Crime and Celebrity
Crime and Celebrity
- Lindsay SteenbergLindsay SteenbergDepartment of Arts, Oxford Brookes University
This article brings together scholarship on crime and celebrity in media culture to offer an overview on the works that engage with their intersection points. Focusing on Anglo-American media culture in particular, it offers a useful overview of the field of celebrity studies and to the notable scholars that are sharpening their focus to include media discourses of notoriety and infamy. The text also includes approaches from film and television studies, cultural studies, and cultural criminology. After establishing an introduction to the place of notoriety within the context of celebrity studies, there follows a detailed, though not exhaustive, taxonomy of different types of notoriety (Infamous Crime, Celebrity Criminal, Criminal Celebrity, Celebrity Victim, Victimized Celebrity, Victims of Celebrity, and Celebrity Expert). This taxonomy draws on the work of media scholars studying fame and provides a vocabulary for theorizing and contextualizing the place of crime and transgression within contemporary media culture.
With the taxonomy of notoriety in place, the remainder of the article considers two significant cultural practices of criminalized celebrity: the first is the forensic framing of criminality, transgression, and violence made possible by the figure of the Celebrity Expert. Such experts provide a containment system for the atavism of the criminal act by offering rational explanations and analytical tools. In the hands of the Celebrity Expert, the sensationalism of the true crime story is tempered by discourses of scientific rationalism. This process is often problematic because forensic accounts of crime must balance the tension between telling sensational stories of (often sexualized) violence and offering reassurance that justice can be realized through systems of scientific procedure. The second practice is generally considered more contentious: the industries of crime tourism and collection, dubbed murderabilia. Fans of true crime are invited to take part in “Ripper walks” through Whitechapel or Black Dahlia–themed bus tours through Los Angeles. The murderabilia trade proves that crime is indeed a lucrative business, and that celebrity fandom is not a practice limited to the admiration of film stars or musicians. The article concludes with a consideration of the serial killer, a highly mediated figure around which all of the debates and discourses of crime and celebrity circulates.
- Crime, Media, and Popular Culture
Introduction: Crime Can Make You Famous
Crime can make you famous—or, perhaps more accurately, it can make someone infamous or notorious. But what are the differences between fame and celebrity, on the one hand, and infamy and notoriety on the other? Several scholars insist that they are closer than one might imagine; both are products of a postmodern media culture that commodifies the individual. The processes of fame are certainly not new—one has only to look at the machinery that made figures like Cicero famous, as Leo Braudy explains in The Frenzy of Renown (1997). In a statement that seems resonant with contemporary culture, Cicero claims that the Roman people are, above all, “seekers after glory and greedy of praise” (Braudy, 1997, p. 75). As Robert Garland (2006, p. 5) explains, philosophers like Cicero were brutal in their condemnation of such greed, insisting that “all it took for someone to acquire it was ‘for a stupid and ignorant crowd to shout in unison.’”
Although it would be a mistake to study fame, celebrity, and notoriety as if they were new inventions, it is an equal oversimplification to assume that fame is simply a universal part of human culture or, as Cicero describes it here, a built-in characteristic of the “stupid and ignorant crowd.” Celebrity, as it is now understood, is indigenous to the postindustrial age, dependent on both mass media and consumer culture. What is most relevant for the study of the crime/celebrity interface is the fact that fame and infamy have become more intimately intertwined in contemporary culture. As Schmid (2005, p. 9) argues, there has been a “collapse of the difference between fame and notoriety.” Rojek (2001, p. 10) adds to this, insisting that “[n]otoriety is a sub-branch of celebrity culture, and, arguably, an increasingly important one.” What links the famous and the infamous is their impact on public life, as Rojek economically summarizes: “celebrity = impact on public consciousness” (p. 10).
The study of this collapse between fame and infamy and the theoretical positioning of notoriety as an important fixture in celebrity culture is relatively new and equally rare. Most considerations of notoriety tend to end with condemning the way the mass media glorifies violence for the prurient pleasures of a jeering crowd—particularly with sexualized crimes such as serial murder or sexual assault. While it is certainly an important part of a scholarly approach to crime and celebrity to intervene in discourses that naturalize and sexualize violence, it is important to move beyond condemnation and toward a more nuanced approach to notoriety. The same claim can also be made about the study of celebrity more generally, which must move beyond the consideration of celebrity as symptomatic of social decline and a frivolous public.
Toward a Taxonomy of Crime and Celebrity
As part of a consideration of the complex apparatus of celebrity and its entanglement with transgression, violence, and criminality, it is worth laying down a serviceable taxonomy of crime and celebrity—a genealogy mapping the nodal points between crime and those whose celebrity depends upon it (including the perpetrators, the victims, and the experts). With such an overview, it will be easier to hold a larger picture of the apparatus of celebrity in mind while also focusing on the specificities of crime and celebrity.
Most considerations of fame and celebrity begin by establishing taxonomies of one kind or another, generally categorizing methods for achieving celebrity. In his useful summary of the taxonomies of fame, Turner (2014, pp. 23–24) issues a warning that would serve readers of this section well. He claims that overall, taxonomies of fame “tend to underestimate the importance of the interests of those who consume celebrity, focusing instead on elaborating the character of the celebrity itself” (Turner, 2014, p. 24). His approach is typical of more recent work in celebrity studies, in that he gives attention not only to the characteristics of the celebrities themselves (the celebrity as text), but to the media and industries that produce them and to the people whose lives and behaviors are changed through their interaction with, or consumption of, the celebrity text. He concludes his discussion by calling attention to the fact that notoriety and infamy are “an undeveloped part of the field of celebrity studies” (Turner, 2014, p. 26) and require “another term to organise our discussion of the specificity of the cultural impact of the notorious or criminal figure” (Turner, 2010, pp. 25–26). This article is a step toward developing this terminology, building in particular on the work of scholars such as Rojek (2001), Schmid (2005), and Penfold-Mounce (2009, 2010) on the subject.
Like fame and renown, notoriety and infamy are not defined exclusively by criminal acts, but by the media attention and visibility that they receive. In this way, we might view all these categories under the umbrella term celebrity, which is achieved through media visibility and cemented by the public’s “para-social interactions” (Horton & Wohl, 1956) with the celebrity figure. Likewise, people have similar parasocial interactions with the criminal, the crime, and the victims of that crime—from the outpouring of public grief over the murder of celebrities like John Lennon to more sinister practices of crime tourism. The media storms and moral panics that coalesce around notoriety are primary examples of what Seltzer (1998, p. 2) has dubbed “wound culture” or the “pathological public sphere,” which he defines as a “public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound.” Seltzer’s formulation of a wound culture that celebrates and glamorizes violence reveals the cultural foundations of contemporary notoriety and reminds us that the media and the public are complicit in the process that confers celebrity on violent criminals and their acts.
The following categorization of crime and celebrity offers some specific terminology useful in framing and structuring an analysis of notoriety. Using the Infamous Crime as a starting point, this taxonomy maps out the distinctions between the Celebrity Criminal and the Criminal Celebrity (based on whether he or she was famous before or after committing a crime), considers victimhood (including the Celebrity Victim, the Victimized Celebrity, and the Victim of Celebrity), and concludes with a brief definition of the function of the Celebrity Expert.
Illustrative examples of Infamous Crimes include the following:
The 1888 Jack the Ripper murders in the East End of London
The 1947 Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles
The 1982 Tylenol poisonings in the Chicago area
Brutal and salacious crimes are generally the most notorious and visible across media. Furthermore, unsolved crimes tend to have the greatest longevity in the public imagination. The Jack the Ripper killings in Victorian Whitechapel are a key example here. We have a name for the now-mythic killer: Jack the Ripper, after the series of over 300 signed letters sent to contemporary newspapers. However, the Ripper’s identity has never been confirmed, and countless films, graphic novels, television documentaries, and true-crime stories have promised to resolve the mystery at the heart of these brutal murders. None, however, have succeeded. Similarly, cases such as the unsolved Zodiac killings (where the killer sent coded letters to newspapers), the Black Dahlia murder, and the 1982 Tylenol poisonings have remained sharp in the public’s mind. Such crimes often contribute to media-framed moral panics, in which the crimes are read as harbingers of timely social problems. Best and Horiuchi (1985) have argued, for example, that the Tylenol poisonings were collapsed in the media into fears around candy tampering at Halloween, creating a false fear among American parents that criminals were poisoning children’s candy.
Generally, for a crime to fit into this category, it must be unsolved and particularly brutal, often sexualized, and sometimes elusive in its motivations. Crimes assigned to the category of serial sexual murder are the most notorious of these types of crimes—and this will be a key case study addressed later. Other types of infamous crimes are those labeled “spree killings” or acts of terrorism, such as the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, and the attacks in Paris in November 2015. In order for a crime to achieve notoriety in this way, it must be mediatized, make a spectacular impact, and result in the deaths of several people.
Unlike crimes perpetrated against single, celebritized victims, such as the Black Dahlia or JonBenet Ramsey (see the discussion of Celebrity Victims later in this article), these killings are noteworthy for the scale of the crime and the “averageness” of the victims. The panic that they generate is due to the possibility that the victims were chosen randomly—the inference being that any citizen could have been similarly victimized.
The Infamous Crime often reveals the slippery border between urban legend and actuality, with media framings and reframing often picking up on the abject and brutal nature of the violence and on the possibility that anyone could be the next victim, as in the case of the Tylenol/Halloween poisonings. In revisiting these murders in ritual ways, media culture exacerbates a sense of risk in its spectators. While crime rates actually might be dropping in the United States, for example, fictions such as these solidify the sense that Americans are living in the crosshairs of inevitable violence.
The Celebrity Criminal
Illustrative examples of Celebrity Criminals include the following:
Organized crime boss Al Capone was never charged for his violent crimes (including his involvement in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), but he was convicted of tax evasion in 1931.
Serial killer Ted Bundy was executed in Florida in 1989 for the murder of 36 women.
Exonerated of rape charges in 2003 and convicted of murder in 2007, Steven Avery is best known as the subject of Netflix’s 2015 miniseries Making a Murderer.
Celebrity criminals become famous because of the crimes that they have committed. It is this violence that earns them media attention and visibility, separating them from their previous lives of anonymity. Rojek (2001, p. 146) argues that in a media culture where celebrity is framed as perhaps the primary means of individual achievement and validation, “[t]he use of violence may be interpreted as an act of revenge on society for not recognizing the extraordinary qualities of the individual.” He adds that the drive for celebrity should be considered “a factor in precipitating some forms of violent behaviour” (p. 147). This category is widely considered illustrative of the entanglement between celebrity and crime, and most scholarship turns to this category of criminal/crime in their interrogations.
Here, Celebrity Criminals are split into two types—the redeemable and the irredeemable. This dichotomy describes not the crimes, but rather their media framing and inclusion in specific kinds of narratives—for example, childhood trauma, rehabilitation, revenge or closure, and even makeovers. In the first category, one might include charismatic and dashing criminal figures such as highwaymen, pirates, art thieves, and gangsters. Rather than having sadistic violence as their main goal, they are credited with committing crime for altruistic reasons, financial gain, or even for the pleasure of performing such crimes with panache. In the dashing criminal category are quasi-mythological figures such as Robin Hood or the lesser widely known London-based gangsters, the Kray brothers. Also included in the redeemable category are those criminals who might be forgiven for their crimes because they were caught up in events beyond their control or have undergone a genuine rehabilitative process.
Another example of this category might be the “couple on the run,” such as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who are framed (through fiction, journalism, and many widely circulated photographs) as charismatic, in love, and unbound by society’s rules. Undoubtedly, Arthur Penn’s darkly glamorous film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is responsible for reinforcing this now conventional reading of Parker and Barrow’s crimes. Furthering the Celebrity Criminal’s cinematic legacy is Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers, which taps into the couple on the run genre and attempts to use its mythic currency to critique the media culture and industries that award serial murderers and spree killers visibility and fame. In her study of crime and celebrity culture, Penfold-Mounce (2009, pp. 83–92) further subdivides the redeemable category into three substrata: the social bandit (e.g., Robin Hood), the criminal hero (e.g., highwaymen), and the underworld exhibitionist (e.g., gangsta rappers) for greater specificity and in order to position them in relation to the formation of the culture industry’s hypermediated reality.
It is the celebrity of the irredeemable criminal, which Penfold-Mounce labels the “iniquitous criminal” (2009, p. 90), that is the most lasting and the most contentious. This type of celebrated criminality continues to spark heated debate regarding the ways in which the media and the public become complicit in the process of notoriety. In this category are serial murderers such as Ted Bundy and Peter Sutcliffe (also known as the “Yorkshire Ripper”), spree killers such as Charles Manson or the Columbine shooters (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold), and terrorists such as Ted Kaczynski (also known as the “Unabomber”). Other types of criminals that might be included in this category are dictators such as Adolf Hitler, assassins such as John Wilkes Booth, insurgents and traitors such as Benedict Arnold and Guy Fawkes, and large-scale fraudsters such as Charles Ponzi (after whom the “Ponzi scheme” is named) and Bernard Madoff. As a caveat regarding the oversimplification that taxonomies such as this can produce, it should be noted that fraud can be considered a redeemable crime, and traitors can likewise be framed as heroic revolutionaries. It is the serial sexual murderer that is the most visible and most notable type of irredeemable or “iniquitous” Celebrity Criminal; and this figure notably functions as a key intersection point between celebrity and crime.
The Criminal Celebrity
Illustrative examples of Criminal Celebrities include the following:
After his death in 2011, well-known television presenter Jimmy Savile has been the focus of many investigations revealing him to be a serial sexual offender.
Former football player O. J. Simpson was charged but acquitted in 1995 of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in a televised trial. Simpson was later found liable for the deaths during a civil trial.
Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson caused a media scandal when she admitted, under oath, to taking cocaine and cannabis in 2013.
Director Woody Allen’s affair with partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn (an example of the transgressive rather than criminal celebrity).
The Criminal Celebrity category describes those who are already in the public eye and commit acts of crime or transgression that disrupt their established celebrity status. Like the Celebrity Criminal, public figures can commit crimes that are unforgivable, such as Savile, who was labeled a “prolific, predatory” sex offender by Scotland Yard (Halliday, 2014). These crimes and their media-framed aftermaths are infinitely devastating for the victims and their loved ones; and any studies of crime and celebrity must always bear in mind that even though these are media events, they are also personal tragedies that should be treated with respect and sensitivity.
These crimes also have an effect on the system of celebrity because fans and supporters are caught up in a dissonance between their previous admiration and their condemnation of the irredeemable crime. This represents troubling paradigmatic shifts for the erstwhile fan of the Criminal Celebrity, completely reorienting (and at times retrospectively pathologizing) the parasocial relationship that they have with the celebrity. Here, Jonathan Gray’s work on “anti-fandom” (2003) is useful, as Jones (forthcoming) explains in her study of fan reactions to the guilty plea of Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins to several sexual offenses against children. While this effect is certainly less immediate than the situation of the victims of the crimes themselves, it is an understudied aspect of criminal celebrity that is relevant to its study.
While there is little scholarship on the tension felt by the former fans of Criminal Celebrities, there has been considerable media anxiety around the effects that viewing crime and violence might have on audiences. The 1993 James Bulger murder (in which the 2-year-old Bulger was murdered by two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables—reputedly inspired by a horror film that they had seen) is axiomatic, and it is best categorized as an “Infamous Crime” according to this taxonomy. For further consideration on children as both perpetrators and victims of crimes, see Smith and Sueda (2008). The Bulger case is often viewed in association with the earlier media panic around the distribution of violent videotapes, known as the “video nasties” scandal. The panic around the distribution of films on VHS, and the campaign headed by Mary Whitehouse in response, led to the 1984 Video Recordings Act, which ensured that films released on video in the United Kingdom are classified (according to the age appropriate for viewership) by the British Board of Film Classification looking at representations of violence, drug use, sexuality, or “imitable behavior” (http://www.bbfc.co.uk/what-classification).
An American example of the debate around the public consumption of crime concerns the 1995 trial of former football star O. J. Simpson, its media coverage, and the instrumental role that it played in establishing the popularity of the Court TV network (now truTV). Brian Lowry (2014) at Variety is one of many media critics who condemned Court TV as a “corrosive influence on the legal system, politics and other institutions.” In addition to the celebrity cases broadcast on Court TV, the early 1990s saw the success of reality crime programming such as the Fox television shows Cops (1989–) and America’s Most Wanted (1988–) and the BBC’s Crimewatch (1984–). This type of program helped to establish reality shows as a mode of entertainment that has come to dominate Anglo-American television.
The fact that the advent of reality television began with true crime programming is worth considering in an analysis of crime and celebrity. The almost unprecedented popularity of Netflix’s 2015 docuseries Making a Murderer, which traces Steve Avery’s exoneration for one crime and subsequent conviction of another, proves that television true-crime formats continue to be important to the apparatus of celebrity. The complex symbiotic relationship between reality television and the processes of celebrity is coming under increasing scholarly scrutiny—one example is Brenda R. Weber’s Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity (2009).
In addition to, and separate from, the violent and irredeemable crimes committed by public figures mentioned here, the category of Criminal Celebrity includes drug- and alcohol-related crimes, including theft and public mischief. Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s admission of drug use and film star Winona Ryder’s 2001 shoplifting arrest are useful examples. Other noteworthy examples include former child stars, such as Amanda Bynes, Justin Bieber, and Macaulay Culkin, who were charged with offenses such as drunk driving, theft, and drug possession. These types of celebrities are often positioned as transgressive because of or in direct response to their lifetime spent in the media—thus, they more accurately belong to the category of “Victims of Celebrity” (discussed later in this article).
One further subcategory to examine here is the Transgressive Celebrity; that is, those celebrities who do not break the law and are not convicted of any specific crimes, but are famous for pushing at the boundaries of morality and transgressing acceptable social behavior. Director Woody Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime partner Mia Farrow, is one example. Rojek (2001), among others, has argued that transgression and excess are intrinsic to celebrity and that vicariously living such rebellious transgression through the celebrity provides the public consistent pleasure.
Transgressive celebrities and so-called trainwreck or meltdown celebrities (e.g., Bynes, Britney Spears, and Owen Wilson) reveal the sadistic aspects of the pathological public sphere and our desire to see the spectacle of psychological unravelling. As many feminist scholars, such as Negra and Holmes (2008), have outlined, discourses around transgressive and trainwreck celebrities are distinctly gendered, framing male celebrities (e.g., Wilson) using narratives of forgiveness while treating their (often younger) female counterparts with impatient disgust (e.g., Bynes).
The Celebrity Victim
Illustrative examples of Celebrity Victims include the following:
After the kidnapping and murder of his son Adam in 1981, John Walsh became a lobbyist and host of the true-crime program America’s Most Wanted.
Rodney King’s beating at the hands of officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1991 was caught on videotape.
The still-unsolved murder of the child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey in 1996.
Just as criminals become celebrities because of their acts of violence, the victims of crime are simultaneously thrust into the media spotlight. These people become celebrities not because of what they have done, but by what was done to them—their celebrity frozen at the moment of their violent deaths. Celebrity Victims have no control over their image and its dissemination and, even if they survive their victimization, they are often pigeonholed as victims by the media or by lobbyists looking to capitalize on public shock to push their agendas. Arguably, they are revictimized by the apparatus of celebrity, which replays their victimization for public consumption. Nils Christie’s conceptualization of an ideal victim (1986) is a useful starting point for exploring why certain types of victims become the object of media focus (e.g., children such as JonBenet Ramsey) and others are ignored. The celebritized victimhood described in this category, however, does not trade exclusively on idealism, but frustrates the stereotype of the ideal victim by almost compulsively focusing on the ways in which a victim is both ideal and somehow guilty (particularly in the case of female victims).
Murder victim Elizabeth Short, who was dubbed “the Black Dahlia” by the media, is a primary example of the Celebrity Victim—and the images and scenario of her mutilation and murder have been replayed across the media, from novels (e.g., James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia) to true-crime television programming, and films (e.g., Brian De Palma’s 2006 feature film on the subject). The Black Dahlia case reveals the disturbing gender politics involved in framing Celebrity Victims, as discussions and coverage frequently hinge on Short’s sexual promiscuity. The intense scrutiny of the sexuality of the victim is also a cornerstone of the Ripper case, whose victims were prostitutes.
As feminist scholars such as Walkowitz (1992), Caputi (1987), and Cameron and Frazer (1987) have highlighted, the bodies of female murder victims become focal points for the sexualization of violence while their lives and victimization are marginalized by the details of the crime. Feminist inquiries into female victimhood, such as those mentioned here, are important contributions to the scholarship around notorious crimes and criminals. For studies considering the gender politics of female perpetrators, see Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression (Hart, 1994) and Killing Women: The Visual Culture of Gender and Violence (Lord & Burfoot, 2006). Furthermore, Davies, Francis, and Greer’s (2007) edited collection Victims, Crime, and Society brings together considerations of the ways in which race, gender, and class inform society’s notions of victimhood.
As in the gender politics of female violence and victimization, other Celebrity Victims can become figureheads (or ignition points) for wider sociopolitical issues of their times. The primary example is Rodney King, an African American whose assault at the hands of white LAPD officers was recorded on a home video camera in 1991. King’s beating, its public display, and the subsequent acquittal of the officers who attacked him sparked a series of race riots in Los Angeles in 1992. King’s celebrity, and the frequently repeated images of his victimization (and his beaten body), have become potent symbols of systematic racial inequality in the United States.
In her consideration of the culture of crime in the U.S. media, Rapping (2003, pp. 236–251) argues that the Celebrity Victim (epitomized by America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh) has become instrumental in establishing the utopian, revenge-based logic of the American victims’ rights movement, which supplants discourses of rehabilitation or redemption of criminals. She insists that this movement separates America into two categories: “those who prey on others and those who ‘fight back’” (Rapping, 2003, p. 243). In such a scenario, the narrative of the Celebrity Victim-hero who fights back becomes a powerful media story—an extension, perhaps, of Christie’s ideal victim. Again, the longevity and success of Walsh’s program is testament to the lucrative resonance of the revenge story.
The Victimized Celebrity
Illustrative examples of Victimized Celebrities include the following:
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy (JFK) in Dallas in 1963.
The murder of former Beatles member John Lennon in New York in 1980.
The 1999 murder of Crimewatch presenter Jill Dando in London.
Where the Celebrity Victim becomes famous because of the violence perpetrated against them (and perhaps because of their willingness to “fight back”), the Victimized Celebrity is already in the public eye before the crime occurs—in a manner that mirrors the parallel/distinction between Celebrity Criminal and the Criminal Celebrity. Unlike Celebrity Victims, whose fame is restricted to their violent deaths, the Victimized Celebrity can retain a celebrity persona with meanings beyond their victimhood (their music, political legacies, etc.) As with the previous category, the victimhood of the Victimized Celebrity can become a symbolic standard for certain issues or for the formation of communities (e.g., the conspiracy theories that surround JFK’s murder).
Victimized Celebrity, Crime, and Public Memory
The moment when a crime is committed against a famous person, particularly if it involves their violent death, it becomes a communal historical memory—a place of traumatic witnessing that binds people together and delineates an important shared memory. The almost ritual question of “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is testament to this process. When this kind of violent event is caught on camera (like Rodney King’s beating, the assassination of JFK, or the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks), it has a greater currency in culture, particularly in the current media culture, where videos may be shared with ease among global communities. These communities of trauma are certainly part of Seltzer’s wound culture mentioned earlier, but scholarship around trauma and memory is useful for a more in-depth theorization of this process of community formation based on the shared experience of violent crimes. Scholars such as Caruth (1995, 1996), Kaplan (2005), and Sturken (2007) represent a solid starting point for an exploration of large-scale criminal events and trauma.
Victims of Celebrity
Illustrative examples of Victims of Celebrity include the following:
Actress Marilyn Monroe, who died of a drug overdose in 1962.
Former child star Lindsay Lohan, whose personal problems included drunk driving and drug possession charges in 2007.
Musician Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in 1998.
While not necessarily a crime, this tangential category of Victims of Celebrity describes those already in the public eye who have suffered mental health issues (or even committed suicide), for which celebrity and its insistent media visibility are assumed to be contributing factors. The spectacle of the Victim of Celebrity has proven to be infinitely fascinating to the public—and the prevalence of so-called trainwreck celebrities exemplifies this. Although perhaps the connection may not be clear at first, this type of celebrity victim is a further illustrative example of Seltzer’s pathological public sphere—here, we see the spectacle of the individual acting out of acute psychological distress, often in displays of public intoxication or in the distribution of amateur sex tapes. There is a significant element of schadenfreude at play, as the public delights in its ability to both revere and condemn the celebrity figure. There is a distinct (and gendered) pleasure in watching the godlike elite of the celebrity sphere fall from grace, and the public’s admiration is always tinged with an edge of bitterness. Rojek suggests that “hatred is never far from the surface of adulation because the fan’s desire for consummation is doomed to fail” (Redmond & Holmes, 2007, p. 171). Schmid (2005, p. 6) is more forceful in his identification of the sharp edge of the public’s consumption of celebrity, claiming that “the public’s relation to the celebrity is also characterised by resentment, even violent hatred.”
The Celebrity Expert
Illustrative examples of the Celebrity Expert include the following:
Fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in a series of crime stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) criminal profiler and true-crime author John E. Douglas.
Novelist and former crime journalist Patricia Cornwell, who has written a series of bestselling crime fiction novels featuring pathologist Kay Scarpetta and a true crime account of Jack the Ripper.
The Celebrity Expert is almost always absent from considerations of the intersection between crime and celebrity, but it should be remembered that criminologists, profilers, and crime journalists called upon to explain violent crime across the media receive a large measure of celebrity themselves. It should also be remembered that the Celebrity Expert depends no less on violence for their fame as the criminals and victims that they analyze. As scholars, we must go some way toward acknowledging that our research and reputations are building on these violent acts as well.
The Celebrity Expert is particularly well suited to televisual celebrity, often called upon during the true-crime documentary to provide new evidence on an infamous unsolved crime. The glut of television programming on the subject of Jack the Ripper is evidence of the ubiquity of this form of crime story and of the importance of the Celebrity Expert in framing such stories and containing their grotesque violence (Cornwell hosts one such program on British television in 2002).
A key example of the Celebrity Expert is consulting detective Sherlock Holmes—global transmedia brand and currently the lynchpin of a successful BBC series with an intense fan following. Although Holmes is a fictional character (created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), he is currently perhaps the most renowned forensic expert. The Guinness Book of World Records awarded Holmes the title of “most portrayed literary human character in film and TV” in 2012 (Guinness World Records News), In fact, his fictional status reveals the importance of the feedback loop between fact and fiction (filtered through the media) inherent to the process of celebrity.
Sir Edmond Locard, one of the pioneering figures of professionalized forensic science and founder of the Lyon forensics laboratory, cites Holmes as an important inspiration—“Sherlock Holmes was the first to realize the importance of dust. I merely copied his methods” (Berg, 1970, p. 448). Likewise, Doyle mentions prominent figures in forensic science, such as Alphonse Bertillon, developer of the system of criminal identification known as anthropometry (Doyle, 1992, pp. 235–236). This self-conscious play between fact and fiction does not detract from Holmes’s status as a celebrity expert—rather, it has solidified his transmedia expert status.
The serial killer (from Hannibal Lector to Jack the Ripper) is likewise illustrative of the blurry line between the real and the fabricated. However, where these killers might seem to be types of folk devils, Holmes’s hyperreal expertise provides a reassuring framework of logic and rationality to counter the atavistic threat of the criminal. Both function as reinforcing parts of the same system of notorious criminality, as do their nonfictional counterparts.
If celebrity can most usefully be described not as a state of being, or even as a kind of culture, but as a process, then what follows next are detailed considerations of two current cultural practices of criminal celebrity: the forensic framing of stories about crime and the lucrative crime tourism and memorabilia industries.
Forensic Framings and the Celebrity Expert
The late 1990s and early 2000s were marked by a turn to the forensic in Anglo-American popular culture. The cultural phenomenon was most visible on American television, with crime dramas such as CSI (on CBS, 2000–2015), NCIS (CBS, 2003–), and Bones (Fox, 2005–) dominating broadcast airwaves. The obsession with all things forensic extended beyond television to include other media, such as film (The Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector); popular literature (the novels of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs, and true-crime books such as those written by the former FBI profiler Douglas); and video games (the Sherlock Holmes series and those affiliated with the CSI franchise). The rise of forensic interest is not limited to media and their perceived impact (e.g., the so-called CSI Effect). The nostalgic version of forensic science favored by these narratives (infused with Enlightenment-era rationalism) is equally visible in disparate spaces, ranging from the museum (e.g., the touring “CSI Experience” Exhibit) to the cookbook [e.g., Patricia Cornwell’s Food to Die For (2001)].
The Celebrity Expert is certainly not limited to the field of forensic science—see, for example, “teledons” such as Professor Brian Cox and Professor Mary Beard or talk show experts like Dr. Phil McGraw. The forensic expert is one of the most ubiquitous of the Celebrity Experts in the current mediascape. This section will answer the following questions: Who are celebrity forensic experts, and what functions do they perform in relation to the celebrity status of the criminal?
The credentials of the celebrity forensic expert are varied and not always linked to formal academic training or professional experience. For example, one of the most vocal experts has been former crime journalist and author Patricia Cornwell, particularly in her search for the identity of Jack the Ripper. Her ambitiously titled 2002 book Portrait of a Killer: Jack The Ripper—Case Closed and her television documentary (Stalking the Ripper) offer closure to this infamous crime using modern forensic techniques such as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) profiling. In this way, Cornwell’s Ripper narrative is similar to many others, calling up new forensic technologies and forensic experts to solve this Infamous Crime of 1888—she makes a case that Impressionist painter Walter Sickert was the Ripper. Typical also is the framework of Cornwell’s expertise, based largely on her research for fictional novels (in which her lead character is Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a forensic pathologist). This is a further example of the system of celebrity revealing a hyperreal feedback loop—Cornwell’s knowledge of crime fiction makes her an expert on factual crime (the character of Richard Castle on ABC’s Castle is a further example of this phenomenon). Her ability to tell stories about crime makes her effective at revealing hidden truths through the illuminating technologies and narrative logic of forensic science.
Cornwell’s Stalking the Ripper documentary is unique in giving voice to the neoliberal position of the Celebrity Expert (for an analysis of the intersection between forensic expertise and neoliberalism, see Byers & Johnson, 2009). During the show’s opening sequence, Cornwell gives her reasons for pursuing the Ripper case:
I believe we owe it to society and to the victims to pursue the Ripper cases and that takes laypeople like me because Scotland Yard, they’ve got active cases to investigate. They’re certainly not going to investigate a 112-year-old case for which there will be no prosecution and which would cost a lot of money.
She frames herself (as the media often frames the Celebrity Expert) as a philanthropist, taking on the personal, emotional, and financial costs of investigating crime in the face of an overburdened justice system that cannot prioritize the historical Infamous Crime. Resonating with the logic of the victims’ rights movement, Celebrity Experts can function as an embodiment of neoliberal justice. They are often private citizens who step in to do what the government, through lack of resources, cannot. They can “fight back” and provide hypotheses of closure through their forensic framing of crime. This is a distinctly comforting process for spectators (i.e., the fantasy that forensic science can explain or contain violence crime), even as it contributes to the celebrity status of the criminal and provides an excuse to revisit horrific and sensationalized crimes. Despite her mandate to find justice for the victims, Cornwell’s television show opens with sensation: a detailed recreation of the murder of Mary Kelly that includes archival crime scene photography of her mutilated corpse.
There are many ways of looking at the role of Celebrity Experts. Their personal investigations can raise awareness of violent crime and remind the public that an Infamous Crime always has murdered victims at its core. Further interest and visibility might encourage resources to be assigned to otherwise cold cases. As Schmid (2005, pp. 3–4) reminds readers in his analysis of the serial murder “fan” industry of murderabilia, “an attitude of moral neutrality towards that industry” is essential for an analysis of “the conditions that allowed for the emergence of that culture.”
The Celebrity Forensic Expert has diverse credentials but always provides a rational framework for identifying criminals and their motivations. Their framing of violent crime through science can effectively neutralize the gothic horror of a crime and the incomprehensibility of its perpetrator(s). Forensic science, and the forensic expert, can provide a kind of “alibi” (Weissmann & Boyle, 2007, p. 92) that permits spectators to simultaneously enjoy the almost pornographic sensationalism of Criminal Celebrity without guilt because they are learning from the voice of the expert. The many forensic framings of Infamous Crimes raise public awareness of the victims while reinforcing the celebrity status of the criminal. Researchers must consider these many tensions in their analyses if they are to investigate the role of the expert in the economy of notoriety and celebrity.
Crime Tourism and the Murderabilia Industry
When a crime becomes famous (or infamous), it no longer functions exclusively as an event or an act—it becomes a place to visit and to map, and provides tourists with tangible souvenirs, in an uncanny echo of the serial killer’s propensity to collect. The murderabilia industry (in which fans can buy items associated with Celebrity Criminals) and crime tourism (which offers tours or reconstructions of infamous crime scenes) are straightforward examples of how Criminal Celebrity can be profitable—not merely in accruing visibility, but in measurable financial terms. It is, furthermore, an example of an intersection with the kinds of fan practices normally associated with more socially sanctioned forms of celebrity (e.g., collecting autographs), suggesting that notoriety is not merely a footnote to the system of celebrity, but an entrenched part of it.
Beginning in 1977, many U.S. states and the federal government enacted “Son of Sam” laws, named after the serial killer David Berkowitz, that were designed to ensure that criminals do not profit financially from telling the stories of their crimes. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the New York version of this law violated the First Amendment (California likewise overturned its law in 2002). Subsequently, New York and other states amended their laws to specifically ban profit derived from the crime itself, and this process of amendment continued with the establishment of the Victims of Crime Act of 1984. Some states’ versions of the Son of Sam laws include amendments regarding the trade of murderabilia (e.g., Texas), but this is not true everywhere. Therefore, it is possible to bypass these laws, particularly with online sales. In response, Senator John Cornyn of Texas has tried several times to pass an act banning the sale of murderabilia, most recently in 2013 (known as the “Stop the Sale of Murderabilia Act”). Central to the debates around Son of Sam laws is whether such laws impinge on the constitutional right of free speech, as well as the issue of how one might police a semimobile, globalized online industry.
The murderabilia industry is a by-product of notoriety and its literal commodification. Many newspaper interviews with murderabilia collectors and vendors describe their motives for collecting as historical or curatorial. They suggest that collectors want to archive a significant part of history for an interested public or for their private collection. David Schmid begins his discussion of murderabilia by quoting Rick Staton, one of the largest collectors and vendors of murderabilia in the United States. Staton suggests that everyone is fascinated by murder, even those who vocally condemn it. Staton wonders, “Am I the one who is so abnormal, or am I pretty normal?” (Schmid, 2005, p. 3). The desire not only to see where a crime was committed (e.g., murder tourism), but to own a talismanic object associated with violent crime, is integral to how notoriety functions in consumer culture. Murderabilia collections allow people to experience a material connection to the Celebrity Criminal and the Infamous Crime. The display and accumulation of this collection contributes to the status (and perhaps vicarious notoriety) of the collector. It also parallels the archival impulse of both the serial killer and the forensic investigator (Steenberg, 2013, pp. 142–148). Thus, the collection and dealing of murderabilia are logical, if controversial, extensions of celebrity culture.
Philip R. Stone has written extensively on tourist practices related to violence and death, also known as dark tourism or thanatourism. Crime tourism can be read as a subsection of these wider dark tourism practices. In one article, Stone (2006, p. 146) argues that dark tourism exists along “a fluid spectrum of intensity,” with the darkest of these places being ones where death and suffering have taken place (e.g., the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau) and the lightest being those such as the London Dungeon, whose aims are to entertain rather than memorialize. What studies of dark tourism reveal are the ways in which all shades of darkness have been fully integrated into an economy wherein they are profitable products. The apparatus of celebrity underpins the success of many of these sites—from the scenes of Infamous Crimes (e.g., Jack the Ripper tours) to the shrines of Victimized Celebrities (e.g., the memorial to Princess Diana at Kensington Palace).
Several fictional feature films use dark tourism and the collection of murderabilia in their narratives. The 2001 Ridley Scott film Hannibal opens with a wealthy collector buying items associated with the serial killer known as Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lector. This collector turns out to be a former victim of Lector’s, whose collecting is framed as part of his pathological drive for revenge. In a similarly obsessive manner, journalist Brian Kessler in the film Kalifornia (Sena, 1993) takes a road trip across the United States visiting sites associated with infamous serial murderers in order to write a coffee table book about them. The plot sees Kessler teaming up with serial killer Early Grayce, with tragic consequences. The collecting and touring characters in these films are framed as obsessive and troubled, and their practices of serial killer fandom are treated as personal weaknesses, more aligned with copycat killers [e.g., Copycat (Amiel, 1995)], rather than a fixture of a long-standing celebrity industry. An argument can be made that serial killer fictions—from television series like Criminal Minds (CBS, 2005–) to gothic crime novels and movies like The Silence of the Lambs—are extensions of the murderabilia industry itself, contributing to the celebrity of the serial killer and profiting from stories of sexualized murder.
Murderabilia collections and crime tourism have certain continuities with other celebrity collection practices, but they can be interpreted as their pathological end point. As with all mediations of serial murder, such practices can be used as proof of the negative consequences of a culture that is aligned toward celebrity—including notoriety. Using serial crime in this representative way (as an excessive expression of otherwise established cultural conditions) is in line with the way that some feminist scholars have characterized the notoriety of the serial killer as a vicious end point of a sliding scale of patriarchal masculinity. Deborah Cameron (1994, p. 151) argues that serial killers “are extraordinary and grotesque, but they are grotesque in the image of the culture that produces them: They are a pathological symptom of a certain kind of masculinity that in its less obviously malignant forms is a requirement of patriarchal culture.” These arguments suggest that the act of murderabilia collection might not be limited to the personal obsessions of one troubled person, but rather that it may be closely related to more banal practices of a celebrity-attuned culture.
The Serial Killer: Some Conclusions
It is around the figure of the serial killer that many of the issues around crime and celebrity coalesce—from the commodification of violence in postindustrial capitalism to the complex process of identity negotiation embodied by the celebrity figure. Schmid (2005, p. 24) argues that the serial murderer is a key cultural myth of postmodern America—“as quintessentially American a figure as the cowboy.” He pushes the importance of the serial killer even further, arguing that “the concept of ‘fame’ has evolved in ways that not only allow for the existence of criminal celebrities such as the serial killer but also make the serial killer the exemplary modern celebrity” (Schmid, 2005, p. 4).
Although the serial killer is a fluid, mythic figure that can be reframed and remediated to fit an ideological agenda (Jenkins, 1994), there are certain characteristics that are consistently associated with the serial murderer. Firstly, serial killers are almost always men, which is why this text uses ‘he’ to describe the figure. Feminist analyses have placed the masculinity of the serial killer at the forefront of their analyses (e.g. Cameron and Frazer 1987). Schmid (2005, pp. 66–101) maps these conventional features, which include the sexual nature of the crimes, the mobility of the killer through the American freeway system, and the large scale of the crimes. He traces these beliefs to a press conference held by the FBI and the Justice Department held on October 26, 1983, in Washington, D.C., that publicized the FBI’s research on serial crime. These definitions were cemented by the explosion of media coverage that followed. He argues that the FBI mobilized the threat of the serial killer in order to legitimize its expertise in a manner that resonates with its earlier strategies of dealing with organized crime.
The influential former FBI criminal profiler Robert Ressler is often cited as the originator of the term serial killer, which he claims was inspired by the system of delayed gratification inherent to film serials (1992, p. 33):
Now that I look back on that naming event, I think that what was also in my mind were the serial adventures we used to see on Saturday at the movies (the one I liked best was the Phantom). Each week, you’d be lured back to see another episode, because at the end of each one there was a cliff-hanger. In dramatic terms, this wasn’t a satisfactory ending, because it increased, not lessened the tension. The same dissatisfaction occurs in the minds of serial killers. The very act of killing leaves the murderer hanging, because it isn’t as perfect as his fantasy.
Yet again, the connection to the film industry reveals the mediated nature of the serial killer almost from the moment that he is identified as a threat.
It must be noted that even though Ressler and the FBI did not specifically define the serial killer until the 1980s, killers who committed crimes commiserate with that now-conventionalized modus operandi were in operation outside the United States and much earlier. Jack the Ripper is often described as the first serial killer, and his brutal crimes against women are in line with our postmodern expectations of serial killers. The motives of these murders, as Ressler indicates, are to feed an elaborate and often sexual fantasy—see Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas (1993) for a more detailed account of the FBI’s definition of serial murder and its motivational model. The agency’s motivational model has been thoroughly integrated into popular definitions of the serial killer, and it establishes the serial killer as a type of person—now infamous not only for what he has done, but for what he is.
While there are many related facets of the mediated serial killer to analyze, this article will conclude with one of the figure’s most significant defining characteristics—his anonymity and typicality. Seltzer (1998, p. 128) flags the ways in which serial killers are generally described as strangely ordinary, with a “tendency to blend into others or melt into the background.” In these descriptions, Seltzer sees the serial killer as an empty person filled up with communal fantasies of a violence-centered wound culture: “[H]is interior states are nothing but outer or social forces and fantasies turned outside in: the subject, as it were, flooded by the social and its collective fantasies” (1998, p. 128). This reading of the serial killer as enacting fantasies belonging to the public resonates with the formulation of the celebrity as extraordinarily ordinary or, as Dyer (2011, p. 43) summarizes, “stars represent what are taken to be people typical of this society.” If the star is an embodiment of the typical, then the serial killer is a dark double.
While the forensic framing of notoriety can provide a kind of pedagogical “alibi” for the more prurient pleasures available, then the mythos of the serial killer (and the related practice of murderabilia) as it is generally portrayed in Anglo-American media provides a kind of “escape hatch” (McKinney, cited in Schmid, 2005, p. 136) that deflects focus from the tragic consequences of violence. Schmid proposes that the vast majority of serial killer fictions provide such escape hatches for their audiences, although he also highlights exceptional texts that work to undermine the spectacle of serial murder and confront the audience with victimhood [e.g., the Belgian film Man Bites Dog (Velvaux, Bonzel, & Poelvoorde, 1992)].
This brief history of the serial killer reveals his entanglement with the film industry and celebrity culture, and the entrenched discourse that sees him as metonymic of postmodern culture. Given such roots of notoriety, it is important to analyze the serial killer in the light of the cultures that consume and produce him.
Review of the Literature and Primary Sources
Situating Crime in (Media) History
Many scholarly traditions and methodological frameworks are useful for approaching the converging subjects of crime and mediatized celebrity. It can be looked at historically, as Halttunen (1998) approaches her study of the Gothic narratives enmeshed with the ways in which murder has been covered in the press in the United States. Studies of the history of fame (and its discourse) can also be a useful way to map the evolution of the ways in which notoriety and infamy are framed and their relationship to discourses around celebrity and fame. Leo Braudy’s Frenzy of Renown (1997) provides a sweeping, detailed account of the evolution of fame—from Alexander the Great, through Jesus and Abraham Lincoln, to Spartacus. In his study of the development of forensic science and its incorporation in many fictional and multimedia forms, Thomas (1999) offers insights into the shifting role of the forensic scientist (often positioned as a kind of Celebrity Expert), both fictional (Sherlock Holmes) and actual (Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso).
There is a robust and growing field of scholarship around the subject of stardom and celebrity that will prove infinitely useful to those researching crime and celebrity, and much of this is gathered in the excellent Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader (Redmond & Holmes, 2007). It provides excerpts and articles from key scholars and theorists, including Roland Barthes, Francesco Alberoni, Richard Dyer, Christine Geraghty, and Jackie Stacey.
Richard Dyer’s work on film stardom is foundational to contemporary understandings of how fame and celebrity function within culture, and his writings remain crucial for an understanding of the methodological framework for studying the apparatus of celebrity. He opens up the parameters of studying stardom thus:
A film star’s image is not just his or her film, but the promotion of those films and of the star through pin-ups, public appearances, studio hand-outs and so on, as well as interviews, biographies and coverage in the press of the star’s doings and ‘private’ life. Further, a star’s image is also what people say or write about him or her, as critics or commentators, the way the image is used in other contexts such as advertisements, novels, pop songs, and finally the way the star can become part of the coinage of everyday speech.(Dyer, 2007, p. 85)
Building on and moving away from Dyer’s work, other scholars have further widened their parameters to consider the practices of fans and the diffusion of the star/celebrity image through the platforms of new media (see, e.g., Senft, 2008)—engaging with shifting terminology, such as microcelebrity and instafamous, to describe the ways in which the practices and processes of celebrity have changed.
Dyer’s focus on the film industry is germane, as the Fordist production line of classic Hollywood marks the focal point of many studies of stardom and fandom. Furthermore, while many scholars debate the terminology and meanings of celebrity, they generally agree that celebrity and stardom as they are understood today began with the American film production (and related publicity) industry in the 1910s and 1920s.
Putting Crime into Cultural Contexts
Chris Rojek is one of the few scholars working in the field of celebrity studies to include notoriety in his analysis, but several other scholars working in cultural studies have included the apparatus of celebrity in their considerations of crime and criminality. Historically, the field of cultural studies has provided useful theoretical frameworks for approaching celebrity, and celebrity studies owes a debt to them in the formation of their distinct, but interdisciplinary, methodological framework.
Jenkins (1994), Seltzer (1998), Simpson (2000), and Schmid (2005) provide studies of serial murder that are not limited to the attributes of the serial killer’s psychopathology, but situate him in a wider cultural context that possibly contributes to his violence and certainly does so to his celebrity/notoriety. Ruth Penfold-Mounce advocates an approach to notoriety drawn from cultural criminology, combined with Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality. This field of studies situates crime within culture; it “is about media images that abound in number and type conveying reality and fiction side by side and complicating interpretation, presentation and representation” (Penfold-Mounce, 2009, p. 3). Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward, and Jock Young (2011, p. 5) insist that cultural criminology moves beyond sociological and criminological understandings of crime and transgression to “incorporate perspectives from urban studies, media studies, existential philosophy, cultural and human geography, postmodern critical theory, anthropology, social movements theory.”
Crime Is Also a Genre
It is worth considering the discourse around crime in fiction, particularly as there is a notable feedback loop between fictional and factual representations of crime and criminals in the media (as demonstrated with the figure of the serial murderer and Celebrity Experts such as Sherlock Holmes). Of use here is scholarship around crime films [e.g., scholarship on film noir, see Alain Silver and James Ursini’s Film Noir Reader (1996) as a starting point]; crime literature (e.g., Martin Priestman’s Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, 2003) and crime television (e.g., Fishman & Cavender, 1998; Rapping, 2003).
In looking to film and television studies, this literature ends where it began: with the significance of the media industries in framing and researching stardom, celebrity, and notoriety [e.g., Dyer (1999) provides insights into the serial killer film Seven]. Crime is an extremely flexible type of media content, firmly entrenched and conventionalized in the public imagination through old and new media. Its success as a genre is a significant factor in the production and consumption of figures of notoriety.
Links to Digital Materials
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Stardom and Celebrity
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Crime and Culture
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