Why we are eternally fascinated by serial killers

Why we are eternally fascinated by serial killers
The handout image(R) released by the California State Prison, Corcoran, taken on March 18, 2009, shows mass murderer Charles Manson compared to the file image(L) taken in March, 1971 during his trial.
PHOTO: AFP

Murderers like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy are a tiny threat to our society - yet our interest in them appears to be endless. Why?

In the two-street town of Pennsburg, eastern Pennsylvania, stands a small house with an art collection you'd be unlikely to find in any public gallery. Arranged across the four walls of a downstairs room are pictures of injury and mutilation, of skulls in myriad configurations and colours, of women in positions of explicit intimacy, of folkloric landscapes and fantastical animals. But what sets these works apart is not so much their content as their origins: all of them were painted by serial killers.

This is the home of John Schwenk, who collects artworks and artefacts of murderers the way others might, say, rare stamps or film memorabilia. His most prized items include a portrait by John Wayne Gacy, known as the Killer Clown, a children's party entertainer who raped and murdered at least 33 boys and young men in Chicago during the 1970s; a drawing of a skull by Richard Ramirez, aka the "Night Stalker", responsible for numerous murders and sexual assaults in California in 1984 and 1985; and several pieces by Charles Manson, leader of the criminal cult the Manson Family, who orchestrated the brutal killing of the pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others around Los Angeles in 1969.

As well as art, Schwenk owns thousands of letters from serial killers on death row, many of them addressed to him personally. They have sent him locks of hair, a prison shirt, a prison ID card, a set of false teeth, some unused dental floss and other oddities of dark provenance. He has got to know some of these pen pals and even considers a few of them friends. "I'm interested in what possesses somebody to kill another human being, and to do it numerous times," he says. He acknowledges that one or two of them are "really scary".

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