Natural Born Markets

The Scholarly Fascination with Serial Killers

  • David Schmid: Natural Born Celebrities. Serial Killers in American Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2005. 336 S. Leinen. USD 29,00.
    ISBN: 978-0-226-73867-3.

Serial Killers and
the Culture of Celebrity


At one of the many online shopping sites dedicated to the sale of what has become known as »murderabilia« (a term that refers to artifacts associated with notorious killers), Ted Bundy’s final Christmas card can be yours if you top the current high bid of $700. If you are on a tighter budget, a letter from the »Night Stalker« Richard Ramirez will run you only $14.95, plus shipping and handling (see www.murderauction.com). Elsewhere, action figures of Jeffrey Dahmer and other notorious killers as well as locks of Charles Manson’s hair are available for collectors to purchase.


David Schmid’s Natural Born Celebrities examines this odd culture of celebrity that surrounds serial killers and produces the seemingly ludicrous, but also seemingly lucrative, industry of which the items I mentioned above represent only a very small part. In his history that traces the increasingly close relationship between the culture of serial killers and the culture of celebrity, Schmid argues that

in order to understand why there is such a vibrant market in contemporary America for representations of death in general and of serial murder in particular, we have to appreciate that the famous serial killer effectively satisfies a double need, both halves of which have grown over the course of the twentieth century: the need for representations of death, and the need for celebrities. (p. 17)

Schmid’s book examines the structures that create and support these twin needs, as he analyzes »how and why serial killers become famous, what the consequences of that fame are, and what the existence of celebrity serial killers tells us about the roles fame and violence play in contemporary American culture« (pp. 1–2).


Schmid’s central thesis is that there is a peculiarly American element to the fascination with serial killing and that by understanding America’s alleged fascination with the subject we can understand something about the culture of celebrity in today’s America. I will return to this fundamental assertion later in order to question some of its basic assumptions; for now, however, let’s take the intimate connection between serial murder, celebrity, and American popular culture as a given and follow Schmid’s argument in this book.


From Jack the Ripper to the D.C. Snipers:
A Brief History of Serial Murder


Natural Born Celebrities falls into two main sections. In the first section, Schmid traces the history of serial killing from its modern origins with Jack the Ripper at the end of the 19th century to the Washington, D.C. snipers at the beginning of the 21st century. Schmid argues that during this period the serial killer emerges as a media celebrity, who is continually represented in the media and greeted by the public with a mixture of horror and fascination. This ambivalent approach to serial killers, according to Schmid, can be attributed to »the fact that serial killers could be read as condensed symptoms of the social, thus allowing for the establishment of a wide-ranging culture industry organized around them« (p. 65). Focusing his initial discussion on the Victorian serial killers Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes, Schmid does a fine job presenting a condensed history of their careers and the ways in which they have been understood.


His most original and interesting contribution to this already well-researched and often-discussed history is his assertion that serial killing has been defined as a peculiarly American crime from the turn of the 20th century to the present. Given that any history of serial murder must start in London with Jack the Ripper, Schmid is compelled to employ inventive arguments in order to turn Jack into an American. And indeed he includes a fascinating discussion of suspicions at the time of the Whitechapel murders that Jack was an American. It would have been interesting if he had expanded this thread of his argument and analyzed how assertions of Jack’s alleged ›Americanness‹ operated in comparison with the many other suspicions about his identity – that he was a Jew, a doctor, a woman, etc. Unfortunately, Schmid does not develop this aspect of his argument well enough, preferring instead to present a comprehensive picture of Jack as a media celebrity.


His discussion of H.H. Holmes, »the first American serial killer« (assuming that Jack was not an American), as a clever businessman and American entrepreneur is interesting and illuminating. He reads Holmes as a key figure in moving the 19th-century confidence man into the mainstream of American business practices and argues that »although they were shocked by Holmes’s actions, late-nineteenth-century Americans recognized that he was motivated by desires they all shared to some extent« (p. 65). Even studies that read Holmes as a madman, rather than a shrewd businessman who is perhaps a bit too zealous in his attempts to maximize profits, Schmid tells us, are ultimately attempts to distance oneself from a figure whose motivations seem all-too-familiar, even if his tactics do not. Despite his attempts to link Homes and Jack, however, Holmes remains an anomaly in the history of serial killers: motivated by financial gain, he is much easier (as Schmid notes) to fit into a readily-understandable narrative – he was not a Lustmörder like Jack and so many others who followed him and whose motivations are often mysterious; murder was his business.


Schmid’s second chapter picks up the story of serial killing a century after Jack the Ripper and turns its focus from the killers themselves to the detectives who pursue them. In this chapter he analyzes how the FBI develops itself as the unquestioned authority in tracking serial killers and how the ›profilers‹ themselves become celebrities. Schmid argues that the FBI launched a deliberate campaign in the 1970s and 1980s to distort and exploit fears about serial killers in order to reassert a level of importance and power for itself that it had lost in previous years. He discusses the often-quoted, but extremely questionable assertions by the FBI that serial killers are highly-mobile – traveling 200,000 miles a year – and highly-active – committing as a group approximately 4,000 murders each year (p. 82). Schmid sees this deliberate distortion of the statistics as just one phase in a long-term strategy employed by the FBI to achieve and maintain greater significance by positing itself as the only viable force to contain a great internal threat to the United States: after WWI it was gangsters, after WWII it was Communists, since 9/11 it has been terrorists. And in between Communists and terrorists, it was serial killers.


Schmid reads the FBI’s activities and assertions alongside media representations of FBI agents to make a persuasive and compelling case for a deliberate (and highly effective) attempt to secure power, prestige, and funding for the agency. His discussion of celebrity profilers such as John Douglas and Robert Ressler, both of whom are former FBI agents turned authors of a string of best-selling books, is the most convincing analysis of celebrity culture in the book. Indeed, this is Schmid’s most interesting and promising chapter. He will return to law enforcement agencies later when he discusses supernatural cop shows in what is another of the book’s strongest chapters (see below). These two chapters stand out from the rest of the book for two reasons: (1) they do not focus directly on serial killers and (2) they are highly original and compelling. As it stands, the two strands of this book – one focusing on serial killers and the other focusing on the detectives who pursue them – never really come together seamlessly. I frankly wish that Schmid had developed this second strand of his argument more, even if it meant developing his first strand less.


Serial Killers on Film, TV,
and in the Press


In the second section of the book, Schmid focuses on recent representations of serial killing in American popular culture. In these chapters – and indeed throughout the book – Schmid demonstrates an admirably encyclopedic knowledge of the popular and scholarly literature on serial killers. His discussion ranges widely – from movies to television programs to true crime novels – and contains many interesting analyses of the vast literature on serial killing. Most of the texts he discusses are well-known (part of the traditional serial killer canon, so to speak), but he does also include a selection of less-known texts.


The first chapter of this section traces the history of serial killer films, which Schmid argues invite complex and shifting objects of identification for their viewers. Employing Devin McKinney’s distinction between »strong« and »weak« violence, 1 Schmid finds that most popular Hollywood films (such as Kalifornia, Se7en, Copycat, Natural Born Killers, and 15 Minutes – each of which he discusses at some length) employ »weak violence«, that is to say they use violence as an entertainment device, effectively letting the viewer off the hook for his / her enjoyment of the violent action taking place on the screen. By contrast, a small handful of films (such as Man Bites Dog and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) employ »strong violence«, interrogating viewers and forcing them to confront their own mixture of horror and fascination with the violence perpetrated by serial killers.


Schmid continues with visual culture in his next chapter, focusing on the supernatural television crime drama. As he did in his second chapter of part one, Schmid once again shifts his focus from serial killers to the detectives who pursue them. Through an analysis of popular late-20th-century crime serials such as Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Millennium, and Profiler, Schmid argues for the importance of seriality to television programming – keeping the viewer fluidly moving from episode to episode without stopping to reflect and therefore being particularly well-suited to representing the serial killer’s actions. And yet he has hardly anything to say about serial killers in this chapter, instead demonstrating that these shows play a major role in »generating audience support for the law enforcement perspective on serial murder« (p. 144).


The final two chapters turn to the popular genre of true-crime narratives, which, according to Schmid, function to construct and maintain clear boundaries between »abnormal« serial killers and »normal« members of the community. These texts – the origins of which Schmid finds in Puritan America – ultimately serve to generate and police any number of social norms (gender, sexuality, power, etc.) by casting those who do not adhere to these norms as deviant. These texts resolutely refuse to confront their readers with the thought that these killers might arise out of a social context that they share with the audience of the book; instead, they »eschew sympathy altogether, preferring instead to present their readers with the comforting thought that these monsters they write about have nothing to do with them« (p. 195).


Although many of his readings are quite interesting, Schmid presents both too much and too little material in these chapters. By discussing approximately a dozen of the hundreds of relevant serial killer films, for example, he finds himself on the shaky ground between a scholarly study that generates its ideas from a deep analysis of one or two key texts and a scholarly study that generates its ideas from a truly representative sample of the films on the subject. The reader is often left guessing as to why he chooses to examine the texts he does while leaving out others that seem even more relevant to his subject. Why, for example, devote so much space in a study that purports to deal with »serial killers in American culture« to the Belgian film Man Bites Dog, while ignoring the interesting American film (based on an even more interesting book) The Minus Man, not to mention the classic Psycho? 2 Even more egregious is the chapter on television serials that overlooks the Law and Order franchise in favor of more obscure series such as Millennium. 3


My suspicion is that the reason for this too much / too little bind is that Schmid attempts to fit in as much of his admirably encyclopedic knowledge of his subject as he possibly can into this book-length study while still rolling up his sleeves and getting into the deeper analysis of the texts that he clearly strives for, but that this ultimately leads to a more superficial discussion of these texts than I would have hoped for. He does the same with the vast body of scholarship that he cites. The chapters on films and television programs read in part like an introduction to film and media studies, briefly summarizing all of the classic theorists in the field and introducing the most fundamental concepts, but failing to engage the most relevant scholarship with the greatest sophistication. The result is a book that does a truly excellent job of introducing a reader with a casual interest in the subject to the study of serial killers in American culture, but leaves an expert in the field tantalized by the hints of greater insights and wanting more.


The Fascination with
Serial Killers Reconsidered


I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the fundamental assumption that provides Natural Born Celebrities with its structure is that the serial killer has become »a dominant figure in American popular culture«, which begs the question from which all of Schmid’s analyses depart: »What exactly is the appeal of the serial killer?« (p. 19). His point of departure echoes nearly every popular and academic study of the crime genre that has appeared in the past century, which typically begin with the assertion of a particular culture’s fascination with crime and then seek to uncover the source of that fascination. I agree that a society is often best reflected in its fears and its monsters, but I still wonder: just how widespread is this alleged fascination with serial killers? The website auctioning the murderabilia items I mentioned at the beginning of this review had a total of 392 registered users as of March 14, 2006. By contrast, a piece of chicken shaped like Toucan Sam (the bird on the Fruit Loops cereal box) attracted over 1,100 hits on the e-bay auction site (www.ebay.com) in less than five days during that same month. If you simply calculate the numbers, it seems that cereal birds attract more popular attention than serial killers. Why not a book on the American fascination with breakfast food celebrities, then?


But such a small-scale comparison might be unfair; we are still in the realm of quite localized, case-specific information. Let us expand our investigation. If you search for »serial killers« on Google (www.google.com), you come up with an impressive 1,480,000 entries. A search for dentists, on the other hand, yields over 43 million results – almost thirty times as many as serial killers. Now, of course, most of these links are to individual dentists advertising their professional services, which serial killers tend to avoid advertising in public (at least until they are captured). But one might still ask: what is our culture’s fascination with dentists, as evidenced by their ubiquity on the internet and their appearance in recent films such as The Secret Life of Dentists and Novocaine. 4 Or how about the American celebrity-of-the-moment, Paris Hilton, who registers 15,900,000 hits? She far outranks celebrity serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who books a comparatively paltry 412,000 hits. Dentists and hotel heiresses are just two of the many examples of professions that – based on the numbers, anyway – might provide more insight into the American popular imagination than serial killers.


Now, I don’t want to read a book about dentists, and I certainly don’t want to read a book about Paris Hilton. But I did want to read Schmid’s book about serial killers, so the numbers do not account for everything. Further, serial killers do clearly occupy a larger place in popular culture than they do in real life. The FBI estimates that approximately thirty-five serial killers are active each year in the United States (see p. 82).Yet many times this number can be found in books, films, and television programs. Schmid is therefore clearly correct to point toward a fascination with serial killers in our culture, as well as an odd relationship to celebrity. The question is not whether serial killers figure more prominently in our culture’s imagination than in reality, but whether they figure prominently enough to be considered »a dominant figure in American popular culture« (p. 19), as Schmid asserts throughout this book. Or to put it differently: if you wish to examine the culture of celebrity in today’s America, then I’m not sure that the serial killer is the most compelling figure on which to base this examination. And if you wish to examine the culture of serial killing, then I am not sure that you will find a great deal of insight into specifically American culture. The British invented the business, after all 5 and the Germans raised it to unprecedented levels in the years between WWI and WWII. The first major work of serial killer fiction was French (Emile Zola’s La bête humaine, 1890) and the first serial killer film was likely either British (The Lodger, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1926) or German (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene, 1919), depending on how strictly you construct the genre. 6


Among the many non-American texts to which Schmid devotes a great deal of attention is the Belgian film C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, dir. Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel, 1992). I am hard-pressed to find a uniquely American approach to serial murder, even after reading Schmid’s book. Natural Born Celebrities tells us much about serial murder and media representation, but less about either celebrity or American culture than advertised.


Serial Killers and Scholars


Schmid is far from the first scholar to approach this subject. Indeed, Natural Born Celebrities is one of several studies of serial killers released in recent years by historians and literary scholars that posit a fascination with serial killing and attempt to investigate the sources of that fascination. Philip Jenkins’ Using Murder (1994), Maria Tatar’s Lustmord (1995), Mark Seltzer’s Serial Killers (1998), and Katherine Halttunen’s Murder Most Foul (1998) are just four of the most prominent and interesting examples of what has become an increasingly popular academic sub-genre – and Schmid references all of these and numerous other texts in his own book. 7


Many of these studies approach the topic from a gender-studies perspective, seeking to understand the fusion of sex and violence inherent in the subject. Others seek to find clues to national identities in the response to serial killers. Still others are interested primarily in media representations of serial murder. Schmid adopts a little bit of each approach in his study of the popular literature on serial killers. The result is a book that offers a lot of information, but leaves its reader wishing for more analysis. What is does – namely, provide an admirably wide-ranging and consistently well-written introduction to much of the classic literature on serial killers – this book does very well. What it fails to do, however, is to realize the full potential that I believe is inherent in this study. This is a shame, because there are elements of this book that – if expanded – would make for an exceptionally fascinating and important piece of scholarship. Make no mistake about it, this is a fine piece of work. Schmid writes beautifully and has a true gift for summarizing arguments and explaining difficult concepts. He writes with a good sense of humor and provides some fabulous new insights into texts that one thought one knew well. But I have the feeling that hidden within this book is a study of the FBI in American popular culture that would break new scholarly ground and be incredibly relevant to post-9/11 American culture.


I suspect that the style and emphasis of this book are the result of the author’s and his publisher’s intending it to reach a cross-over audience, attracting a portion of the popular readership that typically purchases the very true-crime narratives that Schmid criticizes in this study. This would explain the shocking cover that features what looks like a streak of blood painted over a picture of a sunglass-clad Richard Ramirez, the endorsement by popular writer Joyce Carol Oates that is featured prominently on the back cover, and the sensationalized news release upon the book’s publication in the summer of 2005 that opens with a long reference to the recent confession of Dennis Rader to the homicides that he had committed decades before as the BTK killer: »From water coolers to the blogosphere, talk of the BTK killer gripped the nation the next day. No one really knew why Rader had killed so many people in cold blood, but one thing was certain: A star was born«. 8


Clearly, this book is calculated to capitalize upon the very fascination with serial killers that Schmid seeks to analyze. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. The book deserves a wide public. What is extraordinary, however, is the author’s seeming lack of awareness of his own study’s place within the structures he is analyzing. For instance, isn’t he also tacitly critiquing his own work when he criticizes recent Hollywood serial killer films for exploiting this subject:

Thus, although films such as Seven, Copycat, and Natural Born Killers seem to acknowledge their, and their audiences’, implication in the popular culture that has made serial killers famous, these films never explore that implication to a degree that would make the audience feel uncomfortable. In spite of their apparent self-consciousness about the problems inherent in making stars out of serial killers, these films ultimately remain silent about those problems and thus reap the benefits of that stardom. (p. 114)

As I read this book – the title of which obviously plays with the title of one of the films that he is explicitly criticizing in this passage – I kept waiting for the seemingly inevitable moment of self-reflexivity that would question its own place within the celebrity culture of serial killers. When I saw that there was an epilogue to the volume, I assumed that it would be devoted to a meditation on this complex question. Instead the epilogue attempts to bring the book right up-to-date by linking the discourse of the serial killer (cleverly and interestingly, if not entirely convincingly) to the discourse on terrorism in post-9/11 America. 9 We are left without a reflection on the author’s or the reader’s attraction to the subject of serial murder – which is, let’s face it, enough of an attraction to justify hours of reading it or years of researching and writing it. There are clearly many compelling issues to attract a scholar interested in popular culture, such as Schmid (and indeed myself), to the study of serial killers (the ability to bring together a wide body of material that ranges from popular to elite culture, the insights that this subject provide into crucial issues such as identity and mediation, the ability to move fluidity between ›fact‹ and ›fiction‹ in one’s analyses). But one of the reasons that attract publishers to solicit these works is clearly marketability. I am confident that Schmid could have provided a fascinating analysis of his own book’s place within the culture that he is analyzing and have challenged his readers to confront their own interest in the subject. That he did not do this is the greatest of several missed opportunities in a book that gives us a lot to think about, but which could have done so much more. I’m glad, however, that we have Natural Born Celebrities, and I hope that Schmid returns to this topic to offer us the rest of the story that I know he can tell so well.



See Devin McKinney: Violence: The Strong and the Weak. In: Stephen Prince (ed.): Screening Violence. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP 2000, pp. 99–109.   zurück
The Minus Man. Dir. Hampton Fancher, 1999; Psycho. Dir, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960.   zurück
Schmid does recognize that the television dramas he focus on »constitute a very small percentage of the dozens of crime-related television dramas that have flooded television since the mid-1980s« and that »those dramas in turn constitute a small part of the mountain of crime-related programming of every kind that has become a, if not the, dominant feature of contemporary American television« (p. 149). Yet he fails to make a convincing argument for looking at precisely these texts and not others.   zurück
The Secret Lives of Dentists. Dir. Alan Rudolph, 2002; Novocaine. Dir. David Atkins, 2001. Movies about dentists, of course, have a long and distinguished tradition stretching back at least to Erich von Stroheim’s classic silent film, Greed (1925).   zurück
I am again assuming that Jack the Ripper was British, rather than an American expatriate!   zurück
Incidentally, the greatest serial killer film was Fritz Lang’s M (1931) – regardless of how you construct the genre.   zurück
Philip Jenkins: Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide. Somerset, NJ: Transaction, 1994; Maria Tatar: Lustmord. Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany. Princeton: Princeton UP 1995; Mark Seltzer: Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture. London, New York: Routledge 1998; and Katherine Halttunen: Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP 1998.   zurück
Quoted from the press release from the University of Chicago Press accompanying the review copy of this book. Schmid, of course, does not mention Rader in his study, since his confession came after the book had gone to press; he does reference the BTK killer briefly (p. 17).   zurück
The book-within-the-book that I identify as being about the history of the FBI in the American imaginary would have tied in beautifully with a discussion of post-9/11 American paranoia.   zurück