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Erotica for Serial Killers

Despite debate, some "benign" forms of visual domination do influence violence.

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

Ted Bundy’s final interview before he was executed in 1989 focused on his early exposure to the salacious content of “true detective” magazines. In a last-ditch effort to be “too important to kill,” Bundy met with Dr. James Dobson, a religious psychologist and crusader against pornography.

Bundy describes how he became addicted as a boy to detective magazines, the covers of which often showed terrified buxom females, often bound, wearing tight or flimsy clothing. He tried to impress upon Dobson what a significant impact this imagery had made on him: It had launched his addiction to violence. “Pornography can reach in and snatch the kid out of any house today,” he said. “It snatched me out of my home.”

People usually dismiss this as Bundy’s last-ditch ploy. They resist the idea that anti-porn crusaders are right. However, anything can influence the development of violence in someone who becomes a serial killer, including the Bible. Maybe Bundy was trying to manipulate Dobson, but he’s not alone in describing how these publications aroused him. They weren’t considered pornography, so they were widely available, offering the "inside scoop" on true crime. To be fodder for a teenage boy’s fantasies, they didn't have to be hard-core porn. (Killer Harvey Glatman even pretended to be a detective mag photographer, making is own “cover photos” of bound women he'd duped into believing they would become models.)

So, what should we believe?

Criminologist Eric Hickey states in Serial Killers and their Victims that “millions of people” read pornography without harming anyone. It can be a facilitator for one person, while having no effect on others. Still, “the fact the certain serial murderers have insisted that pornography was a major factor in their killing young women and children cannot be ignored.” In later work, Sex Crimes and Paraphilia, he concludes, “The addiction to pornography affects each individual differently. Complex events, curiosity, loneliness, or even low self esteem may all combine to affect someone uniquely.”

He cites a study that defined a four-step syndrome: 1) addiction to the images, 2) an increased appetite for those images, 3) desensitization to the violence, and 4) acting out the images. In another study, it was found that the way these publications distorted sexual information and emphasized domination had a strong impact on adolescents who used them for sex education.

Stephen Giannangelo interviewed death row resident, “Rick,” in Real Life Monsters: A Psychological Examination of the Serial Murderer. Rick echoed other killers when he said that while these images were not the sole causal factor for serial murder, they “aid in furthering the growth of objectification.” Even something as innocuous as a horror movie, he said, can have more impact than non-violent porn, if it objectifies and dehumanizes women in violent scenarios. Rick believed Bundy's description, because he'd seen how detective magazines could “open the primitive door.” Some people, he said, are vulnerable.

Dennis "BTK" Rader told me for Confession of a Serial killer that he found detective magazines under the driver’s seat of his father’s car. One day, he'd spotted a 1959 issue of Front Page Detective. He'd grabbed it to look at the cover photo. It showed a terrified woman, bound and gagged. The feature story, “The Sex-Crazed Photographer and His Graveyard of Models,” was about Harvey Glatman (noted above). Rader had taken this magazine out to the shed to read as he performed self-asphyxiation. He reported that it was the greatest sexual rush he'd ever achieved.

He finally acted out his murder fantasies in 1974, continuing until 1991. Whenever he got into the murder mood, he would go look at these magazines. Another one inspired his ideas for a way to hold victims captive. “My fantasy dungeon,” he said, “would be a silo next to a barn, with different levels of torture chambers.”

"Sex Beast" Melvin Rees, Jr., a jazz musician and the killer of 7 during the 1950s, blamed detective magazines, which he’d read compulsively. Between their images of tortured women and the methamphetamine he'd take, he’d become obsessed with forcing women to do his will. Among his victims was a family of four.

In another case, FBI profiler Robert Ressler consulted on the murder of two boys in Nebraska. Both were gagged, stabbed, bitten and bound with rope. When the offender trolled for a third victim, he was caught. It was John Joubert, a twenty-year-old enlisted man at the local Air Force base. He confessed and said he could not stop himself. He would later be linked to an earlier murder in his home state of Maine.

Ressler interviewed Joubert, learning that he'd drawn many renditions of his fantasies about binding and stabbing boys. Joubert said he'd started thinking about murder at a young age, inspired by detective magazines, which had also taught him how to avoid being caught (albeit not very well).

Although many people believe that the development of a serial killer can be described in a simple formula, it is, in fact, a complex process. For any given individual, there are many elements. Although it is unlikely that reading detective magazines with lurid photos of terrified women will turn someone into a killer, we can hardly discount their influence when the killers themselves have described their impact. Just because Bundy's aim was to manipulate does not mean his tale was fabricated.

There are plenty of accounts of the effect of porn on serial killers, but not much research that recognizes the influence of "true detective" photos meant to entice, stimulate, and increase male readership. Proponents of both sides of the debate about the relationship of sexual imagery to violence tend to over-simplify. Images might not make someone a serial killer, but for some young males they can be potent triggers

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