We have to make choices about what is worth remembering. Well, not us, luckily, but historians (although, depending on how you classify history, as authors of two comprehensive genre film books, Mine’s Bigger Than Yours and Death by Umbrella we may even qualify ourselves).
Serial Killer Culture is a 2014 documentary whose principals share a principle that is roughly: anyone in history who’s done something nefarious, is worthy of being remembered, and through modern day exemplars of what entertained the masses a century ago, dime museums…except instead of charging two bits a gander, they are art dealers to the depraved, to cite one example.
But what is the utility of having people remember, say, Jeffrey Dahmer versus Jack the Ripper? Or both? Or Neither?
As the folks behind the Historical Thinking Project put it, while significance depends upon one’s perspective and purpose, a historical person or event can acquire significance if…historians, can link it to larger trends and stories that reveal something important for us today.”
Jeffrey Dahmer, (to pick one example from Serial Killer Culture), like Saucy Jack, has his own cottage industry of real life tours. Yes, you can choose among competing Dahmer tours next time you’re in Milwaukee.
If we were to put on a historian’s cap, however, we can see how the Wisconsin cannibal’s exploits (or those of Richard Ramirez or John Wayne Gacy) don’t pass the sniff test.
For a point of comparison…Jack the Ripper was the first modern day serial killer. His crimes shocked and appalled Londoners (something he shares with every deviant throughout history) but he’s of historical significance by not only being the first of his kind before even the term “serial killer” was part of the popular vernacular, but also by being linked to things like perceptions and suspicions of recent immigrants, class distinctions (residents of posh West London were forced to consider the downtrodden denizens of Whitechapel, perhaps for the first time) and Jack’s crimes occurring when police forces as we have come to know them were just being formed, and battling over jurisdiction, but also mastering new policing technical procedures.
Dahmer, by contrast…boils down to (if you’ll pardon the expression) people’s prurient interests and likely nothing more. He’s not the first cannibal, the first to prey upon vulnerable populations (Milwaukee’s gay community) or the first to have movies made about him. He’s a footnote, if he’s part of history at all.
And that he is somehow relevant, is what Serial Killer Culture takes for granted, without much in the way of dissenting view of Gacy / Ramirez painting profiteers, save for second hand references about victims’ families getting upset.
Maybe this reviewer is part of the problem for being part of the demand that feeds serial killer supply, increasing on platforms like Netflix. But that’s another discussion altogether.
Serial Killer Culture is OK for what it is, and aficionados will get a chance to see rare photos of Elmer Henley as well as a lot of awful scribblings, piss-poor maniac-inspired music, and terrible art. To their credit, the collectors/content producers admit as much.
*** (out of 5)