The history of the American serial killer has been a timeline that has fascinated people for years. With the internet at everyone’s fingertips these days, anyone can read up on some of the most depraved human beings to ever walk the earth.
Dig a little deeper than Dahmer, Gacy, Ramirez and Rader, and you’ll find the founding fathers of American terror – H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish, Carl Panzram. These are the men who helped shape a nation’s underbelly and Chicago’s John Borowski is dedicated to chronicling the serial killer culture.
Borowski is an acclaimed author and filmmaker, a gentleman with an unmatched work ethic when it comes to researching his topics and, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating fellas to talk to if you are ever lucky enough to meet him at a horror convention.
JUSTIN HAMELIN/TOM HOLLAND’S TERROR TIME: What inspired you to become a true crime writer and filmmaker?
JOHN BOROWSKI: I kind of fell into it. I wanted to initially get into special effects makeup. I loved film and art. I started zoology, then a friend told me about Columbia College’s film course and I just fell in love. I knew that was what I was meant to do.
I was in college and researching a history paper when I read Depraved by Harold Schechter, a fantastic book about H.H. Holmes, and I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is really fascinating stuff!’ It really just clicked from there – I created the book and film H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer. I did a short film for a project, called State of Mind about Jeffrey Dahmer before I did the Holmes’ one, but the Holmes film was my first real shot at making a movie for a large audience. I’ve always had an interest in the serial killer culture, just not becoming one!
TT: I imagine it can be difficult sometimes to get the information you are looking for for your films.
JB: I focus on cases that are pre-1940’s, mostly, although Ed Gein was in the 50’s, so I don’t have many obstacles as far as family disapproval and the main fact is, most of this information is open knowledge, available, to the public. However, I keep doing research until I am confident and secure that I’ve turned over every stone possible. I review pop culture references, songs, books, photos, interviews. I don’t finish a project until I am positive I did everything I could to make it the best project it could possibly be. A film tells me when it is done. You can’t put art into a time frame, which is the hardest part about working with studios.
TT: Your latest book, The Ed Gein File: A Psycho’s Confession and Case Documents, has received a ton of praise throughout the true crime book community and is an exhaustive examination of Gein and his crimes.
JB: I’m really happy with this book. That’s why I do these things. Putting the information out there for the public – researchers, scholars, everyone. I’ve always had an interest in Gein.
TT: Considering you have already covered Holmes and Fish, among others, Gein seemed like the logical next step, so to speak.
JB: It’s a fascinating case. My favorite movie of all-time is Hitchcock’s Psycho, so I’ve been conscious of Gein’s crimes for some time.
I came across the case files a while back and just knew it was time to spotlight him. I’m always interested in these deep-rooted psychological cases – why did they do these things? It was just time to put a book together. I’d really like to do a feature film on Gein. He’s always on my radar.
TT: Was there one part of the research aspect of this project that you felt you never got closure on?
JB: You know, I always wonder if there were more photos taken of the Gein case. There aren’t many out there and I always just think about a camera out there somewhere, collecting dust, or a bunch of photos buried somewhere that have been forgotten about.
TT: The book looks gorgeous and the book is full of illustrations. How did you go about compiling this artwork?
JB: Erica Kauffman, half of the married duo behind Atomic Cotton, which is just an awesome art company that does shirts and all sorts of just incredible horror art, did the cover and I couldn’t be more happy or proud of it. It is gorgeous. Lou Rusconi, Roger Scholz, Sam Hane, Charles D. Moisant and Nicolas Castelaux all contributed illustrations to the book. I wanted to do something different from just stock photos. I thought illustrations would be a neat way to make this book unique.
TT: In doing all of this research and fully immersing yourself in these dark pieces of history, do you ever find yourself sympathizing with the killer?
JB: I see these killers as souls in torment. I acknowledge the horrible crimes they’ve committed but these people don’t simply wake up and start killing one day. There’s a reason they became who or what they were. At one time, they were just like any other person, you or me, and that’s the real motivation for me when I take on a project – I want to find out what happened, why this monster was created.
TT: If you could sit down with one of your featured serial killers and really analyze them face-to-face, who would it be and why?
JB: I would want to probably sit down and have a beer with Carl Panzram. I couldn’t say definitely that he was a serial killer, you know? He killed the Leavenworth guard, absolutely, but was he a serial killer? In my research, I can’t definitively say. Who better to discuss the legal system with than a man who grew up in the prison system and lived it until the day he died? In my film on Panzram (Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance), I only spend about ten minutes on the murders. I spend most of the film dissecting his broken childhood and the lessons he is trying to teach us in far more fascinating than any of the crimes.
TT: Crowd-funding has been a topic of interest over the last few years and you’ve managed to achieve quite a bit of success through this form of funding a project. What are your thoughts on it?
JB: I’ve run three crowd-funding fundraisers, with two completing the goal I created for the project. It really is a twenty-four, seven job in itself. There are so many variables and so many obstacles when running a crowd-funding fundraiser, especially a successful one. Follow-up, marketing, figuring out perks… it’s really a challenge but it’s worthwhile when everything comes together. It took me two, maybe even four, months to figure out the perks alone for one of my projects! Crowd-funding is an outlet I respect and would like to try for a feature film some day.
TT: What other serial killers would you like to spotlight on a future film or book?
JB: Jessie Pomeroy was a fourteen-year-old serial killer from Boston. He is the youngest person ever convicted of murder and was sentenced to solitary confinement at the age of sixteen. He didn’t get out of confinement until he was fifty-eight years old and died at seventy-two. I would love to look at that case from a psychological and judicial standpoint. Schechter wrote an incredible book on Pomeroy called Fiend.
TT: Where do you see yourself and your career in five, ten years?
JB: In my heart, I’ve always wanted to do feature films. It’s what I grew up loving – films. Five years from now, I’d like to have one or two completed. They take years to finish, as all independent filmmakers know, so it is definitely a lofty goal. I am one hundred percent independent and work on all aspects of a film project I’m involved in. I’m never afraid to do the dirty work, but there’s only so much time in a day so I’m always evolving and working to become a more efficient filmmaker.
TT: What are you currently working on?
JB: I’ve got four projects in the mix right now. Bloodlines: The Art and Life of Vincent Castiglia is the big one right now. I recently shot a trailer for a feature film and I’m working on another book, as well. I’ve also got another something else related to the serial killer culture, but I’m keeping that one pretty hush hush for now. I’m just enjoying the work!
Ladies and gentlemen, I highly recommend you check out anything and everything Mr. Borowski has created. His website is a fantastic resource and hub of information. Check out John’s Amazon page and support an indie artist while also scoring some fantastic true crime merchandise. Do yourself a favor and check out Mr. Borowski’s Vimeo page, too, for all of John’s fantastic films!