Harold Jaffe's nonfiction

Nazis, Sharks & Serial Killers

An Essay by Harold Jaffe

Is there a single hour, day or night, 24/7, when at least one American television channel is not devoted to one or more of those delectably menacing consumables?

During the latter stages of the Cold War, Susan Sontag wrote in a letter to The Nation that the reason US television is suffused with documentaries, docudramas and miscellaneous footage about Nazis, but with virtually nothing about our ostensible prime adversary, the Soviets, is simple: Nazis are sexier.

Sontag's letter raised hackles but it was indisputable. On the one (left) hand, we have multitudes of Soviet troops: faceless in their functionally drab uniforms marching metronomically, followed or preceded by multitudes of tanks, all-terrain fighting vehicles, artillery, rockets. State of the art war technology circa 1965. Elevated on the reviewing platform, the dour, bemedalled dignitaries take stock.

On the other (right) hand, we have Nazis, inseparable (in our image-bank) from Leni Riefensthahl's filmic tribute to the monumental Nuremberg "Congress," in 1934. The setting is a vast Valhalla-like coliseum appointed in Nazi grand style with stone sculptures of idealized Aryans, preying eagles, iron crosses and swastikas a big as the Ritz. The massive arena contains a million spectators, male and female, who will respond as one.

First silence. Then three hundred liveried Aryans blow annunciatory chords into long horns, each draped with the Nazi standard. Immediately the horns cease, a million right arms bolt upward in the Nazi salute with a collective ear-splitting Heil Hitler! Then a prodigious "symphonic" orchestra launches into a heraldic medley, very loud, in the vein of Richard Strauss or Wagner, shamelessly vulgarized.

And then, distilled from that same image bank, the demons themselves: the SS, in black "service dress" with glossy knee-length boots, black holstered Luger sidearm, peaked officer's cap and monocle; the Gestapo in black leather greatcoat with his dueling scar on his lean cruel face sitting stiff-backed in the outsized black-on-black sedan contemplating extreme torture; the common-Wehrmacht-soldier, blond and rigid in his molded steel helmet on his motorcycle, with an identical soldier in the sidecar; the Hitler youth, robotically tow-headed and long legged in short pants.

Re the Leadership: Can we even compare Götterdämmerung Hitler; high camp, Oliver Hardy lookalike, Luftwaffe Commander Göring; and the salacious, pint-sized Propaganda Minister Goebbels with uncle Joe Stalin and his interchangeable sour-breathed marshals?

In his shrill heldentenor voice, the crippled, debauched Goebbels, one hand thrust deep into his tunic, denounces "degenerate" art even as he and the rest of the coven present the most spectacular goose-stepping advertisements for sadomasochism that the degenerate imagination could conceive.

Which is why Pier Paolo Pasolini chose to situate Salo (1974), his intensely graphic version of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, not in Sade's 18th century France but in fascist Italy. Except that Pasolini stipulated that his degenerates resemble the Nazi SS rather than Mussolini fascismo.

Bikers, skinheads, rock groups, hyper-patriots, and miscellaneous riffraff have all downloaded the Nazi "lifestyle" to excellent effect; if "excellent" signifies "insolent." But aside from their first-rate vodka (before Chernobyl radiated their grain) few or no nostalgia buffs have consciously accessed the Soviets. It comes down to this: the American consumer is programmed to condemn drab Soviet communism plain and simple. But the American consumer is programmed to condemn the Nazi even as s/he consumes the Nazi; like fast food that is fatty, caloric, and richly spiced, but ubiquitous and -- once your palate is corrupted -- tastes so darn good. No self-respecting American consumer is going to want to chomp down on an assembly line, grim-faced Soviet. But oh, oh, oh, that lean, high-cheekboned SS officer, with or without the dueling scar and monocle, jack-booted, arrayed in glossy black.

American TV watchers condemn and consume their evil, sexy Nazi, so that they can feel virtuous while experiencing a cruel, vicarious shiver -- and all the time be fantasizing about shopping.

For somewhat complicated reasons that can only be adumbrated in this essay, the US has, it seems, the patent on serial killers, a large number of whom have expressed their admiration for the Nazi. Arguably, the most infamous and telegenic serial slash mass murderer of all, Charles Manson, etched a tattoo of a swastika between his eyes. Not only is Manson diminutive and hyper-sexual like Goebbels, without his beard Manson physically resembles the lubricious Propaganda Minister. Like Goebbels, Manson loves to declaim, orate, rap, whatever you want to call it, and the larger the audience the better. Manson has quoted Adolph Hitler and referred to "leveling the karma of the Jews." The ex-house painting Führer could not have known much about the concept of karma but would have commended Manson's sentiment.

Of course, Charles Manson was more than just a Nazi wannabe. He was an American poor boy born in Appalachia to an out-of-wedlock 16-year-old prostitute. He is 69 years old as of this writing and has spent 57 of those years in state and federal prisons, reform schools, "juvenile halls," Father Flanagan Boy's Town (he broke out of that joint after four days).

Manson's celebrated infamy is tied to two-and-a-half years, from 1967-1969, which culminated in the Sharon Tate murders, followed the next night by the LaBianca murders, neither of which he himself committed, but for which he has been held responsible. In those two-and-a-half years, as many as 500 young Americans (very few of them Jews, none Black), most of them girls in their teens or early twenties, passed through "The Family." Manson allegedly had sex with each and every one, including the boys. Oftentimes, the Wizard, as he was sometimes called, orgied with his youthful family, the participants stoked on acid or weed or MDMA, everyone sexing with everyone irrespective of gender, according to Manson's directives.

These, you remember, were the bountiful Sixties, and beautiful young people were simply doing what came natural. Not surprisingly, many of the Manson-orchestrated orgies, several of which allegedly included Hollywood stars, were filmed or videoed; but in spite of hot pursuit by any number of interested parties, not a single X-rated film or video has surfaced. It has been speculated that a -- or more than one -- potentially compromised orgiast paid top dollar to buy up some of the movies, but then where are the others?

Manson's inner circle was sexy and Lucifer-loving: Bobby Beausoleil, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, Squeaky Fromme, Leslie Van Houten, Tex Watson . . . But it is the miniature master himself that receives the highest marks. Sometimes he resembled a movie star playing the devil. Other times he looked like road kill (or Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels). Manson was -- and still is -- a man of a thousand faces, but the most familiar and marketable face, the one that Manson called "the most famous face in the world," was the shoulder-length black hair, full beard and hypnotically piercing black eyes featured on the cover of Life, Time, Newsweek and Rolling Stone.

America's official line -- repeated in every TV docudrama and infotainment -- is that Manson is kin to Satan, with the scrumptious addition of beautiful young girls and mind-bending drugs. It is forgotten that the murders came at the very end of those two-and-a-half incandescent years between '67-'69. Until then there was tree-hugging, bareback horseback riding, and tenderness all around, with plentiful dope and polymorphous loving. And isn't that what the American TV surfer is conditioned to covet: a roll call of soft-sexy teenage flower dollies presided over by Satan himself, every last one stoned out of their gourd. Sponsored by Exxon and America Online and Miller Lite and Washington Mutual and Wendy's and I-Mac and Pizza Shack and Verizon and Nike . . .

Charles Manson, who was never actually found guilty of himself murdering another human, may be our most identifiable serial/mass murderer, but there are scores of others nearly as celebrated, all fresh-frozen in TV docudrama land. Bundy, Gein, Gacy, Dahmer, Fish, Ng, Lucas, Toole, Wuornos, The Night Stalker, Son of Sam, Green River Killer, Zodiac Killer, Boston Strangler, Hillside Stranglers, Unabomber . . . The names fairly roll off the tongue.

Remote control in hand, we surf to the pertinent channel, whether it's called Discovery or Biography or Stupendous Crimes of the Century. We see the monster-perpetrator of course, we witness a gory scene or, more often, a hyperreal, contrived-for-TV gory scene. We see and hear numerous talking heads -- cops, reporters, more cops, victims' relatives, a human who lived in the same condo as the serial killer (I'd see him take out the trash. He never said much. He was sort of a loner).

Most dramatically, we see the serial killer's victims before and after. A smiling female teenager on screen-left; the same teenager decapitated and sexually mutilated on screen-right. A youthful street prostitute on screen-left; the same human in four unequally severed parts on screen-right (That iMac: Is it just another pretty face? Or does it deliver?). As we know, official American TV will refuse on moral principle to show a healthy naked body, but maim and murder that same body and it is, ipso facto, morally appropriate to present to a family audience. The pristine body has been rendered profane; whereas the profaned body (via war, rape, homicide, serial murder) has been turned into spectacle. What does that say about the culture we inhabit?

Ted Bundy preyed on college coeds (Can you smell the burgers?). He was known to use a fake leg cast to lure compassionate young women to his VW bug. Then he would force them inside, club them, bind them, gag them, bite them. The bite marks (Nike whoosh) on his victims' inner thighs and buttocks are what finally convicted him. Slickly handsome as he was in life, after having been finally electrocuted, Bundy made an exceedingly ugly corpse (In Wendy's you smell what you eat). You can order his post-fried portrait on the internet (Yum!).

The Night Stalker Richard Ramirez carried his implements with him: ice pick, scalpel, butcher's cleaver, razor wire. He would see a silhouette of a woman in the dim light of a bedroom window, stop his Impala, gather his tools, and go for it (One-third the calories but with a robust taste). Since being arrested, Ramirez has gotten more marriage proposals from females (and from some males) than any other imprisoned serial killer in the recorded annals of violent crime, including Charles Manson. Actually, the Night Stalker modeled his presentation on Manson, with a little Latin lover thrown in (Nike outsells Reeboks five to one). He is particularly well-known for grinning demonically and flashing pentagram palm tattoos to anonymous trial attendees.

Jeffrey Dahmer was no Latin lover. Far from it. Dahmer would target a black or an Asian, poor kids from the Milwaukee slums; lure the young male back to his apartment, drug his drink, sever his head, enact his necro-madness (Who do you bank with now? I bank with Washington Mutual). More than anything, Dahmer wanted to drill into a live victim's skull in order to make himself a "sex slave" (They treat me like I'm special).

Once a naked, bruised and bloody victim escaped: a Laotian teen with an unpronounceable name. The police refused to believe the delirious boy's story and permitted Dahmer to lead the boy back to Dahmer's apartment where he promptly strangled the boy, sodomized the corpse, fried the boy's bicep in Crisco and ate it with a dab of ketchup (Pizza the way you like it).

John Wayne Gacy never lived up to his name. He was more puke than Duke, that's for sure. A short fat man with a receding chin, he dressed up as a clown to lure adolescent boys to his house where he bound them, fellated them, sodomized them, sliced and diced them (with a choice of thirty-three toppings), sprinkled the corpses with quicklime, then lodged them in the crawl space beneath his porch (How happy am I with my new iMac? I find myself spending more time online than off). As the Jaycee's "Man of the Year," out of Chester, Illinois, Gacy somehow maneuvered himself into a photo-op with the then-President, Jimmy Carter, both of 'em wearing grins as wide as a cut throat. This was in 1977 (And you know something? That's how I prefer it).

Albert Fish was a grandfatherly man wreaking havoc in the 1920's and 30s. He kidnapped very young girls, molested then ate them. On at least one instance, he actually wrote (seven years afterwards) to the family of the girl he cannibalized: "I brought pot cheese and strawberries. We were having lunch -- your husband, yourself, young Ned, when Gracie came in from church. A beautiful girl-child, ten years old. When she sat in my lap and kissed me, I made up my mind to eat her" (It's not steak and it's not brisket. It's not London broil either).

When he was finally apprehended, this Q & A ensued: "Tell me, Mr. Albert Fish, what caused you to do this horrible thing to this innocent child?"

"You know, I never could account for it."

"And then, seven years after the disappearance of Gracie, you write to her bereaved family just when they have had a chance to heal. Why would you do that?"

"I am somewhat deliberate in my manner, as you see. With one thing and another I just did not get to the writing before that. I wrote the letter because I have always had a mania for writing."

Fish mutilated his own body with a revolting inventiveness: inserting rose stems into his urethra, eating his excrement, excising his nipples with a can opener (Try Wendy's mystery sandwich, you'll salivate).

Theodore Kaczynski professed to hate technology (this is not a Polish joke). He went to Harvard in the Sixties. He embarked on what promised to be a stellar academic career at Berkeley. But then he got a bug in his bonnet and it all went south. This next datum is not well-known: Ted Kaczynski, the potential Unabomber, wrote that his 1968 visit to a Beverly Hills psychiatrist to obtain official permission to become a female was a major turning point in his life (Verizon Wireless: That's all you have to know!).

After the psychiatrist flatly rejected his plea for sex-change surgery, Kaczynski glared at her, first uncomprehendingly, then menacingly, finally bolting out of her office, pent up, consumed with "a visionary new hatred," according to youthful K's psychiatrist, Dr. Luanne Ortiz-Koontz, in her just-released, unauthorized biography: I, Me, Mine: The Life and Times of Ted Kaczynski, Unabomber.

"Like a phoenix, I burst from the ashes of my despair," Kaczynksi was to write after partially recovering from the rejection of his request for sex-altering surgery (Deep-dish pizza so deep, you'll need a fork).

"My very hopelessness liberated me because I no longer cared about death. Now I really could break out of my rut and do things that were daring, irresponsible, criminal, demented. If fools construe my wanton violence as having an ideological basis, so much the better. Obviously they will label me mad, because 'mental health' is defined by the extent to which a human behaves in accord with the needs of the system without showing signs of stress. And stress has always been my calling card."

So it was not a high-minded response to the so-called "servitude to technology" that precipitated the Unabomber's serial assault on American scientists, but his own emotional turbulence which bordered on full-blown psychosis. ("Mom, can I have jalapeno and human brain stem on my pizza?").

Now for something from the distaff side (Nike whoosh for women). Aileen Wuornos preyed on males, potential johns who tried to hit on her. She was a prostitute working the highways and bi-ways around the Florida panhandle. She estimates that she serviced as many as 250,000 johns since she was 14-years-old. An extraordinary number by any reckoning. She was age 36 when arrested.

Her claim is that the seven males she admits to killing all wanted to have rough sex, forcibly sodomize her; in effect, rape her. She insists that she shot them dead in self-defense. She used three different handguns: a Smith and Wesson .38, a Ruger .357, and Colt .45. She was a butch lesbian with big hands so that a large and heavy sidearm did not present a problem (Forget about Coke. Forget about Pepsi. Forget about Dr. Pepper).

Aileen Wuornos was found guilty and sentenced to die. When she was being led from the courtroom she lost it completely and cursed out the jury so loudly, so graphically, that I'll refrain from repeating it (Now there is an all-natural fruit drink called Lilith, and it doesn't contain caffeine).

Regarding Sharks, I would offer the following: They are infinitely preferable to the hunter who hunts them, the TV producer who displays them, and the sponsor who capitalizes on them.

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