Luka Magnotta in the Hall of Mirrors: A Brief History of True Crime

 

TRUE CRIME

As a young boy I used to rummage through my teenaged step-sister’s bedroom. I’d lurk around until she went out and slip in like a cat-burglar, rifling through drawers and closets and cubbyholes, searching for secrets, hidden objects—anything taboo. I snacked on bonbons and cranked music boxes; I perused heart-dotted diaries and scented love notes. I was unmoved. Then I found the books wedged into the space between the mattress and the wall. True crime books: Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, .44, by Jimmy Breslin and Dick Schaap, and Compulsion by Meyer Levin, among others. These were sinister-looking books with an excess of red typeface on black backgrounds and low-res newsprint photographs of crime scenes and criminals. The quotes on the dust jackets were exercises in hyperbole and titillation:

BEST-SELLING NOVEL OF THE MOST COLD-BLOODED CRIME OF THE CENTURY!

THE BOOK THAT BRINGS YOU FACE-TO-FACE WITH THE HUMAN MONSTER AND HIS GRUESOMELY SLAIN VICTIMS!

YOU KNOW WHY WE DID IT? BECAUSE WE DAMN WELL FELT LIKE DOING IT!

A CHILLING 64-PAGE PHOTOGRAPHIC RECORD OF THE VICTIMS, THE KILLERS, THE EVIDENCE!

I realized right off that these books were charged with darkness. I stole Helter Skelter and took it back to my room.

The book opens with Roman Polanski’s housekeeper discovering the mutilated bodies of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Steven Parent. They’ve been shot, stabbed, and battered. The housekeeper runs down the lane to a neighboring house, screaming: “Blood! Bodies! Murder!” The squad cars arrive at the mansion shortly thereafter and detectives begin to catalogue the horrors within. The crime scene is painted in gruesome detail: pregnant actress Sharon Tate with a rope around her neck, carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey; Abigail Folger, heiress to the coffee empire, beaten to a pulp in the yard; Eddie Parent, local teen audiophile, slumped over in his car, dead from a gunshot wound to the face; the puzzling phrase Helter Skelter scrawled across the walls in blood. It reads like a horror story—sensationalized, structured to provoke maximum terror.

As an eight year old boy growing up in the suburbs outside Philadelphia I was duly terrified, unaware that such things happened in the world. I also found the book addictive. The reader vicariously experiences not only the discovery of the bodies but also the killings, and the arrests and trial, from a variety of stylized perspectives: that of lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi; of Linda Kasabian, the good girl dragged along to the murders by bloodthirsty acidheads; of batshit crazy Sadie May Glutz; of merciless cult-leader Charles Manson. Through Kasabian’s testimony as state’s witness we grasp the horror of the victims in first person: we are Sharon Tate begging for the life of her baby, we are Leno LaBianca gutted with a meat fork.

Helter Skelter is a horror story, but also a moralistic indictment, not only of Manson and his followers, but of sixties counterculture in general: if you drop acid and put flowers in your hair, sadistic extremists will use mind-control on you, and one night you’ll find yourself in a mansion in Beverly Hills with a knife in your hand, cutting a baby out of a woman’s belly.

Eventually I read every one of those books: .44 is a thinly-veiled novelization of the Son of Sam story—David Berkowitz’s rampage through mid-seventies New York; Compulsion is about Leopold and Loeb, wealthy teens from the twenties who slaughtered a boy to prove they could commit the perfect crime. The Real Bonnie and Clyde is about the young bank robbers, and it was my favorite. I read certain passages over and over, particularly the final chapter, where the pair are ambushed in a clearing and gunned down. Their bodies aerated by bullets, trophy hunters descend on the scene. One man tries to slice Clyde’s ear off with a straight razor so he can save it in a jar of formaldehyde.

So I was exposed to true crime at an impressionable age. It’s important that I make this clear, to rationalize an obsession with a genre that’s several flights down from high art. The authors of true crime books seldom win the Nobel Prize in Literature. An interest in true crime does not recommend one to others: “I guess you could say I’m really into murder.” It concerns itself not with beauty, but with the ugliest human behaviors. The books are cheap, mass-produced entertainment, rushed through the presses to stock the bus-station pulp racks of Bumfuck Nowhere, to quench the public’s insatiable thirst for terror.

~

BROADSIDES

The comparison of public execution to theatrical performance has often been made: both provide spectacle, a codification of existential struggle, a sense of catharsis, an object lesson on the wages of sin. If execution is theater, then the crime broadside is its program.

Circulated in London and other major cities from the late sixteenth through late nineteenth centuries, the crime broadside is the Helter Skelter of its day. It has origins in booklets distributed by The Ordinary (head priest) of Newgate Prison, who is allowed to produce and sell accounts of the criminals jailed there. These include lurid details of the crime— usually a murder—the confessions of the accused, and a description of the behavior of the condemned at execution. The confession section contains a moral, as it is the Ordinary’s duty to discourage sin. The booklets are immensely popular and financially rewarding, and as a result laymen begin printing competing versions. Unlike the booklets of The Ordinary, the broadside consists of one sheet of paper, roughly the size of a contemporary newspaper page. It includes a prose section that relates the specifics of the crime and a verse section that dramatizes the story and provides a moral perspective.

It is with the broadside that we begin to see the emergence of a new relationship between criminals and the media. The condemned now have the opportunity to alter public opinion, to garner sympathy, to repent and be forgiven, not just by God and religious authority, but by the public as well.

~

THE BEAUTIFUL CIGAR GIRL

At the height of the broadside’s popularity in the early nineteenth century, several of the more famous cases inspire novels:

The 1836 hatchet murder of prostitute Helen Jewett and the subsequent trail of her murderer are explored in The Lives of Helen Jewett and Richard P. Robinson, a novel by George Wilkes.

George Lippard writes The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall, partly based on the trial of Singleton Mercer, who is accused of murdering the man who raped his sister.

In 1841, the body of “The Beautiful Cigar Girl” Mary Rogers is found floating in the Hudson River near Hoboken, inspiring Edgar Allen Poe to write The Mystery of Marie Rogêt—the first fictionalized murder mystery based on a true crime.

This Man Is Eaten by Cats

~

THE ILLUSTRATED POLICE NEWS

The arrival of The Illustrated Police News in 1864 kills the broadside. It’s a murder comic book, with disturbingly graphic black-and-white illustrations of crimes and crime scenes. The new form proves much more popular than the broadsides, in which the main illustrations are redundant stock woodcuts of public hangings that are repeatedly reused. The Illustrated Police News is revolutionary in that all the illustrations are specific to the case in question, and each one is different. The point of the broadside is text, the point of The Illustrated Police News is an immersive textual/visual experience: these are nineteenth century graphic novels. The broadside vanishes completely by 1870.

~

THE PENNY DREADFUL

The Penny Dreadful begins as an inexpensive alternative to the serialized novels of the nineteenth century. Printed on cheap pulp paper, these are folding pamphlets that cost a penny. They contain crime stories, ghost stories, and exaggerated accounts of the exploits of notorious highwaymen: executed horse-thief and murderer Dick Turpin is cast as a sympathetic hero in hundreds of tales; Sweeney Todd, the homicidal barber of Fleet Street, is introduced in The String of Pearls; and Varney the Vampire appears, some fifty years before the publication of Dracula. The imaginations of the working poor, and their spare pennies, are taken by fictive works based on true crimes and tales of the supernatural. The broadside focus on morality is still extant, but pushed to the background in favor of thrills.

~

ROUGHEAD

The most influential figure in the rise of the true crime genre is William Roughead. Born in 1870, Roughead begins his career as a solicitor in Scotland, but soon becomes more fascinated with ‘matters criminous’ than with the practice of law. He focuses on writing criminal biographies which he publishes in the Judicial Review, later collecting them into anthologies. These anthologies prove enormously popular. He goes on to publish innumerable books on criminals up into the nineteen-fifties, almost singlehandedly carrying the form into the modern era.

In the nineteen-twenties he becomes friends with Edmund Pearson, who wrote a well-known essay on the arrest and trial of accused axe-murderer Lizzie Borden, which inspired the most famous jump-rope rhyme of all time:

Lizzie Borden took and ax,

And gave her father thirty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her mother thirty-one.

In a letter to Pearson, Roughead writes: “Honestly, I never enjoyed a case more than Miss Lizzie’s. It is as unique as it is perfect: a flawless work of art.”

~

MURDER BALLADS

The ballad form is constructed of quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with an ABCB rhyme scheme. The broadside ballad rarely deviates from this form, but musical folk ballads contain a vast spectrum of variations. The broadside ballad fades away, but the folk ballad thrives, transported to America by Scots-Irish settlers who take to the secluded hills of the Appalachian backcountry. The Ballad of Tom Dooley and The Ballad of Frankie Silver are murder ballads from the mountains of Western North Carolina. The Kingston Trio records a famous version of Tom Dooley in 1958:

“Met her on the mountain,

there I took her life,

met her on the mountain,

stabbed her with my knife . . .”

Tom Dula is a former confederate soldier convicted of the 1866 murder of his lover Laura Foster. Whether he is actually guilty or just covering up a crime committed by another one of his lovers is unknown. He is hanged in 1868, still professing his innocence. Shortly afterwards, local poet Thomas Land writes The Death of Laura Foster, which eventually becomes The Ballad of Tom Dooley. There are numerous recordings of the tune, at least one film adaptation (starring Michael Landon, of Little House on the Prairie,) and myriad prose versions, nonfiction books, and theatrical renditions—enough material to guarantee Tom Dula continuing fame, even redemption: he is posthumously acquitted in 2001.

Frankie Silver is convicted of the hatchet murder of her husband, Charlie. According to The Ballad of Frankie Silver, it’s because she suspects he’s cheating, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Charlie Silver is a persistently drunken bastard who subjects Frankie to regular beatings. She kills in self-defense. On May 181833, Silver escapes the Morganton jail with help from her father, and they make it into Tennessee before being captured and returned. During her flight Frankie’s story is widely told, and public sentiment turns in her favor. Petitions are circulated. An appeal is made to the governor to commute her sentence. But although he says he is moved by the show of support, he upholds the decision of the jury. On July 12, 1833, not far from the current grounds of the Broughton Sanitarium, Frankie Silver is hanged.

“This dreadful dark and dismal day

Has swept my glories all away;

My sun goes down, my days are past,

And I must leave this world at last.”

-The Ballad of Frankie Silver

In the Narcocorrido, the drug ballads of the Mexican cartels, the ballad form continues into the present day.

~

THE STORY OF BONNIE AND CLYDE

During the Great Depression few institutions hold less favor than the banks, and at the beginning of their spree many Americans view The Barrow Gang as roughly equivalent to Robin Hood and his Merry Men: honest hard-working folk getting their own back from an oppressive system. But as the robberies get bloodier and public sentiment turns against them, Parker writes a ballad called The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, so that ‘the papers get it right.’ The verses cast the pair as star-crossed lovers, guilty of violence perhaps, but not without provocation, and accused by corrupt lawmen of far more wrongdoing than they ever committed. They’re just folks, and they want to be left alone to “rent a nice little flat.” Instead they are continuously hounded by the authorities. In fact, the police are blamed for Clyde’s violent tendencies:

“. . . I once knew Clyde

When he was honest and upright and clean.

But ´laws´ fooled around

Kept takin´ him down

And lockin´ him up in a cell

Till he said to me: ´I´ll never be free

So I´ll meet a few of them in Hell.´”

The Story of Bonnie and Clyde is overt propaganda. By placing the burden of blame elsewhere, Parker attempts to obfuscate reality, using rhythmic speech to justify criminal rampage.

In the film version starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Bonnie reads the ballad to Clyde and he is overjoyed.  “You know what you just did? You done told my story!” he shouts, slapping his knee. Bonnie has transformed their spree into the stuff of legend.

~

THE PULPS

The Illustrated Police News goes out of print in 1938 due to competition from increasingly sophisticated pulp magazines (now with glossy color covers and illustrations inside), descendants of the Penny Dreadful. The first successful pulp is Argosy Magazine, which appears in New York in 1896, followed by The Popular Magazine in 1903. Street and Smith, the publishers of The Popular Magazine, are credited with splitting up the diverse content into distinct genre magazines: adventure, fantasy, crime, etc.

The first true crime magazine, True Detective, rolls off the presses in 1924. It remains in print until 1995, but by the seventies—inspired possibly by anxieties concerning the drug subculture, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, the increased bloodshed in film, the popularity of magazines like Hustler (pick one)—it transforms into a misogynistic violent fantasy genre. The classic noir cover art of hardboiled detectives and femmes fatales is replaced by women as sexually objectified victims: terrified half-naked women are shown bound and gagged, eyes wide, awaiting the cruel perversions of their captors; police officers examine the duct-taped half-naked bodies of murdered women in the trunks of cars or in shallow ditches; half-naked hookers in halter-tops are threatened at knife-point by sinister men—artwork that Ted Bundy would later claim inspired him to commit his own acts of violence against women, and what he calls the ‘indispensible link to his future behaviors.’

~

IN COLD BLOOD

Published as a four part serial in The New Yorker in 1965, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s non-fiction novelization of the shotgun murders of Herbert Clutter and his family, is “arguably the highest artistic incarnation of the true crime genre.”

~

24 HOUR MURDER PEOPLE

The first successful true crime television series is Unsolved Mysteries, which premiers in 1987 and includes accounts of alien abductions and other supernatural phenomena along with crime stories. It is the Penny Dreadful of the age. The competing networks all soon have shows that follow a similar formula—48 Hours, 20/20, Dateline—and the conventions of the genre take shape: reenactments, interviews with witnesses, relatives, and detectives, theatrical titling, graininess, flash transitions, repetitive synthesizer music. The shows follow a linear narrative structure: murder/investigation/discovery/conclusion, but often significant information is held back until the end.

Stylistic and thematic variations coincide with the growth of cable television and the huge popularity of the shows. America’s Most Wanted premiers in 1988, and includes appeals to “help catch the killer.” COPS appears in 1989, a controversial street-level look into police procedure. In 1996, a year after the O.J. Simpson murder trial brings DNA profiling into the American living room, Forensic Files premiers, the first of dozens of forensic shows. Cold Case Files, about unsolved ‘cold’ cases, airs in 1999, as does City Confidential, which focuses on the communities surrounding murders.

With the introduction of the ID Discovery channel in 2008, true crime joins the 24-hour viewing cycle. Any time of the day or night, viewers can tune in to murder. To meet the demands of non-stop programming, scores of new shows are created. The titles exhibit the same sort of bloodstained overstatement as true crime books from the seventies, but they are now meticulously niche-specific:

Behind Mansion Walls, Dark Minds, Deadly Women, Evil I, Facing Evil, Fatal Encounters, Fatal Vows, Frenemies, Motives & Murders, Sins & Secrets, Stalked, Stolen Voices, Buried Secrets, Unusual Suspects, Very Bad Men, Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?, Evil Twins, Extreme Forensics, Forensic Detectives, Forensics: You Decide, Most Evil, Nightmare Next Door, Solved, Stolen Voices, Buried Secrets, The Devil You Know, The FBI Files, The New Detectives, Twisted, Wicked Attraction, Wives with Knives.

A significant trend in the new crop is the shift from third to first person. Several of the newer shows are from the perspective of the victim: Stolen Voices, Buried Secrets uses a first person omniscient voiceover, à la The Lovely Bones. Evil, I, is narrated from the perspective of the killer. Redrum, or murder spelled backwards, is an ID show that plots a crime in reverse from the end to the beginning. Several documentary series interview actual serial killers.

One gets the impression that the world is teeming with murderers, and that the only reason we remain alive is because no one has bothered to kill us yet.

~

SERIAL KILLERS: IF YOU NAME THEM, THEY WILL COME

Formerly monsters emerged only at night, because their looks tipped people off. Neck-bolts, crude stitch-work, greenish pallor—they were easy too spot. Get your friends, light some torches, and get down to business. But then suddenly anybody could be a monster. Suddenly everybody is under suspicion. Suddenly everybody is hauling a suspicious ice-chest. Suddenly everybody is hiding a head in a carry-on.

The term “Serienmorde” first appears in the thirties, in the writings of Berlin police officer Ernst Gennat. ‘Serial murder’ and ‘serial murderer’ appear in English at least as early as 1966, in John Brophy’s The Meaning of Murder, and ‘serial killer’ enters the lexicon sometime in the eighties. In 1989, Thomas Harris’ novel The Silence of the Lambs is published. The movie comes out two years later and wins the Oscar for Best Picture. That same year, Bret Easton Ellis publishes American Psycho. The world becomes obsessed with serial killers.

A parade of characters fitting the new description shuffles through the courts and jails and gas-chambers of America: Ted Bundy, the charismatic lady-killer; John Wayne Gacy, the clown, with his basement stuffed with teenage boys; Henry Lee Lucas, the thrill-killing drifter; Ed Gein, the mad butcher, dressed in clothes of human skin; Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibal who tried to make zombie love slaves by drilling holes in his victim’s heads and pouring acid in. Each the subject of dozens of books and films.

By the twenty-first century, serial killers are as culturally significant as movie stars.

~

DEXTER: THE SERIAL KILLER AS CLARK KENT

By 2006 it’s not enough to simply kill sequentially anymore; there’s got to be a hook. Enter Dexter, the Showtime Original Series about serial killer Dexter Morgan, who is a secret avenger, fond of white lip-balm, and . . . kind of a nice guy. Yes, there are never-ending negotiations with his secret self, his ‘Dark Passenger,’ there are never-ending debates about his ethical “code” with his invisible dead dad, but still he’s kind of a nice guy. Sure, he kills and mutilates people and dumps their bodies in the bay, but just the bad ones.

~

THE AESTHETICIZATION OF MURDER

In Season 6 of Dexter, Edward James Olmos and his henchman Colin Hanks portray a pair of religious zealot serial killers obsessed with the Christian Apocalypse. Olmos is also an artist, and his current project involves slaughtering people in aesthetically interesting ways that reference verses from The Book of Revelation. This trend of the serial killer as artist is currently ubiquitous. In Fox’s The Following Kevin Bacon stars as Ryan Hardy, a washed up former FBI agent embroiled in a narrative concocted by a maniacal Edgar Allen Poe-obsessed serial-killer Joe Carroll and his army of killers whose crimes take the form of performance art: men in ridiculous Poe masks set fire to random individuals on the street.

~

THE MAN WHO KILLED BUTTERFLIES

Damien Hirst’s 2006 wall piece I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds features a pair of colorful intertwining mandalas made up of thousands of butterfly wings. The artist himself removes the wings from the butterflies after he kills them. In 2010 the piece sells for 2.2 million pounds. In Hirst’s 2012 installation at the Tate Modern, In and Out of Love— “two white and windowless rooms filled with live butterflies whizzing about”—some 9000 more butterflies die by being “stepped on or swatted.”

~

MIRRORING

“If you don’t like the reflection, don’t look in the mirror.”

-graffiti from Luka Magnotta’s closet

In psychology, Mirroring refers to “a theory whereby children have their talk and accomplishments acknowledged, accepted and praised by others, e.g. parents. The basis of healthy self-esteem is that one’s natural self, with all its emotions, with its successes and failures, is acceptable and loveable. If the child does not feel his parents love him for himself, apart from accomplishments, he will develop what object relations theorists call the ‘false self,’ a self that is fabricated.” – David Thomas PhD

“Narcissistic characters have generally experienced a chronic lack of mirroring, often stemming from parental envy. When parents lack a sense of their own identity, they become sensitive to how their child likes them, or how it adds or detracts from their sense of esteem. Not only will they be unable to mirror the child’s emerging personality, but they will want to be mirrored by the child, who feels this keenly. Often the child feels it has something special the parents want, yet this specialness must be subverted to mirroring the parents, to giving back responses that make the parents feel secure. The undertone is envy stemming from the parents’ insecurity and jealousy of their own children who may create an identity they themselves lack. The end result of this process is that rather than feel loved and accepted, the child feels hated. It is against this feeling of being envied and hated that the narcissistic character erects defenses.

“The central feature of the narcissistic structure, the grandiose-exhibitionistic self, is its capacity to exert control over others. Kohut has aptly called this phenomenon the mirror-transference, for through it the mirroring emerges, but in a controlling manner, in which other persons are used, forced to be mirrors.” – Nathan Schwartz-Salant, Narcissism and Character Transformation   

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LUKA MAGNOTTA IN THE HALL OF MIRRORS

“He lived his life mainly online. On the internet.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, I guess most people found him weird. So he felt left out, you know? Isolated.”

-from Hunting Magnotta, an interview with Barbie, a former girlfriend.

On May 25, 2012, a young man named Luka Magnotta posts an 11-minute video called 1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick on a website called Bestgore.com. It is a dark, grainy video of an unknown person as he first stabs to death and then dismembers the body of a man who will later be identified as Lin Jun, a Chinese student. In subsequent days, Lin Jun’s hands and feet are mailed to elementary schools and political offices; his torso is found in a suitcase.

Luka Magnotta is born Eric Newman in Scarborough, Ontario on July 24, 1982. His parents are just out of their teens at the time and they soon separate; he is raised by his grandmother. His high school classmates, when they remember him at all, remember a quiet, awkward teen, a nonentity. The few who remember speaking with him recall he was in the habit of making up colorful stories about his past: he claims he is from Russia and has connections to the mafia.

Eric Newman wants to be a star. In his late teens he works as a stripper and an escort and begins to appear in pornographic videos. In 2005 he appears in a photo layout in Toronto’s fab magazine. The following year he changes his name legally to Luka Magnotta. In 2007, he auditions for OUTtv’s reality series COVERguy. He is rejected. His audition videos are telling: his affect seems contrived, as if he is mimicking social behavior. There’s something off-seeming about him—he’s a bad conman.

The same year, he leaks a false story to the press that suggests he is in a relationship with freed Canadian serial killer Karla Homolka. The Toronto Sun grants him an interview. Magnotta denies the affair, claiming he is being stalked, that the story is a set-up by shadowy conspirators. He basks in the brief attention this ruse attracts. He undergoes multiple cosmetic surgeries: to raise his cheekbones and transplant his hair. In 2008 he auditions for Plastic Makes Perfect, a Slice Network show about plastic surgery patients. He is rejected again.

The fame he feels is his right continues to elude him. Online, he creates seventy Facebook pages, twenty websites, and a number of YouTube accounts under various aliases. From these he issues attacks against himself, so that he can later deny the fabricated rumors and create the illusion that he is the subject of jealous fascination and intrigue. He makes videos of himself where he places a camera on his foot, or on a pole, so it appears as though the video is being filmed by someone else. He ad-libs reactions to being filmed: “Don’t. Not now. I’m trying to watch my show.” He Photoshops his face onto the bodies of wealthy vacationers and posts these photos online: Luka in Hawaii, Luka in New York, Luka with an ever-shifting array of friends and admirers, in hot-tubs and on beaches, with bottles of Cristal, riding on jet-skis, flying first-class. Luka Magnotta is everywhere at once, a non-stop fascination machine. Yet the realm of glitterati to which he aspires remains oblivious to his existence. His online life takes over.

In an interview, Katherine Newman, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, suggests that young killers are often socially marginalized and desperate to alter people’s perceptions. “They’re really looking to change how other people in the environment define them. They don’t want to be seen as uncool, they would rather be seen as dangerous or notorious. That’s a more satisfying self-definition.” More than anything else, Luka Magnotta wants to control public perception, but the plastic surgeries, the contrived scandals, the careful cultivation of his public image have yielded nothing. When he is not ignored, he is ostracized. The world has little use for Luka Magnotta. He sets his sights on revenge.

In 2010 a video called 1boy 2 kittens appears on YouTube. Two kittens are placed in a plastic bag by an unidentified person and the air in the bag is sucked out with a vacuum cleaner. The two kittens slowly suffocate. Animal activists and pet-lovers are outraged. Spontaneous vigilante groups organize to hunt down the cat-killer and bring him to justice. Luka Magnotta is finally getting the attention he craves. The only problem is that nobody knows it’s him. It will take 2011’s Python Christmas, a video where kittens are fed to a python, to get his name out, but by then the authorities will be closing in on him.

Shortly after the release of 1Lunatic 1Ice Pick, Luka Magnotta is identified as the killer and becomes the subject of an international manhunt. He is captured two weeks later in a café in Berlin, on the internet, reading news stories about himself.

~

ABSTRACT MORALIZING

Luka Magnotta is different from us. But I find in his story an extreme example of the character of the twenty-first century: an exaggerated sense of self-importance, achievements, and talents; unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence, and romance; the need for constant attention and positive reinforcement; easy jealousy; a lack of empathy and disregard for the feelings of others; an obsession with self . . . textbook narcissism. I am also reminded of finding Helter Skelter in my stepsister’s bedroom, how I couldn’t stop reading or look away.

We live in culture historically obsessed with death and dying, where sadism and murder are entertainment, where serial killers are celebrities. Somewhere along the way the line between murder and the artistic depiction of murder got blurred. Now art is murder, murder is art. Like a closed circuit that feeds on itself and accelerates incrementally, getting slowly deadlier and deadlier. Did Ted Bundy kill because he masturbated to True Detective magazine, the act awakening slumbering desires? No. But did he get ideas from True Detective? Was he influenced by the crude stories, the violent imagery? Evidently. Ted Bundy is different from us, too. But there are more like him out there. There will be more Luka Magnottas, isolated attention-seeking egotists to whom others are merely an annoyance, obstacles or stepping stones on the path to fame and glamour, to a life of validation.

We live in a culture where individuals are increasingly disconnected from one another. The lives of the rich and powerful throw the quiet desperation of our anonymous existences into stark relief. The logical cure for this condition is to become someone special. In Luka Magnotta’s becoming, Jun Lin— young man who faithfully attended to his studies and who doted on his mother—was sublimated and nullified by another man’s wounded ego, by his consuming fear of dying without ever having been known, without ever having been seen as a remarkable person, adored as he felt he deserved.

It is only natural that a culture that has had such a long and splendid history in the glorification of criminality and murder would see the birth of new breeds of killers. Killer exhibitionists. Magnotta—miserable bottom-feeder that he is—is an artist. However shallow his motivations, however ugly his behaviors, he has achieved something which many aspire to but few attain. Like the murderers of the broadsides, like the serial killers of the eighties, like Bonnie and Clyde: he has become known. He has become a notorious murderer of the internet age, a paragon of twenty-first century narcissism, a shatterer of worlds.

 

 

Lawrence Benner

About Lawrence Benner

Lawrence Benner is the one who wrote those things.
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4 Responses to Luka Magnotta in the Hall of Mirrors: A Brief History of True Crime

  1. Thom Cuell thom says:

    Really interesting post – I also discovered true crime books when I was quite young – the English ones were a bit less sensational, but had the same sense of drama: All these events take place against the starchiest background of Victorian respectability. Behind lace curtains lurks demoniac possession, and a twilight conservatory is a-buzz with lies and murder
    I wrote a short piece on it here.

    • Thanks, Thom. I read and enjoyed your piece, and am now enthusiastic about laying my hands on copies of Suddenly at the Priory and The Maul and The Pear Tree. As for English true crime, I’ve watched the Red Riding series about the Yorkshire Ripper, some documentaries on the same, and not nearly enough else. I am sadly aware of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and of course Jack the Ripper. I enjoy the show Mapping Murder. My mother was a big fan of BBC period mysteries, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie adaptations, so I grew up loving the English whodunit. I was unaware of most of the cases you reference in the piece. Many of the things I talk about in this essay are things I have only just heard of, having stumbled across them doing research. I was unaware of the broadsides, for instance. There was last month an exhibition at the Harvard Law Library of broadsides from their collection. I would have liked to have been able to have a look. Thank you for taking the time to comment, and for forwarding the link. Fascinating!

  2. Yuliya says:

    Thanks for the post, this is exactly what I needed when I found out about this terrifying crime a year ago. I knew that there was something completely wrong with this, but you explained what exactly: now art is murder, murder is art. This is so sick, but this is already a result, and a fish rots from the head first. There must be something fundamental to recover from this disease, otherwise the whole society is just doomed to die from this kind of anthropophagy.

    • Thanks Yuliya!
      Fair enough. Art is murder, murder is art- I know how oversimplified and inadequate and unsatisfying that is. I felt that way when I sent it in. I was trying to finish with a parody of the true crime genre, by doing a sensationalized prose section about a murder, and then an abstract moralizing segment. I didn’t really get that across. I wish I had written a broadside ballad about Magnotta and put that at the end . . . anyway, I’m with you, I hope these fellows won’t eat us all. God help us, it’s a new wave of evil horrible . . . okay it’s just the one guy.

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