by Erin Banks
Because the controversial subject of serial killer fashion, tattoos and merchandise came up in conversation between friends and me, I was curious to learn the opinions of the members of two of our facebook groups on this matter.
The question was whether the display of “serial killer fashion” in public was distasteful, and what weighs higher, the freedom of expression in all forms or piety and the protection of victims.
Also, is there a difference between the public display of said fashion or is it acceptable to wear at home at least?
Jeff Canning in “The Ted Bundy Research Group” on facebook:
“What’s next, Ted Bundy coffee filters or Lake Sam sailboat covers?”
A general concern of members was the risk of family members of an offender’s victim being confronted with such imagery in public, which could be re-traumatizing and cause long-lasting mental and emotional consequences.
The same above consideration was given to victims of any type of crime who might recognize the tattoo or shirt of a serial killer, with another possible result being that the entire True Crime community be falsely considered “gorehounds” or harboring secret violent urges.
In return this could make research more difficult when attempting to reach out to anyone connected to a specific case and isolate the entire community.
Bundy student Christina Nixon reported being disheartened by several individuals openly sporting Ted Bundy shirts at this year’s Crime Con despite survivors such as Kathy Kleiner Rubin being present.
That, it was suggested by some, denoted a lack of empathy and understanding of the severity of the crimes of said criminal.
Others, however, stated that wearing a shirt of a serial killer they were studying, did not naturally indicate sympathy towards the latter or the crimes themselves, but was merely signaling interest in this case; that it could then be viewed as a means of finding others to talk to about the case.
This is a valid point I believe, unless the image or caption is obviously victim-mocking, includes crime scene photos, for instance.
While it may boil down to personal opinion whether the picture of, for instance, Edmund Kemper’s 1969 Ford Galaxie LTD on a shirt is in bad taste – as it was also used to transport living and dead victims – a shirt with the caption “Crowbar Beauty” in relation to Ted Bundy leaves little room for interpretation and hence unconditional acceptance.
The same holds true for the infamous “bitemark” tattoo, remodeled after the deep flesh wound Bundy left on the buttocks of one of his final victims, Lisa Levy.
The answer of most people who openly and unashamedly wear serial killer fashion or collect merchandise and murderabilia was a simple one. One person noted,
“If you’re a fan of anything, movies, music, whatever,
you want to show it off. I see no one making a fuss about
Jack The Ripper or Dracula shirts, why is that?”
That is very interesting a statement because of both Jack The Ripper, as well as the actual “Dracula” – Vlad Tepes – being real life murderers, despite the latter being “politically motivated,” so to speak.
I would consider that the significant difference is more of a time frame issue.
While there are of course descendants of both the above mentioned “historical killers,” as well as their many victims, these crimes do not have the same impact on us in modern times due to the time passed.
We cannot know whether these descendants may even be aware of their blood line and may automatically assume that they equally do not still suffer from this affiliation, hence are not offended by any books, movies, fashion or memes about the killer.
It appears that there is an unspoken agreement that anything in True Crime that happened over a hundred years ago is generally considered “fair game” in terms of commercializing it.
As for wearing killer fashion at home, one person wrote to me,
“I only wear my Manson shirt at home because I don’t act outside
like I do there. Putting it on as soon as I get through the door is my way
of slipping back into my private self if that makes sense.
I write Manson fiction so looking at my Manson tattoo (I wear
long sleeves outside) while doing that puts me in the right mind.”
For those who empathize with a serial killer due to their difficult upbringing, at times because they themselves went through the same, the reason may be to connect with their inner child, and to humanize offenders who are often referred to in absolute and supernatural terms, such as “evil,” “monster,” “demonically possessed.” Scientifically unsound statements.
It could then also serve as a reminder that not even a person who committed the most unspeakable acts is only ever just one thing, a bad or worthless person, but that they, too, were once victims as children, and later on were victims of their own brain makeup and other circumstances.
It may cement said person’s belief that they personally do have a choice of what not to become, that personal background does not necessarily have to dictate one’s future.
Further it may include the acknowledgement of inmates who have spent a pivotal amount of time and effort on pro-social projects that have benefited thousands.
(Lyle Menendez educates about the effects of sexual child abuse, David Berkowitz is a prison chaplain and counselor, Edmund Kemper worked at the prison hospice and recorded 5,000+ hours in the course of Vacaville’s “Reading For The Blind” project.)
These prosocial activities neither excuse nor undo the crimes but they may, in certain cases, speak for themselves in terms of a kind of rehabilitation behind bars at least.
Kathleen Littell from the “Psychology & True Crime Related Sciences”
group on facebook:
“Isn’t it also almost instinctual to vilify those who commit
criminal acts as a form of self preservation?
It’s like there is a deep reaction somewhere within us
to be “repulsed” as to trigger us to remove ourselves from
that individual for our own protection, physically or psychologically?”
Aside from such deeply personal reasons, or the above mentioned historical ones, there are undoubtedly a few of those who do glorify the offenders and/or their crimes.
Or on the other hand, those who have romantically and sexually inclined motivations to do so. To understand some of the motivations for the latter, please feel free to read my other blog post, “Hybristophilia – Forms and Motivations” here on CrimePiper.
Books about this subject are Sheila Isenberg’s “Women Who Love Men Who Kill,” and Clifford L. Linedecker’s “Prison Groupies.”
Someone inquired in the groups how those with killer shirts and tattoos would reply if they were directly confronted by a victim.
Would they react gruffly or take the time to explain their own reasoning while still accepting that their vis á vis might not have a positive reaction to it?
Likewise, a very commonly known response was added,
“How would you feel if you had had a family member murdered?”
A fair question. As for myself, two of my own family members were indeed murdered many years ago, so I understand the wide range of human emotions that comes with it on a very personal and emotional level.
My opinion still stands that I value the freedom of expression, even if repulses me in some cases.
I would not dare advocate for prohibiting serial killer fashion, even of the “Crowbar Beauty” kind, but I can exert my own freedom of expression to call it into question.
Commenters were equally curious whether some of the proceeds of those selling murderabilia or killer merchandise go to any victim foundations or victims’ families.
There is indeed no law in place requiring artists or sellers to do so. I am aware of two individuals who at least claim that they do regularly donate to victim organizations, as well as they do to prison reform projects.
On a sidenote, in the US offenders may not profit from the sale of their own art, writings or similar.
When briefly discussing this topic with Kemper researcher Tata Gogua today, she brought up “serial killer fashion” by means of the types of clothes, disguises or costumes that the offenders themselves wore and made infamous, such as John Wayne Gacy’s “Pogo the clown” suit.
On minimalist art paintings and drawings, most True Crime aficionados will be able to immediately recognize said suit, as well as associate a figure in a long Victorian cape with Jack The Ripper, a hooded figure with the Zodiac, sunglasses with Richard Ramirez or turtlenecks with Ted Bundy.
And it is true, that there are those who attempt to dress similarly to the serial killers they study or in some way sympathize with.
Could this be because some of those who share the concerns about victims and victims’ families recognizing the images of offenders on shirts or in tattoo form, develop a similar fashion taste to a serial killer because it seems more tasteful and low key to them?
My co-admin Katherine Littell had this to suggest in “Psychology & True Crime Related Sciences” on facebook:
“As we are approaching Halloween, there are outfits and masks representing witches, goblins, vampires, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Hillary Clinton, Clowns, possessed dolls, etc….maybe we wear these costumes because the figures they represent ignite deep fear and by wearing a “costume” we are somewhat mocking them and hence making them less fearful? Many people fear what they don’t understand.”
There is something else to ponder I believe, and it was directly prompted by this discussion.
Why do we see images of the offenders themselves or symbols representing them so frequently in merchandise but never those of the victims and survivors?
I have yet to see someone sporting a tattoo of one of my personal heroes, Bundy survivor Carol DaRonch, or wear a shirt in memory of the Gainesville Ripper victims, or memorabilia and merchandise dedicated to them.
One, although very shaky, theory is that we usually do not know in detail about the victims’ lives or who they were as people. We see their names on a list of victims that we forget as soon as we read them, if they are even mentioned in an article or comment.
We do not study them, we study the killer and – as much as possible – victimology, so why the killer chose them specifically.
I still believe that this question is just and one to consider for us all.
Thank you so very much to all commenters, researchers
and friends for chiming into this discussion.
[Header image of Myra Hindley tattoo via thesun.co.uk;
Bundy socks via Etsy]