15 January 2012

Merchandising Murder

by Leigh Lundin

Warning: Today's topic is disturbing if not outright disgusting. Feel free to peek through your fingers while reading about this backwater of crime, a surprisingly profitable one.

This is how today's article came about. A friend and classmate wrote:
I've been curious why sometimes, when I've finished a task and have time at the computer, stuff about serial killers occasionally catches my eye, as did this article.

I was happy to find on p. 2 a possible explanation for something that hasn't fully made sense to me. The study was interesting.

I haven't seen any of this type of subject in any of the writing you've sent me, so it may not be of interest to you, but I figure you may share my curiosity about it.

Shopping to Die For

The topic is 'murderabilia', the collecting of artifacts from the worst of crimes and criminals. Arguably, we writers profit from crime through entertainment, albeit indirectly, but I like to think we explore the concepts of evil, inspect it through different prisms, help understanding and perhaps heal rents in the human condition.

killers Of further concern to me is building the egos of serial killers and mass murderers. Bundy, Dana Gray, and the BTK killer clearly fed off public attention as if publicity was mother's milk for their dark souls.

Understandably, victims' families often oppose the sale of murder artifacts, encompassing even the art and writings of serial killers. Although bills have been presented to the Senate, one of the largest sellers of murderabilia is… the federal government.

Control Issues

If we outlaw artifacts, where does the slippery slope end? Collecting religious relics is odd enough, but fixating on the hair, bones, and nail clippings of criminals is outright ghoulish. Yet should we end the practice? If the Serial Killer Trivia Game is banned, would Madame Tussaud's be next? Serial Killer Magazine? Or Martha Stewart? Or murder mysteries?

What is the point of murderabilia? The Slate article suggests ownership imbues magical qualities of the original possessor. This derives from earlier witchcraft and religious ceremonies in which relics are thought to offer power and control.

But Is It Art?

I don't object to the distribution of writings and artwork. I've seen intricate art from imprisoned gang members that stand on their own merits, ars gratia artis. But ordinary criminals don't have the cachet and notoriety of the worst killers.

I've not heard of ongoing research, but study may reveal insights into criminal psychology. Clown paintings are scary enough, but John Wayne Gacy's clowns are waaaay eerie even if you don't count those with skeletons and skulls.

If you think the topic might make an intriguing topic for a story, you're not alone. A movie titled Murderabilia produced by Michael Usry, Ryan Roy, and David Matthews stars Tracy Miller as a collector, Opie Cooper as a shopkeeper, and Kevin Broughton as the accused.

Marketplace of the Macabre

Before signing off, here are marketplaces that dabble in the grisly, grotesque, and gruesome.
Ghouls Like Us
Murder Auction
Red Rum Autographs
Serial Killer Central
Serial Killer Magazine
Serial Killer's Ink
  — and —
The US Government


  1. Now, Leigh, today is my son's birthday and I want to have a pleasant Sunday. How can I do that when you bring up such gruesome, and, to me, weird thoughts.

    Murderabilia is not much stranger than some of the other things humans do, but it has its own perversity.

    My concern is two-fold. First is, as you mentioned, the profit and ego-building aspects. Second, and most important to me, is the disrespect to the victims and the anguish of their loved ones who live everyday with the constant thoughts of, "How much did she suffer? How much fear did she know?" Those worries never go away and to know there are people so warped that they cherish relics of those who take lives sickens me.

    And yes, I murder people in my books (but not lately.)

  2. Happy birthday to your son!

  3. Fran, I didn't come across it until after I finished my article, but this article sums up much of our feelings:

    Stuff White People Do: What’s the Attraction with Serial Killer Memorabilia?

  4. Related,perhaps, to the phenomenon of people writing romantic notes to killers of both sexes?

  5. or marry them.

  6. Leigh, this article was "Totally Killer!" man. ;-)


  7. (laughing) Amen, Dixon.

    Janice and Anon, I knew a prison paralegal who twice married inmates, one with a life sentence. She was highly intelligent (except in this one realm) and knew they wouldn't work out… and they didn't.

  8. An interesting but gruesome subject - it takes all types.

  9. Marrying two inmates, one with a life sentence . . . Hmmm. This makes me think.

    SO, THE PLOT IS: A gun moll, who’s partner was nabbed just after hiding the proceeds of a bank robbery, marries that partner while he’s serving his sentence for the bank they robbed. This gets the couple a chance to talk privately in one of the conjugal visit trailers at the prison. There, they can share information they couldn’t risk letting guards overhear if she and he spoke in the normal visiting center, which is closely monitored.

    Her partner, however, fearing she’ll take the money and run, waits until they’ve finished the “conjoined” portion of the visit, before he writes one clue on the underside of the bunk. Just then, the guard bangs on the door, making the couple hurriedly dress and depart. Her partner tells her, “You’ll get to see the clue next time you come. There are twenty clues all totaled, that add up to the name of the place where I hid the cash. And I figure 21 spins around the mattress earns you the reward, sweetheart—‘cause you’ll have to come back that 21st time to see the clue I wrote that 20th time. After that, I’ll just have to trust ya’ to leave me my half. Won’t I?”

    After their 20th spin, however, her beau is shanked and dies. How can she get a look at that final clue? If she marries another inmate, he’ll want some of the cut upon release—else he might turn her in.

    That’s why she next marries a lifer at the same prison, in the belief she’ll get to keep the cash, once she’s seen the final clue. But . . . does it work out??? Hmmm…

  10. But the guards, monitoring the microphones, read the clues too, and ponder...

  11. It is the nature of humans to be drawn to stories of murder and violence because of our survival instincts. Studies show that we are more alert when there are something that can threaten us in our environment, even if it is just a news story. That is why some people took advantage of this and made money.


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