Putting a scholarly spin on true crime

Putting a scholarly spin on true crime

Retired professor painstakingly ferrets out the grisly facts

Dr. Harold Schechter (All photos courtesy Workman Publishing)
Dr. Harold Schechter (All photos courtesy Workman Publishing)

Did you know, dear reader, that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, “Psycho,” and Tobe Hooper’s less critically acclaimed but equally embedded-in-pop-culture “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” from 1974, were based on the same true story?

Almost no one knew that, but Dr. Harold Schechter, Queens College professor emeritus, who spent decades teaching American literature, learned that and other fascinating true-crime tidbits as he began what started as a side gig decades ago.

Dr. Schechter will speak at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on November 9; he’ll focus on his latest book, “Murderabilia: A History of Crime in 100 Objects.” (See box.)

At Queens College, “my area of specialization was 19th-century American literature,” he said. ‘I was a classic baby boomer. I grew up in the 1950s and early ’60s, when the culture was steeped in all this horror stuff — Friday night creature features, horror movies, horror comics, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

“I’ve always become interested in why we need horror stories, and why we need stories about monsters. So in 1975, when I started teaching at Queens, I was married, I had kids, and I decided that I needed to supplement my meager academic salary by doing some commercial writing.

So he did.

“I started writing about any subject that interested me at the moment,” Dr. Schechter continued. He started to research a book on special effects in movies. Part of the joy of writing these books was the research they demanded. Hello, rabbit holes.

The Bender farm, in Kansas, housed a family of serial killers in the 1870s.

When Dr. Schechter started burrowing down those holes in 1975, there was no internet to help with his excavations. Research was harder and slower  than it is today. But his day job was as an academic, so research made him happy.  He went on to uncover some  secrets and made some hidden-in-plain-sight discoveries.

He learned that “my two favorite horror movies”  were based on the story of Ed Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield, Wisconsin.

“Plainfield was a very remote town,” he said. “Gein lived there in the late 1940s and ’50s, under the control of his religiously fanatical mother.

“When she died, he tried to dig up her body, but he couldn’t, so he started digging up the bodies of middle-aged women who vaguely resembled his mother, bringing the bodies back to his farm, dissecting them. The police found many things at his house, including a skin suit that he had made.”

A question for Dr. Schechter:  When you talk about this to audiences, do they start reacting audibly? “Yes, there’s some noises from the audience at this point,” he said.

But these stories aren’t just titillation, although to be honest they are also titillation. The films function as unself-conscious social history. It’s not accidental that “Psycho” was filmed in the ‘60s and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre dates to the ’70s.

“I wrote a book about that, called ‘Deviant,’ which did well. I got good advice from my editor at the time, who said that if I was going to succeed as a writer, I needed to pigeonhole myself.” He needed a niche. “For better or worse, writing about psychopathic sex killers was my niche,” he said. “And one thing led to another, and before I knew it, you know, I was kind of an expert in serial murder.

Photojournalist Tom Howard used this camera to sneak a photo of murderer Ruth Snyder’s execution in 1928; the Daily News ran it on its cover.

“And now that I’m retired, it’s become my primary career.”

“Deviant” was published by Simon and Schuster. That was a coup. But his field “still was regarded as a very subcultural kind of genre,” Dr. Schechter said. it wasn’t until his third book that the publisher would spring for a hardcover copy. Until then his books were supermarket paperbacks.

“Back then, I didn’t think of myself as a true crime writer,” Dr. Schechter said. “I thought I was innovating a new genre. I thought of it as true horror. And I was interested in why we need stories about monsters.” Soon though, Dr. Schechter moved from supernatural monsters to real ones.”

Eventually, “I became kind of a scholar of true crime writing,” he said. “One of the books I’m proudest of is a Library of America anthology called ‘True Crime: An American Anthology,’ which has an introduction that talks about the history of true-crime writing. It goes all the way back to Shakespeare’s time, probably even earlier. And it speculates about some of the reasons we need these stories.”

Most of his true crime work is set in the past, Dr. Schechter said. “I like to write about cases in the past, partly because it allows me to do all this research.

“But I’m also interested in why certain crimes gripped the public imagination. I think you can learn as much about what’s going on in the culture at the moment by looking at who the culture is obsessed by as you can by looking at who gets elected or who is the biggest movie star.”

True crime is having a moment now. It’s become immensely popular. Many podcasts are devoted to the genre. Although Dr. Schechter does not listen to podcasts, he’s enjoyed being interviewed for episodes, or joining podcasters onstage for live shows. “I’m a celebrity among some young social misfits,” he said. He’s had fun being on the true-crime show called “Last Podcast on the Left.”

A page from Dr. Schechter’s “Murderabilia.”

Is there any Jewish content to your work, Dr. Schechter? (Other than the apt coincidence of his name, which means “ritual slaughterer” in Yiddish.)

Most serial murderers are not Jewish, he said. Yes, there’s David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam; not only were his adoptive parents Jewish, as everyone knows, but contrary to myth, so were both of his birth parents.

And there was Harvey Glatman, a nasty Bronx-born piece of work who posed as a photographer, Dr. Schechter said. He would lure young women to his rooms to pose for him; he’d tie them up, torture them, and kill them. He was executed in San Quentin in 1959, when he was 31.

And then there’s a basic truth. “I’m Jewish!” Dr. Schechter said. He grew up in Pelham Parkway, a Bronx neighborhood “that was a transplanted shtetl,” and his understanding of himself is as deeply Jewish.

He’s aware of the difficulty of presenting a talk like his — gliding over serious topics with wit and charm (which he did not and would not say himself) at a time like this.

“I will begin by saying the state of the world is so bad that we are talking about psychopathic killers as a diversion from it,” he said.

And will his talk be funny? “Will I be funny?” he repeated. “I’m Jewish!”

Another page from Dr. Schechter’s “Murderabilia.”

Who: Dr. Harold Schechter

What: Will talk about his newest book, “Murderabilia: A History of Crime in 100 Objects”

When: On Thursday, November 9, from 12:45 to 2 p.m.

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly

Why: For the JCC U


Who: Film historian Max Alvarez returns to JCC U to take us on a cinematic journey through courtroom dramas.

What: To talk about courtroom dramas in films

When: On Thursday, November 9, from 10:45 to noon

Why: For the JCC U

ALSO NOTE: The full program, including both talks, starts with coffee and conversation at 10:30; there is a break for lunch, which is not included, from 12 to 12:45.

How much: $38 for JCC members; $45 for nonmembers.

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