- Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture
Several years before the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as the nefarious serial killer H. H. Holmes, constructed his “Murder Castle” in Englewood on Chicago’s Near South Side. The Holmes Castle was, Mark Seltzer says in his phenomenal new study, one of the “Lethal Spaces” that facilitate ritualized murder. Catering to the surfeit of Exposition tourists, Holmes’s Castle featured approximately seventy-two guest rooms on its top two floors with shops and a pharmacy administered by the medically trained Holmes himself on the ground level. The layout of the guests’ rooms unfolded “in mazelike fashion, incorporating corridors leading nowhere, with concealed passages behind walls, sliding panels, secret staircases, peepholes into the rooms through the backs of pictures and trapdoors concealing metal chutes that communicated with the elaborately designed basement” (206). Some of the rooms were hermetically sealed and Holmes, “sitting comfortably in his office . . . could asphyxiate at will any of his guests he had a mind to” (207). By means of electrical switches embedded in the floorboards that communicated to an indicator in his office, Holmes could track movement anywhere in the building. Dummy elevator shafts from the top floors, “large enough to accommodate a body,” evacuated corpses into the vats of quicklime and acid in the basement, the literalized space of Holmes’s voracious id, so that they disappeared without a trace (209). Holmes could, of course, opt to dissect the cadavers, and he sometimes supplied local medical schools with the skeletal remains of his victims.
The Holmes account, like the work of Jack London, Emile Zola, Bram Stoker, J. G. Ballard, and other writers and artists, reveals an intersection between murder and machine culture, the cardinal axis of Serial Killers. Serial murder appears at the wane of the last century when the shift from “the criminal act to the character of the actor” signals the concomitant shift in the understanding of sexual desire, from “sexual acts to sexual identity” (4). Holmes, like Sylvestre Matushka, [End Page 169] who during his trial for the deaths of over thirty railway passengers in Hungary in 1932 admitted that he killed relative strangers because he derived pleasure from it, sought out and guaranteed serialized pleasure through elaborate architectural engineering. Numbers alone do not characterize serial murder; both mass murder and multiple homicide, for example, leave behind scores of victims who are often strangers to their killer. But serial killing, or “murder by numbers” as it is sometimes called, distinguishes itself from mass murder or multiple homicide by producing a statistically significant set of numbers.
“Murder,” Seltzer tells us at the start of his riveting study, “is where bodies and history cross” (6). It does not surprise, then, that the body as contested signifier of the “national malady of trauma and violence” (6) should center the first of Serial Killers’s four sections, “The Pathological Public Sphere.” Here Seltzer concentrates on the body’s proximity to nonintimate others in machine culture, its vulnerability to corporeal and compulsive violence, its susceptibility to physical and addictive violence. Although he believes that most studies of pathological violence in American culture tend to conflate the natural and national body, thereby miscalculating the body’s signifying “weight” in social and cultural representations, Seltzer deploys the body as a means of testing “the boundaries between the natural and the collective body, private fantasy and public space, intimacy and publicity” (6). The spectacle of the catastrophic accident, with its prerequisite jumble of dead and mutilated bodies (Matushka’s staged railway accidents, natural disasters, plane crashes, and so forth), problematizes the relation between representation and violence, whether accidental or, as in serial killing, calculated. Theories concerning the mass spectacle of violence study the degree of potential “containment” of the violence witnessed, either in person or by way of media technologies. Containment theories establish the claim that witnessing violence disarms the menacing content of the spectacle: let me thank goodness for...