Some people are so smitten with infamous predators such as Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy that they are willing to purchase the killers’ personal artifacts, mementoes and original works of art. A profitable but highly controversial business involving the sale and purchase of so-called murderabilia has resulted from the public’s obsession with the macabre.
With regard to original artwork, imprisoned killers have time on their hands and some have turned to painting as a way to express themselves, explore their creativity and even make money (although this has significant legal restrictions). People on the outside serve as the prisoners’ sales agents and it is they who generally reap the financial rewards for selling the merchandise to the public.
Can you imagine wanting to own an article of clothing once worn by Ted Bundy or an original oil painting by the late “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy? For people who want such things, there are a number of outlets where they can be purchased. For example, there are several Internet websites dedicated to the sale of murderabilia that generate significant traffic among curious fans.
These websites offer personal artifacts from virtually every notorious killer imaginable. On one of the most popular sites, MurderAuction.com, the starting bid for a lock of Charles Manson's hair is $2,500, the starting bid for a “skull clown” painting by John Wayne Gacy is $2,999, and for a painting by Gacy of his alter-ego “Pogo the clown” it is $19,999.
In addition to top-sellers like Manson and Gacy, collectors can purchase items from other infamous serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Joel Rifkin. The objects range from personal items such as letters, artwork and clothing to manufactured items such as action figures, trading cards and comic books. If one is perhaps looking for a bargain, the starting bid on MurderAuction.com for a small bag of backyard burial ground dirt from the boarding house of serial killer Dorothea Puente is $25.
Exactly what leads a person to collect artifacts from notorious killers? This question was asked of several prominent sellers of murderabilia who are avid collectors of the items themselves. One of these individuals is Eric Gein, who owns and operates SerialKillersInk.net—a leading website that sells murderabilia—from his home in Jacksonville, Florida. His adopted last name is an homage to psychotic 1950s multiple murderer and body snatcher Ed Gein. Recently, Eric has been using the last name Holler. However, I use his adopted name Gein here because it is the name under which he built his business.
In an interview with ABC News Gein said, "I started writing guys [in prison] in the mid-90s. I wanted to get inside their minds and see what made them tick, see what they did and why they did it." Along the way, Gein discovered that he was not alone in his curiosity with the macabre. He said there are many people who have a fascination with "going to the source" and "actually holding something that an infamous monster has created or owned."
Providing support for Gein’s argument, Dr. Harold Schechter, the noted true crime author, said that peoples’ interest in collecting murderabilia can be traced in part to a supernatural or magical appeal of serial killers themselves. He argues that some people collect things once touched or owned by a serial killer because they believe the items have a “talisman effect.” That is, they believe that items once held by the likes of Bundy or Gacy are endowed with magical powers.
Some people believe that they can tap into such powers by possessing an item once owned by an infamous killer. The talisman effect is thus based on a presumption that a person who possesses an item once touched by a serial killer is protected by it. Dr. Schechter notes that there are buyers for everything from legendary gangster John Dillinger's blood to the Volkswagen Beetle once owned by Ted Bundy.
I would add that purchasing an item of murderabilia also provides an adrenaline rush for collectors similar to that produced by roller coaster rides or natural disasters. Indeed, some people just love to be scared.
Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. His new book “Why We Love Serial Killers” will be released by Skyhorse Press in October 2014. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website DocBonn.Com