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).