Serial Killer Culture, Revisited

Documentary offers complex examination of murderabilia artists and collectors.

Posted Mar 08, 2014

About a year ago, I interviewed John Borowski about his film on the controversial subject of murderabilia and murder art, which will soon be released. I got to watch it last night. As usual, Borowski does quality work.

I was pleased to see my colleague, Stephen Giannangelo, author of Real Life Monsters, as the expert who frames the “collector” psychology. The rest of the cast of characters were musicians, artists, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, and even Borowski himself. Since I had asked John about this movie a year ago (full interview here), let me provide background:

This is his fourth film. In the past, he has focused on a single case: Carl Panzram, Albert Fish, and H. H. Holmes. His interest in serial killers derives from watching horror films and developing a curiosity about the macabre. As he mentions in Serial Killer Culture, he hopes to understand the acts of men and woman who repeatedly kill, as well as to educate future generations.

“They are human beings just like all the rest of us,” he says, “and I feel it is society's responsibility to attempt to understand them and not just execute them so they are out of sight, out of mind. There must be a reason for their existence and I’m attempting to figure that out.”

For this film, Borowski “wanted to connect the dots of all the people whom I had read about or came in contact with while studying serial killers and their impact on pop culture, including artists who are inspired to create art based on serial killers. The intention is to shed light on why artists, collectors and the public are fascinated by serial killers, murder, crime, and death. The film also highlights the historical importance of archiving true crime artifacts and literature so that future generations may learn about true crime history.”

The dozen or so interviewees include artist Joe Coleman, “murder metal” band Macabre, collector Matthew Aaron and his Last Dime Museum, Joe Hiles from Serial Killer Central, Andrea Morden with her Dahmer Tours, and true-crime musicians The World-famous Crawlspace Brothers.  

I must admit that my favorite segment featured Rick Staton, a mortician-turned-collector who initiated the serial killer art shows that featured John Wayne Gacy’s work. He’d been featured in an earlier documentary, Collectors, and this time around we get his perspective as a burnout. He still has plenty of stuff, which Borowski shows, but after many years, he’s had his fill. He’s quite articulate about his experience.

Staton makes it clear that without Life Magazine and the rest of the mainstream media producing gruesome images and riveting crime narratives, there wouldn’t be a serial killer culture. (Personally, I’d take this further back to 19th-century crime museum founders who had hoped to “educate” the public and had quickly learned how lucrative such displays – and souvenirs – can be.) You get the point: why are murder musicians and artists so reviled while mainstream media photos and tales that cover the same subjects so fully supported?

“There has never before been a film like Serial Killer Culture,” Borowski says. “Instead of focusing only on collectors, which plays a small part in my film, I chose to focus on the reasons artists are inspired to create works based on serial killers, as well as the public's fascination with serial killing and true crime. The film is more of a study of the pop culture influence that serial killers have had on America and the reasons why serial killers have become celebrities.”

There is definitely something eerie about looking at items that killers themselves have touched, i.e., Charles Manson’s black-and-red tarantula creation. Apparently, he used guitar strings for the legs and wool from his socks, dyed with Kool-Aid, for the head and bulbous body. He spent a lot of time on it and you can almost feel those eyes on his creation as he wound the yarn into a ball.

I certainly experienced something like this as I stood in Mitre Square, where the Ripper supposedly gutted Catherine Eddowes. It’s a quiet place on a narrow street. It's creepy. But I also felt it when I looked at the maps and drawings from that case, under glass, in the quite respectable London Hospital Museum. Within a half mile of each other, high-minded education and voyeuristic frisson merged.

I understand why some people are offended by gory murder art or a Jeffrey Dahmer Murder Tour (especially victims' families), but there is something magnetic about these over-the-top crimes. I write a “crime-trotting” column for Destinations Travel Magazine that has become a popular feature. I get educated, I educate, and I also provide what Ramirez calls “safe danger.”

It's difficult to separate these aspects into "this is OK" and "this is not." I think they're intricately linked. I don’t want to own Dorothy Puente’s fingerprint card or Arthur Shawcross’s toenail, but I’d love to get my hands on a limited-edition Ripperopoly game or tour Joe Coleman’s Odditorium.

I don’t know any other documentary producer who can deliver these elements the way Borowski does. I used to show Collectors in my course on serial murder. I will now switch to Serial Killer Culture.

To learn more about this film, or other Waterfront productions, visit