COMMENTARY | Few besides pedophiles, I’ll warrant, would argue that anything on the internet is creepier than the explosion of child pornography now available. Another internet phenomenon (and market) that “really took off with the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s,” however, may rival child porn in creepiness because, unlike child porn, it has so many defenders. This is the now burgeoning market in murder memorabilia, particularly serial killer relics. Even the most casual net search will yield numerous sources of the stuff, sold by such sites as murderauction.com, ghoulslikeus.com, and murdermementos.com. Not surprisingly, the king of murderabilia is Charles Manson, but other notorious killers such as Gary Heidnik, Marty Graham, and Ira Einhorn are also big sellers.
Moreover, defenders of this market are approaching legion-strength and are over the top in their defense of the business. William Harder, the collector who runs murderauction.com, has said that efforts to suppress his business are “a civil-rights disaster waiting to happen.” Ah yes, this is America, where we can do anything (except, of course, drive 100 mph most places, drink and drive at any speed, yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, and so forth). A. Charles Peruto, the attorney who defended Gary Heidnik (the man who killed seven women in a house in North Philadelphia in 1987), relates a particularly stomach-turning tale of the “entrepreneur” who wanted to rent Heidnik’s house from him to turn it into a Halloween “haunted house.” (The attorney came to possess the building briefly as part of his payment for defending the killer.) Peruto says he “hung up on the guy.” Harder, who owns four “prized” killers’ teeth, also asserts that a person who kills others for “recreation” is “mind-boggling. How people come to that decision is fascinating.”
But is it? As David Eagleman explains, more and more we are coming to learn that people who do unbelievably horrid things are actually the victims of serious brain abnormalities. Charles Whitman, the man who shot 45 people with a high-powered rifle on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin in 1966, was ultimately found to have a nickel-sized brain tumor that Whitman had actually predicted, asking for an autopsy in his suicide note. Eagleman also notes that “changes in the balance of brain chemistry, even small ones, can also cause large and unexpected changes in behavior.” In other words, just because we may not see a huge tumor in a serial killer’s head, that absence doesn’t mean his brain is working correctly. The “fascination” will go away in the coming decades. The question of culpability will be debated much longer, in all likelihood.
In the meantime, there are those working to undercut the market in serial killer mementos, people such as Andy Kahan, a Houston victims’ rights advocate who has amassed a collection of such junk (effectively taking it off the market) while working to prevent profit-making from murderabilia. In a particularly inventive move by U.S. Marshalls, $232,000 was raised for the victims of Theodore Kaczinski by selling his leavings. However, as journalist Dana DiFilippo notes, “Critics, including many victims’ families, say no one should profit from their pain.”