Not many people have heard of La Porte, Indiana. I sure hadn’t, not until this week, and I happen to live a mere 3-hour drive from the place. This small town in the Northwest corner of the Hoosier state resembles 99% of all the other small towns in the Midwest. The people are (mostly) kind, the businesses are local, and the high school’s sports games are the hottest ticket in town. For a brief period of time in 1908, however, La Porte became a national horror landmark.
In April of that year, a fire burned down the Gunness farmhouse. While clearing the rubble, authorities discovered the decapitated remains of a middle-aged woman. Alongside her body were the burned corpses of three children. Assuming that these belonged to the farm’s owner, Belle Gunness, and her three kids, city officials began to excavate the rest of the area to see if any valuables survived the blaze.
“We humans have always been fascinated with the macabre and horrifying. It’s nothing new.“
What they found would shock the nation and draw people from all corners of the globe to the small Indiana town. When all was said and done, police had pulled the remains of 11 other men out of the ground, bringing the total number of bodies to 14. Onlookers would line the streets, craning their necks to watch as each dismembered body was dug from the soft depressions in the yard. Enterprising businessmen sold concessions and small souvenirs to the crowd as the cries from the surviving family members filled the spring air.
Some people read this story and recoil at the thought of spectators enjoying an event like this, but the truth is that it has always been this way. People have lined up to eagerly watch crucifixions, hangings, witch trials, and beatings since the beginning of time. We humans have always been fascinated with the macabre and horrifying. It’s nothing new. The people who insist that our civilization is crumbling because of our “obsession” with true crime have obviously never read about the tens of thousands of people that would show up for public executions in England and the United States.
The horror genre has benefited greatly from this obsession. It’s no secret that these killers and their crimes have influenced some of the greatest horror films of all time. From Fritz Lang’s M (1931: German serial killers Peter Kürten and Karl Denke), to movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974: Wisconsin’s very own Ed Gein), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991: Gein again, as well as Ted Bundy and Alfredo Treviño), horror takes the true terror from our world and uses it to create new nightmares for us to enjoy. The question is, then, why do we gravitate towards these types of stories? What is it about true crime that brings out the horror fanatic in all of us?
The easy answer to this is realism. We love horror films based on the lives and crimes of real killers because they are grounded in reality. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) would not be as chilling as it is if we didn’t know that it was inspired by the nefarious deeds of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) wouldn’t have terrified us as much if the eponymous killer was just a figment of some writer’s imagination. Each of these films are effective because, at the end of the day, the events they portray actually happened, and could happen again.
Sure, The Conjuring 2 (2016) and Sinister (2012) are remarkable horror films. But, when you get down to it, none of us are truly afraid that Bughuul or The Crooked Man are walking about in our neighborhoods. We are afraid, however, of the quiet fella upstairs in the smelly apartment who seems to drink a little too much (Dahmer, 2002). The use of true killers and crimes for inspiration is what brings us into the setting and forces us to think about the film long after the lights have gone up.
Show Us Your Face
The second, more complicated answer is power. Power, when you get down to it, is the main motivation for the majority of the serial killers and murderers in history. They could be searching for power over their sexual partners (Andrei Chikatilo, Ted Bundy), power over the voices in their heads (Richard Chase, Joseph Kallinger), or power over those who abused or denigrated them in the past (Carl Panzram, John Wayne Gacy). One way or another, the act of killing and the performative aspect of their crimes gives them power over human life. It makes them a god. Their choices give them dominion over the most precious thing in the universe: Human Life. If they choose to, they have the power to reach into the chest of creation and rip out a living soul. That’s what they crave.
We, as horror fans, are also looking for power. We also crave control. When we flock to the theaters to check out the latest film based on a true killer, we are attempting to gain power over that which scares us the most: Real Life.
“When we flock to the theaters to check out the latest film based on a true killer, we are attempting to gain power over that which scares us the most: Real Life.“
What is the turning point in most possession films? When does the priest or holy person usually gain the edge over the demon? It’s when they learn the entity’s name, right? Knowing who the creature is that is possessing the victim gives you power, or control over the being. The same can be said about slashers. In the Halloween franchise, when did Michael Myers begin to lose his frightening nature? For me, it was when his backstory and motivations were revealed. A man returning to his hometown and killing any strangers he comes across is much more frightening than a guy who is just trying to get to his little sister. The fear is diminished because, like, just don’t be his little sister and you’ll be pretty safe.
Knowing more about these people, about these characters, lessens the frightening grip they have around our throats. It’s why we listen to podcasts, read books, and watch documentaries about serial killers. It’s why I devote several hours each month to writing my Behind the Screams articles. We are trying to understand the why and the how of these killers. We aren’t trying to glorify them or celebrate their crimes, as we are often accused of doing. We are trying to see them for what they really are, dissecting their psyche to gain power over them and the fear they bring to our lives.
In the fall of 2016, a 13-year-old boy named Robert Bee went missing just a few miles down the road from my home in the small town of Pekin, Illinois. Almost a year later, in the summer of 2017, his skeletal remains were found in the woods south of town. Since then, no arrests have been made and no answers have been given about who killed this young boy. If you check out the Robert Bee groups on Facebook, you will find thousands of amateur detectives going through the clues, pointing fingers and squabbling with one another over the details of the case.
Is it because they want to find the killer and bring them to justice? Partly, yes, but mostly they want to understand the person who did this. They want answers as to why someone would commit this atrocity. For the majority of us, we are delving into this crime to gain power, or control, over the cold fear it has shoved into our hearts. We want to be able to recognize the evil in those around us. For, until an arrest is made, there is a child-killer walking the same streets as my own children.
“We want to be able to recognize the evil in those around us.“
That’s why horror fans have always been obsessed with true crime. We are afraid. The world around us is filled with aberrations, people who enjoy killing others. The way we can control that fear is by trying to understand it. Watching horror films based on true stories or diving into the rabbit holes of serial killer information helps show us their true faces. When we remove their masks of notoriety and myth, they are no longer the boogeymen lurking in the shadows of a closet. They become a real human who can be found. A real person who bleeds. A real person who can be stopped.
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