Any child of the 1980s and early ‘90s exposed to pop-horror culture can attest to the bizarrely prevalent mingling of the horrific with the humorous, marketed to little kids when they were growing up. From Freddy Kruger’s vulgarly cartoonish repertoire of one-liners during his bouts of carnage to Child’s Play-themed trading cards featuring the foul-mouthed killer doll spewing catchphrases from The Terminator, at that moment, comedy of transgression was the thing. The harrowing horror films of the seventies, with their muted color palettes and chilling tone, were annihilated by absurd comedic gaffs and garish gore that glistened with bloody slime, oozing and bubbling like a melting pizza at Chuck E. Cheese. The taboo-shattering style of the late-‘80s horror movie channeled an impulse to both repulse and amuse, allowing hormone-crazed adolescents to revel in their wildest inclinations and metaphysically exorcise their urges in the safety of their parents’ basements, taking in twisted pleasures via TV, far removed from the tame preciousness of pre-teen content produced today. The orgasmic combustion of violence and laughter gave us an anarchic charge that shaped our worldview to embrace the dark and irreverent over the polite and politically correct. Our catharsis was found in the extreme.
The audacity of the fictional villains we loved and feared mirrored the personas of the “heavy-hitting” serial killers who were cultural icons in the 1990s. Discovering the A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, written by Harold Schechter, was a formative moment for a lot of us, shaping our future sensibilities. The revulsion of reading about gruesome acts satisfied a craving and the undercurrent of pitch-black humor was undeniable in the ludicrousness of what we were consuming. A transcript of Richard Ramirez’s prison questionnaire, which feels like the work of a 12-year-old trying to piss off his school counselor, reads as follows:
Most Treasured Honor: My dick
Perfect Woman or Man: Me
Childhood Hero: Jack The Ripper
Favorite TV Shows: The Munsters
Favorite Movies: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead
Favorite Songs/Singers/Musicians: Led Zep, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Ozzy, AC/DC, Billy Idol
Hobbies: Slicing + Dicing + Spicing up Rump Roast
Favorite Meals: Women’s feet
It’s hard not to chuckle at the pure outlandishness and balls-out narcissism of these characters. John Wayne Gacy, an upstanding member of the Elks Club in his Mid-Western community who, when he wasn’t dressing up as a clown to entertain children was also killing them, aired his grievances towards the media when they took him at his word after he was quoted as saying “clowns get away with murder.” Apparently, he meant that statement as a joke to be taken figuratively, not literally, and regarded his critics as being way out of line.
Being obsessed with the sick minutiae of all this as a teenager was like having your own secret Monster Squad-esque club that offered you an escape from the mundane reality of your high school existence. There was always an alternate realm to escape to in the universe of horror obsession, whether it was convincing each other the weird neighbor across the street who lived with his mother had her dead body stuffed in the attic, trading bootleg VHS of Blood Feast for The Wizard of Gore or just trying to get through Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer without closing your eyes.
The Last Podcast On The Left, the dark comedy podcast comprised of best friends, comedians, and horror aficionados Henry Zebrowski, Ben Kissel and Marcus Parks is like a throwback to those Monster Squad days, offering a weekly foray into the depths of sinister subcultures and the murder and mayhem that’s shaped history. Now at their 275th episode, to discover their archives is to stumble on a breathtaking oral history of the bizarre, including such topics as the occult, alien conspiracies, serial killers, Chemtrails, demon possession, cults, poltergeists, witch hunts, true crime, chaos magic, urban legends, American terrorism and Bigfoot. Their deeply informed yet juvenile banter surrounding every facet of culture that’s sick, depraved or simply weird is a nostalgically morbid dream come true for longtime fans of the genre, as well as the perfect entré for listeners newly mining the topic.
The threesome started the podcast six years ago in a basement room below a bar in Long Island City, New York that resembled a place drifter killers Henry Lee Lucas and his partner, Ottis Toole, might feel at home. Their fanbase has grown from a few oddball stragglers at the dive bar wearing death-metal T-shirts to thousands of listeners who swarm their lives shows, waiting in lines that snake around the block with offerings like satanist-themed groupie merch and elaborate fan art. The level of research dedicated to each episode is pretty astounding and it’s evident that, while their tone of irreverence is ever-present, the complexity of each topic they explore has deepened through their evolution as performers.
Now the outrageous comedy of earlier episodes is compounded with a social criticism apropo to our current political atmosphere in which humor is a more vital tool than ever to disarm and agitate. One of their main missions is to belittle the bogeyman with humor, to take back power from the monsters who aim to intimidate and terrorize and cut them down to size. Horror fiction and humor are two avenues in which to exorcise our collective anxieties, which as the current pop cultural obsession with true crime attests to, is something we are craving rabidly, and it seems as though the rest of the country is now just catching up to Henry, Ben and Marcus. I caught up with the guys before one of their live shows in Indiana to help me get some insight into all of the madness.
In the tradition of serial killer lore, let’s start with each of your origin stories in relation to your interest in the horror/crime genre.
HENRY: I’m from Queens. My mom was living in Forest Hills during the time of Son of Sam, and my father was a cop. I’m not sure if that had anything to do with it, but for some reason, since I was a little kid, I was obsessed with serial killers. I was always interested in the dark side of everything: horror movies, reading about Satanism, ghosts, monsters. In Woodhaven, where I lived, the neighborhood kind of changed overnight. It went from a very Italian neighborhood to a very Haitian one, and all these voodoo shops started opening. These places would sometimes get busted for animal sacrifice, for killing goats and shit. This one time. my buddy and I went into the park and saw a clearing behind these police lines. There was this big octagonal thing with tree stumps that had been kind of placed around it, and the whole ground was just soaked and matted with blood. I always remember that as like a fun memory. You know? We laughed.
BEN: My father’s a German immigrant and my parents were very Evangelical, pretty far out there. They started doing foster care when I was 12. And at that age, I was already 5’ 8” and I was 6’7” by the time I was 13 years old, which gave me horrible social anxiety disorders. I was just this weird, lanky, strange kid. There was a lot of turbulence happening. I became very aware of another world out there that was extremely violent. In our house, we did emergency foster care, so you can imagine the atrocities the kids had seen. Being from Wisconsin, the two people I was mainly watching on TV at that time were Chris Farley on SNL and Jeffrey Dahmer on the news. So I pretty much fell in love with Chris Farley and Jeffrey Dahmer. [Laughs]
MARCUS: I was raised in a really small town in Texas – less than 400 people. The nearest city was Dallas which is, like, four hours away, and I grew up in the middle of a cotton field. It was a very creepy place. We had inbred families. There were murders and suicides happening pretty frequently.
So very Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
MARCUS: Oh, extremely Texas Chainsaw. That movie was actually one of the things that got me into horror. When I was 12, I rented it from the video store and watched it at home sitting in my dark house believing what I was watching was a true story,that it all happened within an hour of where I lived. Then when I got to be a teenager, I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and it became my favorite book. Even the cover of that book with that picture of the Holcomb Kansas water tower looked exactly like the water tower in my town. It was terrifying but also exciting.
BEN: I think the through line all of us has, even with our very different upbringings, was that feeling of isolation. Feeling different, feeling strange. Struggling with anxiety as kids. And that’s the through line for a lot of our fans, too. To me, that’s one of the great things about the podcast.
HENRY: That’s one of the things that brings so many people to horror, right? That feeling of isolation.
I know how dedicated you’ve been to this podcast for years, the extensive research involved and how all encompassing that can be. Have the obsessions of yours ever interfered with your personal lives in any way? The Robert Graysmith character in David Fincher’s film Zodiac comes to mind.
HENRY: I actually lost an eight-year relationship because of my obsession with aliens. Years ago, when I started getting into this stuff, I set a goal to become Ray from the movie Ghostbusters. I realized at some point I’d never be popular enough as a comedian to be in a Ghostbusters movie, so I decided that I wanted to actually be a ghostbuster, and part of that was to become an expert about all of this stuff. In the course of that process my girlfriend and I broke up.
What was the final straw for her?
HENRY: Well the split was over me explaining David Icke’s moon theory, that the back of the moon is hollow because that’s where the Nazis are hiding their highly sensitive UFO materials.
BEN: Yeah, I wasn’t with you on that one. I’ve got to say I was with her on that one.
MARCUS: Similar things have happened to me. I mean there were times when I’d spend full days at home trying to piece together a child murder or something like that through police reports or I got into really heavy stuff like a 911 research phase. I’d get really affected by it all.
There’s a certain degree of self-seriousness surrounding a lot of the true crime podcasts cropping up. The amateur sleuthing. You guys, at the end of the day, are purely a dark humor show. You’re not telling people what to think. You’re discussing topics you’re interested in with an irreverence.
HENRY: We basically allow ourselves to have a dumb conversation, you know? Educate yourself but allow yourself to have a conversation as if you’re a bunch of fifteen-year-olds. There’s a freedom in saying we’re going to explore ideas with no net.
BEN: The show is a constant balance between finding the humor and of course, making sure we are never directing any jokes towards the victims of the crimes.
And you are in no way glorifying them. For instance, Charles Manson has been built up to be this mythical architect-of-evil-type figure, and the way you impersonate him as this loony pathetic creature is in a lot of ways much closer to reality.
HENRY: Originally, we were a bunch of nerdy kids who took that ball and ran with it in terms of the subject matter. Now in order to do it responsibly without completely being exploitative, you have to come at it from an angle, and a big part of it for us is defanging them. We portray them in a way that makes them look ridiculous.
MARCUS: Like we can talk about how Kenneth Bianchi, The Hillside Strangler, was a bedwetter when he was a kid, and call him Kennifer. And this is pretty funny. Ken Bianchi is the only serial killer that we know has actually listened to our podcast. He happened to listen to one of our episodes about the Hillside Strangler, where we were calling him Kennifer, and he actually threatened to sue us for defamation of character. [laughing]
BEN: These serial killers are not the evil arch monsters they’re made out to be. The media glorifies them by portraying them as these super villain archetypes. But in reality, most of them are the total losers who sit alone at Applebee’s who no one wants to talk to.
HENRY: I think there’s a gonzo element to joking about something or blowing something out with a ridiculous character. You actually find something closer to the truth then what just the facts can give you.
BEN: These are dark times in a lot of ways. People feel scared. We’ve got to exercise all that somehow and get it out. I think that’s one of the great things about the show. We’re playing with the idea of taking the power away from these “bogeymen,” away from the monster.
HENRY: Once you debase them you can take the power back, which is actually similar to what the entire internet has been trying to do with Trump.
That speaks to the culture of fear we find ourselves living in. Keeping people afraid has been a strategy of the media for a long time now. It seems to me that the trashier, exploitative side of true crime content that people are so addicted to, like the shows on the Investigation Discovery network, is aiding in that.
HENRY: We were talking about today how these A&E biographies about serial killers and those kind of shows are basically 45 minutes long and not very detail-oriented. They’re giving you snippets and highlights from these killers’ “careers,” but they’re just designed to scare you. They’re often targeted specifically to women ‘cause that’s they’re audience.
Marcus: I fucking despise these shitty shows about serial killers and crime because their sole purpose is to scare you. They want to throw a murder in your face and they want you to think it could happen to you.
HENRY: Well, it can happen to you.
MARCUS: Okay, yes, it can happen to you but you’re much more likely to get hit by a car.
HENRY: Well, yeah that will happen to you.
MARCUS: That’s why we go so in depth. We pick them apart. Once you lay all their guts out on the table, you realize that they’re not monsters in the sense that they are made out to be.
You also talk a lot about mental health. Most every story about a serial killer is really about the effects of childhood trauma and abuse and the cycle of violence. Most of these people who end up with a compulsion to harm were horrendously physically abused as children, resulting in mental illness. You’ve brought a huge awareness to mental health issues to your audience by going into depth on these topics.
MARCUS: One of the other shows I do is a mental health advice show. I talk a lot about trying to encourage people to get help, that whatever you’re feeling or going through, well, it’s not the end of the world. That it’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility to get help. We get a lot of suicidal people calling in to the podcast seeking help.
Ben: Yes, please always seek help. There is no shame in that. That’s a big reason we cover this stuff: People can be going down a real bad path. If they take care of it now, they might not get onto a good path, but they might be getting off of the murderous path.
Jeffrey Dahmer comes to mind.
BEN: You do look at someone like Jeffrey Dahmer and you wonder if our societal constructs were different towards homosexuality, he would have ended up doing what he did. If he was comfortable enough to just say he was gay at an early age, or been honest about the darker feelings he was having maybe things wouldn’t have escalated in the sinister way they did.
MARCUS: I think Dahmer is one of those people who took a left turn. If someone would have been paying attention and he had someone to talk to then…I don’t know. But that’s something we’ve been trying to push on the episodes: to remind people to pay attention to the people around them, to listen.
Your episode about the prolific serial killer, arsonist, and burglar Carl Panzram is in a lot of ways about abuse, but specifically about government sanctioned abuse within prison systems. In a similar case to Charles Manson, Panzram from an extremely young age was a victim of horrendous systematic abuse within reform schools and later, prisons. These are two very clear cases of the state’s inability to rehabilitate and their culpability in creating extremely dangerous criminals.
BEN: The prison reform stuff is one of the most important topics we get to talk about: the Core Civic Geo group and just how we’ve just monetized human suffering. How the industrial prison complex is essentially modern-day slavery. It’s good to be able to get into those real-life issues happening concurrently with us in our culture, while we’re talking about historical serial killers or modern day acts of crime.
What is interesting about true crime as a topic is not the crime itself but the social context that surrounds it, which is why it’s so beneficial that you emphasize the importance of thorough research and actually reading books as opposed to just “clicking on things.”
MARCUS: That’s why we always cite our sources cause we really wanna encourage people to actually go out and read these books.
HENRY: No one is really reading anymore. They read the headlines of articles and retweet them. Eeverything’s being funneled down to them.
HENRY: I do hope that one day we can get off the serial killer train and really start looking at the history of cults because I think the real next huge problem in this country is group think. Like we’re going to end up a big group of people all hypnotized, foaming at the mouth. There is so much cult-like thought happening now at any given time and I think people are one day going to look back and think, “Oh, my god. I’m in a cult.”
You’ve covered some amazing and disturbing ground so far with the episodes on Child Of God, Jonestown, WACO, and recently the history of Scientology.
MARCUS: One thing we’ve noticed when we’ve talked about cults are the parallels between what’s happening now on a day-to-day basis. When we studied L Ron Hubbard very recently, we just kept coming back again and again seeing similarities with our administration. Like, “Oh, L Ron Hubbard used this technique, and Trump did that same thing a month ago.” L Ron Hubbard had that very manipulative nature. A deeply cynical type of manipulation.
HENRY: Yeah, he wanted that cash money.
MARCUS: Politics now have become very cult-ish, not just in how it’s done but in how people get into power. They’re taking pages from Jim Jones.
BEN: We’re living in these echo chambers that the media is really able to monetize. It’s in the corporation’s best interest to have people with a 100% ideology who don’t look elsewhere because they have a guaranteed sale.
HENRY: We’re on a 24-hour news cycle. I mean, you’ve got a machine you can talk through. Like I can talk to over 20,000 people at a time about what color my shit was.
BEN: And within that, you have the Breitbarts of the worlds and Infowars. I firmly believe that Alex Jones will cause a domestic terror act. Pizza Gate was the closest we’ve gotten so far.
So besides immersing yourself in the details of murder, death and subversion, how do you stay above the fray?
MARCUS: Everything is a cycle. The same shit happens over and over again. Humans won’t change. But in fact right now, as bad as everything seems, this is the best period in history to be a human. This is the safest we’ve ever been. We have more human rights now than ever before. This is relatively a fantastic time to be alive, but for some reason no one fucking notices that.
BEN: I’ve been trying to make a point of noticing acts of kindness in real life and than just registering them. Acknowledge acts of kindness around you and let that shape your worldview.
HENRY: Yeah, my therapist is always saying that to me! Like, “Henry, while you’re brushing your teeth think of three moments of gratitude.” [laughing] And if you can’t come up with three…well, you need to come up with three.
Illustrations by Maggie Dunlap.