Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer
W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of North Carolina Wilmington
of a film review published in Teaching Sociology, 26(1),
Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. 87 minutes.
1992. $19.99. Fox Lorber Home Video, Los Angeles, CA.
Wuornos has been billed as "America's first female serial
killer." A former prostitute now on Florida's death row,
Wuornos has been convicted of murdering seven "clients."
Wuornos claims that she murdered the men in an effort to
defend herself against their violent abuses. This Nick
Broomfield documentary presents her story in a starkly
realistic manner. The result is a "truth is stranger than
fiction" story which leaves viewers with many questions
regarding the murder investigation and trials of Ms. Wuornos.
The documentary introduces the viewer to the compellingly
strange characters that became a part of Ms. Wuornos' life
following her arrest for murder. The characters speak for
themselves, often exposing themselves as uncaring, crass, and
Wuornos received her first death sentence following a
conviction for the murder of Richard Mallory. The film
includes taped testimony offered in the trial. Wuornos tells
of a brutal torture rape that ended only when she shot
Mallory. The prosecution was aided by the testimony of Tyria
Moore, Aileen's former lover. In a series of taped phone
conversations that border on entrapment, Wuornos tells Moore
that "if I have to confess to everything just to keep you out
of trouble I will." Her lover's response was "do it now, get
it over with." The prosecution was further aided by the fact
that evidence regarding Mallory's record, which included a
10-year institutionalization for sexual violence (NBC
Dateline, Nov. 10, 1992), was not raised in the trial.
Much of the film focuses on lengthy and erratic negotiations
regarding payment for an interview with Wuornos. One of the
film's main characters is Wuornos' newly adopted mother,
Arlene Pralle. She, along with self promoting attorney Steven
Glazer, who would clearly prefer to be a rock star, appear to
control access to Wuornos. Pralle tells Broomfield that she
has "a neat story, but I can't tell you." Likewise, Glazer
tells Broomfield that Wuornos can provide a "fascinating
story," yet will not speak unless paid. Broomfield attempts to
play the game by their rules, yet the rules seem to keep
changing. To a certain extent Broomfield is duped into
believing that he cannot get to Wuornos without going through
Glazer and Pralle.
Glazer began his representation of Wuornos after her first
conviction. The film exposes him as more interested in
negotiating access and film deals than in addressing his
client's criminal charges. Wuornos received her second, third,
and fourth death sentences after entering a no contest plea to
three first degree murders. Glazer and Pralle encouraged her
to enter this plea. Their belief in Jesus Christ led them to
argue that this plea, and the subsequent sentence, would speed
Wuornos toward forgiveness. After sentencing, Wuornos angrily
thanked the judge and told him that she would "be in heaven
while you all are rotting in hell." Wuornos cusses out the
judge. Glazer sings a song about the electric chair. Pralle
talks about Aileen's open door to heaven.
After an uncomfortable and distrustful exchange of money,
Broomfield is granted access to Wuornos. Glazer, singing
personal renditions of Pink Floyd tunes, in which he performs
the vocals and all instruments, takes Broomfield on what the
attorney calls a "seven-joint" ride to the prison. There are
interesting moments as Broomfield's "bull in a china closet"
method of film making gets him in trouble with prison
management. In the eventual interview we learn that Aileen is
beginning to suspect that Pralle and Glazer are more
interested in money than in her well being. By now this is no
revelation to Broomfield and the viewers.
The film provides a picture of a woman who has been victimized
by the system as well as those who have aligned themselves
with her. The film raises important questions about the role
of the American legal system and about the interaction of
justice and the mass media. Many Hollywood production
companies reportedly negotiated with police and others about
rights to the Wuornos story. In some cases, negotiations may
have been initiated by the police before an arrest was made.
Police officers reportedly discussed movie deals with Tyria
Moore, Aileen's lover, before Wuornos was arrested. The film
suggests that evidence was ignored because it would reduce the
value of the story. Hollywood was interested in a story about
"America's first female serial killer." This was the story the
police intended to deliver.
A weakness of the film is related to the effort to document
the role of specific players in the decision process through
which Wuornos was arrested and prosecuted. In Broomfield's
defense, not many of these people were interested in talking
with him. He makes this point in a series of recorded phone
calls that run with the film's final credits. Viewers are left
to wonder just how far police and others went to provide a
product of interest to Hollywood. Once students realize that
this story is true, they become quite creative in their
efforts to fill in the blanks.
Wuornos, although not necessarily a sympathetic character, has
been exploited by nearly everyone associated with her case,
and in fact, her entire life. The documentary describes
Aileen's early life, which included her abandonment at three
months of age. Her father, in prison for sexually abusing a
young girl, committed suicide when Aileen was seven. She was
raised by an alcoholic grandfather who sadistically beat her.
Aileen began life on the streets at 15 and was raped at least
five times before she was 18. Her life of drinking, drugs, and
abuse eventually led to prostitution. Exploitation was a
dominant factor in Aileen's life and continued throughout her
time in the justice system.
This film should interest students in a variety of criminology
courses. It is a great film to include in a discussion of the
role of the media. The film is also an interesting addition to
introductory sociology or social problem courses in which
students are encouraged to discuss the players and mechanisms
of our justice system. Students often do not believe this is a
true story. It may be helpful to bring news reports to
distribute following the film. In most cases the media
presents Aileen's story with very little sympathy. By focusing
on varying depictions of the same story we are able to
illustrate the often subjective nature of the media and our
system of justice.
The following questions and materials may be helpful in
directing and focusing discussion of the documentary and the
issues it raises. One of my goals is to encourage students to
become critical consumers of information. These questions are
directed toward that effort.
What is it about serial killers that draws us to their
stories? This discussion can focus on media fascination with
serial killers as evidenced in news-based media as well as in
films such as "Silence of the Lambs," "Seven," and "Copycat."
It is interesting to compare Hollywood depictions to real life
serial killers. Hollywood serial killers are more diabolic,
and often much more intelligent, than Aileen Wuornos or
If you were aware of Aileen Wuornos before the film, has your
opinion of her been altered? Similarly, do you now read
newspaper reports (which can be provided for discussion)
regarding Ms. Wuornos with a certain degree of scepticism?
Is it possible that police officers, prosecutors, or others
may seek personal gain through their association with certain
cases? What things can these individuals do to increase their
chances of reward? Is the successful prosecution of this type
of case a political stepping stone?
Would a judge, jury, or the public be quick to assume that
Wuornos, a lesbian prostitute who does not possess what many
define as natural beauty, is a murderer? Did her appearance,
lifestyle, and personality make it easy to define her as
"America's first female serial killer?"
Was Aileen a natural born killer, or did external factors lead
her to death row? Would there have been a point in her life
that her downward spiral could have been averted? Are there
points in every life in which decisions or events can change
the course of the future?
Is it acceptable to sentence someone to death when adequate
legal representation is not provided? What about Aileen's post
conviction rights regarding appeals and habeas corpus? For a
discussion of these issues, see Hill v. Butterworth,
941 F.Supp. 1129 and McFarland v. Scott, 512 U.S.
Did Aileen's "clients" assume the risk of bodily harm by
seeking the services of a prostitute? If so, does their
consent mitigate Aileen's responsibility? See United
States v. Beckford et al., 962 F.Supp. 804 and Wuornos
v. State, 676 So.2d 972 (Fla. 1996) for a discussion of