Documentary filmmaker John Borowski takes us on a tour of the extreme end of serial killer fanatics in his new film by presenting roughly ten minute slots to 13 different characters who have each dedicated a large part of their life to the history and surrounding culture of serial killers. From academics who write about the detailed psychology of the killers; to collectors of convicted killers disturbing art that they paint in prison; to musicians who write songs solely about killers and their crimes. Each is given a chance to explain their interest in the subject, with one of the final interviewees being Borowski turning the camera on himself.
Firstly, a personal disclaimer: I am also incredibly fascinated by serial killer culture. I wrote my university thesis on the American media’s response to school shootings, and I am equally interested in the worrying mythologizing of American serial killers and their crimes. So I found Serial Killer Culture incredibly compelling. Mostly because the focus is turned predominantly on the admirers of true crime instead on the crime itself – in that way it doesn’t try to glorify the perpetrators, but instead looks at the subcultures that arise from extreme violent crime.
Without dwelling too much on the nature of each crime/criminal, each of the enthusiasts is given time to casually explain their interest in the subject before presenting their many proud possessions/inventions: the many paintings that John Wayne Gacy had produced in prison; Ed Gein’s signature; Richard Ramirez’s suit he wore to trial; polaroids of Dean Corll… A whole subculture has grown up around turning these maniacs into diabolical celebrities whose every letter and signed photograph becomes a collectors item. The most worrying being a man who sent a picture of his child to a notorious child-killer to paint and return as a gift…
If they weren’t interested in physical collectibles then interviewees instead perform songs written about Albert Fish, explain their Jeffrey Dahmer tour around Milwaukee or explain their paintings that were inspired by the Manson family…
Borowski choses to remain impartial throughout the string of interviews by editing out his own interview questions, which gives the characters a chance to explain their fascinations with no explicit editorial or commentary from the filmmaker. That said, it seems clear to me which of the onscreen characters Borowski has sympathy with and which he edits to seem more exasperating and odious. At times, the editing throughout each section jumps around between their wild stories and macabre artifacts, as if the film itself is a little crazy and paranoid.
At one point, an interviewee defensively claims that, “Serial killer culture is American culture” – a concise reflection on the melting pot of Hollywood, American religiosity and fascination with cult figures, the sensationalist tabloid media and the fear of the impersonal and isolating urban cities. To prove this, later a collector presents a small picture that a killer has drawn for him which is ‘his interpretation of Leatherface’ – a disturbing example of life imitating art, or to put it another way a serial killer drawing a serial killer based on a serial killer (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was inspired in part by Ed Gein, as was Psycho).
Undeniably though, there is a mass appeal for serial killers and their crimes as shown through the insistence of giving each of them a ghoulish nickname in order to keep track: The Hillside Strangler, Son of Sam, The Night Stalker, The Happy Face Killer…etc. All of the onscreen experts are quick to claim that their fascination is normal and that ‘everyone’ is interested by these stories, and a common defense is that it is in fact mostly women who go on the murder tours and come to the metal shows and ask the most questions…but there are very few women who take the obsession as far as these guys have, not in this film anyway.
In the end, some people will always be drawn to the darker side of humanity, and some people will always collect strange things – so it should be no surprise that these two urges should unite in this way. As stated above, the film is just as much an exploration of male obsession that it is about violent crime, but the characters are charming enough to sustain interest regardless of your position on the brutality of Ted Bundy or Charles Ng.
The film is available now at the film's own website