The sun is up and folks patronizing this cozy little corner of Brooklyn are happily chatting over hot coffee and morning toast as one of their neighbors—literary professor and true crime writer Harold Schechter—sits among the comfy retro booths and lemon-kissed walls ticking off all the terrible headlines contained in his unkempt scrapbook of horror.
“It’s actually kind of frightening,” the 65-year-old starts—his already sonorous voice playfully dropping into theatrically grave and ominous tones. “You can go back at any time and find them: ‘Woman Burned Alive In Elevator.’ ‘Father Charged in Grisly Slay of Son, 7.’ ‘Well-Dressed Killer on the Loose After Staten Island Slaying.’ It’s literally like every day.”
Clearly, Schechter—every bit the kindly scholar behind rimless eyeglass frames—is having lots of fun.
“I’ve always been interested in storytelling and why we need stories,” he says, stowing the gruesome notebook and returning once more to the sensible fruit cup in front of him. “Particularly, why we need stories about monsters, violence and horror.”
Indeed, Schechter has built an extraordinary career exploring the public’s ongoing fascination with mad dog killers and homicidal miscreants—thoroughly repugnant individuals like Roger Irwin—the subject of his latest book, The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model And The Shocking Crime That Shook the Nation.
The Mad Sculptor is the story of artist Robert Irwin (1908–1975), who killed three people on Easter Sunday in 1937. His victims weren’t the person he wanted to kill. After being rebuffed by a woman he was obsessing about, Irwin decided to kill her but his actual victims were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Stories are the way that we make sense of the world and gain a sense of control over it,” the Queens College educator says. “Stories enable us to organize these very threatening kinds of experiences into some sort of shape that we can make sense of.”
According to Schechter, certain ancient story patterns have evolved over time to fulfill this very function, and is one of the reasons why we often think of serial killers as almost “supernatural” figures.
“We immediately transform these crimes into fairytale-like stories that help us gain a sense of control over them,” Schechter explains. “It’s like a crime happens that is so unspeakably awful, it’s difficult to comprehend—but if you could suddenly understand it, and think…’Oh, yeah, this is the story of Bluebeard, or this is the story of the ogre, or this is the story of Hansel and Gretel and the cannibal living in the cottage off in the woods,’ you immediately feel that you have a handle on the thing. And there’s a kind of relief in that.”
Not every grisly crime makes for a compelling story, however. For that, a variety of literary elements—chief among them being a larger-than-life super-villain—needs to already be in place. Regardless of his demonstrated storytelling chops, when writing true crime stories, Schechter eschews Truman Capote-like embellishments and steadfastly sticks to the cold, grim facts of a case.
“To some extent, I see my books as social history,” Schechter says. “I believe we can learn as much about a particular cultural moment from studying the crimes that obsessed the culture, as we can by looking at what has gone on in terms of politics, or what heroes were being worshipped.”
Despite the proliferation of murder and mayhem in today’s headlines, Schechter actually maintains that, nowadays, folks have it pretty good. At least when compared to moments in history when a sidelong glance might get your head blown off via some cowboy’s six-shooter, or run through with the business end of a nobleman’s rapier.
“In general, our lives are very sheltered from violence compared to the way people lived all throughout human history,” Schechter says.
In fact, while many bristle, Schechter views the vats of blood pulsing out of our gaming consoles and pooling in front of our flat screen TVs as an unmistakable sign of an ever-advancing civilization.
“The Newtown killer was supposedly obsessed with violent video games,” Schechter says. “To me, violent video games are a symptom of how civilized we’ve become. Because in the not-so-distant past, kids would be taken to see actual hangings and tortures as a form of popular entertainment. There is what William James called, ‘the carnivore within.’ Throughout human history, that carnivore needed to be fed with spectacles of actual violence. Now, we get to see it all in digitalized form.”
And although Schechter admits to being somewhat disturbed by the likes of Ed Gein and Albert Fish at the start of his true crime career, he doesn’t feel writing about The Mad Sculptor and his ilk has threatened his own psyche.
“I feel like I’m an incredibly centered person,” Schechter says. “The moral of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that this guy can’t accept what Carl Jung calls, “the shadow.” He feels that it’s totally irreconcilable with a civilized person—so he cuts himself off from it. Then, of course, it just runs rampant. I think you have to acknowledge those impulses in yourself. But it doesn’t mean that you give into them.”
On the contrary, Schechter warns that those more prone to act out on violent impulses are the ones who—like the good doctor Henry Jekyll—deny even having them. “I have no trouble acknowledging violent and sadistic impulses because that is a fundamental part of human nature,” Schechter says.
Polishing off a piece of tangy melon he adds, “The id is just part of who and what we are.”
Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in Brooklyn.