Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)

Recurring aerial view of Memphis AR, showing small patch of woods on right where bodies are found.

KAIT8 News shows these pictures of the victims shortly after the murder.

KAIT8 News shows these pictures of the suspects. The news story cites “satanic ritual” as a possible motive. The documentary film incorporates repeated news clips, commenting on the power of representation.

Christopher Byers

Michael Moore

Stevie Branch

At a press conference Police Inspector Gary Gitchell announces the arrest of Baldwin, Misskelly, and Echols.

Police mugshots of Jason Baldwin and of ...

Jessie Misskelly are the first images the news media circulates of the suspects, framing them as convicts.

Damien Echols in detention. His hair length and color are repeatedly cited as evidence of his satanic worship.

Todd and Diane Moore, parents of victim Michael Moore.

Melissa Byers, mother of victim Christopher Byers. Her husband Mark, the child’s stepfather, plays a central role in both films.

Pam Hobbs, mother of victim Stevie Branch, here interviewed by local news media. The film constantly draws attention to the process of news making.


Paradise Lost I & II
Documentary, gothic,
and the monster of justice

by Andy Opel

“Fear on the streets might borrow the words and rubric of the movie house, although on the streets fear moves to a qualitatively different closure. The difference? Real people die” (Ingebretsen 2001, 9).

Or in this case, they end up on death row. This essay confronts the permeable boundaries of fiction and reality, narrative and documentary. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and Paradise Lost II: Revelations (2001) are two powerful documentary films detailing the brutal murder of three eight year old boys and the ensuing trial and conviction of three “goth” teens in West Memphis, Arkansas. These films capture the crystalline refraction of the gothic imaginary as it circulates within and between popular culture, popular opinion, the news media and the U.S. criminal justice system. In a dynamic example of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and a Cultural Studies articulation of the active audience, these films chronicle the circuit of culture (du Gay, Hall et al. 1997) as it spirals into existence, transgressing boundaries of fact and fiction as it constitutes the social map. These films, combined with the audience reaction that has manifested an extensive website in response (www.wm3.org), portray a moving field of monstrosity, where all the subjects who become entangled in the story, including the filmmakers, become the object of a gothic, monstrous gaze, implicated in the actual crimes of murder and the virtual “crimes” of fandom and spectatorship.

The murders in these films are consistently referred to as “monstrous” and the concept of “the monster” plays a central role in this essay. These films represent a host of monsters—the teens accused of the crimes, the vindictive parents of the victims, the fans who rally in support of the accused and ultimately the U.S. justice system itself. As Ingebretsen (2001) argues,

“monsters are less agents of social collapse then announcers that the collapse has already occurred” (emphasis in original text, 203).

In this case, these films allow us to witness the monster that has become our class based system of justice in the United States, announcing the collapse of our right to a fair and impartial jury. In a long tradition of dystopian fantasy, the Paradise Lost films represent stark images of the systemic horrors that haunt the small town courtrooms of the United States at the turn of the third millennium. Unlike the clarion call of dystopian fantasy and science fiction, these are non-fiction films and the stories they tell continue to live in modern day United States.

Paradise Lost films          

The Paradise Lost films provide a compelling example of the ways gothic narratives move between and across the landscapes of contemporary U.S. culture. These films document the May 5th, 1993 murders of three eight year old boys, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. The bodies of these boys were found naked, bound with shoelaces and dumped in a drainage ditch in a small patch of woods known as Robin Hood Hills, adjacent to the ever-present sprawl of ex-urban cityscape. One of the boys, Chris Byers, had been castrated, and they all had extensive contusions, cuts, and evidence of sexual assault (Leveritt, 2002). In a detailed analysis of the case, Mara Leveritt (2002) wrote:

“Within hours of the discovery of the bodies, rumors attributing the killings to Satanism had begun to circulate.”

This included a comment from West Memphis Police Department Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell that the murders may have been the result of “gang or cult activity” and this comment came “despite the fact that no evidence suggested it” (p.14). This early narrative of gothic horror came to dominate the case from the first hours of the discovery of the bodies to the on-going appeals that continue through the winter of 2004.

The film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills(1996), picks up this gruesome crime shortly after it occurred. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, working for HBO, begin the film with local TV news reports that three teens had been arrested and charged with the crimes. These teens; Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, are readily identified as the “kids who wear black” and who turn out to have “occult” interests. This first film documents the trials of these three teens, beginning with the trial of Jessie Misskelly. Misskelly was tried separately from the other two because of a confession he signed after a lengthy interrogation without a lawyer or his parents present. Misskelly was convicted of First Degree Murder in the death of Michael Moore and second degree murder in the deaths of Christopher Byers and Stevie Branch. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of Michael Moore and two additional twenty year terms, to be served consecutively, for the other two murders. This conviction was based largely on a signed confession (available online at www.wm3.org) that was riddled with errors and contradictions involving the time and manner in which the murders took place.

Misskelly decided not to testify against Damien and Jason during their trial. Despite the lack of any physical evidence connecting them to the crimes, Damien was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection and Jason was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Throughout this film, the directors had access to a wide range of people involved in the trials. This access included cameras in the courtroom, in home interviews with the parents of the victims and the parents of the accused, interviews with both the defense and prosecution team and repeated interviews with the three boys accused of the murders. These interviews and live action scenes continually refer to “evil” and “monsters” as the community grasped for language to describe the horror of these crimes. The references to evil were so pervasive that initially, the filmmakers themselves were caught up in what they describe as hysteria.

“We were of the opinion we were making a film about guilty kids. And we were pretty far away from Damien at the hearing, across a pretty big room. He was brought out in shackles and an orange prison suit, and we were in back with the press, and at one point he cranes his neck and looks around. And Bruce and I jabbed each other like, ‘Oh god, he’s so evil, did you see that look he gave everybody?’ and we just felt all this evil. There was this murmur through the crowd, ‘Oooh look at Damien, he’s so evil, ooooh.’ And then later I sat down and met him, and within five minutes of talking to him, not only did I feel he was innocent, but all that evil that I had projected on him washed away. And I was embarrassed that I had fallen for the trap” (Yabroff, 1996).

The “trap” of stereotypes, monsters and gothic horror dominates this film, depicting the expected horrors of a murder trial at the same time that it reveals the unexpected horror of publicly funded indigent defense in a capital murder case. The film offers a snapshot of the process whereby fears that are stoked by the culture industries take root in America’s heartland and bear the fruit of prejudice. Because the accused teens wore black and dressed in “goth” style, the police and many local community members were quick to assign blame, despite the lack of physical evidence.  

The second film, Paradise Lost II: Revelations (2001), documents the audience response to the first film as audience members formed a support group for the convicted boys and attempted to draw national attention to the appeals trials of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. These fans developed a website, raised money, hired trial experts to re-examine evidence and traveled to Arkansas for the appeals trials. While the justice system is a continued focus of the film, the interaction of the “fans” and the community of West Memphis dominates this second chapter in an ongoing saga. The filmmakers were not granted access to cameras in the courtroom for the appeals trials so instead rely on outside interviews with the trial judge, prosecutor, the accused and the host of fans and community members who gathered outside the courthouse to both support and condemn the two convicted boys turned men.

The team of “outsiders” who gathered in Arkansas to witness the trial, self named “Support the West Memphis 3,” were viewed with suspicion by the victim’s families as well as the local news media. Their efforts were equated with fans who worship serial killers at the same time that they brought with them high profile experts to testify in the trial. In addition to the tensions between the locals and the outsiders, the filmmakers explore the enduring suspicions around one of the victim’s step father, Mark Byers. Mark plays a prominent role in both films, often mugging for the camera and performing dramatic stunts such as making mock graves for the accused or shooting pumpkins in effigy of Damien Echols. In the second film, we learn that Mark’s wife has died of undetermined causes and since her death, Mark has had a number of encounters with the law over drug possession, violence and theft.

The most compelling area of suspicion of Mark Byers as the real killer of the three boys revolves around the testimony of the forensic pathologist hired by the West Memphis 3 support group. This pathologist argues that autopsy photos reveal a bite mark on the face of the Christopher Byers, the step son of Mark Byers.  This evidence, combined with a series of evasions from Mark Byers as to why he had all his teeth removed, leaves a cloud of suspicion over Mark Byers. It is the interaction between audience support group and Mark Byers that drives the later part of the second film and demonstrates a dynamic example of the completed circuit of culture, where audience members appropriate a media text and turn it into a lived culture.

Continued: Documentary and gothic narrative

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