No criminal excites and repulses the public more than a...

September 16, 1990|By John R. Lion

No criminal excites and repulses the public more than a serial killer.

During the last annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, a panel on the topic of Ted Bundy clearly captured the most attention. An extra loudspeaker was hauled out into the hotel corridor so that folks could listen to the proceedings. I was among them, straining to hear about this man who murdered so many coeds in Florida.

I was a little embarrassed by my morbid interest, and most of us avoided glancing at one another, preferring to appear professionally detached and intent on the dialogue. One woman peacefully knit as she listened, Madame DeFarge-like.

But instead of uncovering any amazing truths about this killer, we only learned what we already knew. Bundy was far more valued as a murderer that he could ever have been as an ordinary citizen.

Most death-dealers are. Truman Capote elevated killers to literary levels in his book "In Cold Blood," then wept for them at their execution. In the movie "Badlands," Martin Sheen plays a serial killer on a crime spree. When he is finally caught, he is treated with bizarre respect, as if he were a hero.

Murder is big business, and murderers cash in on it. The so-called "Son of Sam" legislation was an attempt to prevent at least the commercial aspects of this inversion of fame.

I predict that the serial killer in Gainesville, Fla., who murdered five students over the past few weeks, will become a celebrity when he is caught. Actually, he already is -- although he has still not been identified.

Before Ted Bundy was executed, exquisite legal arguments had been rendered in his case, and psychiatrists had debated his insanities. In the end, no one really knew him, for he had ceased to be a person. He was a legal entity.

But not all criminals come to this fate. Many are intensively studied, for it is a mark of humans that we become preoccupied with learning about the motives our kind has for killing one another.

Thus we learn that a man murdered because his wife was unfaithful or that he killed someone who owed him money. Or he committed homicide out of self-defense. These motives are understandable and lead us to nod our head in the satisfaction of causality.

But then come the other kinds of killings: He killed for no reason, he killed because he liked to kill, he killed because he enjoyed inflicting pain on his victims.

Such behaviors are painfully incomprehensible. It cannot be that a man kills out of pleasure, we insist. There must be a better or greater reason, a root etiology. We become more anguished in our quest, thinking that the psychologists will surely find it through their tests. Perhaps the shrinks can be sent in to get the facts. A sodium amytal interview may uncover the truth. Maybe his brain waves will reveal electrical abnormalities, as if paper tracings would finally put matters to rest.

All people kill for a reason, but the reasons may be twisted beyond recognition into a phenomenology similar to that of love. Killing and loving are, in fact, an inextricable duality.

A murderer may kill because he has never been loved. A woman may love so desperately that she wants to kill her mate. I have seen tattoos about loving and killing on opposite extremities and have interviewed a killer who lovingly raised vegetables, and another who loved the fish in his aquarium. I've met avid hunters who loved to kill yet dearly loved the ani

mals they used to flush out their prey. Lovers and killers can both commit suicide.

I saw a forensic case in which a man prepared to shoot himself. When the wife he hated appeared in the doorway, he removed the gun from his head and killed her instead. He loved her too much, he said. If others had been at home, would he have become a multiple murderer? What prevented him from gunning down a group of people on the street? Who can explain these forces and their vectors?

Civilization has seen many multiple and mass murderers, but the worst are those who have engineered genocide rather than personally delivering "hands-on" death. Hitler ordered more deaths than all the serial murderers we will ever know, yet there is something different about him since he, like other despots in history, distanced himself from his terrible machinery of destruction.

Modern mass murderers have used assault rifles against restaurant patrons or children. Serial murderers are different. A true serial murderer stalks, plans, relishes, fondles and tortures. He breathes on his victims and cherishes their gurgles of fear. Blood becomes vital, as do the respiratory sounds of death.

These elements of murder are crucial to mystery thrillers and horror movies, and the sights and sounds of personal death are the gridwork of suspense and horror. While hearts beat and hairs stand on end, we look on, terrified and hypnotized, revolted and thrilled, disgusted and sated.

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