John Borowski has been consuming a diet of macabre entertainment since he watched Aliens when he was seven. Raised on the northwest side of Chicago, his older sister introduced him to a variety of horror classics as a child, instilling a lifelong passion for topics that scare the bejeezus out of most, such as brutal murders and violent deaths.
As an aspiring filmmaker, he attended Columbia College to hone his craft, where his interest shifted to historical horror and documentaries. He started his foray into nonfiction film with a short about Jeffrey Dahmer, which led to Borowski diving deeper into murderabilia and real-world horror in his work. John's first feature-length documentary, H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer (2004), explored the life of the eponymous 19th-century criminal and won numerous awards in the American independent film festival circuit. Borowski followed this with three more feature-length docs on other 19th- and 20th-century serial killers.
His newest film is Bloodlines: The Art and Life of Vincent Castiglia, a departure from his previous work in that it focuses on blood in the context of art instead of crime. In the documentary, Borowski profiles the eponymous subject, a painter who creates surreal images images inspired by anatomy, mutilation, and mortality—all designed using his own blood. VICE recently caught up with Borowski to discuss how he got interested in serial murders and how Bloodlines, which will be released in early 2016, fits in with his past work.
VICE: Why did you start making films about serial killers?
John Borowski: When I was a teenager, my best friend and I would mess around and create special effects makeup. As we were getting into it, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested. My best friend's father was a cop in Chicago, and one day my friend told me to come to his house. What he had first thought was a catalog for masks was actually his father's file on Dahmer, which included Dahmer's confession and also photocopies of the Polaroids he took of his victims heads and body parts that he cut up and put in the fridge and on the sink. The photos Dahmer took of his victims left an impression on my psyche that I will never forget, because even though Dahmer stated that his victims felt no pain, the expressions on the heads were that of fear and pain with their mouths and eyes open in extreme agony.
Why did you concentrate on exclusively pre-1930s serial killers in your earlier work?
I find pre-1930s serial killers the most fascinating of all serial killers. Many times they have gotten away with their crimes for so long due to the infancy of crime detection methods. I had heard so much about John Wayne Gacy, Dahmer, Richard Ramirez, and David Berkowitz that I decided to research earlier American serial killers. I was researching for an essay on Chicago history and came across the story of H.H. Holmes, who's America's first documented serial killer and laid the groundwork for how many future mass murderers were caught in the country.
Not only are the early serial killers more fascinating but the crime detection methods of how they were apprehended are just as amazing. Considering there was no DNA typing or security cameras and that fingerprinting was just beginning to be utilized in America, it was really through tried and true detective work that these early serial killers were apprehended.
Can you tell me about your new film?
Bloodlines is about the art and life of artist Vincent Castiglia who paints amazing, moving images either in his own blood or the blood of his collectors. The film, like my other film biographies, follows his life from birth to his current situation as a world-renowned artist. We have interviewed many interesting artists and collectors such as Gregg Allman, Kerry King and Gary Holt of Slayer, Margaret Cho, Tom Warrior of Triptykon, and others.
How does he make his paintings?
The artist works with a nurse or phlebotomist who draws his blood, which he then holds in a cup and uses as if it were normal paint.The blood dries on the canvas in a sepia tone, and it doesn't crack and stays fixed on the canvas.
His work is pretty dark. What inspires him?
Painting in his own blood comes from a very personal place of pain and suffering, though you'll have to watch the documentary to find out about these exact events. I will say he has had numerous brushes with mortality in his life, including an incident when he was eight years old that nearly caused his leg to be amputated. If you look at his work, The Feeding, a woman in the wheelchair has legs that are deteriorated into bones. It's Vincent's art that's kept him going his whole life. He wanted to connect with his work on the most intimate level and could not achieve that with any material other than blood.
Why do you think so many people are interested in morbid topics like serial killers?
It's true, many people have a fascination with the macabre. It's interesting that women make up the largest demographic of people interested true crime. Maybe women want to figure out why women are enamored by serial killers, such as Doreen Ramirez who married The Night Stalker [Richard Ramirez] while he was in prison. Many people live uninteresting lives, so maybe learning about serial killers is something exciting because it's so outside their day-to-day existences.
The reach of true crime is very broad, from law enforcement officers who collect serial killer artworks, to artists who are inspired by the stories of killers. People will always be fascinated by something that is outside of the norm, such as Vincent painting in his own blood. But it goes deeper than that because people want to know why people kill or do these dark things. For Vincent's story, I am attempting to illustrate why he came to paint in his own blood. For serial killers, unfortunately we have not found a definitive answer as to why they become human predators. When I interviewed John Wayne Gacy's psychiatrist, Helen Morrison, she stated that she had found no abnormalities in studying Gacy's brain. Thirty-three bodies in his crawlspace and his brain was normal. Try to figure that one out.
For more on John Borowski's work, visit his website here.
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