James Franco on Famed Serial Killer Richard Ramirez
An essay and four stories explore the infamous "Night Stalker" killings.
I recently started thinking about Richard Ramirez, the person, as opposed to Richard Ramirez, the notorious serial killer. Not because I sympathized with the Night Stalker, or wanted to in any way humanize what he had done, but because there was something in his extreme behavior that was fascinating. Often, as an actor, I’ve looked inside to see how far I could go with psychotic behavior.
A performer is asked to sympathize with the part he plays, suspending judgment about the character while he is playing it. That is how actors as accomplished and humane as Sir Ian McKellen, Tom Cruise, or Kenneth Branagh can play Nazis, Macbeth, or Iago, and why Hopkins could play Hannibal Lecter or Denzel Washington could play the corrupt cop in Training Day. If Ralph Fiennes signaled the audience to tell them what he really felt about his Nazi officer in Schindler’s List, he would have undermined his portrayal and diminished the impact of the movie.
It was from my place as an actor that I began thinking about Ramirez. His drive to murder came from a variety of places. First, from childhood experiences, especially witnessing his Vietnam veteran cousin kill his wife. Later, Ramirez’s drug use and interest in satanic religious practices pushed him over the edge into violence. Like most serial killers, his motives seem sexuality- and power-based. He wanted to dominate his victims—that domination turned him on.
After breaking into a home, killing the men in the house, and tying up the women, Ramirez would usually rape his victims, often several times. His murders also had a practical purpose, since he would rob his victims. In fact, he started out as a burglar, and that is why his method of attack was to break into homes and murder people in their beds. Although he always hoped for young women, he frequently happened upon elderly couples.
Ramirez would listen to AC/DC’s album Highway to Hell on repeat while driving around the Los Angeles area looking for victims. He believed that he was the devil’s favored son, although he had stopped participating in organized Satanism at that point. Ramirez’s murders were pleasing to the devil and, in return, Ramirez wouldn’t be caught or killed.
It’s a big leap, but I can relate a little to Ramirez’s feelings. I would never try to condone what he did, or would ever be interested in a project that tried to sympathize with him, but I wanted to examine my own feelings to see how they matched up with Ramirez's. I didn’t try to humanize him as much as I tried to demonize myself. I've also felt feelings of repression, the need for power—especially sexual power. I’ve felt hurt and shunned and wanted to lash out in return.
Ramirez was shaped by his culture, his sense of style, and his ideas about his role as a killer. These are things that were given definition by thriller films and by relationships depicted in sitcoms and pop culture. All of these things help weave the fabric of what the norm is. Bands like AC/DC can react against this norm in the realm of music, and Ramirez could react against it in the real world.
That is the big difference. AC/DC was playing bad boys for entertainment’s sake, but Ramirez brought it into the real world with real consequences for people’s lives. In a way, murder came to define him. Who was he as a person other than a murderer? He became a monster in the public consciousness and in his own mind.
These poems are an attempt to fuse Ramirez’s life with lessons from my youth, when TV shows taught me what love and the good life looked like, and then I felt disappointment when my own love life didn’t conform to these models. The feelings of a rejected or shy or insecure young man can be intense. They can provoke frightening emotions that feel as intense as murder.
I am trying to aestheticize extreme emotion—not to celebrate a killer like Ramirez in any way, but to break from the normal forms of representation that are part of the problem in the first place, like movies, books, songs, and TV shows.
1. Black Death
When I put on the mask of Ramirez
I can drive through these poems
Like a Satanic killer cruising down
The 1980s Los Angeles Freeways
At night, in a stolen car, high on speed,
Highway to Hell on the stereo.
My baseball cap: On. My high tops,
Size twelve: On. My trench coat, black: On.
I once was a robber, now I’m a robber
Of souls. Think about it, and nightmare:
You wake; I’m over you, your wife:
Next to you, a gun in your face, you’re dead.
You see, I’ve snuck into your house,
It was so isolated, on your quiet street,
No one noticed as I crossed the street,
Stealthy as the Angel of Death, my coattails
Spread like black wings—you see,
There was a marking on your door,
But instead of lamb's blood, an invisible
Sign, that only I could read, it said: victims.
I’ve killed you. I spend hours with your wife.
2. California Legend
There is nothing cool about murder,
Except when it’s in a poem,
Or a movie, then it’s something else,
It’s not killing people, it’s killing ideas.
Richard Ramirez is dead, he died
On death row, a year ago,
He was a California legend,
“The Nightstalker,” who haunted
The LA landscape with the specter
Of his threat: the tall intruder
Who would spend hours with victims,
Won by the lottery of his instincts,
Sometimes young, sometimes old,
As old as eighty, my grandmother’s age,
Raped and killed, not for their bodies,
Wrinkled and valueless, but for the power
Over them he wielded, in the dark, the two,
Alone. And then caught, and given a face,
And the famous picture in the courtroom,
Pentagram on his palm, devil in his eyes.
A fool beyond the pale, and now a legend.
3. Like a Virus
There are those crazies—Ramirez
Himself, with his AC/DC fetish—
Who will use culture to shape
The demeanor of their evil.
Don’t use these poems faces,
Use these poems like equations
In Math, and interpretations
In English to decipher a way out.
Think about the darkness a min,
In order to see through the façade
Of imprisoning light. We’re all
Trapped in houses and things,
Lined up and ready to interface,
Like a programed set of computers,
And then here comes the killer, down
The freeways, and into our towns,
Like a virus, ready to corrupt order
And put everyone on the defensive
Because someone has taken fate
Into his own hands, and shook, shook,
Shook! Fuck that guy who shot Lennon.
4. Satan Out of His Shell
The capture of Ramirez was comic
And just. He had returned to LA
On a bus after a bad visit to his bro
In Arizona or New Mexico, all the cops
Were waiting, because he had been
Identified, but they were all watching
The outbound busses, so Richard
Just walked through the downtown
Greyhound station behind the backs
Of half the police force and into a bodega
To buy some cigarettes, when,
An old Spanish lady called out: “El Diablo!”
One the front page of the papers in the rack:
His face. He ran. First across the freeway,
His old vein of death, and through the heat,
To, by God and by right, a Latin neighborhood,
Where first he tried to steal a car, and then
Another, and then was hit over the head
With a steel rod. He puttered out on his last
Bit of energy, depleted by the sun and loss
Of blood, hissing at the ladies as he passed.