Our obsession with the macabre
by Hannah Westerman; illustrations by Kelsey Skordal
Serial killers, both fictionalized and real, have always held a complex and not entirely fathomable hold on the public’s attention.
In 1969, the Manson Family, perhaps some of the most well-known serial killers, committed a string of murders that were both brutal and shocking. The vague, unclarified goal behind the attacks, the viciousness of the murders and the idea that a single man could drive others to kill so mercilessly all combined to fascinate and horrify the public as they watched the heavily publicized investigation and seven-month trial. Without inflicting a single wound on any of the victims, Charles Manson became one of the most famous serial killers in the world. He was so charismatic and manipulative that his cult “family” was easily convinced to do his murderous bidding.
At his direction, five of Manson’s followers attacked the home of director Roman Polanski, gruesomely murdering Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate and four friends: writer Wojciech Frykowski, coffee heiress Abigal Folger, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring and Steven Parent, a friend of the Polanski’s gardener.
The very next night, dissatisfied with the previous murders, Manson and several followers went for a ride in search of new victims. Arriving at the home of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca, four of Manson’s followers proceeded to kill LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary.
In 1970, Charles Manson was sentenced to death, though the sentence was reduced to life without parole when California banned capital punishment. Recently, the media erupted with the story of Manson’s plans to marry from behind bars. Twenty-six-year old Afton Elaine Burton, renamed Star by the 80-year-old Manson, is eager to declare herself Manson’s wife. The relationship between Manson and Burton is years in the making. When she was only 17, Burton started writing to Manson. Two years later, Burton left Mississippi and her family, taking all of her savings in order to rent an apartment near the local maximum security prison in Corcoran, California where Manson is imprisoned. For seven years, Burton visited Manson twice a week. In November 2014, the couple received a marriage license.
Burton adamantly believes in Manson’s innocence. When not holding hands with Manson over a table in a visitation room, Burton maintains multiple websites dedicated to clearing Manson’s name, like MansonDirect.com. The sparse site promises the “Charles Manson Truth.” Posts contain “evidence” supporting Manson’s innocence, promotions of Manson’s music, political and environmental links and multiple pictures of Manson. The site wishes him a happy birthday every November 12th.
Burton’s devotion to Manson is so absolute that she recently used a knife to scratch an X into her forehead, mimicking the self-inflicted wounds that Manson and three of his female followers donned during their murder trial.
The public has reacted with revulsion to the idea of a young woman tying herself to a vicious, unrepentant killer more than three times her age. Yet, Burton is not unique. In fact, Manson is not even the first of the Manson Family to marry since the 1970 convictions. Beating Manson to the altar by 35 years was Charles Denton “Tex” Watson who was convicted of seven counts of first degree murder in the Polanski/LaBianca killings. Watson married Kristin Joan Svege and the marriage produced four children before 1996, when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation banned conjugal visits for lifers. The couple divorced in 2003.
Next to marry in the Manson Family was Susan Atkins. Also serving a life sentence for her role in the Manson Family murders, Atkins was married not once, but twice, while behind bars. Her first marriage in 1981 was soon annulled after Atkins discovered that her husband, Donald Lee Laisure, was not the multi-millionaire he claimed to be and that he had been married 35 times previously. Six years later, Atkins married again to Harvard law student James Whitehouse. Whitehouse was 15 years younger than Atkins. Atkins and Whitehouse remained married until her death in 2009.
It seems as if there is no crime horrendous enough to scare off potential suitors. Ted Bundy, the serial killer, rapist and necrophile, who confessed to 30 homicides and is suspected of many more, also married while behind bars. Unlike the Manson Family marriages, Bundy actually knew his future spouse before his incarceration. Carol Anne Boone dated Bundy before his initial arrest, and her dedication led her to smuggle cash to him in 1977 to fund a prison escape attempt. They married in 1980 during the penalty phase of Bundy’s trial. Boone gave birth to a daughter two years later and claimed Bundy as the father.
Smuggling is on the low end of the scale of crimes that have been committed in the name of love for a serial killer. A female admirer of Kenneth Bianchi, part of the Hillside Strangler duo, contacted him during his trial. Even though Bianchi was accused of raping and murdering multiple women and girls, including a 12 year old, she gave falsified testimony in defense of Bianchi. She was later convicted of attempting to strangle a woman in order to make it appear that the Hillside Strangler was still at large. Despite these signs of her intense devotion, Bianchi did not marry his admirer. Instead, in 1989, he married his pen pal Shirlee Joyce Book. Bianchi’s new wife was, a serial killer aficionado—pursuing Ted Bundy before eventually moving on to Bianchi.
It’s not just single women who end up with convict spouses. Rosalie Martinez was married and a mother of four when she met Oscar Ray Bolin Jr., a.k.a. “Bolin the Butcher,” who was convicted of raping and murdering three Florida women. Bolin is currently on death row and Martinez was actually Bolin’s public defender. Martinez maintains that Bolin is innocent of the alleged murders. She admits that Bolin is a rapist, though she refuses to discuss it further. She married Bolin 30 days after her husband filed for divorce. Her ex-husband has custody of their four children.
Not only is Martinez married to a convicted serial killer, she actually keeps the ashes of another murderer in her home, a man that Martinez refers to as Mr. Winkles. He raped and murdered several prostitutes, and his ashes went unclaimed after his execution. Though a box of ashes is an extreme example, there is a market for serial killer or murderer memorabilia, often called “murderabilia.”
Murderabilia includes everything from serial killer’s autographed photos, letters and artwork to the more disgusting, such as authenticated nail clippings, hair and dirty socks. At one point, eBay allowed the sale of murderabilia on its site. Once eBay banned the sale of such items, websites dedicated exclusively to killer merchandise and souvenirs popped up to keep the market alive. On Murder Auction, the starting bid for a signed card by Charles Manson is $185. On Serial Killers Ink, collectors can search through specified categories like female killers, mass shooters, necrophiles and cannibals. Big name serial killers like Bundy and Manson get their own sections.
By 2013, Alabama, California, Florida, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Utah and Texas had passed “Notoriety for Profit” laws to prevent any of the killers from directly profiting from the sale of murderabilia or any other related merchandise. However, the actual sale of the items is not illegal in any way.
The commercialization of murder is expansive. The scenes of grisly crimes become tourist spots. In Los Angeles California, the Dearly Departed Tours company offers the Helter Skelter Tour, which chronicles the Manson Family murders. For $69, the three-and-a-half hour multi-media tour includes stops at both crime locations, audio of the killers’ voices describing the crimes, the driveway where the killers washed off and the hillside where the bloody clothes were found, and where the victims lived and worked. Also included with the ticket price is a piece of rock from the Polanski/Tate house fireplace. The company proudly announces that $5 of every ticket is donated to the Doris Tate Crime Victim Foundation. The reviews of the tours are incredibly positive. Many customers comment on how informative it was and mention taking the tour multiple times.
This fascination with serial killers leaks into popular culture. The Investigation Discovery channel has made a business by assuming that a large viewing audience wants to watch average people murder their spouses, family and friends. There is no crime too terrible to be made into a Lifetime movie. This month, the Lifetime Movie Network aired a new documentary titled “My Uncle is the Green River Killer.” The film features multiple interviews with family members of Gary L. Ridgway, who killed at least 49 women in Washington State before being arrested in 2001.
Dozens of movies based on the lives and crimes of serial killers exist. Some movies, like the 2002 film “Dahmer,” attempt to psychologically analyze the killers. Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial rapist known for necrophilia and cannibalism who murdered 17 men and boys overthe course of 13 years. But the film doesn’t focus on the gruesomeness of his acts. Instead, it attempts to explore the mental state behind Dahmer’s twisted behavior. In contrast, “Gacy” (2003), based on John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown, who sexually assaulted and strangled at least 33 boys and then buried many of them beneath his house in a crawlspace, sells itself through horror and disgust. It is a difficult line to balance. Attempts to explain the killer can be seen as justifying their actions, while emphasizing the gore might be considered as an exploitation of the victims’ horrible final moments.
With countless books, movies, and television shows, this “true crime” genre is unavoidable. The morbid curiosity invoked by serial killers seems to have had an effect on a majority of the population. They’re disturbing and horrible but we want to know about them. So, while “Star” Burton is labeled as crazy or brain-washed for her desire to marry Manson, she is just an example of a collective, perverse interest in those that commit incomprehensible atrocities.