A friend of mine once described a childhood visit to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s by recalling the indelible impression made upon her by the sight of a characteristically creepy John Christie indulging in a spot of wallpapering at 10 Rillington Place. The Notting Hill serial killer may have been hanged in 1953, but it seems his likeness being immortalised in wax was as recent as the famed tourist haunt was prepared to go in the 1970s with regards to the world’s most notorious murderers. There must have been a specific cut-off point whereby Madame Tussaud’s figured offence might be caused and litigation might ensue. The further the embodiment of horror was from living memory, the less the likelihood of survivors who could raise objections.
Jack the Ripper’s brief reign of terror only spanned a few months in the summer of 1888, but the penny dreadfuls of the time sensationalised the killings attributed to him that his eternal anonymity perpetuated. Even within the lifetime of his murderous spree, he had been transformed into an urban bogeyman in a way that the photographic evidence of his stomach-churning brutality failed to demystify. The enduring image of the mad hatter emerging through the Victorian fog armed with a knife has served to bracket Jack the Ripper alongside fictitious nineteenth century villains and in turn to minimise the appalling severity of what he did. Not so his late twentieth century successors. Not yet, anyway.
Perhaps the passage of time and the demise of living memory serves to elevate history’s most infamous killers into the realms of the unreal, so that Genghis Khan, Vlad the Impaler, Hitler and Christie inhabit the same parallel world as Dracula, Darth Vader, Doctor Doom and the Daleks – neutered fantasy figures from effective fairy tales. How long before Harold Shipman, Peter Sutcliffe and Fred West join them in the pantheon of larger-than-life cartoon baddies? Hopefully when we’re all dead and gone, though I don’t doubt it will eventually happen. What then of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley? The last surviving member of the duo whose crimes remain the benchmark of the unspeakable and unimaginable died yesterday at the age of 79.
For the last half-century (and especially since the death of his partner-in-crime in 2002), Brady has been Britain’s most reviled permanent prisoner. Not for him the inexplicable ‘cool’ kudos afforded the likes of Charles Manson; Brady has been beyond the pale for fifty years, a figure of universal loathing whose offences that led to his conviction in 1966 have not been diminished by decades. Despite the plethora of books, newspaper articles and documentaries devoted to the Moors Murderers, pop culture largely steered clear bar the odd token shock tactic from the likes of Malcolm McLaren and YBA Marcus Harvey. There were a couple of TV dramas in the 2000s that dealt with Brady and Hindley’s crimes and their aftermath, but the fact that forty years had been allowed to elapse since conviction and dramatisation perhaps spoke volumes as to the ongoing sensitivity surrounding what they did.
When Brady and Hindley were sentenced to life for the torture and murder of three children (admission of five only came from Brady later), the police mug-shots taken of the pair after their arrest inadvertently became as iconic an image of the decade as the professional portraits of Christine Keeler and the Krays. For everyone born after they were placed behind bars, the gruesome twosome frozen in time with their greasy quiff and peroxide bouffant were perennial presences across tabloid pages, regularly evoked as ghastly hate figures even for those too young to be aware of the extent of their sadistic depravity. That the pair utilised the technology of the time by audio recording and photographing their deplorable deeds showed them to be nauseating pioneers of contemporary trends amongst psychopaths for either videoing or streaming their crimes online.
The only notable song penned about Brady and Hindley remains ‘Suffer Little Children’ by The Smiths, which first appeared on the band’s eponymous 1984 debut album; it caused minor outrage at the time of its release, though the track is more of a baleful comment on the uneasy atmosphere an entire generation of Mancunians were raised in, one in which the shadows of the Moors Murderers hung over their childhoods with the toxic pallor of factory fumes in a Lowry painting. It also reflected the Fleet Street fascination with keeping the couple in the public eye rather than letting them rot away behind bars; the outrage surrounding the song was ironically generated by the press rather than the families of the Moors Murderers’ victims.
Myra Hindley’s role in the ugly affair seemed so contradictory to the maternal instinct we are constantly reminded is harboured in the breast of every woman that it served to maintain her high profile until her death. Some of the slavering articles on the subject of her sex life in gaol were far more disturbing than the lyrical content of ‘Suffer Little Children’, and the manner of reportage that continued to pollute the pages of the press in the decades after the pair were banged-up was often as sensationalistic as that which accompanied Jack the Ripper’s activities a century earlier.
Few people, if anyone, will mourn the passing of Ian Brady. There’s no reason why they should. That he took the burial location of one victim to his grave, depriving Keith Bennett’s surviving family members of the smallest semblance of solace, is testament to his indifference to the suffering he caused. His inevitable absorption into the future Chamber of Horrors may still be a long way off, but now that he can no longer be a source of shock-horror headlines from his long-term deathbed, such headlines will gradually cease and the families he destroyed over fifty years ago can achieve some form of peace, however minimal it may be.
© The Editor