Devil in the White City

NOTE: This post deals with a difficult subject matter, serial killers, so if you’re easily disturbed, you might not want to read any further.

A book kept passing through my hands and it seemed intriguing – psychopath, history, award-winning – probably good, and I read it at last. The Devil in the White City  by Erik Larson tells the true story of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, a celebration of Columbus’s 400th anniversary of discovering the new world and an attempt to outdo the 1887 Paris World’s Fair, which amazed the world with the new Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in the world. The fair covered more than 600 acres – almost six times the size of Disney’s Magic Kingdom – and attracted more than 27 million visitors in its 6 month-run (versus 20 million visitors to Magic Kingdom in 2016). It also chose Tesla’s AC electric current to power it because it was cheaper than Edison’s DC current, cementing the road for America’s future electrical grid.

Chicago was no charming city, known for stink (stockyards), grime (trains and soot), crimes and vice. And in this mix lurked a serial killer, H.H. Holmes. Holmes’s background was a perfect mix of known factors of psychopathic development – strict, cold, abusive parents with severe religious obsession. By the age of 6, Holmes liked to dismember animals, and by his teens was implicated in the death of a young boy but cleared due to the pitiful state of investigations. He fled to Chicago, where he became a con artist, bilking insurance companies, furniture companies, and drug supply stores. He also charmed single ladies, killed them, reduced them to skeletons, and sold them as medical supplies. He built an elaborate hotel nicknamed “The Castle,” complete with gas jets in the rooms, soundproof rooms, and a personal crematorium in his basement. When finally cornered for killing his long-time assistant, Holmes confessed to 29 killings, though only 9 could be proven, but his total might have been as high as 200. He was hung for his crimes. Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights to the book, and a film is in production with Martin Scorsese as director (it had a tentative 2017 date, but is still in process).

Serial killers – those that kill large numbers of victims over time – are rare as far as murder goes, but the extent of their crimes garners a lot of press. Connecticut has its own serial killer in Amy Archer Gilligan of Windsor, who killed as many as 48 of her nursing-home patients for insurance claims between 1885 and 1917. Some of the more notorious American serial killers include:

Jeffery Dahmer (1991), who killed (and ate) at least 16 young men and boys. Not a high count for a serial killer,  it was the cannibalism that made him famous. He was beaten to death in prison not long after his conviction. Some things scare even murderers.

John Wayne Gacy (1978), who dressed as a clown for kids’ birthday parties and killed more than 33 men.  Stephen King said “It” was fiction.

Charles Cullen (2003), convicted of 40 murders while he was a nurse, but possibly responsible for up to 400, making him the most prolific not only in New Jersey, but the USA. Carl Watts (1982) was also a nurse, convicted of six murders but possibly as many as 130.

Ted Bundy (1975), one of the most famous and perhaps sickest, who killed more than 30. He decapitated at least 12 victims and kept the heads in his apartment, and often performed sex acts on rotting corpses (I warned you). He was executed in Florida.

Gary Ridgeway (2001)  the “Green River Killer”, with 49 proven deaths, 71 confessions, with a probable total closer to 90.

Ed Gein (1957)– Gein was convicted of only two murders, but if you’re looking at psychopaths, Gein is King. Gein had a bizarre attachment to his mother (back to that cold/abuse/super-religious thing), and would go to graves and dig up women’s bodies, skin them, and save parts attempting to wear his mother. Gein was the inspiration for Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, incompetent, and died in a mental facility.

What predicts a serial killer? Most professionals look for early abuse, neglect, brutality, bullying, and mental illness. Animal cruelty, especially in young children, is a warning sign. Killers are often charismatic (Holmes, Bundy, Jim Jones, too) and manipulative, gaining friendship and trust.  Lack of empathy for their victims is  always present. Some do it for attention, especially media attention. One interesting point: 70% of serial killers had experienced significant head trauma as children; with what we now know about violence among football players and boxers who receive blows to the head, could this be a risk factor?

So hug your kids. Be patient. Be kind to them and to others, and teach them to be kind as well. Take bullying and animal cruelty seriously, and report it to authorities. You don’t know how many lives you might save.

The X Factor

imagesIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom created an uproar in the movie industry. While it didn’t meet the criteria for an R rating, the intensity of the violence and its unrelenting action and danger freaked out so many kids and parents and caused so many complaints that the PG-13 rating was born – probably the same people that brought their six year old grandchildren to see Deadpool and didn’t think twice. Before that, there were just four ratings by the Motion Picture Association of America: G (general audience), PG (parental guidance suggested), R (no one under 17 without guardian), and X (now NC-17, meaning No One Under 17 Admitted, no way, no how, this will scar you for life).

Of course, as a kid, you can’t help but wonder, what’s in an X movie? What could be more violent than people beating each other up? What could be grosser than people naked?  How many more swear words are there? And then the internet was born and we’ve never wondered since.

Surprisingly, though, some of our favorite movies DID have an X rating at the start. Film makers want to be cutting-edge and push envelopes, but an X/NC17 rating c51q55v7qvblan sink an otherwise profitable film because it cuts out the teen crowd that hangs out at theaters every week and also makes some adult film-goers leery. After repeated trips back to the editing room, most of the movies do achieve their golden R rating.

Some, however, never do. Three movies were nominated for Oscars despite their X rating: Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, and Last Tango in Paris. Midnight Cowboy actually won the Best Picture Oscar for 1970. When rereleased in 1971, it carried only an R rating, even though not a single edit had been made. It had been given the X rating for “homosexual suggestions,” and that was no longer a criteria. Times were already changing.

Two things are usually to blame for an X rating: extreme violence/gore, or explicit nudity/sexual content. It’s hard to believe, but for all the outcry against The Exorcist (some vi51kp0kgvmdlewers were taken away by ambulance), it only garnered an R rating. (So, in 1969, homosexuality would get you a deadly X rating, but by 1973, demonic possession, gore, blasphemy, and violent sexual situations involving children would not. Go figure.) Sometimes the fix was something so banal as toning down the brightness of the blood (Taxi Driver), which makes you wonder who is actually doing the judging and rating of the films. Others, like Cliffhanger, needed adjustments to almost every single scene. Although Casino cranks in at more than 420 utterances of the Fornication word (that’s almost 2.5 for every minute of film49), it was the violence that created its problems.

Here is a list of popular films you’ve probably heard of, and probably have seen, that were originally rated X before being edited yet again (American Pie needed four tries) to win the magic R. Some of these are very good films that just happen to be a little more graphic than others. Some of them you knew were headed for trouble just by the title (Freddy Got Fingered), but others, especially twenty years later when there sometimes doesn’t seem to be a limit on sex or violence in movies or on television (Boogie Nights drew trouble for a 10-second shot of a prosthetic penis, yet Life of Brian and Trainspotting didn’t for showing a real one), make you scratch your head at what the fuss was.