Death and Its Souvenirs: On Murderabilia

By Daniel ElkindSeptember 10, 2018

Death and Its Souvenirs: On Murderabilia
DESPITE THE OUTSIZED ATTENTION it has garnered in the media, the artwork produced by the American serial killers of the 20th century has been extremely disappointing.

I don’t mean to say it disappoints in an artistic sense, though that’s also true. Murderabilia — as it is called by collectors and detractors alike — falls far short of the mark that other forms of “Outsider Art” have made on art history. Art brut or naïve art, for example, proves artistically far more subtle and superior to the work of these famous kidnappers and cannibals, as does the output of other nearly anonymous folk artists — those janitors, housewives, and nonviolent maniacs whose art is on display at the American Folk Art Museum. These unlikely artists often surprise us: Henry Darger, perhaps the most famous example, was a hospital custodian until his death, when his landlord discovered a 15,000-page novel and thousands of illustrations. His art, like his inner life, is populated with strange characters, Manichean story lines, improbable fantasies about the “Vivian Girls” — depicted with tiny penises — and extraordinary bursts of color. Murderabilia, on the other hand, often lacks the true idiosyncrasy of imagination of folk artists like Darger.

Yet, this fails to account for the full disappointment of murderabilia, which is a letdown precisely because we expect something to emerge from the mind of a serial killer — some kind of unsettling, twisted authenticity right out of Max Ernst’s nightmares. We expect to see excursions into megalomania, or the ferocity and violence of their acts rendered in form and color. Murderabilia marketing extends the promise of prying up floorboards in an old, mysterious house — we expect to find secrets hidden there.

Instead, the artistic works of the most notorious American killers and criminals turn out to be little more than ordinary and dull. They demonstrate a conspicuous lack of mental lather; they feature paint-by-numbers landscapes, and dingy portraiture of the most tediously solipsistic kind; they flaunt figurative tautologies that obscure rather than reveal, that digress rather than express. Yet their artlessness says more about us than it does about them. As an audience, we’re not prepared for mediocrity from monsters. For us, the actual work pales next to the legend.

What do murderers dream about when they paint?

It’s as if we’re searching under the bed for monsters, and we are disappointed to find only cross-eyed lambs.


Death on Display

In 1839, Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an Opium-Eater, published a series of three essays, the second of which was titled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” In this Swiftian essay, De Quincey posits that recreational murder is the inevitable product of a decadent society, where the murderer becomes a kind of cultural barometer, albeit a misunderstood one. In this view, the murderer might be seen as an especially sensitive curator of social forces — after all, he points out, “a man can never cultivate his taste too highly.” In many ways, Hannibal Lecter, the pop-iconic serial killer of Thomas Harris’s novels, presents us with a contemporary rendering of De Quincey’s proposition. Allegedly based on serial murderer Ted Bundy, he is, after all, an aesthete and a dandy — a gourmand and fine wine snob, who can appreciate sonatas in his cell.

De Quincey uses the idea of murder-as-art to mock our aspiration to “Kulchur,” as well as our “vulgar taste for comparison,” touching on the ways in which death and crime are commodified. At the time of De Quincey’s writing, the English public could attend all kinds of executions and punishments, read about the lurid crimes committed by prison inmates in The Newgate Calendar, or tour insane asylums for fun. The suffering of others — women, the poor, the insane — was regularly trivialized and treated as mass entertainment; it was voraciously consumed.

By the turn of the 20th century, our relationship to death as spectacle was already abstracted, but attractions like waxworks and dime museums continued to attest to the lasting desire to live vicariously, to bear witness to pain and sin, and to revel in the shame and vulgarity of living. Relics of our morbid cultural fixation, like murderabilia, appear to offer a front-row seat to mortality, to initiate the viewer into a secret and exclusive society of death witnesses. These relics traffic in the hopeful illusion that one can return from a visit to death with a souvenir — a piece of what De Quincey rather slyly called “ocular proof.”

But an audience can quickly habituate themselves to the presence of death, their threshold for fear and pity metastasizing beyond the bounds of convention. The Grand Guignol Théâtre, a macabre Parisian spectacle house on the Rue Chaptal, was one such prominent example. Opened in 1897, the theater was the brainchild of a former police secretary and an “affable librarian” whose vaudevillian horror scripts earned him the title “Prince of Terror.”

By the 1950s, the Grand Guignol was not doing as well as it had in past decades. A 1957 New York Times article chronicled its waning days, explaining the residual allure of the theater even as ticket sales continued to drop off:

The tricks are so elementary that one wonders how people could possibly be taken in. The answer is that they want to be. The Grand Guignol merely helps them to project their more violent subconscious desires […] The average spectator thirsts for blood; he never can get enough of it. When, one night recently, the crashed racing driver got up to take his curtain call, a nice lady in the audience exclaimed: “Oh, he’s alive. What a shame.” Sadism is the string on which the Grand Guignol plucks insistently. In some people it vibrates so strongly that they prefer to hide from prying eyes behind the lattices of the Grand Guignol’s loges.

Following the Libération, the Grand Guignol went out with hardly a whimper. The theatrical methods it had developed and cultivated, helping audiences project their hidden desires onstage, now seemed utterly quaint to a sophisticated, modern crowd. Over the course of its 60-year run, compelling new types of media had emerged, with newfangled techniques designed to ensure that death was properly and realistically staged and that our proximity to it was closer than ever.


Bozo the Painter, Gacy the Clown

We should not pretend, however, that we’ve moved on from this desire to approach death, this desire to bear witness to it. Our love of true crime stories, procedurals, horror podcasts, Agatha Christie novels, and murder mysteries all attest to that fact that we have only complicated our relationship to “horror-tainment.” Today, sites featuring murderabilia provide a curated tour of death, showcasing the hair and nails of murderers as if they were holy relics. These sites also offer the artwork of murderers and other criminals for sale, commodities for an established market.

One of the most prolific killer-artists is John Wayne Gacy, once a small-town businessman, local Democratic Party activist, and neighborhood rent-a-clown. In 1994, Gacy was executed for the murder of at least 33 young men and boys, many of whom he sexually abused and tortured before burying their bodies underneath his home in suburban Illinois. During the 14 years he spent on death row before his execution, Gacy produced cheerful paintings of “Pogo” and “Patches,” two clowns that look only half as “frightening” as the average Ringling Brothers poster. He rendered these topical, affectless portraits in flat, primary colors, the clowns often paired with a clammy handful of balloons. Taken out of the context of Gacy’s hideous crimes, these works resemble the portraits of Emmett Kelly, Lou Jacobs, Felix Adler, and Otto Griebling. They appear to have only the most superficial connection to the Gacy the public knew from newspapers. On the contrary, they would seem right at home in any children’s amusement park.

Most of Gacy’s work appears flat in the same impenetrable way. Dwarf’s Baseball, for example, is a painting of an imagined game between the Chicago Cubs and the Seven Dwarves, who stand like smiling icons around the diamond and outfield while a human player steps up to bat. Sex Skull, despite its macabre description, is an abstract Arcimboldo-like collage of tastefully rendered genitalia within the form of a nonthreatening, cartoon skull. Self-Portrait is slightly more interesting and well executed — a Munch-like painting of an inscrutable Gacy, whose beige face, black hair, and white shirt appear on a monochrome lilac background. The shadows of his face — under the nose and mouth — merge with his hairline, creating a single black halo around his head, as if Gacy was painting without ever lifting the brush.

The only Gacy painting with any real narrative is a triptych called Pogo in the Making, which depicts a man — ostensibly Gacy himself — transforming into the children’s birthday entertainer Pogo, Gacy’s real-life pre-criminal clown persona. In the first section of the triptych, the man is pictured smiling and waving, clean-faced and dressed in a blue button-down shirt; in the second, he is dressed as a clown, covered in makeup, with his hands down beside him and his smile fixed in place; in the triptych’s third section, the clown’s hand returns to its wave. He clutches balloons tight to his chest and wears a cone-shaped party hat. For some reason, Gacy painted the smiling corners of Pogo’s mouth to point upward like the Glasgow Smile — the facial scars immortalized in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs and the inspiration behind the villainous Joker in the Batman series — yet he still looks friendly and remarkably flat.

David Gussak, an art therapist and professor who has studied murderabilia, has argued that our fascination with the artwork of serial killers like Gacy, of course, has little to do with whether the work itself is any good. According to Gussak, it is part morbid curiosity and part ancient inheritance that underlies this fascination. He notes that the paintings “are not worth it, if they were just paintings without any clear tie to someone so notorious. No one is buying it for the beauty of the image; one reason they’re buying it is akin to virtual rubbernecking.” Murderabilia seems akin to our religious (and near-religious) appetite for souvenirs of death, from the relics of saints to the gruesome residue of public executions. The crowd not only claims the body of the martyr, but likewise covets the holy shroud. Even ordinary objects are transformed forever by the residue of death.

Yet Gussak also stresses that this kind of art — and art therapy in general — can be a potential “bridge” between the “common, average person” and the “infamous, callous, antisocial murderer.” Gussak refers to Jung’s theory of “the shadow” to elaborate the multitude of little ways in which we might betray ourselves on canvas or in clay. Art becomes an artifact of consciousness — ordinarily so fleeting — through which repressed material, the darkness of our lives, can be revealed. In other words, art can serve as a kind of two-way mirror between artist and observer. Admittedly, this theory offers one of the more hopeful perspectives for understanding murderabilia, because it presupposes some intrinsic psychological content which may or may not exist, as well as the expectation that this content, whatever it might be, can be valuable in part or in whole. It supposes that the repressed content of a murderer’s mind can be meaningfully articulated in any medium other than violence.

The danger of this fascination with the figure of the murderer, as Thomas De Quincey argues, is the perversion of sympathy. In his essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” De Quincey insists that the criminal’s art confers on his crimes a “depth of solemnity.” The murderer becomes more interesting than his victim precisely because art serves to focus our “interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life,” an instinct that “exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude.” Instead of this inversion of sympathy, what we need, De Quincey suggests, is “a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which we enter into [the murderer’s] feelings, and are made to understand them — not a sympathy of pity or approbation” for the “hell within.”

Many of John Wayne Gacy’s original paintings were destroyed in a bonfire ceremony in Naperville, Illinois, by the families of his victims, though you can still see some at the Museum of Death in Los Angeles. Until recently, Gacy’s moldering clown suits were also on display at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, DC, but that museum is now defunct.

“Besides, the dead won’t bother you,” Gacy once said in an interview. “It’s the living you gotta worry about.”


Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator living in San Francisco.


Featured image by Becker1999.

LARB Contributor

Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator living in San Francisco.


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