Like true crime? Don’t forget to grab your tickets to Death Becomes Us, our true crime festival! It will be in D.C. from November 8-10, 2019.
My conversation with Harold Schechter was interrupted a few times. It was charming. First his neighbor thought he was his Uber driver. Then Harold’s plumber needed to confirm an appointment. And finally he had to call me back because a famous poet called and asked if Harold could come over and have lunch with him. That is Harold’s life, well that and writing true crime. Harold Schechter has been writing about the gruesome side of life for over 30 years. He knows what he’s talking about. Even though I could picture Harold looking for his glasses while they were on his head I could also picture Harold explaining why Belle Gunness, the Butcher of Men, is one of the few violent female serial killers. When you spend that much time writing about murder you kind of need to have lunch with a famous poet every once in awhile just to balance it out.
Brightest Young Things: Why true crime?
Harold Schechter: It’s a little bit of a complicated question. I remember the earliest true crime story that, as I recall, really kind of riveted me and frightened me. Do you know Gertrude Baniszewski?
BYT: I don’t!
HS: Gertrude was a woman out in Indiana who was given the care of some young girl named Sylvia Likens. Her parents were traveling carnies. They left their daughter with Gertrude who ended up torturing Sylvia horribly. She would invite the neighborhood boys over to torture her for weeks and weeks and weeks. There was a big article in Time about it.
My interests have always been…I’m a Boomer so I grew up with my imagination shaped by horror movies. I first became a true crime writer when I discovered both Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre were based on the Ed Gein story. When I started writing my books, before the term serial killer even entered the language, I considered that I was writing true horror more than true crime, that is writing stories about real life monsters. To put it another way those rare criminals who become mythologized into monsters. I’ve been interested in why we need stories about monsters and the way in which true crime serves that function. They’re a little bit like fairy tales for grown ups.
BYT: I was gonna say the story of Gertrude sounds very Hansel and Gretalesque.
HS: Yes, and in addition to being a true crime author I was a literature professor and my background as an academic was in myth criticism, the way in which certain kinds of archetypal stories get reinvented and repeated and retold in different forms. I was always very interested in, again, how something like the Gein story gets assimilated into certain kinds of myths…like the ogre living off by himself in the woods. I would have to say for me the attraction to true crime has to do with the way in which it supplies these kind of horror stories that even as grownups we still crave. When you read certain true crime stories it kind of turns you into a child again. It provokes that same kind of wonder and terror.
BYT: That’s so fascinating. The older you get the more difficult it becomes to frighten you.
HS: You don’t believe in fairy tale monsters anymore that frightened you as a child but when they’re embodied in these real life psychos then you can experience the same sort of thrill.
BYT: It’s a little disappointing that the monsters have changed given the advancements in technology, or maybe it’s my own nostalgia….the monsters are different now and I read these stories wishing they were still Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer or Aileen Wuornos.
HS: The serial killer has been displaced by the mass murderer. I myself have sometimes wondered…I was just writing about this particularly horrible mutilation murderer Andre Chikatilo
BYT: Oh Andre Chikatilo! He liked chewing on uteruses. Just when you think you’ve heard it all.
HS: Yes, and he fell into the category of lust murderer. Back in the middle ages there was a man named Peter Stubbe who some people think was the inspiration for Little Red Riding Hood because he was like Chikatilo. He would disembowel the victims and chew them and people thought he was an actual lycanthrope.
BYT: A werewolf? Interesting.
HS: It sort of illustrates the way in which…when you hear about certain crimes it sort of stimulates this kind of primitive folkloric part of our imaginations. We can’t even begin to see them as human beings.
BYT: We’ve spoken before and you told me you had some theories as to why women murder.
HS: There’s a weird guy I know named Richard Stevens who has a whole website about misandry and he collects, in fact he just sent me a thing on underage female serial killers. He’s poured through hundreds and hundreds of old newspapers about this. I mean I’ve written specifically about female serial murder. My argument, which was partly stimulated by the fact that everybody was calling Aileen Wuornos the first female serial killer….I was writing my book about Jane Toppan who confessed to 31 murders. She was a poisoner but she, by her own admission, would torture her own victims and achieve sexual satisfaction by killing them.
BYT: And that’s rare, for women. The only other woman I’m familiar with is Carla Faye Tucker. To my knowledge women don’t generally react that way physically to murder.
HS: They are deriving some sort of sadistic gratification or they wouldn’t be doing it so there is some erotic component.
BYT: Or just a power/control kind of thing. Since women are subjugated so often I’m sure it’s very satisfying to finally be the one in control. Now I sound like I’m on my way to becoming a murderer. I feel overwhelmed by the lack of murder knowledge I have.
HS: There is still time to catch up.
BYT: Currently there is a true crime boom. Why do you think this is happening? Before it used to be a bunch of us weirdos but you can now confidently enter almost any room and not be shunned. Why do you think this is the case?
HS: People have been fascinated by true crime, as far as we know, basically forever. I have researched and written about….I don’t know if you know about the anthology I’ve published called True Crime: An American Anthology. It traces true crime back to the pilgrims. One of the first books to come off the Gutenberg Press was a true crime book…
BYT: The Bible?
HS: [Laughs] Yeah right…before there was a printing press these stories were disseminated by oral murder ballads. Obviously to some extent the popularity of the podcast Serial combined with the HBO show The Jinx gave it a jolt. I think these things allowed a slightly guilty pleasure to come to the surface.