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History at a Premium: The Sale of Blood and Memories

By Erica Dymond

[1] Ridley Scott's Hannibal grossed $58 million on its opening weekend (Seymour 1). With overpriced popcorn and watered-down simulation-soda, I was there. While animated Raisinettes and Goobers played seriously bad jazz, I was anticipating the blood-soaked slayings of film's most popular serial-killer. Yep, it's sick, but that's our society. We salivate over the newest slasher-film. The gorier, the better. However, what if the on-screen disembowelments were the recreated crimes of a true-life killer? What if it was the story of Jeffery Dahmer? Would we still flood the theaters? While we watched the endless-stream of "Coming Attractions," would we still be anticipating a really good splatter-film?

[2] Let's face it, we have certain grotesque fixations in our society. We brought snack trays into the living room so we could simultaneously eat dinner and watch the O.J. trial. We purchase serial-killer cards instead of baseball cards. We even requested that Timothy McVeigh's execution be televised. Our society has an innate fascination with the real-life macabre . . . that especially applies to anything involving serial-killers.

Say it isn't so!

[3] A haven to both Pokemon-wrangling kiddies and antique-hunting soccer-moms, Ebay once had a dark side. Serial-killer memorabilia used to generate big-bucks for this online auction-house. A former Ebay client, Ted Svejda "peddled wood from the remains of the Wisconsin farmhouse of deceased serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho'" (Stepanek EB84). His morbid Ebay auctions actually doubled his yearly income! Furthermore, serial killer Angel Resendez-Ramirez (a.k.a. "The Railroad Killer") has had "locks of his hair sold on Ebay for $9.99 pop" and "he gets a cut from dealers each time a little piece of him is sold" (Stepanek EB84). Yep, there's a demanding market for this sick, sick stuff. However, an equally demanding group squelched this madness: the families of the serial killers' victims.

[4] Eighteen years ago, infamous killer Coral Eugene Watts murdered Elena Semander and disposed of her body in a refuse receptacle. Since that dreadful evening Harriet Semender (Elena's mother) has been fighting to cope with the tragic loss of her daughter. In an interview conducted by Marcia Stepanek, Harriet revealed that she used to have occasional nightmares about her daughter's brutal murder, "but her nightmares started coming every night last Spring when she saw that Watts' locks of hair and autographs were being sold on Ebay. 'I became physically sick when I saw this,' Semander says. 'And what made me even sicker is that Ebay is profiting from this type of thing being sold. It's wrong, just morally wrong'" (EB84). Harriet Semander was not alone in her painful outrage . . . and Ebay responded accordingly.

[5] On May 17, 2001, Ebay instituted a ban on "any items that are likely to incite violence or perpetuate hate crimes"; specifically, Ebay has prohibited the listing of any items that are "closely associated with notorious criminals" ("Hate Crimes Banned on Ebay"). Even the comparably innocuous serial-killer trading cards are verboten. (I checked the validity of Ebay's statement this evening and found the site absolutely devoid of any serial-killer related merchandise. With all of Ebay's loopholes, this is one instance where there's apparently no lee-way). Opting to travel the proverbial "high-road," Ebay graciously spared countless families any additional anguish. So, the question begs to be asked . . . why was Summer of Sam ever created?

"Walt Disney Must be Turning Over in His Grave"

[6] When Touchstone Pictures (a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company) confirmed the Summer of Sam project, public outrage blazed across headlines worldwide. Nonetheless, the film was still released in the first week of July 1999. Michael Lauria, whose eighteen-year-old daughter was Berkowitz's first murder victim, spoke with Blaine Harden of the New York Times: "Spike Lee feels that murder is entertainment, which, No. 1, it is not." Harden's article continues, "'Spike Lee is making the families relive this all over again,' said Mr. Lauria, who protested last summer when the movie was filmed in the Bronx. 'He is making money off my sorrow and my family's hurt. He has got no compassion. They should have come to the families and asked for permission. Let me tell you something, Walt Disney must be turning over in his grave'" (1). Lauria's sentiment is shared by the families of Berkowitz's other victims who accuse Lee of "callously cashing in on their misery" (Harden 1). So, what separates Touchstone's Spike Lee from Ebay's Ted Svejda? Why has Lee been permitted to capitalize on the torment of countless people, while Svejda has been forbidden to do the same?

[7] Prior to Ebay's newly implemented embargo, Ted Svedja was interviewed with regard to his serial-killer merchandise. Inquiring if Svejda considers the families of victims when he lists his gruesome auctions, a Business Week correspondent received the following response, "Sure, it probably hurts victims' families to see this stuff, but I'm not going to let it stop me from making a buck" (Stepanek EB84). Now consider Lee's response when asked about the anguish Summer of Sam spawned, "I feel deeply for the parents of the victims of Son of Sam. At the same time, I'm an artist, and this is the story I wanted to tell" (Graham E1). Although a tad more eloquent, Lee's statement bares the exact same tone as Svejda: it's a kind of playground "Naa-na-na-naa-na-na" (roughly translated to: "Too bad, but I do what I want"). Only one word distinguishes the two men, but it seems to be the word that gave Lee the Hollywood nod: "artist."

Can You Really Be Called an "Artist" if You Aren't Dead?

[8] The repercussions of Lee's "artist" statement were wide-spread. Sarcastically dubbing his article "Spike Lee, 'Artist,'" James Bowman exclaimed with disgust, "Lee put forward his membership in the tribe of 'artists' as if that alone were sufficient to still criticism" (46). To many, the word "artist" acts as a protective umbrella under which people elect to hide when they don't care to explain their actions. And that provokes resentment. Perhaps in response to his pretentious faux pas, Lee displayed a bit more compassion in a later (much less publicized) online interview. When asked "Were you sensitive to the potential objections of Berkowitz's victims' families to you making a film about him," Lee responded, "We made a choice that we weren't going to shoot at the exact locations of the murders out of respect for the families of the victims. And, yeah, we knew we were going to get some static from the families. But I really have no argument. I understand it, you know. Their daughters are dead, murdered by Berkowitz. There's nothing that will ever make them feel differently about this film" (Baxter 2-3). Sure, it's not exactly sensitive, but it's a great leap from the megalomaniacal "artist" statement.

Let's Play a Game of "Imagine"

[9] Let's consider the content of Summer of Sam. Basically, we're seeing a film that has snippets of ultra-violence wrapped around huge chunks of the old "sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll" routine. Could this be a factor in the film's dramatic backlash? Imagine that a member of your family was murdered by a serial-killer. Imagine Lee decides to create a movie about this open-wound in your life. Now, imagine that surrounding the grisly portrayal of your loved-one's death are images of every sex-act known to man, every drug being taken every which way, and so many f-words that your ears bleed. Not exactly respectful, huh? Did I mention that Lee didn't even ask your permission to include the brutal death of your loved-one? Did I mention that you weren't offered any means of compensation? Sounds like a colossal slap in the face. Sounds like a potential lawsuit. Sounds like you're back in therapy for another five years.

Three Cheers for Documentaries

[10] Here's the real question. Would Summer of Sam have received such scathing criticism if it had been a straightforward documentary? Probably not. Would there have been an audience for it? You bet. Professor Fox of Northeastern University's Criminal Justice department explains, "People simply are fascinated by bizarre killings, serial murders, and multiple shootings, the same way they are entertained by a horror film. They are so unusual that they might as well be fiction. In most people's minds there really is no difference between a serial killer like Jeffery Dahmer and [the fictional movie cannibal] Hannibal Lecter" (Villa A1).

[11] Lee has experienced success with documentary-style films. A cinematic tour-de-force, Lee's Malcolm X received critical acclaim. Malcolm X aside, Lee's lesser-known 4 Little Girls (a documentary recounting the bombing of Birmingham Alabama's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church) has been repeatedly been recognized as a "poignant tribute to African-American dignity" (Baxter 4). With his tremendous success as a documentary filmmaker, why would Lee elect to base a predominately fictitious, comparatively "vulgar" film around Berkowitz?

[12] An interview with the Boston Globe grants some explanation. Lee informs Renee Graham, "If the script Michael and Victor (the original screenwriters) brought to me had been just about David Berkowitz, just the Son of Sam, just the .44-caliber killer, I would have rejected it right away. They [Michael and Victor] had the vision to see that would have been a terrible movie. That movie has been done a million times before, about a psychopath or serial murder. That's not the movie we wanted to make, and that's not the movie we made" (E1). In essence, Lee didn't want to become a cliché. Well, clichés are the antithesis of art, so I guess we should understand. Nonetheless, some people don't understand. Some people call it "Murdertainment."


[13] For nearly ten years, The National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children Inc. has vehemently battled "Murdertainment." Although several of their letter-writing campaigns, protests, and boycotts have succeeded, "murder continues to be a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry" (Villa A1). A spokesperson for the group, Dan Levey (whose brother was brutally murdered four years ago) explains, "We find it insensitive. Just like you wouldn't glamorize rape or incest or child abuse, we shouldn't glamorize this. It desensitizes society to the horrific real-life tragedies we went through" (Villa A1). And if you think about it, he's right. Still . . .

[14] I just know that when the next big horror movie comes around, I'm going to be front-row with my overpriced popcorn and my watered-down simulation-soda. Like I said (and said and said), it's sick . . . but that's our society. We fortunate outsiders will (God-willing) never know what its like to be the grieving parent of a murdered child . . . we will never comprehend the depth of their pain. Hence, it's all about spending a rainy-day watching a really cathartic film.

Don't ask me

[15] Is Spike Lee wrong for making Summer of Sam? I don't know (but I do know it's a film with phenomenal, artistic merit . . . and I was enthralled by it). Is Ted Svejda wrong for selling scraps of serial-killer "wood" on Ebay? I don't know (but I do know it gives me the heebie-jeebies . . . and I know that any friend of mine who bought the creepy stuff wouldn't be my friend for long). What's the difference between them? I have no idea . . . and I don't think I really want dwell on it because, maybe, just maybe, there is no difference.

Baxter, Billy. "The Spike Lee Interview."

Bowman, James. "Spike Lee, 'Artist.'" National Review 26 July 1999: 46-48.

Graham, Renee. "'Summer of Sam,' Spike, and 1977." Boston Globe 1 July 1999: E1.

Harden, Blaine. "'Son of Sam' Weeps, as Others Rage, at Movie." New York Times 20 June 1999: 1.1.

"Hate Crime Items Banned on Ebay." Toronto Star 17 May 2001: 1.

Seymour, Gene. "'Hannibal' Doesn't Haunt Me." Newsday 18 Feburary 2001: D4.

Stepanek, Marcia. "Making a Killing Online." Business Week 20 November 2000: EB84.

Villa, Judi. "A Fascination with Slayings; Group Battles Growing 'Murdertainment.'" Arizona Republic 11 August 2000: A1.