Token gestures: A brief look at ‘sexual trophy collecting’
Back in 2002, I had a little piece published on excessive collecting behaviour in the Guardian newspaper (‘Addicted to hoarding’). In it I wrote:
“I have always been interested in why we have what seems like an innate ability to collect. I would almost go as far as to say that we are ‘natural born hoarders’. Furthermore, there has been surprisingly little research in this area and Freud’s theories on the topic are unfortunately almost empirically untestable. I would also add that for some people, collecting is at the pathological end of the behavioural continuum. There are some that are (for want of a better word) ‘addicted’ to collecting and there are some with obsessive-compulsive disorders who simply cannot throw away anything”.
Since then I’ve published a few articles on the psychology of collecting in this blog and is probably one of the reasons that I have had a few approaches over the last couple months from journalists asking me about the psychology behind various forms of collecting. (In fact, I’ve also been approached to write an academic chapter on the phenomenon too). Two of the most recent media requests included journalists writing articles on why people collect retro video games (which I hope to write about in a future blog) and another on why people collect ‘sexual trophies’.
I have to admit that I am no expert on sexual trophies so I did a little reading on the topic. According to one definition I came across, a sexual trophy is “any item or piece of clothing gained from a sexual encounter as proof of a successful sexual conquest”. To tie in with the release of US comedy I Just Want My Pants Back, MTV conducted a [non-academic] survey and reported that one in three young British people (aged between 18 and 34 years) admitted to owning some sort of sex trophy with one in six of them (16%) claiming they had two or more sex-based trophies (a group that MTV termed ‘Sexual Magpies’).
However, when it comes to the collecting ‘sexual trophies’, I would argue that most academic research that I have come across on the topic relates to more criminal sexual deviance rather than day-to-day sexual encounters. For instance, in the 2010 book Serial Murderers and Their Victims, Dr. Eric Hickey described the case of man – who was a voyeur – from Georgia (US) that used to break into houses and steal women’s underwear. On his eventual arrest they found over 400 pairs of knickers that he had stolen. More disturbing are cases such as this excerpt from a story in the Daily Telegraph. This is arguably more typical of what I perceive to be sexual trophy hunters:
“A company manager and ‘pillar of the community’ has been exposed after 20 years as a serial sex attacker known as the Shoe Rapist. James Lloyd, 49, a long-standing Freemason who took the footwear of his victims as trophies, was finally caught through advances in DNA techniques. Police later found more than 100 pairs of stiletto shoes hidden behind a trap door at the printing works where he was employed… As well as taking their shoes, he often stole jewellery from the women, mainly in their teens and early 20s, between 1983 and 1986” (Daily Telegraph, July 18, 2006).
However, Dr. Hickey’s book describes even worse acts of sexual trophy collecting. He noted that many serial killers are “known for their habits of collecting trophies or souvenirs. Others have collected lingerie, shoes, hats, and other apparel”. A sizeable section of the book concentrates on the types of serial killers that are popular in the media (such as those that commit ‘lust murders‘) and are the subject of many Hollywood films such as the series of films with (my favourite fictional psychopath) Hannibal Lecter. As Hickey notes:
“These are the rapists who enjoy killing and, often, indulging in acts of sadism and perversion. These are the men who have engaged in necrophilia, cannibalism, and the drinking of victims’ blood. Some like to bite their victims; others enjoy trophy collecting – shoes, underwear, and body parts, such as hair clippings, feet, heads, fingers, breasts, and sexual organs…[and] evoke our disgust, horror, and fascination”.
One of the cases discussed is 1950s US serial killer Harvey Glatman (known in the media as ‘The Lonely Hearts Killer’) who used to take photographs of the women he murdered. Citing the work of Dr. Robert Keppel (another expert in serial murder cases and author of Serial Murder: Future Implications for Police Investigations), Dr. Hickey wrote:
“His photos were more than souvenirs, because in Glatman’s mind, they actually carried the power of his need for bondage and control. They showed the women in various poses: sitting up or lying down, hands always bound behind their backs, innocent looks on their faces, but with eyes wide with terror because they had guessed what was to come”.
Other murderers described by Dr. Hickey included a man that liked to surgically remove (and keep) the eyeballs from his sexual victims (most probably 1990s’ serial killer Charles Allbright) and another that skinned his victims and made lampshades, eating utensils, and clothing. In his overview of necrophilic homicide (i.e., those individuals that kill others in order to engage in sexual activity), Hickey also mentions that such necrosadistic murderers often engage in other paraphilias related to necrophilia “including partialism or the desire to collect specific body parts that the offenders finds sexually arousing. This may include feet, hands, hair, and heads, among others”. Hickey also noted that:
“Another important characteristic of these lust killers was the ‘perversion factor’. This subgroup was often prone to carry out bizarre sexual acts. These acts most commonly included necrophilia and trophy collection. Jerry Brudos severed the breasts of some of his victims and made epoxy molds. Brudos, like others, also photographed his victims in various poses, dressed and disrobed. The photos served as trophies and a stimulus to act out again”.
Later in the book, Dr. Hickey examines the case of Jerry Brudos in more detail (please be warned that some of the things written here may offend those of a sensitive nature):
“At an early age, Jerry Brudos developed a particular interest in women’s shoes, especially black, spike-heeled shoes. As he matured, his shoe fetish increasingly provided sexual arousal. At 17, he used a knife to assault a girl and force her to disrobe while he took pictures of her. For his crime he was incarcerated in a mental hospital for 9 months. His therapy uncovered his sexual fantasy for revenge against women, fantasies that included placing kidnapped girls into freezers so he could later arrange their stiff bodies in sexually explicit poses. He was evaluated as possessing a personality disorder but was not considered to be psychotic…He continued to collect women’s undergarments and shoes. Prior to his first murder, he had already assaulted four women and raped one of them. At age 28, Jerry was ready to start killing…He took [his first victim] to his garage, where he smashed her skull with a two-by-four. Before disposing of the body in a nearby river, he severed her left foot and placed it in his freezer. He often would amuse himself by dressing the foot in a spiked-heel shoe. His fantasy for greater sexual pleasure led him…to strangle [another victim] with a postal strap. After killing her, he had sexual intercourse with the corpse, then cut off the right breast and made an epoxy mold of the organ. Before dumping her body in the river, he took pictures of the corpse. Unable to satisfy his sexual fantasies and still in the grasp of violent urges, he found his third victim…After sexually assaulting her, he strangled her in his garage, amputated both breasts, again took pictures, and tossed her body into the river”.
Arguably the most infamous ‘sexual trophy collector’ was 1980s US serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the so-called ‘Milwaukee Cannibal’. In Dr. Hickey’s account he noted that:
“Restraining Dahmer, the officers looked around the apartment and counted at least 11 skulls (7 of them carefully boiled and cleaned) and a collection of bones, decomposed hands, and genitals. Three of the cleaned skulls had been spray-painted black and silver. These were to be part of the shrine fantasized by Dahmer. A complete skeleton suspended from a shower spigot and three skulls with holes drilled into them were found throughout the apartment…Chemicals, including muriatic acid, ethyl alcohol, chloroform, and formaldehyde, were also discovered, along with several Polaroid photographs of recently dismembered young men. A complete human head sat in the refrigerator”.
Another infamous case from the early 1970s (that I admit I had never heard of until I read Dr. Hickey’s book) was Ed Kemper, a cannibalistic killer who also collected human trophies and keepsakes of his victims. Citing the book Hunting Humans by Dr. Elliot Leyton, it was reported that:
“At the age of 23, Ed started killing again, a task that would last nearly a year and entail eight more victims. He shot, stabbed, and strangled them. All were strangers to him, and all were hitchhikers. He cannibalized at least two of his victims, slicing off parts of their legs and cooking the flesh in a macaroni casserole. He decapitated all of his victims and dissected most of them, saving body parts for sexual pleasure, sometimes storing heads in the refrigerator. Ed collected ‘keepsakes’ including teeth, skin, and hair from the victims. After killing a victim, he often engaged in sex with the corpse, even after it had been decapitated. In his confession Kemper stated five different reasons for his crimes. His themes centered on sexual urges, wanting to possess his victims, trophy hunting, a hatred for his mother, and revenge against an unjust society (Leyton, 1986)”.
The most obvious question related to these depraved acts is why such people do it in the first place. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Murder and Violent Crime, Nicole Mott provides an answer:
“A trophy is in essence a souvenir. In the context of violent behavior or murder, keeping a part of the victim as a trophy represents power over that individual. When the offender keeps this kind of souvenir, it serves as a way to preserve the memory of the victim and the experience of his or her death. The most common trophies for violent offenders are body parts but also include photographs of the crime scene and jewelry or clothing from the victim. Offenders use the trophies as memorabilia, but also to reenact their fantasies. They often masturbate or use the trophies as props in sexual acts. Their exaggerated fear of rejection is quelled in front of inanimate trophies. Ritualistic trophy taking, as is found with serial offenders, acts as a signature. A signature is similar to a modus operandi (a similar act ritualistically performed in virtually all crimes of one offender), yet it is an act that is not necessary to complete the crime”
In one of my previous blogs on the psychology of collecting more generally, I referred to a paper by Dr. Ruth Formanek in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. She suggested five common motivations for collecting: (i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion. She also claimed that the commonality to all motivations to collect was a passion for the particular things collected. Personally, I think that the acquisition of sexual trophies – even in the most deranged individuals – can be placed within this motivational typology in that such individuals clearly have a passion for what they do and I would argue that the behaviour is an extension of the self that to some individuals may be a compulsion or addiction.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Branagh, N. (2012). Third of UK owns sex trophy. March 26. Located at: http://www.studentbeans.com/mag/en/sex-relationships/third-of-uk-owns-sex-trophy
Du Clos, B. (1993). Fair Game. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Addicted to hoarding. The Guardian (Review Section), August 10, p.19.
Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.
Hickey, E. W. (Ed.). (2003). Encyclopedia of Murder and Violent Crime. London: Sage Publications
Hickey, E. W. (2010). Serial Murderers and Their Victims (Fifth Edition). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Keppel, R. D. (1989). Serial Murder: Future Implications for Police Investigations. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.
Leyton, E. (1986a). Hunting Humans. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Leyton, E. (1986b). Compulsive Killers: The Story of Modern Multiple Murder. New York: New York University Press.
Completing the ‘killection’: A brief look at ‘murderabilia’
In a previous blog, I examined the psychology of collecting and whether collecting can (in extreme cases) be classed as an addiction. Yesterday, the Daily Mail’s front page story was about collectors that buy ‘Holocaust memorabilia’ on eBay such as the striped pyjamas that prisoners were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps during Word War II. This type of collecting is closely related to collectors that buy ‘murderabilia’. Although the word ‘murderabilia’ is fairly new (and is an amalgam of ‘murder memorabilia’), the act itself has a long history and basically refers to collectibles that relate to murder, murderers and/or violent crimes (including such items as artwork produced by incarcerated serial killers, as well as houses, vehicles, clothes, and weapons used in crimes by mass murderers).
The fact that people collect such extreme memorabilia doesn’t surprise me in the least. To me, such behaviour is only one step removed from ‘disaster tourism’ where people pay money to see places, sites, and/or artefacts related to death and disaster. One recent example involved a travel company selling €10 tours to see the sunken cruise liner Costa Concordia off the Tuscan island of Giglio (Italy). Another related type of collecting are the thousands of people that collect Nazi memorabilia (including high profile cases such as the lead singer of Motörhead – Lemmy). As Lemmy’s Wikipedia entry notes:
“Lemmy collects German military regalia, and has an Iron Cross encrusted on his bass, which has led to accusations of Nazi sympathies. He has stated that he collects this memorabilia for aesthetic values only, and considers himself an anarchist or libertarian, and that he is ‘anti-communism, fascism, any extreme’ saying that ‘government causes more problems than it solves’. According to Keither Emerson’s autobiography, two of Lemmy’s Hitlerjugend knives were given to Emerson by Lemmy during his time as a roadie for The Nice. Emerson used these knives many times as keyholders when playing the Hammond Organ during concerts with The Nice and Emerson, Lake & Palmer”.
As I noted in my previous blog on collecting as an addiction, Dr. Ruth Formanek suggested five common motivations for collecting in a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. These were: (i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion. Formanek claimed that the commonality to all motivations to collect was a passion for the particular things collected. None of these motivations beyond passion appears to explain why people collect murderabilia (unless the collectors themselves identify with the person and/or actions of the murderabilia they collect). Crime writer Leigh Lundin claims such individuals may be interested in the macabre, and that many believe by collecting such items offers the collector power and control. My own opinion is that such collectors want to possess unique items that no-one else has and also believe that possess a piece of history (even if the item is connected with actions or people that are sadistic, depraved and/or deluded). Arguable this latter motivation may be related to the motivation of ‘preserving history’.
Back in May 2001, eBay banned the sale of murderabilia items but all this has done is move the murderabilia industry elsewhere (for instance, on websites like Supernaught.com that claims on its’ homepage that it is “the first and longest running website providing true crime collectibles”; among the items they were selling were bricks from [Milwaulkee Cannibal] Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment at $300 a time). The Australian Caslon Analytics website also noted that:
“Contemporary murderabilia has included items owned or created by serial killers, including postcards from Charles Manson, what are claimed as his fingerprint cards, the license plate of the van used by John Wayne Gacy, a murder weapon used by Gary Gilmore, letters from the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ [Peter Sutcliffe] and the ‘Acid Bath Killer’ [John George Haigh] in the UK, drawings by Gacy and other US killers, the radiator cap from the Bonnie & Clyde ‘death car’, Heinrich Himmler’s limousine, earth supposedly from the house where Gacy buried some of his victims and the clothing of some killers. 2009 saw artworks by UK gang leaders Ronnie and Reggie Kray auctioned for £17,125, along with £3,105 for a canvas by poisoner Graham Young”.
The academic literature on murderabilia is mostly in the field of law and/or morality. However, I did unearth a few interesting academic pieces on the topic. There are also some interesting pieces written from a media studies perspective. For instance, Dr. Melinda Wilkins in her PhD ‘A Comfortable Evil’ noted that:
“The serial murder epidemic also generated within the popular media a lucrative moral controversy to negotiate via films, television movies, docu-dramas, true-crime accounts, novels, and memoirs. There were serial-killer comic books and serial killer trading cards to sell; there were serial-killer records to play, taped interviews with Edmund Kemper, Ted Bundy, Henry Lee Lucas, and Kenneth Bianchi billed as ‘honesty about violence’; and for a while during the early 2000s, there was even an eBay web site devoted to the sale of ‘Murderabilia’, memorabilia of one sort and another from various notorious murderers in prison. The epidemic provided American journalists with an apparently inexhaustible topic guaranteed to draw readers and viewers”.
One US academic – Professor David Schmid – has written a number of articles and books on the general public’s consumption of fame including murderabilia including one on this very topic in the M/C Journal (an academic journal concerning media and culture). As Professor Schmid observes:
“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 over the last twenty-five years. This industry is, in turn, a prime example of what Mark Seltzer has described as ‘wound culture,’ consisting of a ‘public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound’. According to Seltzer, the serial killer is ‘one of the superstars of our wound culture’ and his claim is confirmed by the constant stream of movies, books, magazines, television shows, websites, t-shirts, and a tsunami of ephemera that has given the figure of the serial murderer an unparalleled degree of visibility and fame in the contemporary American public sphere”
Schmid’s paper examined how the celebrity culture concerning serial killers has developed and the ethics of collecting such items. He provided examples of how collectors buy the hair and nail clippings of murderers as if they were religious icons. Citing from an old book chapter by US sociologist Leo Lowenthal (‘Biographies in Popular Magazines’), Lowenthal argued that magazine biographies underwent a striking change in the first half of the twentieth century with a new type of social biography emerging. His main argument was that biographies had changed from ‘idols of production’ (those in politics, science, sports, business, etc.) to ‘idols of consumption’ (those in film, music, literature, etc.). This latter group has also evolved to include the lives of infamous criminals. As Schmid then notes:
“With Lowenthal in mind, when one considers the fact that the serial killer is generally seen, in Richard Tithecott’s words, as ‘deserving of eternal fame, of media attention on a massive scale, of groupies’, one is tempted to describe the advent of celebrity serial killers as a further decline in the condition of American culture’s ‘mass idols’. The serial killer’s relationship to consumption, however, is too complex to allow for such a hasty judgment, as the murderabilia industry indicates”.
Schmid also discusses the 2000 US documentary Collectors (directed by Julian P. Hobbs) and discusses some of the multiple connections between serial killing and consumerism.
“Hobbs points out that the serial killer is connected with consumerism in the most basic sense that he has become a commodity, ‘a merchandising phenomenon that rivals Mickey Mouse. From movies to television, books to on-line, serial killers are packaged and consumed en-masse’…But as Hobbs goes on to argue, serial killers themselves can be seen as consumers, making any representations of them implicated in the same consumerist logic: ‘Serial killers come into being by fetishizing and collecting artifacts – usually body parts – in turn, the dedicated collector gathers scraps connected with the actual events and so, too, a documentary a collection of images’…Hobbs implies that no one can avoid being involved with consumerism in relation to serial murder, even if one’s reasons for getting involved are high-minded”.
Schmid then goes on to say:
“The reason why it is impossible to separate neatly ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ expressions of interest in famous serial killers is the same reason why the murderabilia industry is booming; in the words of a 1994 National Examiner headline: ‘Serial Killers Are as American as Apple Pie’. Christopher Sharrett has suggested that: ‘Perhaps the fetish status of the criminal psychopath…is about recognizing the serial killer/mass murderer not as social rebel or folk hero…but as the most genuine representative of American life’. The enormous resistance to recognizing the representativeness of serial killers in American culture is fundamental to the appeal of fetishizing serial killers and their artifacts”.
Even if the murderabilia market carries on ‘making a [financial] killing out of a killing’, it is unlikely to wane in popularity (unless the mass media stops reporting such behaviour). Furthermore, even if legislation outlaws such a practice, the activity will simply go (and likely burgeon) underground. There will always be individuals that are fascinated by the macabre (myself included) and no law will ever stop people collecting such items, however immoral, bizarre and/or depraved.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Chang, S. (2004). Prodigal son returns: An assessment of current Son of Sam laws and the reality of the online murderabilia marketplace. Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal, 31, 430.
Daily Mail (2012). ‘Disaster tourism’ boom for Giglio as day-trippers visit the Costa Concordia site. August 15. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2188623/Costa-Concordia-tragedy-Disaster-tourism-boom-Giglio-day-trippers-visit-stricken-ship.html
Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.
Jarvis, B. (2007). Monsters Inc.: Serial killers and consumer culture. Crime, Media, Culture, 3(3), 326-344.
Lowenthal, L. (1961). The Triumph of Mass Idols. Literature, Popular Culture and Society (pp.109-140). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Schmid, D. (2004). Murderabilia: Consuming fame. M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture, 7(5). Located at: http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0411/10-schmid.php
Sharrett, C. (1999). Introduction. Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media. (pp. 9-20). Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Tithecott, R. (1997). Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Wikipedia (2013). Murderabilia. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murderabilia
Wilkins, M. P. (2004). A Comfortable Evil. Doctoral Dissertation, Pennsylvania State University).