Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Lesson I Learned from a Serial Killer

A few weeks back, a friend wrote me to tell me that serial killer Arthur Shawcross had died. The timing was odd for me. I'd just been covering a number of locations in both Rochester and Buffalo, New York for future Dark Destinations articles. Among the locations I'd visited had been sites associated with Arthur Shawcross's crimes. It had been odd enough both visiting these spots roughly two decades after the crimes occurred and finding out how many of his crimes were committed close by places I'd lived throughout my time in Rochester and even places I'd played as a child. It had been a chilling experience.

Back in fall of 1989, when I was a high school senior, the local newspapers were running stories about the ongoing police investigation into a series of murders in Rochester. The murderer had been dubbed both the "Rochester Strangler" and the "Genessee River Killer" by the press. Myself and a number of my teenage friends had been naive and foolish enough to be excited by the idea that Rochester had its own serial killer. We had images in our heads that were more based in horror films than in reality.

When they actually caught the killer, and the name Arthur Shawcross became infamous for the people of Rochester, my teen friends and I had a wake up call. This wasn't a guy in a hockey mask. This guy didn't run around with a glove with knives on the fingers while making bad puns. This guy was real. He was a mentally ill man who'd suffered a number of head injuries, lead poisoning and if his stories are to be believed, sexual abuse when he was younger. He hadn't just been preying on grown women, he'd also killed a couple of kids many years earlier in Watertown, NY (where I used spend every Thanksgiving at my cousins' dairy farm as a child). Our fantasy bubble burst and reality came streaming horrifically in.

It was a lesson in the stark difference between the fantasy world of horror fiction and the real life atrocities that some people are capable of. When I write this, I"m not speaking ill of the horror genre. All genres of fiction create fantasy worlds that even when they seem realistic, really aren't. I don't care if it is an action film or a romance -- It isn't a model of reality. Hopefully there comes a point in each person's life when they realize this. In the case of my friends and I, this was the first major wake up call we had to how the world was. We realized that in our excitement, we'd dehumanized the victims and idolized a sick slob of a man. It was easier to do when the killer remained cloaked in mystery.

It is a lesson I've kept in the back of my mind always when writing about wars, disasters or instances of violent crime. Hopefully, that shows through in the work. I also wince when I see news coverage of things like the Virginia Tech Massacre last year. While they don't show the killers in a positive light, I think all too often the media unintentionally glorifies killers like Seung-Hui Cho by demonizing them. By putting the focus on the killer and not on the victims, they turn people like that into a sort of anti-hero. They also often reduce the victims down into a number. It winds up reading like a score in a video game.

What are your thoughts on how the media covers stories of mass violence? Is the media handling the matter responsibly? Who do you feel are the biggest offenders? Which news outlets do you feel handle the stories in the most responsible manner? Have you had something happen in your home town or city that was a wake up call for you? Please share.

Pay a visit to Dark Destinations to look up dark locations in your own area.

Or, go to Rochester, NY and see the Dark Destinations in my home city.

-Tom G


floyd barber said...

A couple of years ago I hired a guy who was the younger brother of a someone I had played sports with in high school. When I knew him he was just a little kid. He worked for me for 2 weeks, then abruptly quit. I found out a couple of months later in the newspaper that he had killed a 14 year old runaway, cut him up in the shower with a sawzall, then burned the remains out in the desert. My skin crawled as I thought about how normal and respectable he appeared.

Anonymous said...

just got blog back up and running. i posted a few pics from Halloween night. check it out when you get some time
stay true~