Ghouls rush in
Obsession with serial killers captured in Collectors
Rick Staton has a point when he says that we live in a morbid, violence-addicted culture. From the racks of true crime thrillers lining bookstore shelves to the legion of television programs — "America's Most Wanted," "C.S.I.," "Homicide" — devoted to crime and criminals, Americans display an often unwholesome interest in the murderers in our midst.
But Staton, one of the Collectors profiled in Julian P. Hobbs' documentary, takes murder fetishism to an extreme. A Baton Rouge mortician who admits to boredom with the routine death he sees on the job, Staton's real passion is serial killer culture — specifically the art works produced by some of America's most infamous death row inmates past and present, including child murderer John Wayne Gacy, Richard "the Night Stalker" Ramirez, Gainesville coed killer Danny Rolling and Elmer Wayne Henley.
"When I heard about those crimes it was the most ghastly thing I'd ever heard of," Staton says of Henley's rape and torture of 27 boys in the 1970s. "And I couldn't wait to get to know this guy."
The Mutt and Jeff of their own thrill-kill cult, Staton and his drawling, surfer dude sidekick, Tobias Allen, represent these serial killers in gallery shows of their artwork, while also amassing personal collections of serial killer ephemera. On various road trips across the U.S.A., the duo take photos and a chunk of brick from the house where Charles Manson's gang slayed Sharon Tate ("the thrill of my life," Staton gushes, glassy-eyed, of the visit), soil samples from the location where Henley buried his victims and other souvenirs filched from crime scenes.
Oblivious to how their macabre hobby looks from the outside, Allen seems dumbfounded by the violent public response to the art shows (with titles like Born to Kill Art Show, and Death Row Art Show) or a serial killer board game he created, of which he shrugs, "I caught a lot of shit for that."
That cluelessness is probably the most galling feature of Hobbs' sickening and revealing documentary. Collectors presents Staton and Allen as unapologetic ghouls with a fairly commonplace modus operandi, whose sense of blasé distances them from the consequences of their actions. The sense of absurdity and tongue-in-cheek irony that defines Staton and Allen's collecting assures them that "square" society just doesn't "get" their brand of fun while also distancing them from the true implications of their gruesome avocation.
One of the "experts" consulted for Collectors is true crime author Harold Schechter (Deviant, The A to Z Guide of Serial Killers), whose own ability to interpret and judge the motivations of such collectors seems compromised by his own investment in serial killer culture. Schechter nevertheless offers the most plausible explanation for Staton and Allen's collecting: that their artworks and photographs and letters to serial killers function as talismans to ward off harm and protect them from the killers whose lives and crimes they celebrate. How else to explain Staton's decision to have John Wayne Gacy, a pedophile killer, paint a portrait of Staton's small son from a photograph he gave the inmate?
Or as New York underground artist Joe Coleman — whose own artwork has often depicted the baroque crimes of Ed Gein and Albert Fish — notes, collecting "protects you from the murderer."
Hobbs' documentary raises larger issues of how ironic distance in general allows people to divorce themselves from all manner of troubling feelings, releasing them from emotional engagement, pain and compassion.
Probably the most telling scene in this chilling portrait of these two armchair bad asses is a scene where an outraged man buys one of Elmer Wayne Henley's drawings of a naked boy from a Houston gallery show organized by Allen and Staton and sets it on fire in the middle of the road. Allen seems mystified by the man's rage and what he calls a "sucker's" waste of money. Rushing into the street, Allen scrapes the charred remains of the drawing into a white envelope as a souvenir.
A scavenger collecting the symbolic leavings of his glorified killer's crime scenes, Allen values the work of these killers above all others. And when confronted with a genuine display of disgust and anger, Allen is so distanced from the savagery of men like Henley he can only see their lives in terms of novelty value and profit.