Born to Kill (2005-Present)

I’ve briefly touched upon my feelings about Born to Kill in my previous post but, seeing as it is arguably one of my favourite tv shows of all time, I felt I ought to give it a post of its own. While I do love the series, there are some issues, so this won’t be one of those times where I gush about how brilliant and infallible something is without mentioning any of the flaws others have been pointing out for years. I’m not the Catholic Church #satire #athiestbants #hashtag #i’llstopnow.

Born to Kill analyses the lives and crimes of infamous serial killers from North America and Great Britain, asking the question, “Were they born to kill?”. The series features interviews with people relevant to the crimes; friends and family of the victims and killers, victims who survived, police officers, etc, as well as interviews with criminal psychologists, Dr David Wilson, Dr Helen Morrison, Dr Katherine Ramsland and Dr Louis B. Schlesinger.

For whatever reason I’m definitely one of those people who find fascination in the macabre, but whether it be expressed through my reading of books on the psychology of killers or the mass grave of dead hitchhikers in my garden, I assure you it is entirely harmless. Of all the serial killer documentaries I’ve seen, Born to Kill is the best made, most informative and most addictive, containing all of the staples of a good documentary. The information is delivered in a compelling and effective fashion with all the relative aspects included, the interviews are all suitable and add to the tone of the program as a whole; hearing a victim’s parents talk about their loss is highly emotive and highlights one of the best and most unique aspects of the show. It never feels as though Born to Kill is ‘getting off’ on the serial killers it studies and this is something that other, similar shows fail at in spectacular fashion. Too many documentaries have the deep and dark voice over, barely focusing on the victims at all and feeling more like exploitation that information, Born to Kill never has this problem. While the focus of the show is clearly the serial killer, Born to Kill never fails to remind us of the victims at the heart of the story, the tone never feels exploitative and more often that not feels genuinely sympathetic.

The interviews with the criminal psychologists are also brilliantly used, with a variety of experts featured and each having a different take on things and there’s never an episode where they all come to the same conclusion. Dr Katherine Ramsland comes across as being primarily focused on psychology but a cursory Google search reveals that she’s actually published several books on the paranormal and her blog indicates that she herself is a believer, knowledge which leaves you like a child at a family gathering with that one weird, dotty aunt who seems quite amicable and intelligent but later you find out that she dresses cats like Nazi officials and reenacts rallies. Professor David Wilson has experience as a prison governor and knows the politics of prison life better than most. Dr Helen Morrison claims to have interviewed over 70 serial killers and acted as John Wayne Gacy’s psychiatrist during his trial period and Dr Louis Schlesinger clearly specialises in the motives of serial killers and often mentions his bio-psycho-social theory of development, however, I will admit that his preoccupation with every minor aspect of a crime; fires, cat murder and cutting up dolls being sexually motivated, can be quite grating. I’m tempted to ask whether there is an activity that isn’t sexually motivated.

 Apparently juggling is an indicator of tax avoidance…

There is another aspect of the show that deserves special mention here and it is not always something associated with documentaries of this style and topic. The music is fantastic, among the best I have ever heard in a tv show let alone a documentary. It does precisely what music ought to do in a show of this sort, set a tone of dread and horror yet have the subtlety to keep the show grounded and prevent it from becoming too movie-like and exploitative. Clearly I’m not the only one who appreciates the music used in Born to Kill because I’ve been noticing it popping up in other tv shows too as well as various grunge and heavy metal bands, lyrics to which I would post here but I’m so out of touch that the words sound like a heavy smoker’s vocal chords in a blender.

You’ll just have to settle for a link instead.

Despite a score of positive points, Born to Kill does have its flaws. I’ve mentioned before how difficult it’s getting to find the episodes online; all the English copies are dying out and quickly being replaced with German dubbed versions in an act of unrepentant brutality that resembles the blitz in my highly over reactive mind. I’ve talked briefly with TwoFour Productions through their Twitter account and apparently some episodes aren’t avaliable due to a rights dispute and there are no current plans to continue the series. What makes matters worse is the fact that some of the German exclusive episodes are arguably the most interesting of the entire franchise, John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wuornos and The Boston Strangler are all dubbed over in German. I apologise if I seem over-dramatic here but it’s almost like the episodes are taunting me because you can make out some English under the German dubbing and the dubbing only kicks in after a few seconds so you get a small portion of a sentence in English which is then cut off by gratuitous German. My marginally obsessive quest to find English episodes of Born to Kill have essentially conditioned me to hate the German language, associating it with disappointment and frustration, the complete opposite of what most people associate the language with.

Unless of course we’re talking about their recent military endeavors, in which case those two words are probably very fitting…

The issues surrounding the availability of episodes are more than a production issue than anything innately wrong with the show itself, which is not to say that Born to Kill doesn’t have such problems. Despite a very strong analysis of serial killers, Born to Kill misses a trick in only focusing on killers from North America and Great Britain. Of the ten most prolific serial killers of the 20th century, only the tenth is American, the rest are from places like India, Russia and South America, with the top three all living and killing in Columbia at some point, and Born to Kill definitely misses a trick in not looking at these people. An argument could be made that the reason Born to Kill doesn’t look at killers from other parts of the world is because these people aren’t as well know and they want to attract the biggest audience. However, I would argue that a lot of people in Britain have never head of people like BTK or The Speed Freak Killers and that having shows focusing on people like Luis Garavito or Andrei Chikatilo would give the series an opportunity to look at different cultures and their impact on serial killers and the attempts to bring them to justice. In my opinion, it is a huge missed opportunity.

Another minor complaint that I have is that series one has a very different format to the rest of the show. Instead of using multiple experts, we have Dr David Holmes, who spends the majority of the episode looking at slides from the serial killer’s family album and giving his opinion on things. I don’t dislike Dr Holmes but using 4 or 5 experts works a lot better because each tends to have a slightly different take on things and that’s exactly what you need when talking about the creation of serial killers because the question of whether someone is ‘Born to Kill?’ is incredibly difficult to answer. Having 4 varying opinions on the subject reflects the complexity of the human mind and, as convincing many of the arguments are, we may never really come to a definite conclusion in the nature vs nurture debate. The first series doesn’t use the same music as the other series and lacks many of the experts, despite the fact that it goes by the same name, so many of the defining features are missing that it feels like your watching an Eastern European country’s take on the show. Oddly enough, it’s very much like Blackadder in this respect, the first series seems vaguely like its successors but changes a lot of the most recognisable aspects of the show.

Born to Kill and Blackadder are also similar in the fact that there is an episode where Blackadder analyses Prince George’s infamous 1818 ‘Stab-a-thon’

On the whole, Born to Kill is an excellent series and well worth a watch. Despite dwindling avaliability, a relatively narrow serial killer pool and a weird first series, the show remains brilliant and is absolutely one of my favourites.



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