Thursday, May 25, 2017


Exploring the spooky labyrinth of Buffalo Bill’s basement at the climax of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling happens on a ghastly sight: a “big bathtub . . . almost filled with hard red-purple plaster. A hand and wrist stuck up from the plaster, the hand turned dark and shrivelled, the fingernails painted pink.” Clarice has stumbled onto one of the monster’s former victims, who has been turned into some sort of grotesque tableau.
Like the rest of us, of course, real-life serial killers require an occasional bath and so can’t clog up their tubs with decomposed corpses encased in red-purple plaster of Paris. Some, however, have put their tubs to specialized uses.
For obvious reasons, bathtubs make a handy place to dismember corpses. After picking up a female hitchhiker in January 1973, for example, Edmund Kemper shot her in the head, then drove the body back home, hid it in his bedroom closet, and went to sleep. The next morning, after his mother left for work, he removed the corpse, had sex with it, then placed it in his bathtub and dismembered it with a Buck knife and an axe.

Dennis Nilsen’s tub, on the other hand, was used for a more traditional purpose. He liked to bathe his lovers in it. Of course, they were dead at the time. Like Jeffrey Dahmer, this British serial killer murdered his homosexual pickups partly because he was desperate for companionship. Turning them into corpses was his way of ensuring that they wouldn’t leave in the morning. After strangling a victim, Nilsen would engage in a regular ritual, tenderly cleaning the corpse in his tub, then lovingly arranging it in front of the TV or stereo or perhaps at the dining room table, so he could enjoy its company until it became too decomposed to bear.

And then there is the occasional serial killer who turns his tub into a killing device, like the British Bluebeard George Joseph Smith, the notorious “Brides in the Bath” murderer, who drowned three of his seven wives for their insurance money.

Of course, the most famous of these bathroom fixtures is the shower-tub combo where Janet Leigh meets her brutal end at the hands of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Thanks to Hitchcock’s Psycho, countless unclad starlets have been butchered by maniacs while soaping up in the shower or relaxing in a bubble bath. Every now and then, a knife-wielding psycho will even pop out of a tub as in Fatal Attraction. But on the whole, these are perils that hardly ever occur outside the movies. For the most part, bathtubs are perfectly safe—as long as you don’t slip on the soap.

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