Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture

Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture

Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture

Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture


Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Over the past thirty years, serial killers have become iconic figures in America, the subject of made-for-TV movies and mass-market paperbacks alike. But why do we find such luridly transgressive and horrific individuals so fascinating? What compels us to look more closely at these figures when we really want to look away? Natural Born Celebrities considers how serial killers have become lionized in American culture and explores the consequences of their fame.

David Schmid provides a historical account of how serial killers became famous and how that fame has been used in popular media and the corridors of the FBI alike. Ranging from H. H. Holmes, whose killing spree during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair inspired The Devil in the White City, right up to Aileen Wuornos, the lesbian prostitute whose vicious murder of seven men would serve as the basis for the hit film Monster, Schmid unveils a new understanding of serial killers by emphasizing both the social dimensions of their crimes and their susceptibility to multiple interpretations and uses. He also explores why serial killers have become endemic in popular culture, from their depiction in The Silence of the Lambs and The X-Files to their becoming the stuff of trading cards and even Web sites where you can buy their hair and nail clippings.

Bringing his fascinating history right up to the present, Schmid ultimately argues that America needs the perversely familiar figure of the serial killer now more than ever to manage the fear posed by Osama bin Laden since September 11.

"This is a persuasively argued, meticulously researched, and compelling examination of the media phenomenon of the 'celebrity criminal' in American culture. It is highly readable as well."- Joyce Carol Oates


Fame, Fame, fatal Fame
It can play hideous tricks on the brain
But still I'd rather be Famous
Than righteous or Holy, any day
Any day, any day.

—The Smiths, “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”

The people's shudder of admiration for the “great criminal” is
addressed to the individual who takes upon himself, as in
primitive times, the stigma of the lawmaker or the prophet.

—Jacques Derrida, “The Force of Law”

To me violence had already been reinforced through time as a
means of being the star, center stage in this drama.

—Serial killer quoted in Eric Hickey's Serial Murderers
and Their Victims

Selling Murder

Online shopping is all the rage these days, and the murderabilia industry in particular, which specializes in selling serial killer artifacts, is booming. At Spectre Studios, sculptor David Johnson sells flexible plastic action figures of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, and John Wayne Gacy and plans to produce a figure of Jack the Ripper in the future. Serial Killer Central offers a range of items made by serial killers themselves, including paintings and drawings by Angelo Buono (one of the “Hillside Stranglers”) and Henry Lee Lucas. For the more discerning consumer, charges a mere $300 for a brick from Jeffrey Dahmer's apartment building, while a lock of Charles Manson's hair is a real bargain at $995, shipping and handling not included.

The sale of murderabilia is just a small part of the huge serial killer industry that has become a defining feature of American popular culture since the 1970s. A constant stream of movies, magazines, T-shirts, trading cards, videos, DVDs, books, Web sites, television shows, and a tsunami of ephemera have given the figure of the serial murderer an unparalleled degree of visibility in the contemporary American public sphere. In a culture defined by celebrity, serial killers like Bundy, Dahmer, and Gacy are among the biggest stars of all, instantly recognized by the vast majority of Americans. Natural Born Celebrities analyzes how and why serial killers became famous, what the consequences . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.