Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture

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University of Chicago Press, 2006 - History - 327 pages
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Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Over the past thirty years, serial killers have become iconic figures in America, the subject of made-for-TV movies and mass-market paperbacks alike. But why do we find such luridly transgressive and horrific individuals so fascinating? What compels us to look more closely at these figures when we really want to look away? Natural Born Celebrities considers how serial killers have become lionized in American culture and explores the consequences of their fame.

David Schmid provides a historical account of how serial killers became famous and how that fame has been used in popular media and the corridors of the FBI alike. Ranging from H. H. Holmes, whose killing spree during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair inspired The Devil in the White City, right up to Aileen Wuornos, the lesbian prostitute whose vicious murder of seven men would serve as the basis for the hit film Monster, Schmid unveils a new understanding of serial killers by emphasizing both the social dimensions of their crimes and their susceptibility to multiple interpretations and uses. He also explores why serial killers have become endemic in popular culture, from their depiction in The Silence of the Lambs and The X-Files to their becoming the stuff of trading cards and even Web sites where you can buy their hair and nail clippings.

Bringing his fascinating history right up to the present, Schmid ultimately argues that America needs the perversely familiar figure of the serial killer now more than ever to manage the fear posed by Osama bin Laden since September 11.

"This is a persuasively argued, meticulously researched, and compelling examination of the media phenomenon of the 'celebrity criminal' in American culture. It is highly readable as well."—Joyce Carol Oates


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Natural born celebrities: serial killers in American culture

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The adage "Don't judge a book by its cover" is particularly apt in the case of this scholarly work. The cover photo might repulse serious readers, which, sadly, would deny them the opportunity to ... Read full review

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R1: In Natural Born Celebrities, Schmid offers a critique of media representations of serial killers, tackling the relationship between fame and violence to understand our fascination with serial killers in American popular culture. Although Schmid uses a variety of texts in developing his argument, there is a lack of depth to the material examined. For example, the notion of celebrities in American culture should be elaborated further to examine the influence of media representations. As well, in the entire build up of the book, Schmid gears the reader to an entirely different motive, which deviates from the original claims; Schmid’s main interest for examining serial killers seems to lead up to the 9-11 fear instilled in many Americans, leaving readers misled. Still, this book opens one’s mind to media influences and should be a compelling read for those with critical mind-frames with respect to the media and popular culture.
Reviewed by: RONZA NISSAN
R2: In Natural Born Celebrities, David Schmid draws on the work of various literature resources in order to decipher the complexities present within American culture which often construct serial killers into well-known celebrities. Although previous discourses have failed to focus on the celebrity status of serial killers, Schmid's book highlights how and why serial killers become famous as well as the societal implications associated with our fascinations with murders and their perpetrators. One of the major strengths of this book is its ability to highlight the compelling topic of 'celebrity serial killers', a topic that does not have an abundance of knowledge collected previously by other scholars. In addition, this book shows how both crime and serial killers are produced, understood and consumed within American culture and further challenges society to embrace a new outlook concerning serial killers by encouraging individuals to acknowledge how they have contributed to the 'celebrity' status attained by many serial killers. Nevertheless, Schmid's book provides only minimal information about the diversity among serial killers in relation to gender norms and fame-seeking. As well, Schmid seems to take his readers for granted since he assumes that the audience has previous knowledge pertaining to other scholarly researchers and historical murder cases, as well as background knowledge of the political contexts in which manyh of these criminal legacies transpired. Overall, I would recommend this book to people who are interested in crime, serial murder, and 'celebrity' perpetrators.
Reviewed by: MELISSA JAMES


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About the author (2006)

David Schmid is assistant professor of English at the University at Buffalo.

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