People think Jim Morrison prescient in his use of the serial killer imagery in works like “The End” or “Riders on the Storm”. In the ’60s serial killers and mass murderers started entering the national consciousness, but Morrison was already there. How? There were a couple of serial killers that shocked the nation in the ’50s, not only because of their youth, but also the violence of their actions. There are several that Morrison could have had in mind when incorporating the serial killer motif into his poetry. It is interesting to note that these serial killers had something else in common with Morrison’s poems: the freedom of the highways and cars was a main feature of their crimes.
The first would be Billy Cook, whose twenty-two day and six-person killing spree took him from Missouri to California in late December 1950 and early 1951. The features of Cook’s crimes will seem very familiar to Doors fans. Cook picked his victims at random while hitchhiking, in one case in the desert. One of Cook’s last victims was a traveling salesman who picked up Cook.
The second would be Charles Starkweather, whose name immediately evokes “Riders on the Storm”. Who else besides a rider on the storm could survive stark weather? Between December 1957 and January 1958 nineteen year-old Starkweather and fourteen year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate went on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming, careening across the countryside in stolen cars and killing not only Fugate’s parents but also the families they found in the houses they broke into.
In his interview with the Village Voice’s Howard Smith, Morrison mentions both Billy Cook and Charles Starkweather.
It would be interesting to know when the serial killer imagery started coming into Morrison’s thinking and poetry. It’s hard to tell without his notebooks when the serial killer motif entered Morrison’s thinking. Before leaving UCLA he famously burned his notebooks. If he started using the imagery after he left UCLA, having those notebooks would be essential for study and understanding of how Morrison created his poems.
In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter which serial killer was the model for Morrison’s poetic motif, although in their stories you can see elements Morrison used in his poetry: murder, cars, highways, the desert, and even the nuclear family. But Morrison didn’t just use the facts of these crimes in his poems, he made them an archetype for the randomness and inevitability of death.
As noted above, Morrison used the serial killer motif to best advantage in The Doors songs “The End” and “Riders on the Storm” and they illustrate the antipodes of Morrison’s poetic-philosophical struggle. “The End” illustrates the angst of being a teenager and in your early 20’s of figuratively wanting to kill your parents, or be freed from authority figures such as your parents, but that angst is blind without focus or meaning. “Riders on the Storm” is the other end of the spectrum, in which you’re cognizant of death around you, but you’re able to find meaning from the blinding light of that angst and love is the answer.
Morrison also used the motif for his film “HWY”, but in 1952 actress Ida Lupino who wanted to be behind the camera had heard about Cook’s killing spree and wrote and directed her own movie “The Hitch-Hiker”.
Originally published August 15, 2015.