As I sit here and write this, November 23rd, 2020, I was struck by something. I get a morning briefing from The History Channel each morning. In that briefing, it tells me the historical events that happened on that day. It’s a fascinating way to wake up each day as I wait for my French press coffee to steep.
What’s remarkable is that the birth dates and the death dates are announced for some of history’s most notorious murderers. Those people that have somehow become part of history, our history, and have been deemed important enough to be remembered alongside, say, the birth of Albert Einstein. For some reason, on this day that Billy the Kid was born, it struck me as strange.
Let’s face it, we have a strange fascination with people like Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, Jack the Ripper, Lizzy Borden, just to name a few. There are even some macabre fan clubs of these notorious life takers, people who threatened the lives and then took those lives, of other people, usually innocent, but not always. Somehow, through a perversion of time and our own human psyche, they’ve become part of our collective memory, elevated to the status, almost, of legend.
I’m sure there’s some psychological reasons for this. Today, it seems we can explain everything psychologically, even though the practice of human psychology is the most inaccurate science there is. Human psychology is at best a guess. Maybe a more educated guess than what a lay person might muster up, but a guess nonetheless.
For me, its about presentation and the story. The most primitive method by which humans teach each other, and the most effective means, is through stories. Every society in our history has preserved their memories through stories. Before the written word, there were stories, either sung, chanted, or said. Those stories lucky enough to stick in our collective consciousness eventually make it to the elevated status of legend, where the rough edges are sawn off, and the life of said person becomes almost poetic until they become myth, a myth never to be forgotten.
Eventually, through the miracle of time, while we may scoff publicly about Jack the Ripper or Billy the Kid, in the places we won’t admit reside within us we wonder what it would be like to meet them, or in our most bizarre world, be them. They were the ultimate boundary breakers, the one’s who didn’t care what others thought. They’d made a mockery of society’s conventions, made peace with themselves and what they were. Today, we’d call them sick, and still do, and we’re right. Even in the prehistoric period, murder was seen as antithetical to human behavior. But think on this. We still talk about them today, still make movies about them today, and still have a fascination with them…today.
I’m not sure what that says about us, but then again, maybe it says all we need to know. Deep within us there resides a place of darkness, a darkness so deep and so black that even we don’t want to go there alone, so, we go there together by venerating some of history’s most notorious people through various mediums. Their myth stays alive, and we view them, as one would walk through a museum, wondering….