Murderabilia: When Does a Fascination With Crime Go Too Far?

Inside the minds of those involved in collecting and selling murderabilia.

Objects collected by "murderabilia" fans can vary from cars and houses to letters from killers like Charles Manson. Pictured, police escort Manson in 1999.
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"It's weird to think that you're that close," Talbot says, adding that she puts her hand on the tracing and thinks: "This hand actually strangled somebody."

Ramirez died of complications related to blood cancer earlier this year while in a California prison, so the value of his artwork has gone up. Collectors like Talbot do not think about committing crimes themselves, she says.

A tracing of Richard Ramirez’s hand, part of Sharon Talbot’s collection of serial killer artwork. (Courtesy of Sharon Talbot)

"I have been fascinated by this stuff for years," she says. "I have never killed anyone. I have never even thought about it."

Scott Bonn, a criminologist and professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J., writes in his forthcoming book, "Why We Love Serial Killers," that the appeal of serial killer artwork is highly personal and subjective. People find comfort in collecting items and holding tangible things, he says, whether murderabilia or baseball cards.

"It rekindles childhood memories," he says. "Many people started out by just loving monster movies as children."

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For some people, a collection could be a way to manage their fear and confront it directly, Bonn says. Some also may collect murderabilia as a way to protect themselves under what Bonn calls the "Talisman Effect," or the idea that items are endowed with magical powers that protect the owner.

People also have the need to understand their own essence, he adds. 

"As a species we don't deal well with uncertainty and ambiguity," he says. "How and why did they step over the edge into the dark side and become serial killers? It helps us understand our own dark nature."

Some ardent fans who take their interest and zeal to extreme ends even will become groupies, lovers or spouses, falling in love with infamous predators because they believe them to be misunderstood, Bonn writes.

A drawing by Roderick “Rod” Ferrell, part of Sharon Talbot’s collection of serial killer artwork. (Courtesy of Sharon Talbot)
Selling murder: The vendor's case

Eric Holler wanted to be a police officer when he grew up, not knowing that his passion for true-crime stories would lead him to become a successful businessman. He describes Florida during his childhood and teenage years as being filled with an "epidemic of serial murders," including victims of Ted Bundy, a serial killer and rapist who was connected to at least 36 murders during the 1970s.

Holler would try to understand what caused killers' actions.

"It fascinated me that the human condition could allow you to go out and do these things without conscience," he says. 

He became an expert on serial killer history, devouring books at the library and taking in news reports. In 1996, he started writing to Manson and Ramirez in prison, trying to get inside their minds. He then decided to put a couple of Ramirez's items on eBay. They sold fast and well, and Holler says he realized he could make a good living from selling taboo items to people who were interested in dark subjects. 

EBay since has banned the sale of murderabilia, so Holler started his own site, Serialkillersink.net, in 2008. He also has a Facebook page with nearly 3,000 "Likes." Facebook does not have a policy that explicitly bans the posting of murderabilia, though it does have a "community standards" section where users can report abuse.

Sales increase every year, Holler says. A Christmas card Bundy wrote sold for $3,000 -- the most he has made from the sale of a single item. A hand-written letter by Manson will net $200 to $400. Holler declined to give specifics about his income, but says he gets an adrenaline rush when he receives a new item to sell, thinking about the money he will make from it.

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Though considered controversial by some, Holler's business is legal because he collects all profits – they do not go to the prisoner, he says. Other website vendors of true-crime collectibles include Supernaught.com, Murderauction.com and Darkvomit.com.

The customer base is vast. Other than true-crime aficionados, it includes criminal law professors, members of the military, police officers, lawyers, movie stars, musicians and psychologists. Some people simply buy a piece or two to spark conversation.