I recently attended a workshop of a play about Ted Bundy. It was as fascinating as you'd expect. One of the characters is Ann Rule, the woman who worked alongside him and, even while writing a book about the murders, had no idea Bundy was the man she was looking for. After he was convicted, she made it her life's goal to ensure women knew that even handsome, likable men like Ted had the potential to be horrific murderers.
Ann's story arch invoked the question, how do we tell the stories of these women, make sure the world knows what kind of man Bundy is, without glorifying him?
In the current culture of school shootings, many believe the answer lies in "not glorifying" the shooter. Don't name the shooter, don't post his picture everywhere, don't glorify what he's done, just in case someone else wants their name scattered across the media.
But how do we discuss these atrocities without glorifying them?
Studio Alethea Productions and Shadow Horse Theatre in Minneapolis, MN will be producing American Nightmare: The Trials of Jeffrey Dahmer this September. American Nightmare team Nathan Schilz (book and music) and Paul von Stoetzel (direction) are keenly aware of the glamorization of serial killers and monsters. While they feel led to write these stories, Paul, who studied Criminal Psychology, says "the idea has always been a focus on how we can explore this heart of darkness with sincerity and critical analysis while also not glorifying his acts. It's a very difficult line to walk...but the human loss is so often lost in the translation of the interest with celebrity level psychopaths".
It's true. Ted Bundy married a woman while he was still on trial, and he proposed to several who were writing him letters in prison. Groupies would show up in the courtroom wearing their hair and clothes in a way that matched his preferred victim. They didn't seem to care that he had mutilated his victims, both before and after he killed them. What enthralls these women is what enthralls all of us, just, maybe not to that extent.
True Crime shows and podcasts have seemingly sprung up out of nowhere, series like "Making a Murderer" and "Serial" telling a justice-gone-wrong story, or pieces like "Death in Ice Valley" and "Girl in the Box" have gained worldwide attention. Audience fascination with murder is very in, right now.
But murder is not what Paul and Nathan want to focus on. Choosing Dahmer as a subject was not for the sensationalism, but the moments of human connection. Nathan explained, "I'm more interested in an individual human person who struggled and whose struggles led him to do unspeakable acts of violence against other human beings. Most of us don't think like that. Most people don't take another person's life. Where is that line? What causes someone to cross that line? Where is the next line? And how does one cross that? That's what fascinates me, and that's what I've written: a journey into the mind of someone who was not born a monster, but someone who became one, step-by-step, action-by-action." Perhaps that is where the attraction lies - how much would it take for me to become a monster?
It is very easy to romanticize killers. To pardon their crimes. It is harder, and more rewarding, to honor the victims. American Nightmare intends to humanize Dahmer, and his victims. Real human beings, tortured and killed, by another human being.
American Nightmare: The Trials of Jeffrey Dahmer will be playing September 21st-October 7th, 2018 at The Crane Theater in Minneapolis, MN.