December 19, 2012

Shootings and Baby Boomer mythos

A commenter points out that when he was a kid in New Jersey, everybody knew about a guy named Howard Unruh who had killed 13 people in 1949 in Camden, the same number as Charles Whitman famously killed in 1966. As far as I can recall, though, I'd never heard of this shooter.

I think one reason is that "the news" was more localized in the past. You can see various technological changes coming along to nationalize news, such as the telegraph: a large fraction of people in the North heard about the Union's victories on July 3, 1863 at both Gettysburg and Vicksburg on July 4th. Previously, people had used signal fires (as in Aeschylus's account of how news of the victory in the Trojan War was sent back to Greece quickly) or carrier pigeons (Rothschilds and the Battle of Waterloo), but the telegraph made a big change in getting everybody on the same page. 

By the 1920s, newspapers had figured out that you didn't need to wait around for the Battle of Gettysburg to happen to sell papers. Somewhere in the country there was always something sensational going on at any time. For example, Floyd Collins getting stuck in a cave in Kentucky in 1925 became a huge deal in the press, with radio chipping in to the frenzy.

TV was a big deal of course, but I suspect that the use of videotape in the 1960s really amplified the power of TV news to create "iconic moments" by repeating highlights. (As a commenter notes, color TV was a huge addition to during the 1960s in terms of the power of imagery.)

The emergence of 24-hour national cable news, with CNN becoming hugely popular during the 1991 Gulf War, may have had something to do with the wave of high school shootings of the later 1990s that fizzled out in tedium in 2001. Events like Columbine were perfect for filling up many hours per day. Then, 9/11 and the anthrax poisonings came along and that gave us lots of new stuff to obsess about. Perhaps potential high school shooters intuited that not as many viewers would pay attention to them in the wake of 9/11, so why bother?

Another factor in what events make up the national mythology is the numeric power of Baby Boomers (and, of those lucky pre-Baby Boomers who targeted the vast cohort younger than them for manipulation) to make their youthful memories the national currency.

A transitional figure between the localized, forgotten Howard Unruh killers and the Charles Whitman era was Charles Starkweather, who went on a killing spree in 1958 with his 14 year old girlfriend. Starkweather was some small town loser, the dumbest worker at the warehouse next to the junior high school where his girlfriend was a student. But, he tried to comb his hair like James Dean, and thus he posthumously appealed to filmmakers as a murky but potent generational symbol of rock 'n' roll or something. "I know my life would look all right / If I could see it on the silver screen" -- The Eagles, "James Dean."

From Wikipedia:
The Starkweather–Fugate case inspired the films The Sadist (1963), Badlands(1973), Kalifornia (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Starkweather (2004). 

Badlands, with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, launched director Terrance Malick's career. In the late 1970s, critic John Simon called it the best movie he'd ever seen. Natural Born Killers was made by Oliver Stone near his technical peak.

A friend of suspense novelist John Grisham was murdered randomly by a thrill kill couple who had been taking drugs and watching Oliver Stone's Starweather-Fugate inspired Natural Born Killers (original story by Quentin Tarantino). Grisham collected a fair amount of evidence of some other couples seemingly inspired to murder people at random by repeatedly watching Natural Born Killers while on drugs, and mounted a lawsuit against Stone. The director eventually won the lawsuit.


Anonymous said...

I'll say it again, Natural Born Killers, Waitress and Coming to America are the worst movies ever made.

Good stuff about that poor bastard Floyd Collins- rough way to go.

Dan in DC

anony-mouse said...

Agatha Christie is the all-time best-selling female novelist-well before CNN.

Hamlet's pretty well regarded, too. Spoiler alert-most of its main characters wind up killed.

Anonymous said...

"In the late 1970s, critic John Simon called it the best movie he'd ever seen."

He did not.

Simon's list of what he considers the best films he'd ever seen:

Good stuff, but I disagree with Simon that the cinematography of SEVEN SAMURAI is 'only occasionally outstanding'. Though the image quality looks a bit crude and primitive, in terms of framing, camera movement, use of telephoto lenses, and etc. it is one of the most outstandingly photographed films ever.
But then, as Sarris said of Simon...'greatest film critic of the 19th century'.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

NBK is not Stone at his technical peak. It is one of the worst-made films I ever did see.
It's visually busy with all sorts of gizmo gimcrackery, but it's like watching a bad MTV video for 2 hrs.

Heaven and Earth and Nixon--and parts of Born on 4th of July--are his two best-made films.
Stone is naturally so spas that he needs to control himself. When he goes spas with a spasy material, it's just too much.

Anonymous said...

Reuters, not Rothschilds, I think you mean. He started his agency well after Waterloo, but he did use carrier pigeons.

Anonymous said...

Even if it were to happen today Unruh's killing spree might not get nearly the attention as do other crimes of equivalent volume. He shot his victims throughout a neighborhood rather than in a gathering place like a theater or mall or especially a school. For reasons that are hard to explain the thought of being victimized in a gathering place is especially acute, and of course a school is a special case.


Anonymous said...

As I'm sure a bunch of your commenters will also point out, "Unruhe" means disturbance in German. Nomen ist Omen.

global village said...

Actually the defining event in CNN's early history was that kid falling in the well in 1987. It was considered remarkable that Reagan chimed in with his opinion on it

Steve Sailer said...

Right, the kid falling in the well on CNN in 1987 was a lot like the guy getting stuck in a cave in 1925. The press has a lot of institutional memory that people getting stuck underground appeals to the public.

Local TV news in Los Angeles was really jumpstarted around 1949 by somebody falling in a well, too. I don't think the technology existed, yet, to easily take the story nationwide or to videotape and airship tapes around the country. So, it stayed a local story, but was huge in Southern California at the time.

Anonymous said...

"Nomen ist Omen."

Lanza does look like Devil's child.

Anonymous said...

As I'm sure a bunch of your commenters will also point out, "Unruhe" means disturbance in German. Nomen ist Omen.

"Nomen" and "omen" are Latin. "Ist" is German. So "Nomen ist Omen" is incorrect. It should be "Nomen est Omen." In German it would be "Namen ist Omen."

Maguro said...

I did not know that John Grisham sued Oliver Stone for...dramatizing murder. Makes me like him even less that I did before.

Anonymous said...

A chilling list of young thrill killers. The timeline is longer than I expected. You could make a black comedy about Graham Young.

Venables has shown himself to be beyond redemption.

Rob said...

The people of Camden NJ haven't learned much.

Jason Sylvester said...

What stands out most reading the Wikipedia article on Stakweather, to me anyway, was the time between his capture and execution: seventeen months. Today you'd be lucky to bring such a specimen to trial within seventeen months of his capture, let alone execution of sentence - if he was even sentenced to death to begin with. Too many 2012 American juries increasingly opt to impose "life-without-parole"
over a death sentence on the Charles Starkweather's of the world on the dubious (and in fact, untrue) grounds that "life in prison is worse than death."

That was 1958; by contrast the serial/spree killer Roger Dale Stafford - who apparently fancied himself a Disco James Dean; he predicted he'd never be put to death because "I'm too good looking" - was captured in March of 1979 and not put to death until July of '95.

After committing what might be called an entry-level murder in Alabama, Stafford brought his show to my neck of the woods where he first murdered an Air Force vet and his family on the side of I-35 just south of Oklahoma City (his wife used a "damsel in distress" ploy to lure them to stop), and then went on to herd a night-manager, a janitor, and four teenagers into an OKC restaurant's meat freezer, where he and his brother methodically shot them all to death.

Eluding a five-state manhunt and making it to Chicago, Stafford might have stayed on the lam even longer had he not gotten drunk one night and rang up the cops in Oklahoma trying to fob the murders entirely off on his recently-deceased brother and very much alive wife - who he was apparently in some kind of tiff with at that moment. Like Starkweather in more ways than one, he apparently had serious fits of the dumb that plagued him his entire life.

But he got to live a lot longer than Starkweather: nearly sixteen years after being caught, as opposed to seventeen months, for essentially the same kind of homicidal spree.

Anonymous said...

Unruh was one of a long line of spree killers before "modern times". They were using that to advocate gun control as early as the late fifties.

Some things never change.

Tom Regan said...

Like most people I enjoyed Pulp Fiction and, unlike most, the under-rated Jackie Brown. However I can also see that Tarantino's movies have a disturbing celebration of mean-spirited and sadistic violence, inviting audience amusement and thrills.
Think of the torture scene and glib dialogue about torture in Reservoir Dogs, the attempts to stimulate audience laughter with killings in PF, the almost operatic staging of shootouts in True Romance and Inglorious Basterds, the romanticization of pathological killers in NBK, the Jewish revenge fantasty of sadistic murder in IB, and now the justification and celebration of racially-inspired violence in Django.
The likes of Tarantino do far, far more to contribute to spree killings than do gun makers and distributors.

sunbeam said...

Like many here I think movies and tv are to blame for this.

Come one, one hit tv show and you have a bunch of kids named "Krystal."

Businesses pay good money to advertise on tv shows. One effect is to sell things.

But somehow there aren't any other effects. Right.

I've seen several stories over the years referring to changing "pubic hair styles" for women. And some weird ass thing called "anal bleaching." Both common to, and done in hope of emulating porn stars.

I have no idea whether women came up with this trend on their own, or it enhanced their popularity with guys.

I think it is ridiculous myself. I also think it is ridiculous to expect that you have all these movies and tv shows about this stuff, and somehow expect that a population that buys lottery tickets won't assume that's some epic activity.

Steve Sailer said...

"under-rated Jackie Brown"

I finally got around to seeing Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" and liked it a lot.

Thomas O. Meehan said...

The other side of the babyboomer mythos is encapsulated in the film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. After it, the myth of the insane as poetic loners with hidden qualities domenated all discussion of mental illness. The hostility toward Psychiatry and institutionalization of the insane is part of the the Sandy Hook story. In the 50's young master Lanza would have been treated.

Kylie said...

"I finally got around to seeing Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" and liked it a lot."

The two leads are very appealing.

Anonymous said...

Peter Turchin, the "cliodynamics" guy, claims that massacres did increase dramatically starting in the early 60s, though his basis for this claim is a search of The New York Times from 1946 for reports of such massacres. So it doesn't go before 1946, and there is the news thing you mention about how the news at some point might have started increasing coverage of massacres:

Derek Brown said...

I suppose it's no coincidence that Tarantino's worst regarded film is also his least sadistic and violent. I always appreciated that Tarantino seemed to be attempting to get out of the schlock game with JB, but one can't blame him for reading the response and deciding that sadism was what the critics and movie goers wanted.

Also Micheal Keaton's agent should have gotten him to take more law enforcement roles the only times I can stand him are as the ATF guy in JB and as the Captain gene in the other guys.

Dahinda said...

This is why I read iSteve! No where else, that I can find, is there analysis like this article.

Anonymous said...

I thought the takeaway from cuckoo's nest was that society has ways of classifying people as insane when it is useful to do so. It seems like there are times when the psychiatric industry is opposed by the left or the right for slightly different reasons. I didn't really see a left/right angle in that book however.

Black Death said...

One of the most interesting mass murders was Carl Panzram (1891-1930). He killed at least 22 people in the US, plus more in Africa, Europe and South America. He also sodomized over 1000 men. He got away with so much because he led an unassuming life and murdered more or less at random. He was also a thief and an arsonist.

While serving time for larceny in Washington DC. Panzram wrote an autobiography admitting to his lifelong crime spree. He also confessed to crimes committed in other countries, such as the time, while hunting crocodiles in Africa, he murdered the six porters and fed them to the crocs.
Panzram expressed no regrets for any of his vile deeds. Surprisingly, he was sentenced to only 25 years in Leavenworth, where he murdered a guard and was then scheduled to be hanged. He said he welcomed the death sentence. When various anti-death penalty groups offered to help him appeal his sentence, he refused their assistance and threatened to kill them if he were ever released. He was hanged in 1930.

Two movies have been made about Panzram - "Killer: A Journal of Murder " (1996) and " Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance.

rob said...

sunbeam said...
And some weird ass thing called "anal bleaching."

Hahaha. I see what you did there.

Anonymous said...

I hated, hated, hated, hated, hated Pulp Fiction and NBK. My high-school friends really liked that cinematic crap, so I watched it too.

It was nice to grow up and out of that crowd.

Richard Channing said...

Steve - I thought Jackie Brown was his best movie. Robert DeNiro stole the show and Spike Lee hated it. What's not to like?

His other movies are rambling messes. Tarantino's infatuation with himself and his supposed wittiness is too grating. Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds were just awful. Kill Bill was one of the worst movies ever made.

The only upside of Tarantino movies is that sometimes Michael Madsen gets to work. Other than that they are useless.

Svigor said...

Unruh was one of a long line of spree killers before "modern times". They were using that to advocate gun control as early as the late fifties.

Some things never change.

Like libtards saying "how DARE you politicize this tragedy," then turning around and politicizing every mass shooting, ever.

Anonymous said...

The killers at Columbine high school referred to their shooting spree in plans as NBK for Natural Born Killers.

Derek Brown said...

Kylie that's a good point. Jackie Brown is the only Tarantino movie were the two leads are the two best performances in the movie.

Derek Brown said...

Sorry to post back to back and maybe you'll want to save it for your Taki review, but how do you think your take on IB, as a southern revenge fantasy, holds up in light of Django.

Inspiring a movie length response from Tarantino would have to be the biggest isteve mainstream penetration yet.

Anonymous said...

"Steve - I thought Jackie Brown was his best movie. Robert DeNiro stole the show and Spike Lee hated it. What's not to like?"

Crackie Brown is just more of PF.
I hated it. After PF, I had no interest in seeing another Tarantino trash, but it was showing on cable at my friend's house, and it made me wanna puke.

Typical scene. Deniro is walking in the parking lot and Briget Fonda plays a joke on him, so BANG, he just shoots her. Just like that, like throwing away a candy wrapper.
And then later Deniro tells Jackson what happened, and it's all done for laughs of the 'sheeeeeet, why do you dun sucha thing, cracka' bulljive. And then Jackson kills Deniro. It's like everyone is trash and killing one another is just taking out the trash. Yeah, well, maybe lots of people are trash, but killing is always serious business, but Tarantino thinks himself too hip and cool to show any human emotions, and we are goaded to feel likewise.

I mean WTF is this? Zombies might as well be making and watching movies like this.

polite company canon said...

Jackie Brown is a very, very slow movie... Not as slow as any number of arthouse/foreign flicks clogging the Sundance channel, but nearly Jim Jarmusch slow. If you like 2-minute shots of Pam Grier's face set to retro Philly soul hits, I suppose you will enjoy it. I can't believe the novel it's based on is as tedious and self-indulgent as Tarantino's adaptation, but Elmore Leonard is even more overrated than Tarantino so maybe the book drags, too.

Like a lot of circa-90s "hip" quasi-indie movies, it does have the occasional nice little scene here and there, such as the meeting between the bail bondsman and Samuel L. Jackson's thug character.

BTW it figures Leonard would be a product of mid-century Detroit--he's like an MOR bourgeois version of James Ellroy. I remember when Janet Evanovich started selling big, it was as if they'd grafted Leonard's formula onto Danielle Steel's formula.

Mr. Anon said...

"Black Death said...

One of the most interesting mass murders was Carl Panzram (1891-1930)."

He also burgled house of William Howard Taft, who at the time was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and of course had once been President.

Kylie said...

"One of the most interesting mass murders was Carl Panzram (1891-1930)."

Yes, I was trying to remember his name the other night but the closest I got was "Jesse Pomeroy".

Truth said...

" However I can also see that Tarantino's movies have a disturbing celebration of mean-spirited and sadistic violence, inviting audience amusement and thrills."

There are a lot of things I don't understand about the about the "white (un)realist" community; one is your almost being stuck in neutral as you all repeat the same stupid shit over and over and over again:

Tarantino...Stone...Tarantino...Stone...violence, violence, VIOLENCE!!!

Have you clowns never seen one of the "right-wing" violent movies like "Rambo" or "The Terminator?" They did make these movies, right? I can't be imagining them.

Derek Brown said...

Honest question Truth, what was right wing about the Terminator movies or Rambo I? The conservative case is not against violence per se but against nihilistic violence presented as cool. I mean sure Red Dawn is violent, but few high school quarterbacks are going to shoot their mayor for collaborating with the Soviets.

Anonymous said...

Starkweather was some small town loser, the dumbest

This is a fair description of the Green River Killer (Gary Ridgewa) as well, who eluded capture for decades.

ErisGuy said...

nihilistic violence presented as cool

Half true. The nihilistic violence in "Rambo" (2008) is sickening (e.g., the torture, murder, and depravity at the warlord's camp), but it is certainly not depicted as cool.