Praise for Twisted Tales Events
'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell
‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill
Friday, 18 January 2013
David Schmid interviewed by David McWilliam
My own research has led me to write about and study cultural representations of serial killers and one of the scholars I find myself referencing frequently is David Schmid, the author of some of the most engaging and perceptive criticism on our dark fascination with this troubling figure. It therefore gave me great pleasure to interview him about his past and current research.
David Schmid is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo. The winner of the Milton Plesur and the SUNY Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching, he teaches courses in British and American fiction, cultural studies, and popular culture. Born and raised in England, he received his B.A. from Oxford University, his M.A. from the University of Sussex, and his Ph.D. from the Modern Thought and Literature Program at Stanford University. He has published on a variety of subjects, including celebrity, film adaptation, Dracula, and crime fiction and he is the author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2005. He is currently working on two book-length projects: From the Locked Room to the Globe: Space in Crime Fiction, and Murder Culture: Why Americans are Obsessed by Homicide.
DM: How did you become interested in serial killers and their representations in American culture?
DS: This story begins in the late 1980s when I was doing a Master’s degree in Critical Theory at the University of Sussex. After a year of studying very interesting but pretty abstract material, when it came time to choose a thesis topic, I felt a strong desire to write about something applied, and ideally something that would be of interest to people outside of the academy. At this point, I happened to come across a book by Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer titled The Lust to Kill, which argued that there was a certain kind of crime, which they called ‘sexual murder,’ that was only ever committed by men. I thought this argument had a lot to recommend it, but being by nature a contrarian, I immediately started to think of possible exceptions to this ‘rule.’ The Moors Murders, a series of child murders committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in England in the 1960s immediately came to mind. Couldn’t Myra Hindley be said to be a sexual murderer, and thus an exception to Cameron and Frazer’s rule? The resulting thesis looked at the representation of Brady and Hindley in both popular and legal discourses, studying in particular how those representations were influenced by ‘commonsense’ assumptions about appropriate gender models for men and women. That piece was the beginning of my interest in the subject of murder.
When I moved to California in 1989 to do my D.Phil, I wanted to do more work in the same area, and serial murder seemed like the obvious choice of subject. If I had to point to one event that made up my mind about this, it would be watching the Oscars the year Silence of the Lambs swept all the major categories. The entire evening was devoted to a celebration of Hannibal Lecter, from the moment host Billy Crystal was wheeled out on a hand trolley wearing a hockey mask to the stream of cannibalism jokes that followed. I remember thinking in a very basic sense, “What the hell is going on?” The publicity given to Silence combined with several high profile serial murder cases in the news at the time (such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Aileen Wuornos) convinced me that there was a story here that needed to be told, and that this story had the potential to illuminate many aspects of American culture. Show me the people a society turns into celebrities and I can tell you a lot about that society’s values and interests. I think the final factor was that researching this subject gave me, as a recent British expatriate, both a way of working through my feelings about my adopted country and a way of trying to understand it. My inspiration here was the work of Alfred Hitchcock, another ex-pat who felt the same combination of fascination and disgust with American culture as I still do!
DM: In Natural Born Celebrities, you address the cult of celebrity that has grown around the figure of the serial killer. If you had to summarize it, why do you think that America is so fascinated by the figure of the serial killer, as opposed to other categories of serious criminality?
DS: I’ve given a lot of thought to this over the years and the conclusion I’ve come to is that serial killers fascinate us because of the apparent contradiction they embody: on the one hand, they appear to be ordinary individuals, just like you and me. On the other hand, they commit horrible acts that we could never dream of committing. That combination of normality and extremity holds our attention because it encourages us implicitly to examine our own apparent normality (no matter how uncomfortable such an examination may be!) and it also alerts us to the possible presence of evil in our midst. When we read of the pillar of the community being arrested for horrendous crimes, we wonder how well we know our neighbors, our family, our loved ones. That combination of abnormality and normality is very compelling. Think of it this way: in cases like that of the BTK Killer (Dennis Rader) or the Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) there is a huge contrast between the media coverage of the killer’s crimes before his arrest (such coverage normally makes the killer seems monstrous, supernatural, almost omnipotent) and the prosaic, banal reality of the arrested individual. When Berkowitz was arrested, for example, you could sense people’s disappointment that this pudgy postal worker from Yonkers seemed so far from the media persona of the Son of Sam. I used to think this gap between image and reality was simply a contradiction, but now I tend to think it’s at the very heart of why we’re so fascinated by these individuals.
DM: In your essay 'The Devil You Know: Dexter and the "Goodness" of American Serial Killing' in Douglas Howard's collection on the show, you note how Dexter Morgan can be read as an attempt to make an audience 'identify with serial killers in a relatively unconflicted way'. Why do you think there was such an appetite for this over the past decade?
DS: This is a great question because it tends to make people very uncomfortable! Most people are understandably conflicted about considering the possibility that their ‘interest’ in serial murderers might in some way be equivalent to an ‘identification’ with serial murderers, but I think we need to consider that possibility objectively. So what would be attractive about a fictional serial killer like Dexter? Well, consider the fact that the vast majority of us lead lives, as Thoreau puts it, of “quiet desperation.” That is to say, our lives are largely made up of routines that we may feel we have little say in. We are driven by our need to earn a living, and we are defined in many ways by our responsibilities and obligations to others. This leads to a situation where we constantly defer our own needs and desires to the point where we can even forget that we have any! Compared to this scenario, serial killers in general and someone like Dexter in particular can seem like an ideal—people who act according to one rule: what they want. They feel no obligation to others, have no hesitation about satisfying their needs and desires whenever they want, and live lives of pure selfishness. I think many people fantasize about what it would be like to live such a life and serial killers are one possible answer to that question. And in the case of Dexter, of course, it’s also significant that any ambivalence we feel about identifying with him is significantly lessened by having Dexter be that apparent oxymoron: an ‘ethical’ serial killer who only kills other killers. The other factor that makes serial killers into figures with whom we might identify is fear of violent crime—this is especially significant in the US as opposed to the UK. For understandable reasons, fear of being a victim of violent, random crime is high in the US and has been so for some time, regardless of declines in the numbers of violent crimes committed. I think identifying with fictional serial killers gives people a way of working through and managing their feelings of vulnerability by occupying, even if only for the time it takes to watch a single episode of Dexter, the role of the aggressor rather than that of the victim.
DM: How will your next book on murder, Murder Culture: Why Americans Are Obsessed with Homicide, build on and depart from your earlier work in this area?
DS: While I was researching and writing Natural Born Celebrities I came across a lot of material that didn’t fit into the serial murder project but which still interested me. I’m now turning to this material to write a narrative with a much broader historical scope (basically, from the Puritan era to the present!) that will show how an interest in homicide has always been an integral part of our culture. To give just one example among many, some of the largest public gatherings in Puritan America were to witness executions. Granted, this witnessing always took place in the impeccably moral and religious context of sin and redemption established by Puritan ministers, but even so, these gatherings are also the first example of a popular and public culture organized around violence that has been a staple feature of American culture ever since. This suggests to me that American interest in murder, and the various ways in which that interest is expressed through our popular culture (in genres like execution sermons, criminal biographies, newspaper coverage, true crime, crime fiction, gangsta rap, video games, slasher movies, murderabilia, etc.), constitute a very important influence on our sense of where we came from, where we are, and where we’re going as a culture—in other words, the fascination with violence in general and murder in particular plays a very important role in what it means to be American. In addition to the absolutely necessary discussions that are taking place right now in the wake of the Newtown shootings about gun control and the provision of mental health care, I think we also need to examine the past and our popular culture and see what those things tells about the complicated relationship between violence and Americanness.
Join Twisted Tales for an evening of horror and crime readings followed by a discussion of this subject at Twisted Tales of Serial Murder, 6-7.30pm Friday 22nd February 2013 in Waterstones Liverpool One: