Meeting murderers: The man who stares cold-blooded killers in the eye
CHANNEL24 SPECIAL FEATURE
Fiona Walsh has an insightful talk with well-known criminologist Professor David Wilson about season three of the gripping reality show, Voice of a Killer which airs in South Africa on CBS Reality (DStv 132).
Cape Town - "I’ve never met a serial killer who has the Hollywood glamour of Zac Efron," Professor David Wilson says calmly, as if pondering the charisma of serial killers was an everyday occurrence. Although for him, it frequently is.
Arguably the most high-profile criminologist working in the UK today, Wilson has published 15 books, writes regularly for broadsheet and tabloid papers and is a familiar presence on radio and television. With over twenty thousand Twitter followers, he’s fronted so many true crime documentaries he can no longer relax unrecognised on a long-haul flight, or avoid talking about work on a taxi trip, because "everyone has an opinion about crime and its twin, punishment."
Voice of a Killer, starting its third season on CBS Reality in South Africa on 11 May, brings to life the nerve-jangling audio footage taken from real killers' confessions, stripping away any hint of media glamour to bring viewers face to face with the reality of murder. So how did he move from being a professor of criminology with a Cambridge PhD to presenting true crime series?
"Whether we’re talking about South Africa, Europe or North America, everything has a value and sadly there’s a value in death, in torture, in murder and in finding a way to capitalise on that market, and true crime has become one of those ways. Which is one of the reasons why I do a great number of the kinds of series that I do, like Voice of a Killer or Voice of a Serial Killer. I try to present the reality, as opposed to the fantasy of how these offenders will be presented in other types of programmes within the same genre."
THE REALITY OF REAL KILLERS
Wilson is on a mission to make us all examine the myths around the reality of murder, as opposed to simply accepting the media stereotypes; to bring "a little more light rather than heat, a little more grey, rather than the black and white." Which brings us back to Zac.
Even in the crowded calendar at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah, among a host of A-listers, Zac Efron managed to generate a lot of column inches for the premiere of his latest film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, in which he plays the notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy. But unlike the Bundy seen on screen, Wilson has never met a serial killer who could talk to him about Florentine architecture, or fine foods. "The public are fascinated by the media portrayal of serial killers, as opposed to the reality of the phenomenon of serial murder and who serial killers might be."
If anyone is in a position to judge the real-life impact of killers it’s Wilson. At 29 he became the youngest prison governor in England, a career path which brought him into contact with virtually every recent serial killer in the UK. He moved into academic work in 1997, becoming Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, while also undertaking an increasing number of TV appearances. In 2017 his documentary Interview with a Murderer won the Broadcast and Royal Television Society Awards.
(MEETING MURDERERS: UK criminologist Professor David Wilson. Photo: Supplied/CBS Reality)
One of the fascinating things about serial killers for him is how some - like Ted Bundy, Myra Hindley, or Fred and Rose West - emerge into public view, where others disappear.
One of the key reasons, Wilson feels, is gender. "If I was to ask anybody in the UK to name some serial killers, the names of Myra Hindley and Rose West would be given very quickly in any list of British serial killers. And yet there are very few women serial killers. Serial killing, like murder, is usually a man’s business. And therefore, there is something about gender at work here. There’s this sense that women who kill are seen as being doubly deviant; they are not just deviant in the sense that they’ve offended, they’re also seen as deviant because they break a gender stereotype about what it means to be a woman."
Another factor at play is the police force. "They don’t like the label ‘serial killer’ being used by the media, for a number of reasons. It puts them under pressure, it creates fear, it draws attention to the fact that they perhaps should have stopped this at a much earlier stage. Often the police will actively try to deny there’s a serial killer at work.
"Other serial killers who don’t emerge into the public consciousness tend to be those who kill groups of people who are seen as being outside of the moral parameters of any particular society. So, for example, the serial killers of sex workers don’t attract the same level of attention as serial killers who might target young children. Somehow sex workers are seen as being less valuable to our culture than children.
“And the final thing would probably be those serial killers who leave their victim’s bodies on public display, they are the ones that will attract a great deal of attention. Those serial killers who carefully hide or bury their victim’s bodies tend not to attract the same level of public attention."
'THE CSI PHENOMENON'
Because he wants the public to look behind the often lurid headlines about murder and see what’s really going on - not just accept what he calls "the CSI phenomenon" - he’s happy to engage with the media and his audiences as much as he can.
“If you go back to the media portrayal of interviews that might take place in a movie or in a TV drama, the killer will often simply give up, often just tell the interviewer, ‘Ok, hands up, you caught me, I did it.’ That’s very, very unusual in my experience of interviewing murderers. I’m trying to get the viewer to answer a question which is usually asked of me, which is ‘What is it like to interview a murderer?’ I’m trying to show the audience, ‘This is what it’s really like.’”
Although now retired from his work as a full time academic, Wilson continues to lecture on criminology and write extensively. In addition to his TV work, this can take him to some very dark places on a daily basis. How does he avoid being overwhelmed by regular encounters with cases featuring horrific violence?
“You’ve got to be very good at compartmentalising. You’ve got to know who you are and then you’ve got to be able to divorce your personal life from your professional life. I’m very strong about being able to separate my family from what it is that I do professionally. That ability to compartmentalise is the key to not being overwhelmed by some of the trauma and tragedy.”
Watch the season three premiere of Voice of a Killer from Saturday, 11 May on CBS Reality (DStv 132). Continues weekends from 11 May – 1 June at 20:20 and repeated weeknights from 20 – 28 June at 22:00.