Because I write vampire novels and Katherine Ramsland is an expert on modern vampire culture, cults and serial killers, our paths have occasionally crossed. We recently met at a Dracula convention in Windber, Pa., where we were both staying in a small former hotel rumored to be haunted.
So, when we connected for an interview for the Investigation Discovery three-part series American Occult, airing with back-to-back episodes on Oct. 30, it was like continuing our last conversation — which was, no surprise, also about forensics.
No surprise because Ramsland is both a forensic psychologist who has worked with former FBI profiler and an expert on the occult. It is in that capacity that she offered her perspective on killers and mass murderers in a frequently chilling series that looks beyond the details of each case.
How did you develop this interest? What got you into this field?
Katherine Ramsland: It was actually serendipitous. I was going back to school for a master’s degree in forensic psychology and I ended up working for the Court TV website as well as a research assistant for John Douglas, a former FBI profiler who wrote Mind Hunter. So I ended up really immersing in serial murder and any kind of bizarre crime, which seems to [now] be my specialty.
I have written hundreds of articles on the case analysis of serial killers, which makes me a kind of expert. Not many people immerse themselves on a daily basis on serial cases around the world and throughout history. And, I like it.
How did you get involved with the series?
I’ve done a number of shows for Discovery networks on serial killers and mass murder. I discuss the psychological aspects of the case, for example on [truTV’s] Forensic Files, but it’s always been specific to the case. Here it’s specific to the subject matter, so it’s a little bit different. This time, we’re looking at cases across a spectrum, cases you might call “occult.” Because I’ve been involved with vampires and ghost hunting and all that stuff, I also know about cases that cross between the two and that’s how I ended up becoming part of this show on an ongoing basis.
I talked to Faye Kellerman a while ago, and she told me that she DVRs CSI and Forensic Files and similar series. TV used to just wing the science but now that we are in the era where viewers can Google anything, has the accuracy of CSI and other shows improved?
[Laughs] They still wing it, believe me. I’ve done some consulting work and also some research for some of these shows. They still start with ideas and hope they find things to support those ideas, more than saying, “Let’s do some research and come up with some cool plots.”
You are also getting some accurate things, but only experts know it. There is now a “CSI effect” where ordinary people get on juries and think they know a lot more than they do and they expect things to be done in a trial that can’t be done or aren’t part of a case. So we have semi-educated the public. And a TV series also throws in odd things that aren’t correct, and the public doesn’t know the difference.
There are six crimes in the series American Occult. How did the producers decide which six to pick and why are three from Ohio? Is there something odd about my home state?
Well, you know the Midwest. The occult is strong there.
Are some areas just normally more apt to have this sort of activity?
I don’t know if you could say that here. If you were going outside the U.S., which we are not doing, you would find some things related to cultural beliefs. Inside the U.S. you get areas like the coasts, especially California, where there is a lot of experimentation. Then again you have Native American reservations where you get a number of cult-related things, or Area 51 with UFOs, so it’s really hard to pin down. [In the series] each of these crimes is so different. One has a gang of guys, another has a priest involved. These aren’t the same types of crimes.
What have been some of the more interesting cases you’ve consulted on?
I’m not at liberty to give details.
Dexter is one of my favorite programs, and I’ve postulated that the series is actually in the vampire vein, because Dexter Morgan craves killing the way vampires crave blood.
Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat did exactly the same thing Dexter does. He’d get on a computer and he’d look for bad guys and he’d go and kill them way before Dexter.
But the psychological vampire that gets mentioned in the series and serial killing seem linked. Does one kind of belief lead to the other?
No, but there is a similar psychology in that both are very predatory and both are very narcissistic in taking for themselves. The Dexter thing, there’s no real person like him. Psychologically it doesn’t actually work well.
But a serial killer and a vampire, if you take it in the classic sense, they take for themselves and give nothing back. What they do isn’t about justice or leveling the playing field or anything like that. It is about “I have needs and you are the one who is going to have to pay for them and — too bad, no remorse.” That’s more the classic vampire or classic Ted Bundy serial killer.
So I do see connections, but when you get into the fictional realm and you have the sweet vampires and the nice serial killers trying to level the playing field, that’s just out of my realm, because psychologically there aren’t people like that.
But that raises another question: Is looking at this dark side and presenting it in a way that makes it seem almost noble, a good thing?
It’s not a good thing. We’ve had several copycats of Dexter who think, “Look at him, he’s got a sexy job and lives in a cool place and I want to be like that.” So we’ve had a couple Dexter-type murders. Then let’s throw in the way society has turned serial killers into celebrities. Then what happens is you get people who aspire to be that and who don’t think about the ramifications of what happens to the victims and the victims’ families. They think they will be the worst serial killer ever. “I’m going to make a big strike and everybody’s going to know about me and I will be world famous.” We are creating people with these aspirations. They may have some mental illness and are very suggestible or may have some personality disorder, but we are giving them a frame in which to go ahead and do this.
The same thing is true with making vampires into sexy creatures. We have had people go out and commit murder because they think they are vampires. But on the other hand, the Bible has done the same thing — inspired people to commit murder. But I will say, we will be seeing some negative effects, as we already have.
I have found myself watching a lot of Canadian television, such as Flashpoint, and I have noticed something different in American and Canadian culture that I find quite fascinating. Americans want to see the trigger pulled. The Canadian shows are quite the opposite in that they are about preventing violence from occurring. Is there something just inherently bloodthirsty about the American psyche?
We can see that with our media, there’s no doubt about that. In my mind, being a person who appreciates the imagination, it’s a lot better to maintain a suggestive approach to these things, so the viewer or reader takes it into their own imagination. But our media tends to try to figure out what people want and says, “How dark can we go to give it to them so they will watch our show and we will get more advertisers?” So if they anticipate that the American public really wants the gritty details, they will give the gritty details that unfortunately makes the viewing public so much more passive and more immune to the actual effects of the types of acts they are shown.
I am not sure this is a healthy direction to be traveling in, but we are such a profit-oriented culture, and there are so few limitations on what can be shown and can be done. As long as people request it and want it and the media thinks they can get away with showing it, they will.
Anything you want to add about the series?
I think it approaches the crime genre with a different angle than what you typically see. We’ve seen a lot of procedural shows — here’s how it’s done, blah, blah. This is looking at: How do people get this way? How do they come up with these cult-based crimes and how do they get themselves in the mind frame that allows them to treat other human beings within these cultic crimes? Because it is approaching the series with this kind of unique angle, we are hoping it is going to stand out.
People will get the sense of how did these people develop and move in these dark directions so they were able to commit murder and mutilations and to justify those things within their belief system, their cultic frame. My part in these shows is to supply what we know about the kind of person who is fascinated by the dark side of the occult to the point where violence becomes viable to them or even the ultimate goal.