Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Art, Therapy With a Profit Motive

Narcissistic Indulgence

While some killers use art to turn away from their antisocial deeds, others use it to fully indulge in that which has been removed. Richard Ramirez, the "Night Stalker" who terrorized Los Angles and San Francisco during 1984 and 1985, was sentenced to death on nineteen counts of murder. Those who have received artwork from him report that his favorite subject is a beheading. He also likes to paint horned devils, bloody knives, death's heads, red eyes, and winged satanic goats. He appears to enjoy the reputation that he is a poster boy for satanic groups, and he may be using art to affirm it. Other killers apparently like to draw their actual victims.

Gerard Schaefer's work, Killer Fiction: Tales of an Accused Serial Killer, is suspected to be a disguise for his actual crimes. He was convicted in two murders, but suspected in many more. He insisted that he was not "the characters in my fiction," but there is little doubt that the fifty pages of writing and the many erotic drawings he produced before he was arrested, detailing half-clad females strung up by the neck, arose from his sadistic fantasies. He protested at trial that he was a "trained writer" not a murderer writing about his crimes, but considering the evidence against him, his words then and now ring false.

When Dennis Nilsen was apprehended in London in February 1983 for shoving hunks of human flesh down a toilet, he opened up a ghastly case of serial murder and necrophilia. For over thirty hours across several days, he confessed to strangling and dismembering fifteen or sixteen men in two different flats, often keeping their body parts with him in his apartment. He sometimes took them into his bed or bathed in water in which he had just washed a corpse. In a rather clinical manner, he assisted the police in identifying the victims to whom the body parts belonged. He explained his gruesome habit as the unfortunate result of being disturbed about being abandoned. He was just seeking company, he said, and in each case he had hoped that everything would be OK.

In Killing for Company, Brian Masters offers some of the drawings ("Sad Sketches") that Nilsen included in the journals he wrote about his behavior while incarcerated. Masters comments, "Nilsen is the first murderer to present an exhaustive archive measuring his own introspection." Indeed, Nilsen seemed to enjoy drawing the body parts of various victims, showing the bottom half from the waist down of Stephen Sinclair, for example, or corpses crushed into closets. Clearly, these were more than just informative sketches. They seemed more aligned with the way in which some murderers indulge themselves in reliving their crimes. Nilsen also seemed to be preparing himself for trial, as he doodled for psychiatrists hired to evaluate his state of mind for an insanity plea. In the end, he received a sentence of life in prison. Some serial killers like to focus on renditions of others of their ilk, or themselves. Gacy had a pencil sketch of Jeffrey Dahmer, which was on sale, and also did a self-portrait in his clown suit. Danny Rolling grabbed the opportunity to ramble about himself and his pathetic life in The Making of a Serial Killer, and Ramirez has offered some demonized self-portraits. (He also wrote songs and did detailed pen-and-ink sketches, which illustrate the book.)

Most of these items can be found on various Web sites.

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