I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.
I don’t usually do a lot of research, to be honest. As a novelist my method has generally been to just make stuff up. Stephen Jones has asked me to write a story for an upcoming project, however, and suggested I set it in Santa Cruz in the 1930s. I thought I’d better at least pretend to be professional, and look into the town’s history for half an hour.
Weeks later, I haven’t even started the story. Why? Well, it turns out there’s a heck of a lot to look into.
I knew some of it already — including that there was a time when Santa Cruz was dubbed “the murder capital of the world”. I’ve speculated wildly about the underlying causes for this in a novel I wrote a couple of years ago — but which has not, for reasons too tedious to relate, yet been published. The factual basis for the town’s nickname was that in early 1970s there were not just one, but two serial killers operating in the neighborhood.
The better-known is Ed “The Co-Ed Killer” Kemper, who killed his grandparents when he was sixteen because he “wanted to see how it felt”. Kemper was intelligent and personable and after some years in institutions convinced people he was cured. He was released to the (not very) tender care of his mother, in nearby Aptos, after which he murdered six young UCSC students before eventually dismembering his mother and her best friend in an evening of Grand Guignol that makes the Saw movies look like Great British Bake Off. During the period of the murders he hung out with local police in a Santa Cruz bar called The Jury Room, which is still in business and a strong contender for the dive-iest dive bar on this or any other coast. He was convincing enough that the cops not only accidentally kept him up to date with the progress of their investigation into the killings, but loaned him a pair of hand-cuffs to play with. The Santa Cruz Police Department acknowledges that this was not their finest hour.
I’ve spent a while trying to get inside the heads of people of this type — as the Straw Men novels hopefully attest — but even by the standards of the breed, Kemper's behaviour was dispiritingly unpleasant. The other man killing at the time was a little different, however, at least to my mind.
Herbert Mullin spent his teenage years in Felton, a mountain town fifteen minutes’ drive from my house. In the month during which he killed ten of his thirteen victims (late January to mid-February 1973), however, he may have been living in the McCray hotel, a building I’d already become intrigued by in relation to the novella I’m planning for Steve.
Originally a grand Victorian villa on Beach Hill, near the Boardwalk (the beach-side fun fair featured in seminal 1980s vampire romp The Lost Boys), by the 1940s The McCray had become a low-rent rooming house. As you can see from the photo above, it looms. It’s believed, in fact, to have been the visual inspiration for the domicile of Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho: Hitchcock owned a property in nearby Scott’s Valley for many years, and though the design of the McCray is a little different, the building’s presence on a hill, poised above a motel, is clearly mirrored in the film. In a delicious irony, the McCray was redeveloped in the early 1990s and is now an assisted living facility for the elderly. The photo is from when it went on the market in 1985.
It took three years to sell, at two thirds of the original asking price, possibly because of its reputation. In my digging I discovered the hotel had already attainted a little notoriety back in September 1933, when a female resident stalked, shot and killed a former employer living next door — and that it’s also only a couple of houses from another striking Victorian mansion called the Golden Gate Villa, in which Major Frank McLaughlin killed his daughter and himself in 1907, on the anniversary of his wife’s death. The owner of the McCray in the 1880s, E. J. Swift, died in the hotel for no apparent reason one afternoon, immediately after a nice lunch. And to add yet further to the building's spooky cred, I eventually came upon a story in the Santa Cruz Sentinel from June 28, 1908, concerning skeletal remains, a battle axe and a cache of shells that plumbers had found during excavations nearby. It appears that the McCray Hotel, therefore — inspiration for Psycho, and also the (almost certain) home of a real-life serial killer during the height of his murdering spree — was built on an honest-to-god Indian burial ground.
No, I’m not making this up. This is what Santa Cruz is like — which is possibly why the town makes a far bigger deal of Halloween than it does of Christmas.
Anyway. Having already been dragged a long way from material even tangentially relevant to the story I’m supposed to be writing, I wound up reading a slew of books about Mullin, in an attempt to find corroboration for the claim that he briefly lived in the McCray. I do this stuff so you don’t have to, and I hope you’re grateful. I haven't yet established that alleged fact to my satisfaction (though an email I've received this morning suggests it might happen very soon), but I have learned some other things.
The bottom line is that it’s clear Mullin suffered from schizophrenia. This is a common defense offered for the murderously deranged, but episodes of echopraxia and periods when he was able to control his behavior through medication appear to confirm the diagnosis. He heard voices. They told him to do things. To kill people. One of the most distinctive aspects of Mullin’s mania is he believed that through this he was helping stave off an earthquake, a concern doubtless related to the fact that he was born on the anniversary of the devastating San Francisco quake of 1906. April 18th is also the anniversary of Albert Einstein’s death, and Mullin became convinced this gave him alone the foresight to help the world avoid catastrophe.
So, yes, he was — in the common parlance — something of a nut. But the curious thing is that in many ways Mullin does not fit the standard rules-of-thumb for becoming a serial killer. He was not a loner. He was decent-looking, popular, good at sport, smart — even voted “Most Likely To Succeed” at the end of his senior year. Though relations with his ex-Marine father later became strained, he came from a close family. He had a long-term girlfriend, who was kind. He did not, unlike Ed Kemper, have a strange and domineering mother. He had not, unlike John Linley Frazier (another Santa Cruz murderer, who in 1970 disposed of an entire family, including two children, before setting their house on fire) suffered a head injury that might have contributed to his behaviour.
So what happened?
It seems that Dean Richardson happened.
Dean was a boy on the same football team at San Lorenzo Valley High School. He and Herbert had become inseparable friends — like brothers, people said. Then one night, on June 17th, 1965, Dean was driving in the mountains near Felton when he lost control of his car, rolled it. And died, alone, on a forest road.
And Herbert Mullin changed. He built a shrine to Dean in his bedroom. Became distant from family and friends. Before long he was experimenting with pot, and then LSD. There’s little doubt that heroic doses of these, and the kind of people they brought him into contact with during a period living in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, contributed to Mullin’s future steep decline. And yes, there was the schizophrenia.
But within a few years of Dean’s death Mullin was taking male partners, having finally worked out that’s who he was. I'm speculating here, I admit. But it's hard not to wonder if unrequited and probably unacknowledged and deeply buried emotion underlay Mullin's dramatic change.
Why am I telling you this? I guess because when trawling deep into the newspaper archive, I came upon a tiny piece in the Sentinel from September 12, 1965 — and it stopped me in my tracks.
I’m not defending Mullin, nor trying to excuse his actions. He killed thirteen innocent people, including a priest, and ruined countless associated lives.
But seven years before any of that, he was a boy helping to carry a coffin, a young man whose mind — I suspect — was breaking in half with grief at the death of a friend he hadn’t realized he was in love with. A friend who could have taken that bend in the road a little more slowly that night, and lived.
That's real horror. Sure, there are spooky buildings like the McCray Hotel, tales of gothic deaths gone by, dressing up like vampires or Frankenstein’s monster or putting on Dias de las Muertos makeup. But there’s genuine horror in the world, too — the kind that will touch all our lives from time to time. Things that happen and change everything — from terrorism and murder to simple acts of fate or unkindness that cause people to believe the world is against them, that make them pull down the shutters and hide. Things that we have to try to understand, and treat with compassion and respect and love, if we’re ever to get to the bottom of what it is to be human.
These things happen, and we are drawn to them. As Mullin said in one of many interviews with the psychiatrist who judged him fit to stand trial: “People like to sing the die song, you know, people like to sing the die song”.
This is why horror is so important. It’s about the deep stuff. It’s about us. Our secret selves, the inner lights. The things we truly feel, that make us who we are, even if we have to keep them hidden inside.
And it’s also the only genre with the balls to look the die song in the eye.