What's most scary is glorification of gore
By James Alan Fox
Monday, October 31, 2005

 A close buddy of mine has never permitted his children to celebrate Halloween. Never have his two boys been allowed to masquerade in scary costumes and wander door-to-door collecting sacks of candy. My friend's concern is not about safety or cavities. As a devout Pentecostal, he is keenly aware of the sinister origins of Halloween - a day as special to Satanists as Christmas is to Christians.

Of course, you don't have to be a Christian to enjoy Christmas and its many secular festivities. Likewise, most kids eating Halloween candy know nothing about the occult. They are equally likely to dress up as angels or devils.

As for me, I spend my Halloweens feeding the appetites of older youngsters - not with sweets but with grisly tales of murder. Each year I lecture at colleges about infamous serial killers, from Ted Bundy to Charles Manson, from the D.C. snipers to the BTK strangler.

If at all typical, my talk this morning at Salem State College (an ideal location for a Halloween event) should draw an eager crowd. Frankly, these lectures about real monsters are far more popular than my other speaking topics, such as youth crime and school bullying - subjects that are rather important yet not nearly as sensational.

Of course, the fascination with serial murder is hardly limited to college kids. Why else would the A&E Network recurrently televise biographies of multiple murderers? Why else would there be an insatiable demand for quickie true-crime paperbacks?

Curiosity surrounding these horrific crimes has three sources. Some people enjoy the topic simply as a harmless diversion. Not feeling personally threatened by these rare predators, they are as entertained by real-life serial killers as they are by fictional characters like Hannibal Lecter.

Some people identify with the vulnerable victims. Their interest stems from a desire to learn the hows and whys so as to be prepared should they ever confront a sexual sadist face-to-face. Still others identify with the perpetrators, worshipping them as heroes. More than vicarious enjoyment, a few fans even copy their unworthy role models.

The widespread interest in everything murderous is aided by the Internet, spawning a cottage industry in macabre "murderabilia." Online auctions offer up locks of Charles Manson's famous hair and a pair of his thongs (the foot kind). Other e-tailers market other souvenir items, including thongs (the other kind), bearing his image.

More mainstream, People magazine has been obsessed with murder and mayhem, even selecting cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer as one of its most intriguing people of the 20th century. The magazine has grown increasingly negative, according to a study of cover stories that I carried out with Northeastern colleagues Jack Levin and Jason Mazaik.

Popular culture has gone way overboard in blurring fame and infamy. Anecdotally, there are a few troubled fans who have found personal inspiration in these predators' vicious deeds. More problematic and pervasive is what killer celebrity says about our priorities and how it deepens the pain of victims' families.

I guess my religious friend has a point about celebrating evil. However, it applies not just to Halloween, but to every day. Being fascinated with the topic of serial murder is one thing, but worshipping the killers themselves is quite another. It is fine for us to enjoy gory tales of fiction or fact, but let's save the glory for those who truly deserve it.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at j.fox@neu.edu.