The Serial Killer Suitcase

Me (in pearl earrings) with Gacy clown, H.W. Mullins deer, Damien Echols handprint.

In 1998, when new friends found a cache of memorabilia collected by a fan of serial killers, they thought of me. They dragged a couple of garbage bags and a suitcase of the soggy collectibles over to our house in the Irish Channel of New Orleans.

Gee, thanks?

Truthfully, I felt flattered. They thought of me as a “writer” and figured this would be a goldmine of material. I thought it could be, too. I envisioned a novel in which a recently transplanted and unhappy suburban woman receives a cache of memorabilia collected by a fan of serial killers. Um, fiction?

She goes on a quest to discover the missing owner of this gruesome collection. Had he poked his nose into the wrong dirty business, leading to his demise as a result of his macabre obsession? The search by our naïve and yearning narrator leads to self-revelation: definitely fiction!

The Man I Married had worked his usual charm to secure the donation of an abandoned building in order to launch a business supporting survivors of Traumatic Brain Injuries. The 1920 Big Shot Brewing Company building sagged after long disuse in a bad part of town, since that’s how MIM rolls, seeing only the potential of a once-beautiful building and the price tag (free!), blind to the broken glass and deaf to the gunshots.

The caretaker, Frank, lived upstairs and helped MIM with the imposing job of cleaning up the vast downstairs space, recently used by a questionable lot that had vamoosed. The space contained a stage, under which they half-expected to find hacked-up bodies. “Satanic rituals” came to mind in this place. Instead, under the stage, Frank found all of the personal possessions of someone who’d left town and never returned. Somebody with a thing for serial killers.

When Frank delivered the collection to me, I gave him a stuffed polar bear in appreciation. Doesn’t everybody trade toys for John Wayne Gacy letters?

I soon discarded much of the memorabilia, half-ruined in the leaky building. I winnowed it down to what would fit in the one suitcase. Writing fodder. Nothing prurient about it! Creative exploration into humankind’s inner nature. Someday, art. Literature, capital L! Or at least a bestseller.

I lived not even a half dozen blocks away from Anne Rice (for some reason my mutt was the only thing that could get her perfectly mannered dogs to go apeshit behind her wrought-iron fence). Her books were why we’d traveled through New Orleans in the first place, moving there a couple of years later because the place had so gotten under MIM’s skin. Rice’s writing influenced me profoundly. Now ghoulish and gothic landed right in my lap: writing about it was not a far stretch for me, was it? I still read Victoria Holt every now and then, after all.

We soon left New Orleans when, outside of the Big Shot, a man threatened to shoot my husband and my dog. Enough was enough. Shooting my husband was one thing, but my dog? A line had been crossed. Bye bye bayou.

I lugged the Serial Killer Suitcase around for over 22 years. From New Orleans, to our little house in Seattle, and then two doors up to The Skinny house, which had actual closets. A plain, tan, cardboard, Skyway suitcase, double set of keys intact in a lined, padded, satin interior pocket.

“Retro” or “vintage,” we’d call it now. Bland veneer for creepy cargo.

I’ve tucked it in the back of closets, but unlike other things I forget about, I’ve always been aware of its presence, always wondered when I was going to do something with it, and what I was going to do with it. What would I, could I, create?

At first the suitcase was thrilling: remnants of another world that I had no idea existed until then.

Serial killers, yes. But fans of serial killers? But, why?

Serial killer fanatics? Serial killer keepsakes? What rock had I been living under to be unaware such things existed? I had a hard enough time comprehending the existence of Keith Richards and Tom Waits fans, let alone bootlickers of folks who killed for the joy of killing. These were not starry eyed girls lining the benches at the trials of the charismatic Bundy, but men who obviously wished they had the wherewithal to do what the actual serial killers had managed to pull up their bootstraps and do.

Yes: serial-killer fan magazines, back when it was a lot harder to churn out publications. A far cry from Shaun Cassidy or Andy Gibb with their crotches caught in the staples of Tigerbeat’s center spread, the only type of fan magazine in my experience to that point. These tabloids sensationalized violence and gore, from the little I perused. What stores even sold them? I’m sure they’re now all defunct, thanks to Madame Internet.

I possessed artwork and correspondence from serial killers on death row. A Wyler’s bouillon jar with a victim’s grave dirt. Schilling spice jars containing splinters from the siding of the Manson house and more dirt from victims’ graves (don’t mix that up with the cinnamon!). Handwritten musings in which the serial-killer fan expressed disappointment that one of his penitentiary pen pals maintained his innocence of the crimes, and the fan finally, morosely, believed him, disheartened to believe this truth: that the prisoner was not, sadly, a serial killer. Bummer. He’d been wasting his time with this friendship! How unjust! Fraud!

What if I died? What would someone think of a person who owned what was inside it?

I had the fan’s CT scan: a mundane shred from his mortal existence tucked in with all the rest. Sinus infection, maybe, from exploring too many spooky, moldy places? I was literally looking into this guy’s head. He’d also left his Pepcid AC Acid Controller.

The opportunity of a lifetime for a creative writer, perhaps? What questions to explore.

I never wrote that book.

Apparently the serial killer fan never did either. He left behind a book proposal for a project about his relationship with a Natural Born Killers copycat killer. Would I be a copycat if I wrote about him, this heroin addict who liked Nirvana?

When it was time to move again last year—a new beginning, a blank slate—I clacked open the Serial Killer Suitcase with that delightful popping of old brass catches, releasing them with a simultaneous push from each thumb. I would go through the contents and decide what to keep, thinking about a writing project. Besides, some of this stuff must be worth something. John Wayne Gacy originals couldn’t be small potatoes.

I opened the suitcase. I shut it again.

Why would I immerse myself in this world? A world of primarily violence against women? Glorified, sexualized violence against women. How could anyone be a fan of this? Of acts that devastated families? Why would I want to write about it? Why would I do that to myself? I hadn’t even made it through the first episode of Dexter, and I could understand why so many people are stressed out these days if that’s what they watch in order to relax.

Who goes to the Manson house to collect splinters from the siding? Who could glorify what happened there? What kind of a loser is bummed out and feels personally affronted because a prisoner on Death Row is actually innocent? What a sad sack of a human being. Is that really what I wanted to spend any of my remaining years writing about? I’d faced my own mortality with an internal hemorrhage; entire nursing homes were now being wiped clean of precious grandparents, lost to a nasty pandemic; and death and disease nipped close to all of us. I’ve lived my own life to mine and explore. Not as shocking and provocative as serial killers, but I can live with contributing to literary journals instead of airport paperbacks.

What had once seemed a curiosity (who doesn’t perk up their ears at the mention of Jack the Ripper or Ted Bundy?) became more and more abhorrent. I could not begin to explore any of this, because I never would understand or condone it, and I did not want to. The important stories aren’t about the killers and their crimes, but about the lives lost, mostly of women, and the shattered families left behind.

I had no desire to explore or aggrandize serial killers and their fans. I wondered most about the fan’s parents, even back then, when I could fit into those 80s pants that I was apparently still wearing in 1998. Did they know where he was when he was idolizing these dregs of humanity and collecting the garbage they left in their wake? Did they know he was in New Orleans with lowlifes in an abandoned building? Did they know whether he was safe? Did they care? Now I wonder, were they glad he was gone and out of their hair? Good riddance? He was well into adulthood by then, after all, three years younger than I and also a Libra. Was his absence a relief? Did they cause whatever ripped in his fabric, creating not even a monster, but a groveler at the feet of monsters? Was he a once-normal Bobby Brady, warped by having to suddenly call this unfamiliar woman with strange hairdos “Mom?” Was he always a puzzle in a normal family, he with this obsession not the typical stuff of job resumés? He created and manufactured a serial killer board game, a story I’d heard covered by NPR, making further light of horror; how do you pat your kid on the back for that kind of business acumen?

How complex his parents’ emotions must have been when he drowned himself not much later in Lake Washington. It turned out that he, too, was from Seattle (where he’d been a daycare worker). Do they still suffer and wonder if they could have done anything differently?

Sometimes I wondered if the suitcase were a curse. I should have disposed of it long ago. Why would using it as a writing project make it okay to have appropriated it?

No, I didn’t want this pile of criminal-worship as I moved on to the next phase of my life, but I didn’t want it to go to other so-called fans, and I wanted to make no money off it. No one should benefit.

So I put it out with the trash.

When I look at a quick photo I snapped before MIM emptied it all into the garbage for me, I’m struck by the sun glinting off the top of the waste bin, the cherry blossoms, the daffodils, the bright sky, none of which I noticed at the time.

I considered keeping the empty suitcase. It was a cool suitcase. But it could never be separate from what it had contained. It had to go. Nobody else should own such a thing, saddled with bad energy. And so it went.

At least I’ve learned something. Maybe not self-revelation, but a glimpse.

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