Brian Ward is obsessed with the darkest chapters of history—the macabre, the horrific, the unexplainable. The 42-year-old correctional officer's life revolves almost entirely around crime. By day he guards prisoners locked up on charges like drug possession, but it's serial killers, bank robbers, and mob bosses who occupy his off-hours. It's from his fascination with crime that the Dark History Convention, in Champaign, Illinois, was born.
In September I joined crime obsessives from all around the country for the second annual festival, immersing myself for a weekend in the details of storied shoot-outs, mass murders, and kidnappings.
"I am, above all, fascinated with history," Ward told me. "I feel that if we don't look at the past, we will repeat the same mistakes that have been made over and over again… Jim Jones in the seventies, then David Koresh in the nineties. All a cycle, all lessons that could have been learned but weren't."
The convention starred notorious criminals of popular culture, like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and Bugsy Siegel—gangland characters made mainstream by Hollywood movies. But less palatable characters were also present. Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, H. H. Holmes, and other infamous serial killers who'd captured the public's imagination were all draws for attendees.
Dark History Con is a look at America's past through gruesome crimes perpetrated by social outcasts, individuals obsessed over by normal people the same way Comic-Con attendees obsess over Marvel characters. There were twenty-somethings in full Nazi uniform and college girls who collect serial killer "murderabilia." But what is behind this obsession with the blackest stains on history?"
People have always been very interested in these topics," Stephen J. Giannangelo, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Springfield and authored Real-Life Monsters: A Psychological Examination of the Serial Murderer, told me. "The true exploits of Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were as popular in their days as 'true crime' is today. Old black-and-white films like In Cold Blood and Psycho were wildly successful. And you have to remember, it takes more and more to impress today's viewer. When Charles Manson was on the cover of Rolling Stone, his crimes were unimaginable. Today they seem routine."
Scott Bonn, author of Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers, believes the fascination is a reflection of us. It's the "adrenaline rush and wanting to get close to the fire without getting burned," he told me. "Also a catharsis for our own dark thoughts and tendencies." And close to the fire we were. Behind the gawking, maybe we were all just there to breathe a sigh of relief that these crimes weren't committed against us, or by us.
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