Oxygen True Crime is a program brand within the NBCUniversal stable, and is rather oddly described as:
“a multi-platform high quality crime destination brand for women”
I guess because most of the murderers reported by the show are men?
Anyway, the show we are reviewing here is part of the 2022 second season of an Oxygen series called Living with a Serial Killer, the first season of which aired in 2021. The program has covered a number of British and North American killers, including Steve Wright (the Suffolk Strangler), Peter Tobin, Timothy Boczkowski and a couple of women: Elizabeth Wettlaufer, a Canadian nurse who murdered several of her patients and Joanne Dennehy, who stabbed three men to death in 2013.
Living with a Serial Killer concentrates not so much on the killer, as do most true crime shows, but on the partners or friends or even children who lived with them, the people who thought they knew them, and it tells how they lived either in fear or else were oblivious to the exploits of the murderers. Most, but not all, of these unwilling companions were women.
Most of the killers were not cannibals, disappointingly for this blog, but one was, or says he was, despite there not being enough left of his victims to confirm or deny his claim. This was Stephen Griffiths, who stood up in court for his arraignment for murder and, when asked his name, identified himself as THE CROSSBOW CANNIBAL.
Griffiths killed three women in the city of Bradford, West Yorkshire, England in 2009 and 2010; 43-year-old Susan Rushworth disappeared on 22 June 2009, followed by 31-year-old Shelley Armitage on 26 April 2010 and 36-year-old Suzanne Blamires on 21 May that year.
The women were all Bradford sex workers. Parts of Blamires’s body, including her severed head still containing a crossbow bolt, were found in the River Aire in Shipley, near Bradford, on 25 May. Other human tissue found in the same river was later established to belong to Armitage. No remains of Rushworth were ever found. Griffiths was arrested after CCTV security footage caught him in the act of killing Suzanne Blamires. He not only committed the execution on camera but, after dragging her body inside his apartment, returned carrying his crossbow and gave a middle finger to the camera, knowing he had been seen.
Griffiths was a postgraduate research student studying criminology and specialising in British murderers, so he knew a great deal about killing and disposing of bodies. He also knew what sort of activities led to sensationalist press coverage, and he seems to have been determined to become more famous than one of his pin-ups, the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe had murdered thirteen women in the same area between 1975 and 1980, and was at the time rotting in prison with several life sentences to serve, and judicial instructions that he was never to be released. Sutcliffe died in November 2020 after refusing treatment for COVID-19.
After his arrest, which happened a few days later when the caretaker checked the CCTV tapes, Griffiths readily admitted the murders to the police, telling them he had eaten some of his victims’ flesh, and adding, “That’s part of the magic.”
The program focuses on Kathy Hancock, who lived with Griffiths for a considerable time. A tough woman, a prison officer when they met, she was physically abused by him, poisoned, and perhaps worst of all psychologically tortured (particularly when he stole her dogs) to the extent that she was unable to escape his influence. She did not know that he was a serial killer, but was not very surprised when she found out. Despite the occasional escape, she was with him or under his influence for much of the decade from 2001 until his arrest in 2010.
When interviewed by West Yorkshire Police (extract at the top of this blog), Griffiths was asked why he killed the three sex-workers. His reply:
“I don’t know. Well, I’m misanthropic. I don’t have much time for the human race.”
Police divers found 159 pieces of human tissue when they searched the River Aire; almost all were from the final victim, Suzanne Blamires. There were only two parts of Shelley Armitage found – a part of her spine and a section of flesh revealing knife marks. Susan Rushworth’s family had no definite confirmation of her death or disposal, and no remains over which to mourn. He told the police:
“… it was just meat in the bath that was chopped up and churned, some of it eaten raw and I don’t know after that. I don’t know where she is.”
Griffiths claimed to be possessed by an alter ego named Ven Pariah who took over his social media accounts and boasted of his exploits. Psychiatrists found him fit to be tried, but it is still possible that his psychotic episodes (he was diagnosed as a sadistic schizoid psychopath) accompanied the murders and he really does not know what happened subsequently. It does sound a bit convenient though, like Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER, who claimed he could not remember murdering and consuming his child victims, particularly as Griffiths seems to have clear recall of the actual murders and dismemberments.
Or he could be making it all up, since we know that Griffiths was desperate to be (in)famous and, as a student of criminology, would have been aware that cannibalism would make far bigger headlines than murder.
But here’s another explanation. Griffiths told police that he did not particularly despise sex workers, but that they were easy targets – they worked on dark, run-down streets and, due to their propensity for addiction, the police were unlikely to worry too much if they disappeared – there were plenty of other possible explanations besides murder. This is reminiscent of Albert Fish, who killed and ate African-American and Latino children, not because he was a racist, but because he knew the police would not look too hard for them.
Griffiths’ hatred was not aimed at sex workers but at women in general. He was insecure, vain, and had a desperate need to dominate. This is indicated in his relationship with Kathy Hancock, whom he abused and tormented despite the fact that she was voluntarily cohabiting with him. When she finally left he stalked and threatened her, to the extent that she finally moved overseas to get as far away from him as possible.
The ultimate form of control is to kill and consume the ‘other’. Humans do it all the time to other animals to establish an ideological superiority and supremacy – we eat meat (some of us) not because it is necessary for our health but because sacrificing the animal demonstrates human exceptionalism. It elevates the human, or those privileged to be considered human, to a higher plane than other animals and ‘lesser’ or sub-humans (untermenschen), whom we feel free to exploit in a wide variety of ways such as slavery, sweatshops and, in the extreme, cannibal feasting. Griffiths’ profound misogyny could find its deepest expression not in paying for the use of their bodies, or even ‘just’ killing them, but in utterly destroying them, and at the same time absorbing them into his own body, thereby destroying their independent subjectivity and making them exist only as part of him. Cannibalism offers ultimate power and control over the victims.
David Wilson, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Birmingham City University, said that
“We want to see serial killers as real aberrations, as different from dominant beings in our culture, but often they are just extreme versions of other beings of their time.”
Was Stephen Griffiths a cannibal or a braggart? We’ll never know for certain. Claims of cannibalism are hard to confirm, as the perpetrator is often undiscovered, unreliable, or dead. Except for cases where cannibals recorded their acts on video tape (such as Armin Meiwes), we only have the verification of missing flesh or slashed bones, evidence over which everyone from archaeologists to forensic scientists can argue forever, or the confessions of the cannibal, which can be easily retracted before trial or may prove to be just boasting and narcissistic grandstanding. Griffiths told the police:
“It was just a slaughterhouse in the bath tub.”
The cannibal, whether literal or metaphorical, is essentially enacting an extreme form of carnivorous virility, and thereby questioning the conventional view of humans as above nature, as not animals, not meat. The cannibal makes us look at ourselves as edible, and thereby question our place in, and exploitation of, the natural world. The bath tub, our symbol of cleanliness and separation from the dirt and smell of nature, becomes a slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouse, normally hidden in remote towns behind high walls, comes home.