Sunday, November 26, 2006

Murder Stories and Conspiracy Theories: Death for Entertainment and Profit

This weekend, I purchased the brilliant graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Moore's magnum opus is about the Whitechapel Murders of 1888, supposedly committed by "Jack the Ripper." Long a favorite of science fiction writers, Alan Moore takes Saucy Jack and uses him as a jumping off point to write a tremendous historical novel, conspiracy thriller, and occult treatise. In addition to repeatedly besmirching Freemasonry (as the author readily admits to in the footnotes), Moore includes a number of strange and/or occult happenings, including some collected by Charles Fort.

But another reason I really recommend it, in addition to all that, is Moore's overarching commentary on murder and violence as entertainment. Moore makes considerable effort to contextualize and desensensationalize (at points) the lives of Jack's victims and the city they all lived in, whilst simultaneously spinning a tale of secret societies and ethereal time travel. Throughout the book, Moore makes it clear that he has some animus towards his own work as another way of making a living off of spinning stories murder, no matter how remote. This is made explicit in the appended and illustrated (and highly amusing) history of Ripperology. This history has had a tremendous impact on some of my own writing, including my Crashed Saucer Legend site.

Moore is of course right, that much money and sensation moves because of murder past and present. The "big" story in the American media during the last week was O.J. Simpson's "confession" book and Fox news special. This was retracted due to incredibly bad press. Yet more reputable media sources indulge in murder (though they may not share the profits with those who were found responsible for the deaths, as in the Fox/Simpson case).

Sources like the BBC. The BBC ran an investigative report (for the actual BBC report, go here) this week which claims to have identified three CIA men at the scene of Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968. The implication, a variant of previous notions dating back decades, is that Sirhan Sirhan was in a hypnotic trance, possibly a product of MKULTRA, to do or cover for the assassination for the CIA. If these identifications can be shown to be accurate, this is extremely interesting. Yet one wonders if the words "Kennedy" and "assassination" in conjunction simply demand people to spin murder tales.

Going back even further, the BBC also is airing a new crack at Jack the Ripper. Working with a set of forensic criminologists, the report came up with a composite of a Ripper suspect in regards to appearance, likely residence, and psychology. I sympathize with the effort (I am an archaeologist, after all) but some of the text in the article is a bit much in its optimism in science and reason. But then, this is what history and archaeology and related fields are: murder stories. Not every time, but sooner or later we tell people tales of murder and bloodshed, and we get paid to do so. My dissertation is on pottery bits, but I am studying them to better understand the charnel house of the sixteenth-century Spanish Conquest of the Americas. And as with Bobby above (no doubt timed to coincide with the release of a biopic of that name, concerning the day of Kennedy's assassination), conspiracy theory is overwhelmingly a murder story. If historians, as Moore puts it, could boil the past down to a game of Clue such as "Hitler. The German Economy. Tanks" the conspiracy theorist is entirely about such a game of "The CIA. The Grassy Knoll. The Magic Bullet." amongst any number of examples.

This, probably more than anything else, is one of the major dividing lines between conspiracy theory and the rest of the Spooky Paradigm. Cryptid or lost civilization or UFO stories are rarely murder stories. Ghost stories often are, in a fashion, but the object becomes not the murder but a survival of the murder in some sense. Conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is nearly always a murder story.

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