Tuesday, July 14, 2015

This Day In Pop Culture, July 10

Richard Speck Kills 8 Nurses In Chicago

Was there a time in the 20th  century in which fear wasn't an ingredient of American culture? There was the decade-long Great Depression, which was alleviated only by World War II. After the US took a breather to kickoff the baby boom, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949, went hydrogen in '55, and parked a dozen missiles in Cuba in '63. It seems that fear has always been with us, changing in texture from a material to a mortal threat, and from internal to external. The Depression was material and internal, the Cold War mortal and external.

A new mix of fear began in 1966 when Richard Speck killed 8 nursing students in an apartment on the south side of Chicago. At the time, Speck was considered the embodiment of evil. In hindsight, he was not a monster but a hapless loser, a petty criminal, an alcoholic with his own fears, a coward who could only find courage from the handle of a knife. Speck was destined for insignificance until circumstance - he was bumped from his spot working on a merchant ship the day before - placed him in Luella Park, drunk, staring up at the nurses' apartment building.

Speck forced his way into the apartment and bound seven nurses with torn bed sheets before methodically stabbing and strangling them and two others who came to the apartment to investigate the noise of the struggles.

No, I haven't lost count. Speck bound seven nurses, killed two more who came to the apartment, but a total of eight nurses died that night. It was Speck who lost count, forgetting the ninth nurse who had squrmed under a bed. It was this nurse who when asked if she could identify the man who murdered the others stood up, walked to the defense table, and pointed her finger at Speck's face. But that was nine months later.

Less than three weeks after the murder of the nurses, Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas with a carbine, a shotgun and a dolly of ammunition. A natural marksman honed to expertise by the Marines, Whitman shot 46, killing 14.

Speck may have had problems with simple addition, but when it comes to settling the questions of justice, we humans are all mathematicians. We calculate cause and effect, we balance the equation. On one side we have an unsettling horror, on the other a set of actors and their actions. With a little fudging we find a way to tell ourselves, "They had it coming". Unfortunate yes, unexpected no. We reconcile the equations of justice, recapture the orderliness, and get on with our lives.

In 1966 randomness entered the equation and our mathematics no longer added up. What had 20 year-old Gloria Davy done to deserve being stabbed and strangled by Speck? What had 16 year-old Mark Gabour done that explains why Whitman shot him in the head? Americans had to face the unsettling possibility that if violence could be random even those like themselves, the followers of the rules, could be victims of unexplainable, unpredictable violence.

But Speck and Whitman were only the spectacular opening acts of what would be a generation of continuosly increasing rates of violent crime. From 1957 to 1980, the homicide rate in the US more than doubled, from 4.0 to 10.2 per 100,000. At the same time rape, assault, robbery and theft also increased.

American's fear of violence soon appeared in our pop culture artifacts. In the 1968 Presidential election, Nixon made violent crime one of the central issues of his campaign, promising that "The wave of crime would not be the wave of the future for America", as can be seen in this television ad below.

Steve Pinker describes the impact of violence on American culture in "The Better Angels of Our Nature":
The flood of violence from the 1960s through the 1980s reshaped American culture, the political scene, and everyday life. Mugger jokes became a staple of comedians, with mentions of Central Park getting an instant laugh as a well-known death trap. New Yorkers imprisoned themselves in their apartments with batteries of latches and deadbolts, including the popular “police lock,” a steel bar with one end anchored in the floor and the other propped up against the door. The section of downtown Boston not far from where I now live was called the Combat Zone because of its endemic muggings and stabbings. Urbanites quit other American cities in droves, leaving burned-out cores surrounded by rings of suburbs, exurbs, and gated communities. 
Then in the first half of the 1970s, American pop culture fought back, giving us a string of vigilante films satisfying the audiences' craving for justice. In 1971 Dirty Harry was released, followed by Walking Tall (1973) and Sudden Impact (1974). All had similar themes: smug criminals who felt they were untouchable by the law, an incompetent criminal justice system, and most important, an avenging hero who takes matters into his own hands.

Pop culture also dealt with violence in a new genre of film that first appeared in the late 70s. The Urban Apocalypse film assumes a dystopian future in which order has collapsed and society is ruled by street gangs. The Warriors and Mad Max were released in 1979, with Escape from New York coming two years later.


To read the relevant excerpt from Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" go here.

For KultureKat's collection of 1970s Vigilante and Urban Apoalypse movie posters, please visit our Pinterest board by clicking the link below.

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