My main character, John Cleaver, is fascinated by serial killers. This was easy for me to write, because I’m also fascinated by them; I have many hobbies, but true crime research is one of the biggest. Why does a serial killer decide to kill? Who does he choose to kill? How does he choose to do it? How do all of those elements fit together, and what does it all mean? As John Cleaver says in chapter 3, “it’s not weird to be fascinated by that. It’s weird not to be.”
There are six killers whose stories and psychology had a huge influence on I Am Not a Serial Killer; they are, for the most part, six of the most famous American killers. I’m going to talk about three of them today, in brief overview, and next week you get the other three. My purpose is not to glorify these men, but to explain their effect on me and on my writing.
Number one is Ted Bundy, not because he had a huge impact on the book but because he had a huge impact on me. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of Bundy’s main hunting grounds. He attended the University of Utah—the same school my parents attended, and at the same time. My childhood home was just a few miles away from the university, and a few miles in the other direction was the Fashion Place Mall, where we frequently shopped and where Carol DaRonch became one of the only victims to ever escape Bundy’s grasp. I drove a dozen times through the neighborhood where Bundy was arrested. All of this happened before I was born, but it was a big deal to me as a kid—Utah was a small, idyllic place, and the idea that such a dangerous, evil, deadly criminal would not only live but thrive in that environment seemed very significant to me.
My favorite part of Bundy’s story has always been DaRonch, for two very different reasons. First, there’s the fact that DaRonch escaped—she was very smart, very capable, and very willing to do anything necessary to get away, including a crowbar fight and a leap from a speeding car. It’s thrilling and, yes, inspirational to hear that someone finally managed to escape from the killer that no one was even sure existed. DaRonch’s escape from Bundy was the biggest turning point in the case, and marked the beginning of his end. But that’s only half of the story—that same night, after failing to kill DaRonch, Bundy drove an hour north to Bountiful, Utah and abducted a high school student from a play performance. That’s a remarkable window into the man’s mind: so intense was his need to kill—an actual, physical need—that even with an eye witness and a swarm of police hunting for him, he had to keep going. Once that need gets into their heads, serial killers will keep going until their need is satisfied. I won’t say too much, but that driving, blinding, unstoppable need plays a huge part in my first sequel.
Ted Bundy had a huge impact on me, but the two killers that most impacted John Cleaver were David Berkowitz, called the Son of Sam, and of course John Wayne Gacy.
David Berkowitz was something of a unique serial killer in that he didn’t hang around any of his kills—he shot them at range and ran, without stopping to touch the bodies or take any souvenirs. Serial killings do what they do for specific reasons, whether or not those reason make sense to the rest of us, and those reasons are very rarely fulfilled by a simple death—the killer has to go further, often arranging or defacing the body, and very frequently taking something from it. This is called “ritualization,” and in the killer’s mind it grants the killing some kind of meaning or significance that sates their need to kill. The fact that Berkowitz did none of this points to a very inward need—a psychological drive that was much more focused on himself and his own pain than on any outward force. What Berkowitz did do, however, was write letters; he wrote to the press and to the police, and while these letters are riddled with technical errors they are surprisingly eloquent. In another life, with other influences and choices, Berkowitz could have been a very successful writer.
The Son of Sam label came from the (oversimplified) story that Berkowitz attributed all of his kills to a demonically possessed dog named Sam. Speculation on his true motives is rampant, but what is obvious is that Berkowitz was dangerously unbalanced and probably very delusional, seeing and hearing and reacting to things that didn’t exist. This does not mean, however, that he was too insane to stand trial—for all his hallucinations, Berkowitz knew what he was doing and why it was wrong. Serial killers very, very rarely achieve a successful insanity defense because the law (self defense notwithstanding) doesn’t care why you do something, only that you do it; having a reason is not the same thing as having an excuse. Something was driving Berkowitz to go out at night, look for young women with black hair, and shoot them, and no matter that something was it was still Berkowitz himself who made the choice to go outside, find a woman, and pull the trigger. In his letters he begged the police to find him and stop him, but he never took the steps to stop himself. Berkowitz’s struggle with choice and compulsion play a huge part in John’s own search for identity, and in many ways he identifies with Berkowitz more closely than anyone else in his life.
John Cleaver’s middle name is Wayne (his dad was a fan of old movies), and John’s first exposure to serial killers came when he was first learning to read, and saw his own name in a magazine next to a picture of a clown. This single image—the smiling killer, the evil clown, with his own name below it—had an enormous influence on John. John Wayne Gacy was a friendly, well-liked businessman who had a family and lived for years in a simple community, even dressing as a clown for neighborhood parties, and all the while kidnapping and killing dozens and dozens of men and boys and burying them below his mother’s house. Gacy’s smiling clown face has become a powerful symbol of the “hidden enemy”—the idea that anyone, no matter how nice or normal, can harbor a terrible secret and a horrifying double life.
Gacy was a human paradox, simultaneously good and evil, and that more than anything else is the reason both John and I are drawn to serial killers. For me, it’s the idea that great darkness can exist at the heart of something light; that in our darkest thoughts any one of us, no matter how pure, is capable of evil. For John it is the opposite: the eternal hope that somewhere inside of the killer there is a clown, smiling and happy and loved by everyone, just waiting to get out. This is his hope, and often the only hope he has, for if a good guy like John Wayne Gacy can turn bad, it just might be possible that a bad kid like John Wayne Cleaver could turn out good in the end.