My Early Interest: Rev. Jones, and Solitary Confinement
I’d like to begin by describing a little bit about where my own interest in this topic originates. I remember having a brief fascination with Charles Manson when I first heard the story years ago, but it was a passing intrigue. The story that struck me much more deeply and lastingly was Jim Jones.
I read a book by survivor Deborah Layton titled Seductive Poison that detailed the story with insight into the psychology of how people could be sucked in to the cult, being so far down the rabbit hole that they would actually relocate their families to build a new community in Guyana. I was surprised at how I’d never heard of Jim Jones before reading this book and how Charles Manson was the most well known and popularized cult leader in America.
Compared to Jim Jones, Manson was small time. If you are uncertain who Jim Jones is, he is the religious leader who built the cult known as the Peoples Temple over the course of decades, beginning in Indianapolis and eventually moving the headquarters to California. He built up such a strong following that when he demanded moving the Temple to begin a settlement in Guyana, to be called Jonestown, he brought with him what would eventually total almost a thousand followers. Then in November of 1978, he orchestrated the mass suicide of nearly everyone there, 909 people, including 300 children, by passing out a mixture of a powdered soft drink flavoring and cyanide. Jones himself did not commit suicide this way. He was instead found with gunshot wounds on the grounds later.
After reading the book I found an excellent documentary on the story called Jonestown (2006) (still available on Netflix, though not for streaming). Again, this documentary was valuable to me because it focused on the psychology of cult followings and the manipulative techniques used by Jones to build his Temple. As is probably evident at this point in the history of my blog, I am pretty fascinated with psychology in general. In particular, I am interested in obsessions, addictions, and in general life or mind-altering experiences.
Over the next few years, while I was in the midst of moving all over the place and starting a marriage, I continued to investigate my interest in serial killers through the only kind of TV my husband and I cared to pay for, which was Netflix. I am lucky because they offer so much in the way of informative, interesting and hard to find documentaries. I grew an interest in the prison system and in particular the early penitentiary, because I was drawn to the idea of solitary confinement, and what this could do to the human mind and soul. It is at this point that I discovered Eastern State Penitentiary, the earliest of the American penitentiaries in Philadelphia, whose goal in the early 1800s was to serve as a place for criminals to live out their sentence with “penitence,” seeking forgiveness and salvation for their sins. To do this, the prisoners were kept in dark, wet holes in the ground for extended periods of time in absolute darkness. The prisoners were deprived of nearly anything sensual, sometimes even with a black bag over their heads as they moved from one cell to another to ensure that no light met their eyes. The overseers believed that this kind of sensual deprivation would cultivate the proper setting for the prisoner to look deep inside their souls and to cleanse themselves from the inside out. Instead, it was decided that the prisoners were experiencing more torture than reform, and the penitentiary was closed in 1913.
So in my case, it is the fascination with the prison system that led me to an interest in the criminals who were housed there. It is stated over and over in John Borowski’s latest film Serial Killer Culture that it is the media which gets people fascinated with murderers because they flaunt them like celebrities and throw the gory details at you like it is nothing more than a crime drama. But you have to make the observation too that the media would not be profiting so much off of this if people weren’t truly interested. I was struck by many of the collectors in the film with large displays of art and memorabilia from crime scenes or from the killers themselves, who seemed almost embarrassed to elaborate on their morbid interests.
Many of them have experienced harsh backlash from the public for it, told that they were glorifying murder. It is clear that each of those featured in the film profoundly disagree with this judgment. Their artifacts have historical value and they are interested in the psychology of murder, just as I am. I believe strongly that there are many atrocities to be avoided in our future through simply looking closer and investigating the precedents instead of sweeping anything unpleasant under the rug. It is the whole phenomenon of deeming criminals as “bad apples” or monsters when in fact they are as human as any one of us. We like to distance ourselves and consider them “other” when in fact many of the accounts given by people who knew or lived by these killers testified that they appeared as the “kindest guy on the block,” and as “good, family men.”
I knew as soon as I began watching Borowski’s documentary that I wanted to write a pretty involved post about it. So I went back and looked at the other films Borowski had made about serial killers. There are three, one on H.H. Holmes (2004), Albert Fish (2007), and Carl Panzran (2012). I enjoyed all of them very much. They are detracted from slightly in my eyes because of sometimes over-the-top music and cheesy reenactments that make me think I’m watching a daytime cop show, but this subjective flaw in my mind is more than made up for by some incredible footage from the time period of the killers, as well as wonderfully informative interviews interspersed with pictures, letters, and other artifacts.
The documentaries follow a logical line of storytelling that gives a very well-rounded insight into the life of the serial killer, but also offers the best guesses possible as to what was going on inside their heads through interviews with psychologists, crime experts, personal accounts, etc. I enjoyed Serial Killer Culture the most because it is the type of documentary that is right up my alley in terms of form and content. The topic is covered from many different angles and perspectives, and includes some incredibly interesting artists and collectors that all have something unique to say in terms of their obsessions and the inspirations for their work. The majority of the film’s content is devoted to artwork, both from the serial killers who created while in prison and the work of people who have cultivated a fascination with serial killers and the dark side of power within art, from music and painting, to the resurrection of the dime store museum.
There is no way to pin down one universal reason for why people are drawn to the darkest aspects of our history. But it does bring me closer to the center as I penetrate the false duality of black and white, right and wrong, monstrous and humane. Once one sees the truth that no one wants to admit in that these serial killers are human beings just like us, it is possible to understand that the mind becomes fascinated with the darkness of a human soul when it becomes open. An open mind is curious and knows that to find understanding you have to go out and look for it, it won’t just fall in your lap by following all the rules blindly. I feel that everyone has the roots of a serial killer within them, just as they possess the roots of the saint.
It is the activation and cultivation coupled with environmental circumstance that brings out one extreme or the other in rare cases. Most people are a complex mix of both light and dark. To feed an obsession with a serial killer’s mentality is to probe aspects of the self that most people choose to consider nonexistent within themselves. Ironically, this characteristic of denial is abundant within the serial killer’s common psychological profile. Take John Wayne Gacy, who, as described in the film by his “art dealer” Rick Staton, would steadfastly deny any implication with the murder of over 30 young boys while also seeming to want to gloat about being able to pull off such crimes.
Albert Fish convinced himself that he was doing God’s work in that he was being called upon to sacrifice young virgin girls. When he ate of their flesh and drank their blood, he felt he was engaging in sacred ritual similar to communion. He engaged in self flagellation and was to an extent disgusted with himself, but it didn’t stop him from feeding what he felt was his call to vitality in old age, believing that society tended to discard the elderly and dismiss them to play cards or live out monotonous routines every day when these people were actually filled with a desire for life like any young person. Unwilling to give up on his life, he followed his soul’s longing bound tightly with religious fanaticism to a tragic end.
I believe that the game of self-denial and blame is a very dangerous one. Tragedy and corrupt minds are borne from this type of “us and them” mentality, and I think the people who go against the grain and venture into the darker territories of the mind are the ones who can really bring understanding to the rest of society because they refuse to just ignore it and put it away in a box, or lets say a prison cell. This type of action only breeds hate and resentment, just as Carl Panzram dedicated his life to the suffering of others because of the abuse he endured in the prison system. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but we can’t deny that beating and torturing prisoners could feed the fire. Denial was key in his confessions as well, saying that the entirety of his actions could be blamed on his inhumane treatment from the time he was a boy and throughout his life.
Artists and Collectors
Rick Staton is one of the first to be interviewed in the film and tells about the beginnings of his Grindhouse Graphics, which sold artwork by serial killers like Gacy while they were in prison. Gacy created paintings that became incredibly controversial for obvious reasons, and many collectors consider their Gacy artwork as the cornerstone of their collections, particularly a work called “Pogo the Clown.”
Sam Hane is a U.K. based artist who speaks about the nature of art and his goal to solicit powerful reactions. He created a piece on Jim Jones that I found pretty fascinating, which is shown near the top of this post. http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/shane-owen.html
Joe Coleman seems to be kind of the father of the serial killer collectors and artists. He describes his process for creating art with incredible detail using a single hair paint brush and working for 8 hours a day to complete a portion of the painting that is about the size of space made between your pointer and thumb when joined to make a circle. His painting evolves organically as he creates them, and he says that it’s almost as if the painting existed before he even got started. http://joecoleman.com/home
Van Gough made the most powerful impressions on me by his art, particularly the Manson series, titled “Man/Son.” He described in detail every aspect of the final piece called “Healter Skelter” (featured at the top of this post) which I won’t describe in full here. It is one of the most beautiful works I’ve seen in a long time. Every part of it has a particular meaning and source for the artist. http://www.davidgoughart.com/Manson_gallery.html
Hart Fisher is an artist with a tragic past and personal connection with murder. He tells about the murder of his girlfriend and the demons he carries with him tied to the memory of this pain. He describes his art as a kind of exorcism, and like all the other artists mentioned, and really any artist I’ve ever talked to, he has no choice in the matter of creating.
I have to include the musical players in the film because they are so far outside of anything I’ve heard before. In particular, The World Famous Crawlspace Brothers who write folk songs about serial killers, (and only about serial killers.)
And finally, the Swedish band called Sparzanza, who took the story of Albert Fish and the beginning of Borowski’s film and incorporated it into one of their songs. The band Macabre is also featured in the documentary.
In conclusion, I wanted to mention some particularly poignant testimonies by artist Joe Coleman that really rounds out this whole observation of humanity, the openness of those interested in the darkness of the human soul, and the road toward understanding that will shape how we react to or prevent future tragedy.
Joe talks about the portrayal of the Wolf Man by Lon Chaney, Jr., “the only one who got it right,” in his opinion. Chaney captured the moments of tragic clarity of his character in those moments in between changes, when he was realizing the full extent of his actions and feeling remorseful. It is the visual manifestation of the monstrous and the human, together as one being and brilliant metaphor for the complexity of human nature. This breaking through of humanity through the monstrous is what captivates people when they see a film with a villain who at some point in the story line breaks and we see a different side of them. We see their vulnerability, even if it’s just for a moment, like in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), when for a moment after raping a young girl the perpetrators look down at their dirty, grass and mud-covered hands and a look of disgust passes over their faces like a storm cloud. Though they choose to continue in their ways, that terrifying secret is let out, the secret that they are us. The phenomenon penetrates all genres of movies, into the mainstream.
And finally, in a letter from John Wayne Gacy to Joe Colemen shortly after his mother died of cancer, he described through choked back tears that many of his closest friends never offered their condolences, but in comes this letter from Gacy, offering sympathy for Coleman’s loss. Coleman believes his words to be genuine.