One of the things I enjoyed most about Housecore Horror Film Festival was the casual stroll one could make around the grounds, chatting with different artists, filmmakers and people who sell cool weird stuff. After watching his fascinating documentary SERIAL KILLER CULTURE, I sat down with director John Borowski, at his booth, and chatted with him about serial killers, while an interesting mix of people came up to check out his wares, including a Jeffrey Dahmer mug shot.
The film I had just seen, was not only atypical for documentaries, it was atypical for the director. Serial Killer Culture dwells on the dark side of art and memorabilia, surveying a number of collects of serial killer artifacts, as well as artists who use serial killers as their inspiration. Through a series of vignettes, Borowski introduces us to people like Rick Stanton, one-time John Wayne Gacy art dealer, who regularly visited the man in prison an encouraged him to paint, and Matthew Aaron, who collects paintings and even murder weapons in his Last Dime Museum in Indianapolis. There is comic book artist Hart Fisher whose Jeffrey Dahmer: An Unauthorized Biography of a Serial Killer brought him scorn and a lawsuit (that he won) and who has had enough tragedy in his own life to write about whatever he wants confidently. There is ‘murder metal’ band Macabre (who put on one of the best sets at Housecore) who compose songs strictly about serial killers and once did an entire concept album about Dahmer. There is Amanda Morden, media representative of The Dahmer Tour which leads tourists around Milwaukee. And there is John Borowski himself, filmmaker and documentarian with a string of Serial Killer video biographies under his belt.
“I did a short film in college called State of Mind and that was based on the Dahmer case because I had seen that file,” Borowski says. A friend of his had a father who was at detective at the time of the Dahmer murders and he ‘acquired’ copies of the Dahmer photographs that the killer took of the victims. “I still see those images in my head of the decapitated heads on the sink,” he says, “you know really brutal stuff.” After college, he was looking for an idea for a feature, and while researching Chicago history, came across Dr. H. H. Holmes, one of the first documented serial killers in history. In the 1890’s, Holmes opened a hotel that he designed specifically with murder in the mind and may have killed as many as 200 people. “ The first thing I heard about was the castle,” says the director, “and that fascinated me, but then I read another book and that described Holmes’ entire life, going to medical school and having multiple wives, and his mistresses and the whole cross-country journey with the children and the family and I thought ‘Wow, now this is an evil genius.’” For example, the block wide three-story complex included a maze of over 100 windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, and doors only able to open from the outside. He apparently changed builders during the construction of the Castle repeatedly , so only he fully understood the design of the house. “We hear of killers like Jack the Ripper,” says Borowski, “but no other killer in history designed a building to basically dispose of human remains, or made skeletons out of them to sell to universities and medical schools.” Borowski wanted to do a feature on the man, but there was no way he could afford to do a period piece on a low budget. Instead he made a documentary about the man and the case, but he felt it was missing something: “I thought if I’m a viewer I want to see a little bit of what his Castle may have been on the inside,”` he says. He added to the film a series of clever reenactments, using a nearby store basement as the complex and his own apartment, covered in Victorian wallpaper.
Borowski hit upon his own personal style, and quickly found his way into a whole sub-culture that remains hungry for anything about these shadowy figures from history. “My film on H.H. Holmes was released right around the same time as the book Devil in the White City,” he says, “so it kind of hit and you know everyone has heard of my film, and it’s been on Netflix, and it’s out there so I kind of capitalized on it and said let me ride the wave and I’ll do a film on someone else.” His next ‘victim’ turned out to be Albert Fish, the so-called Werewolf of Wysteria, sexual molestor, self-mutilator and murderer of at least five children in Depression era New York. “And that’s been my niche from there on out,” Borowski says. It’s an interesting niche. These are stories often more horrific than the common Hollywood horror film, and yet Hollywood seems unable to get any feature based on actual serial killer accounts made (a version of the H.H. Holmes story has been in development since 2004, and at one time was going to star Leonardo DiCaprio. This of course makes John Borowski a star in the ‘true crime’ genre, and the potential audience is countless. “My neighbor’s brother was eaten by Dahmer,” offers one of the peruses of Borowski’s table, and then shares with us the story of how she tried to buy her neighbor’s brother’s hat off him.
Which brings us back to Borowski’s latest film, and the people to whom he has given a friendly ear. “If anything, they were very happy that I gave them a chance to speak frankly,” he explains, “because the media portrays many people as odd or weirdos just because they’re interested in the subject.” The film doesn’t judge, even if the subjects sometimes judge themselves. The interview with Gacy dealer Stanton is especially awkward when he describes the way Gacy touched his knee during his visits, or when Gacy when to paint a picture of Stanton’s son. Now Stanton collects movie posters, and says that the money he made from selling the Gacy paintings never went to Gacy, but to fund his own personal collection. “There’s the whole murderbelia debate,” Borowski tells me, “you know, ‘this is blood money,’ even though the killers aren’t making money. When all of Gacy’s paintings are being sold, He’s not making money off that.” A quick search of the web reveals one of Gacy’s ‘Pogo the Clown’ paintings recently sold for $27,000, a value that has been steadily rising since his execution. Even when Stanton could give him money, the only thing Gacy could buy was like an extra chocolate bar or a soda.
Advocates against so-called Murder Art or any of the related merchandise around serial killers often point to horror films (and possibly films like Borowski’s documentaries about serial killers) as educating the next generation of serial killers. “I don’t believe that at all,” Borowski responds, “we still don’t know why serial killers do what they do – we studied their brains, people think it’s genetic.” The director points to various countries in Asia, famous for their horrifically gory films, and where the murder rate is almost nothing. “I personally believe in oversaturation,” he says, “I’d rather people watch films on these issues, than go and do them. And so if they were to watch a film about murder or rape rather than actually do it, I’d rather them watch the most extreme [film].” Of course, picking on horror films is nothing new. Before movies and videogames, it was newspapers and short stories, basically back to the beginning of printing. “Dr. Frederic Wertham, who spoke in Fish’s defense [at the trial], railed against the comic books, saying these are ruining our children,” Borowski explains. For himself, Borowski grew up watching horror films and playing violent video games. “I did these things, and I am the most anti-violent person the world,” he says, “I’m against war, I don’t own guns, I wouldn’t kill a mosquito because I don’t believe in it.” In most cases, society is looking for something to blame, rather than looking at what they themselves may have caused. To illustrate, Borowski offers an example from the life of Carl Panzram, subject of his 2012 documentary Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengence. “Mass murderers are usually trying to make a statement,” he explains, “saying ‘I was in pain and no one would listen to me. And that was Panzram as well. When he tried to escape Clinton Prison, and he fell down the 30-foot wall breaking his ankles, they threw him in a jail cell with no medical attention whatsoever. So at that point, it’s kind of no wonder that he said ‘my hatred really grew and I was trying to figure out how I could kill the most people using the most effective methods.’” Panzram had already been beaten repeatedly by the prison guards, and had been beaten regular as a twelve year old boy at a correctional school in Minnesota. “I think environment plays a major factor,” says Borowski, “ I’m not a PhD, but I have done my research and what I discovered is that between the formative ages of 5 to 12 years old these children are influenced and it may stick with them for their entire life. It may not be abuse it may be some sort of trauma that they may never forget.”
With three serial killer biographies released and this new Serial Killer Culture film, Borowski is looking to finally making that feature narrative film. “If I would’ve just come out of college and done a feature horror film,” he says, “it may not have gone anywhere, … [but]because I have a worldwide fanbase now, and name recognition, when I eventually do a feature film, hopefully it’ll be as popular as my other works.” He says he is interested in doing Hitchcock psychological suspense style films, and is working on a script right now that he might shoot next year, as well as a possible television show. However, he may not be completely finished with his particular niche. “Even though they’ve done three films on Ed Gein, I’d still like to do a definitive Ed Gein film in black and white,” he says, “you know, the true story.” Ed Gein is a particularly powerful choice at this year’s Housecore Horror Film Festival, playing the 40th Anniversary of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Although the film is not really ‘Based on True Events’ as the titles say, certain plot points and characterizations owe a deal of inspiration to Ed Gein. Gein’s story has been adopted into a number of films including Deranged, In the Light of the Moon, and Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield. “The other films were okay but I don’t feel like they really achieved what Ed was,” says Borowski, “his character and what created him, living on that farm and his slow descent into insanity.”
John Borowski’s Serial Killer Culture, Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengence, and H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer are all available streaming on Netflix right now. Albert Fish: In Sin He Found Salvation is available for rent on Amazon streaming. If you are in the Chicagoland area this weekend, Borowski will be speaking at the Chicago DAYS OF THE DEAD on Saturday on a panel entitled “Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer,” which he says will cover “ all things serial killers from the psychology of a serial killer to the films inspired by true life serial killers.” Also scheduled to appear, Barry Bostwick, Patricia Quinn and Nelle Campbell from Rocky Horror Picture Show, Rose McGowan, the one and only Cherie Currie of The Runaways. More information on the festival is available here. John Borowski’s own website is quite simply http://www.johnborowski.com.