John Borowski is an award winning independent filmmaker whose works have garnered international acclaim and are distributed internationally on dvd, television, and streaming. Borowski’s “historical horror” trilogy of documentary films focus on late nineteenth and early twentieth century serial killers. In 2004, Borowski’s independently produced first film, H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer, was distributed on DVD in North America by Facets Video. The popularity of Borowski’s films reached an all time high in 2012. Bojan Pandža, Serbian author and film critic had this to say: “There are four horsemen of the Apocalypse, Herzog, Eroll, Les Blank and John Borowski. HONESTLY!!!” He currently resides in his hometown of Chicago.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you become interested in true crime, and what life events (if any) fuelled that interest?
“I blame it all on my sister. When I was young, she fed me a healthy diet of horror films, beginning with the classic Universal monster movies: Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, etc. Then when I was a teenager, I graduated to slashers and started making 8 mm horror films. I initially wanted to be a special makeup artist and created makeup effects with my high school friend. One day I went to his house and his father was a Chicago detective when Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested. In his father’s office was the Dahmer file with all of the photocopies of the photos Dahmer took of the heads and bodies of his victims. I made a short film about that in college called State of Mind because I could not get those images out of my head.
I had seen the movie Psycho but this was the first time I realized there were real life monsters in the world, even though many fictional monsters are based on reality like Vlad the Impaler being the inspiration for Dracula. Then in college I read about the serial killer H.H. Holmes and created my first film, which was released in 2004 called H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer, which follows the Torture Doctor and his castle of horrors which he rented room out during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Holmes was such a success that I fell into the serial killer niche and made three more films: Albert Fish: In Sin He Found Salvation (2007), Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance (2013), and Serial Killer Culture (2014).”
Tell us a little about your career as a writer and filmmaker. What challenges did you face getting where you are now, and what book or film project are you most proud of and why?
“Whenever someone approaches me now and asks for my advice in beginning a career in film my answer is: Don’t do it! But if you are committed then you have to be committed 200% because making a film is one of the most difficult things to do and almost impossible unless you have a ton of money or are extremely creative. Many times I thought of quitting but I am passionate about being an artist and filmmaker. Most of the work is solitary planning, communicating, etc. The least amount of my time is actually filming.
It has been a long journey but I am most proud of all my accomplishments especially my film on H.H. Holmes as no one had ever made a film on Holmes. There was so little material on Holmes that I had to be extremely creative in creating the film, especially with the reenactments. I had so many details in the film such as period wallpaper on the walls and an actual lantern from the 1890s which we had to use a flammable powder to light. I was worried it was going to explode!”
Your film Serial Killer Culture examines the reasons why artists and collectors are fascinated by serial killers. Was there a common thread among the people you interviewed? What did you find to be the most compelling reason, and why?
“When I created Serial Killer Culture, it was my intention to give the artists and collectors an opportunity to speak because so many times the media portrays anyone interested in Serial Killers as a nutjob even though our entire criminal justice system makes money off of crime. The common thread is that even though some people shy away from expressing their interest in true crime and serial killers, almost everyone has a fascination with the subjects. When I travel and talk about what I do people want to talk about the serial killers for hours. Serial killers and true crime have inspired artists and collectors throughout the ages and I exhibited some of that history in the film.”
In 2004, you released a documentary and book devoted to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer. In 2011, a man named Jeff Mudgett published a book not only claiming to be H.H. Holmes’ (aka Herman Webster Mudgett) great-great grandson, but he also claimed Holmes was in fact Jack the Ripper. What do you make of these claims?
“When I create my documentary films, I rely on strict research. Through my research on HH Holmes, I have not found any evidence that he could be Jack the Ripper and am open to a public debate on the subject.”
How would you respond to critics who believe profiting off true crime generally and serial killers in particular is exploitative and disrespectful to the victims?
“These critics are who we always hear from and that is why I did not include any of them in Serial Killer Culture. Do they criticise the legal and judicial system for their profiting off of crime? Doesn’t Nancy Grace receive a paycheque for her ranting? Collectors are just pursuing a hobby and interest and none of the money they make or spend is going to the criminals.”
Do you feel nature or nurture is to blame for serial killers, and why? Do serial killers tend to share certain characteristics or come from certain geographic areas (the Midwest, for example)?
“Books have been written on this subject so I don’t think I will have enough room to expand on this here. Through my research I have discovered that the environment in which a child experiences in their formative years of ages five to twelve are extremely important and can cause deep rooted psychological trauma that lasts their entire lives. A great reference book for this subject is Real-Life Monsters by Stephen J. Giannangelo, which explores modern theories on serial murder. Some of the worst serial killers have come from the Midwest like Gein, Dahmer, Gacy and Holmes but I have not figured out if it is just geographic or the damn cold winters we have here in the Midwest.”