer doesn’t “get it.” Why should they? Do we really need that much reality in our entertainment? Here I am, protecting you from a detailed description of Gacy’s crime scene, yet I’m complaining about the lack of detail in a fiction book. Perhaps those writers that give the briefest discussion of the serial killer have it right. They want you to know that the antagonist is bad, but don’t want you to lose too much sleep over a story that, in the end, should entertain.

I know I’m not being too helpful here. I read for a good story, an interesting character, and for just enough thrills and chills to keep me interested. If I want to get a “real” story, I can pick up a book about true crime. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing about a serial killer, but I’m afraid I’ll pull up images from the crime scene and write something so detailed that no one will wish to, or should, read it.

I realize that this is just my personal thing. Writers have been using the “wicked witch” motif for years. I use it myself, and my books contain quite a bit of violence as well. Psychologists argue that children view fairy tales, with witches plumping up young children in order to eat them, as a way to release and work through their fears. I get it. But each time I read about another body found in Ciudad Juarez, 300 plus victims and counting, I realize that there’s nothing entertaining about actual serial killers. These people are out there, and while I don’t live my life in fear of meeting one, I do understand that true, predatory evil exists.

18 comments:

Tom Schreck said...

Like a lot of things, I don't think readers want authenticity. They want digestible fiction.

We like to be teased with horror but we want it to be amusement park terror, not the real life pain that comes from the terrible hurt you would have from losing a loved one under such conditions.

I think it is an unspoken agreement between writers and readers. Just as every reader thinks they know what real cops are like without ever meeting one, they want to know serial killers...in their own way.

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Jen Forbus said...

I agree Jamie. I don't want all the detail. I carry so much of what I read around with me and I already grieve for characters as it is.

As a culture we have a strange fascination with such things, as long as they are kept at a distance. When they are in our own back yards...or even worse in our brains with us constantly...they aren't quite so fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

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