MOVIE REVIEW: John Borowski’s “Serial Killer Culture”
Take a look at the painting on the right.
Put on your art-dealer cap and do a quick valuation of it. It’s not a very good painting; even with a B+ in Art History, I can tell you that the perspective is bad, the proportions are off, and frankly, it looks childish.
The artist painted several paintings of this clown subject and, the cheapest you will find it for is just shy of $3,000. It’s called “Pogo the Clown” and is based on a clown character that the artist himself created and portrayed at fundraising events, children’s parties, and to entertain patients at children’s hospitals. The artist of this work, the man behind the make-up/canvas, so to speak, was also responsible for murdering thirty-three (33) people between 1972 and 1978.
Yes, John Wayne Gacy was Pogo the Clown.
Much of Gacy’s artwork is available on the internet and, since his execution by lethal injection in 1994, the prices have continued to climb as the work of any other painter of notoriety might. Moreover, “available on the internet” does not mean that it’s available on a shady deep web site. You can Google Gacy+artwork or simply go to serialkillersink.net where “Pogo the Clown” sells for $2,750.00 but is currently sold out. Not to worry, you can find similar work done by equally well-known artists including Robert Bardo, the man who stalked and killed actress Rebecca Shaeffer in 1989, he specializes in pencil drawings of Hollywood actresses. David Bullock, who murdered six people with a .38 caliber handgun has several pencil drawings of ghouls and monsters for sale on the site. Alfred Gaynor, who raped and strangled nine women in Massachusetts, has for sale a handful of color pencil drawings depicting skulls and monsters.
If you’re not an art person, you can also purchase handwritten letters, a hand-written postcard by someone like Charles Manson, or even a bible once owned by Carroll Cole who was responsible for murdering at least sixteen women.
Like it or not, there is a market for this type of memorabilia. The culture surrounding not only the pursuit and sale of serial killer memorabilia but the art (music, paintings, books, and comic books) and, yes, tourism of it is the subject of John Borowski’s documentary, Serial Killer Culture.
Borowski’s film, available on Netflix streaming, is a curious and hands-off look at the people who profit from the names of serial killers such as Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Richard Ramirez. Borowski does not narrate (until he highlights his own obsession as a filmmaker) nor does he show scores of unedited footage. He simply puts a camera in front of people who have been accused of being everything from profiteers to outright sickos and allows them to explain themselves. Or not. The film is Borowski’s attempt to understand the fascination that would lead a regular guy like Rick Staton, a mortician and vintage movie poster collector, to become John Wayne Gacy’s personal art dealer. Borowski’s film isn’t simply one collector after another, each subsequent subject out-weirding the next, it’s purely a look at why.
And many of the subjects are not the pentagram-tattooed metal-heads you might expect. Well perhaps one or two are, but they are all surprisingly articulate and every single subject expresses a vehement and entirely believable disgust for the crimes these people have committed. So, what gives?
Borowski’s subjects offer a variety of reasons for immersing themselves in this macabre culture. Staton, Gacy’s art dealer, simply saw his art as another thing to collect and admits that any money he made went towards buying more movie posters and he says openly that his wife and mother hated what he was doing. Staton says he only stopped trading in this sort of thing after the birth of his son; then, he said, he was fully able to understand the obvious disgust towards what he was doing because the thought of his son being harmed upset him so badly, he admits that he would kill if someone were to harm his child. In one of the documentary’s creepiest moments, he produces a portrait of his son adorned with Mickey Mouse, the Seven Dwarves, and Pogo the Clown that Gacy himself painted as a birthday gift for his then two-year-old child.
Borowski interviews two musicians who sing serial-killer inspired banjo songs and have produced a serial-killer coloring book. The two men, however, have the least serious approach among the subjects interviewed as they openly admit their work is done purely as a bad joke and are well-aware that most everything they produce is done in terrible taste. There is a look at the Jeffrey Dahmer walking-history tour in Milwaukee, run by two people who seem to place their livelihood in the same category as the Jack the Ripper walking tours in East London. The proprietor, an entrepreneurial and well-educated woman in her early thirties, admits that the Dahmer tour may be “too soon,” but she argues (as do several of the tour participants Borowski interviewed) that, like it or not, it is history.
One woman says: “I always want to know the history of the neighborhood I live in.”
Another man, who regularly corresponded with Richard Ramirez, The Night Stalker (who died on death row), says that Ramirez’s letters were often boring and monotonous, saying that Ramirez always asked the same question: “How’s AC/DC doing?” This man, Matthew Aaron, preferred writing to Ramirez’s wife, Doreen, a reporter who he says is “full of details.” He has also corresponded with several members of The Manson Family. From Doreen, he received The Nightstalker Suit, the outfit Ramirez wore when he committed his crimes. Aaron proudly displays the suit amongst a myriad of oddities that includes a petrified side-show “mermaid,” Nazi memorabilia, and skulls at his Last Dime Museum. He also owns one of Gacy’s “Pogo” paintings which he says are very hard to come by because people “hold on” to them. His reason for collecting these things, he says, is that he was inspired by the book Helter Skelter and a Harry Houdini quote in which Houdini said that [his] generation would see the last of the dime museums. Aaron decided he would do what he could to “keep those things alive,” taking special pride in his “rogue gallery.”
A European artist, whose work makes a Cannibal Corpse album cover look like a Saturday morning cartoon, does what he does because of his fundamental belief in artistic expression. He feels that art should cause a reaction and, if that reaction is revoltion and discomfort, so be it. Under no circumstances, he asserts, should art ever be censored.
Perhaps the most fascinating subject of the documentary is comic book artist Hart Fisher. Borowski cleverly presents Fisher, at least initially, as a bit of an eccentric. A long-haired and tattooed loudmouth who looks like the type of person that would create a Jeffrey Dahmer comic, Fisher comes across as someone who watched far too many horror movies as a child and has a warped sense of artistic expression as a result. Fisher faced numerous complaints, a lawsuit (which he eventually won), and nearly universal scorn but as the interview continues, viewers learned that, in Fisher’s words, “they picked the wrong fucking guy from the Southside of Chicago.” At the time of the Dahmer comic, Fisher explains that his girlfriend was violently raped and put into intensive care. A subsequent girlfriend, Michelle Davis, was raped and then murdered with a shotgun in the basement bathroom of the hotel where she worked. Fisher had to identify her body. It is because of these events, a visibly distraught and emotional Fisher says, that he has an “intimacy” and an “understanding” with the subject matter. Furthermore, he says explicitly that he writes about serial killers because he has to; he says he has lost loved ones his whole life and the resulting pain and anger has put him in state where he feels the need to “work-off” these feelings through artistic expression.
Borowski’s documentary touches on one of the few subjects that remains taboo in our society and attempts to answer the question that many have because it is a good question: what would possess someone to pursue something like that? There is no single answer and Borowski’s film asserts as much yet, the one commonality all his subjects seem to possess is their distaste for the media.
The same media that demonizes them for their gruesome interests is, as Staton says, the entity which sparked the nation’s interest in serial killers to begin with. To support this assertion, he shows the interviewers several vintage copies of Life magazine featuring Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Ed Gein. He also notes, with palpable scorn, that People magazine listed Jeffrey Dahmer as one of the “most intriguing people.” Fisher also comments on this, calling Dahmer “dirt” and “scum.”
And though the disgust for the killers and their crimes is universal but also hypocritical amongst the subjects of Borowski’s film, Fisher makes it difficult to argue with him when he simply holds up his left hand on which he wears his slain girlfriend’s ring. A ring, he says, he has never taken off since the moment he reclaimed it from the Biohazard bag.
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