copyright 2004, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 47

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 (, 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.

The 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 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.

Documentary and gothic narrative

The Paradise Lost films document the process whereby these convictions took place, providing vivid detail of the people and places that shaped these stories. Beyond a tale of “wrongful conviction,” these films act as a catalyst in the circuit of culture, accelerating the process of cultural reproduction as gothic narratives weave between the real and the unreal.

The tensions between documentary and narrative film have been a contested terrain for many years, with scholars attempting to define the boundaries of technique and content that differentiate the two traditions (Nichols 1991; Nichols 1994; Ponech 1999; Bruzzi 2000). Nichols (1991) early and influential theorization of documentary film outlined “modes of representation” and traced the history of approaches to the genre. Nichols (1994) went on to explore the “blurred boundaries” of non-fiction film and stressed the filmmaker/audience relationship in the meaning making process, arguing that

“signification resides within the selection and arrangement of indexical representations, not in indexicality per se any more than in things themselves” (xi).

In other words, images are only trusted as “real” based on the context in which they are produced and consumed. Ponech (1999) emphasizes the role of the filmmaker in differentiating fiction from non-fiction film, calling documentaries “cinematic assertions” where filmmakers “openly indicate something to somebody else” (11). Bruzzi (2000) builds on this theoretical lineage, arguing that the documentary film is a “perpetual negotiation between the real event and its representation” (9). Documentary film occupies a space where fiction and non-fiction intersect, offering a powerful site to examine the circuit of culture as it moves within and between the imaginary and the real.

The Paradise Lost films fall into this contested terrain, merging courtroom footage, traditional sit-down interviews, live action shooting and “staged” encounters where participants can be seen shooting guns or lighting fires at the site of the murders in an act of ritual cleansing. Drawing primarily on what Nichols (1991) has called an “interactive mode” of documentary; Berlinger and Sinofsky keep their presence invisible throughout both films. This technique involves removing the questions asked of participants, editing together responses in such a way that the social actors sound as if they are speaking extemporaneously, telling their story in their words. This technique contrasts with an “expository mode” where an omniscient narrator provides context and often interprets events for the viewer. In the interactive mode, “textual authority shifts toward the social actors recruited: their comments and responses provide a central part of the film’s argument” (Nichols 1991, 44). In the first film (1996), Berlinger and Sinofsky had extraordinary access to the families of the victims and the accused, cameras in the courtroom, defense lawyer meetings with the defendants, interviews with the prosecutor and the judge as well as a range of comments from people in the local community over the course of the two years (1993-5)  that it took to produce the film.

Although Berlinger and Sinofsky strive to keep attention focused on the social actors and not on the filmmakers, the first film has a couple of reflexive moments, and the second film (2001) is colored by a reflexivity that models a pop culture example of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle where the physical act of observing a phenomenon is said to change the phenomenon itself, thus calling into question the very possibility of neutral observation that has become the cornerstone of the scientific method.. During the trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, police investigator Gary Gitchell is asked about a knife that has been introduced as evidence. Gitchell says that the knife was given to him by “Joe and the folks at HBO.” Text is used to tell the viewers that a knife was given to the filmmakers by Mark Byers, the step-father of Christopher, one of the victims. This is one of a few instances during the first film where reflexivity emerges, drawing attention to the filmmakers’ active participation in the development of the story.

“The reflexive mode of representation gives emphasis to the encounter between the filmmaker and viewer rather than filmmaker and subject” (Nichols 1991, 60).

In this case, the filmmaker did not address the audience directly but the illusion of a faceless, voiceless, objective camera operator was shattered and the audience was temporarily reminded of the active engagement of the filmmakers. This moment is problematic for the film because this film and the follow-up are predicated on a search for the truth, the power of evidence, and an on-going attempt to identify the murderer/s of the three boys. Reflexive strategies draw attention to the limits of communicative practice and “emphasizes epistemological doubt” (61). For the reflexive filmmaker,

“realist access to the world, the ability to provide persuasive evidence, the possibility of indisputable argument, the unbreakable bond between an indexical image and that which it represents – all these notions prove suspect” (Nichols 1991, 60).

In a film about the quality of evidence and the search for the perpetrators, “persuasive evidence” becomes very important.

The second film contains core elements of reflexivity, though the filmmakers continue to avoid any on-camera images of themselves and only an occasional question posed in an interview can be heard. The reflexivity that runs throughout this piece appears through numerous references to the impact of the making of Paradise Lost on the first trials and a desire to avoid those same impacts during the appeals process. Thus, Paradise Lost II: Revelations (2001), picks up the plight of the boys turned men—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly—who had been convicted in the trials documented in the first film. This second film chronicles the appeals process, with the added attention to the audience support group that emerged in response to the first film. The impact of this group will be examined in detail in shortly, but for now, it is important to recognize the power the first film had on the initial trials and to examine the response to this impact in the second film.

Interestingly, the film also bears a resemblance to a principle in physical science, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg, in describing subatomic particles, said:

“The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa” (Heisenberg 1927).

This notion of uncertainty has been lifted from the hard sciences and interpreted by a host of social science and humanities scholars, often cited as a foundational argument in the limitations of science as a way of knowing. Heisenberg’s description of atomic particles is often used to make the argument that the very process of measuring alters that which you seek to measure. In this case, we can see the act of filmmaking altering the first trial in a number of specific ways. First, HBO paid a number of the participants for their participation in the film, giving equal honorariums to the three families of the victims and the three families of the accused, further blurring the lines between social actors and paid actors (Leveritt 2002). These payments were essential to the first trial because of the lack of resources available to the public defenders assigned to the cases. This money was used to pay a number of expert witnesses who testified for the defense, tangibly altering the trial process.

Ironically, in the second film, a crucial significant argument in the appeals case was the idea that the first trial had been significantly compromised by the presence of the filmmakers and the financial incentives offered by HBO. Despite the controversy over money, HBO continued to pay subjects in the second film, with notable attention to Mark Byers, who was described as “starring in his own horror movie” by one film critic (Leveritt 2002). Byers is highly visible in both films, taking on a range of personalities from doting husband, pious churchgoer, and vindictive father of a murder victim.

The interplay of money, class tensions, and access to quality judicial representation conspire to provide extremely candid footage in both films, while at the same time tainting that footage with the power imbalance of a New York HBO film team and a small Midwestern community hungry for justice. On the one hand, the power of the film(s), with the resulting national and international attention, has transformed what might have otherwise been another case of neo-liberal (in)justice. At the same time, the money and influence infused into this case through the filmmaking process altered the process and introduced new financial motivations. Thus the two films are deeply intertwined with these trials and the apparently “neutral” filmmakers have moved to the center of an on-going controversy.

Class, capital and American gothic

Two recurring images in both Paradise Lost films reveal the class tensions embedded in this small town story of murder and monsters. First, Berlinger and Sinofsky use repeated shots of low aerial footage of the town and site of the murders. This aerial footage is often canted, altering the landscape, providing a crop duster pilot’s glimpse on farmland turned light industrial sprawl. The second recurring image is that of the trailer parks and mobile homes where both the victim’s families and the families of the accused lived. These images are usually accompanied by the heavy metal music of Metallica and serve as brief interludes from the interview driven storyline. This music is a reminder of the popular “goth” culture that is so central to these trials and the perceptions of “satanic” worship on the part of the accused. The filmmakers remind the audience of the ubiquity of Metallica’s music and the Hollywood marketing behind teen goth culture. More importantly, these images play a central role in locating this story at a particular time and place, drawing attention to the connections between people and space.

In writing about the Grant Wood painting American Gothic, Eric Savoy argues that the house behind the couple in the foreground plays a central role in the symbolic power of the painting. This house is said to contain a “historical preterite” that “haunts the national couple.” This farm house is said to

“bring forward the underside, the Otherness, of the narratives of national self construction” (p.18).

In a similar fashion, Berlinger’s and Sinofsky’s repeated use of iconic images of trailer parks and mobile homes can be seen as the contemporary  modern updates of Wood’s gothic farmhouse.   In this case, the farm house of the working class has been replaced by manufactured homes, the rows of crops replaced by rows of equally linear homes and trailer parks. Where Savoy raises questions about “the tenant” that resides in the haunted house of gothic fiction, Berlinger and Sinofsky take us inside the homes of “monsters” to meet the tenants who reside within the “haunted” mobile home.

What we see is the banality of U.S. culture in the late twentieth century: televisions and cigarettes, coveralls with names embroidered on the upper left label, inscribed with the marks of manual labor; rusted cars; and marginal dental care. These are the families and people who lived with the “monsters,” identified as Other by their location within the “scary” and “dangerous” world of the trailer park, a once transient place turned permanent township of class segregation. The (im)mobile homes have ceased to move as there is no place to go with the frontier long closed and the encroachment of the gated community incessantly pushing these communities closer to the ex-urban skin we drive through on our way to some better place.

This ex-urban skin, when seen from the air, reveals the changes of the American heartland landscape since Wood’s painting. Berlinger and Sinofsky provide us with a crop duster’s point of view, swooping down on the highways and patches of asphalt that divide and connect so much of modern United States. This is the location where the murders happened, but it is also the industrial landscape that is intimately connected to the people who live and work in the (im)mobile homes that haunt these films. From this aerial view, we see the landscape cut up and divided by highways, dividing lines that recede to the horizon line, locating West Memphis as a place between, a stopping point, a place to refuel. These highways and asphalt patches parse the farmland where Wood’s farming couple struggled in what Jonathan Raban called

“that sad and unlamented West where bitterness and fury were the natural offspring of impossibly great expectations” (Quoted in Savoy, p. 18).

The unseen pilot of the plane that gives us this vantage point remains silent, a specter of a crop-duster in search of fields that have not been violated and encroached upon by the expansion of capital, or possibly in search of “pests” that have infested this cultural crop. From the air, we see the small patch of woods–bordered by highway and fast food–a remnant of the great stands of Midwestern hardwoods leveled as the Europeans moved west. Amid the noise and dangers of interstate highways, this patch of woods was a natural refuge for kids in search of a stream to play in and a tree to climb. In further class coding, we come to know the victims and the accused as kids without the benefits of after school programs, private music lessons, or stay at home parents. With the unstructured time of youth, these kids sought the comforts and timeless attraction of the woods, though in this instance, those woods were bounded by the transience of industrialism, a mobility that lies in stark contrast to the immobility of the homes where they live.

What emerges from this collection of images of the land and the homes of West Memphis is a new portrait of the modern American Heartland, a place transformed by industrial agribusiness and increasingly referred to as “fly-over country” as the captains of the culture industries fly between New York and LA. The very gothic imaginary that is so carefully crafted in the cultural centers of the East and West Coasts takes root in the people and practices across the continent and increasingly around the world. These films demonstrate the tangible implications of a carefully constructed culture of fear.  In a very visible sense, we can see what Ingebretsen means when he argues that “monsters warn” (p. 4).

Paradise Lost (1996, 2001) offers a stark warning about the intersection of class and justice, and the political economy of a criminal justice system that is balkanized according to income. Taking place during a similar time period as the OJ Simpson trial with its 24 hour news coverage, teams of high profile lawyers and endless speculation about evidence and motives, this case took place far from the probing camera lens were it not for Berlinger and Sinofsky. Their attention to the “monsters” of West Memphis warns us of the dangers posed by a monstrous system of capital driven justice. Halberstam (1995) argues that the gothic monster

“is an economic form in that it condenses various racial and sexual threats to nation, capitalism, and the bourgeoisie in one body” (p.3).

In contrast, Berlinger and Sinofsky recast the monster as capitalism itself—the very system that allows for justice to be predicated on access to quality legal representation, access that is denied to most Americans and whose very denial is effaced by judicial representations that valorize power and celebrity (O.J. Simpson) or trivialize everyday life (Judge Judy). While these films follow the search to find the monstrous killer(s) of three eight year old boys, they also probe the intersection of class, culture and the U.S. justice system. Interestingly, the murders took place in “Robin Hood Hills,” another marker of class tensions where stealing from the rich and giving to the poor has been replaced by the poor stealing from each other. Unlike the Sherwood of old, where the road brought riches to “merry men,” this road is a highway that divides a community, leaving behind effluence and roadkill.

Active audience and the West Memphis Three

The Paradise Lost films present textbook examples of what cultural theorists have dubbed the “active” audience. Hall (1980) articulated a communication model where the audience audience “decoding” process is central to the meaning of the text. This active work on the part of the audience in the meaning making process is said to be influenced in part by an audience member’s social position and attitudes. In this case, some audience members of the first Paradise Lost film responded with time, energy and money, rallying in support of what they perceived to be a miscarriage of justice.

The most visible sign of this audience response is the website, a site developed to bring attention to the cases of Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, since dubbed, “The West Memphis Three” (WM3). This website contains an extensive archive of documents related to the case and continues to serve as a clearinghouse for new information about the ongoing appeals process. In addition, the site allows visitors to donate money to a legal fund through email money transfer services such as PayPal. An early result of this active audience reaction to the first film was the ability to hire experts to reexamine the evidence in the case. This process, and the involvement of the West Memphis 3 support group, became a significant element of the second film, Paradise Lost II: Revelations (2001).The second film then contains a strong reflexive element, as the very presence of a support group at the appeal trials indicates the influence of the first film and an ongoing interaction between subjects, filmmakers and audience.

In the second film, we get to see members of the support group who developed the website, raised money and traveled to West Memphis for Damien’s appeal trial. These people speak about their visceral reaction to seeing teens charged, arrested and convicted solely on the basis that they “wore black” and explored occult literature. In a focus group session with Mara Leveritt, (the reporter who authored the book Devils Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three), Anna Macek from Houston, Texas, describes the reaction of her co-workers to the news that “they had caught those freaks that did that to those kids.” When Anna asked why they thought the boys were guilty, they responded, “Look at them, look at the way they dress, of course they did it.” Bill Pritchason from New Jersey attempts to explain why people traveled across the country to witness an obscure trial in a small town:

“I watched Paradise Lost, I also wore black t-shits, I was an alienated teenager, and I think that might be the initial attraction that brings people in. But I think that what’s really important and that brings people together to the point where people travel cross country to come to Jonesboro, Arkansas on your week of vacation are the more important issues such as justice, such as a corrupt, incompetent police force and justice system working in a vacuum here in Arkansas, when nobody’s watching, that’s why I’m here. I don’t I don’t want them to think they can operate in the dark, kinda like a mushroom, and grow” (Berlinger and Sinofsky 2001).

Given the prevalence of alienated youth, black clothing and heavy metal music fans in modern day United States, concerns about a trial based largely on how three teenagers looked provoked a strong response from these audience members. They acted on their concerns, developed a website and raised a significant amount of money that has been used to attract high quality legal representation for the appeals trials.

In the second film, the supporters of the accused are themselves accused of being a group of serial-killer fans. In one scene outside the courthouse, Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the victims, accuses the supporters of being like the fans of serial killers such as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. The irony here is that fans of serial killers are attracted to them because of what they did, what Halberstam has called an attraction to “fear and desire” (Halberstam 1995). In this case, members of the West Memphis Three support group appear to be motivated by what the accused did not do. They are motivated out of a fear of a corrupt and unaccountable judicial system that would allow for the conviction of three people without any physical evidence linking them to the crimes.

In another example of the weaving of fiction and non-fiction narratives with gothic images crossing back and forth between imagination and reality, the West Memphis Three support group has spawned a wide range of cultural attention and visibility. The TV series Dawson’s Creek made two visible references to the West Memphis Three. First, in the closing final episode of the 2001 season, Joshua Jackson said, “Peace. Out. Free the West Memphis Three” during a “pivotal scene”; and in the 2002 season, a “new series regular” wore a “Free the West Memphis Three” tank top during an episode (Bakken, Pashley et al. 2003). Other instances of Hollywood support for the cause include Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam wearing a WM3 t-shirt during a Touring Band 2000, a VH1 program, and public comments by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of South Park. After receiving the Best Musical Performance award at the MTV Movie Awards in 2001, Parker closed his acceptance speech with, “Free the West Memphis Three” (Bakken, Pashley et al. 2003). In addition, a benefit CD was produced (by Danny Bland and Scott Parker of Aces & Eights Records) including tracks from Joe Strummer of The Clash, Tom Waits and Steve Earle.

This range of media attention is in no small part a result of the work of Berlinger and Sinofsky and the efforts of an active, engaged audience. Though the films have played a major role in garnering popular attention to the cases, fan response has since eclipsed any visible ongoing efforts of the filmmakers to support the West Memphis Three. Though many scholars have explored the ways that gothic narratives move from the imaginary to the concrete, here we see examples of the completed cultural circuit, where gothic and satanic fears resulted in a trial based on appearances, that in turn inspired entertainers and fiction writers to weave the concrete back into the imaginary. The lived cultures of this gothic narrative, informed and deformed by the gothic imaginary, were appropriated by the culture industries and reinserted into a narrative context.   

Refracting monsters              

Over the course of the two Paradise Lost films, Berlinger and Sinofsky take the audience back and forth between guilt and sympathy, accusation and allegation. The extensive, intimate interviews with a broad range of people involved in this crime offer a human face to the often monstrous associations. From the three boys on trial to Mark Byers, the camera hungry step-father who “dost protest too much,” to the community members who are quick to judge based on stereotypes, to the (over)zealous supporters of the accused, to the filmmakers themselves who are accused of exploiting vulnerable people for entertainment values—monsters abound in these films and the filmmakers offer no easy answers for the crime or the social response to a modern day witch hunt. Although these films avoid a conclusive judgment, the monster that becomes most visible in the end is not a person dressed in black committing murder but rather the monster of our judicial system.

One of the first “monstrous” actions of the judicial process took place when the three boys were detained for questioning. Jessie Misskelly, who was said to have an IQ of 67 and was described as “slow” and “mildly retarded” was questioned for almost twelve hours without his parents or a lawyer present. The vast majority of this questioning was not tape recorded and no notes exist as to what went on, though Mara Leveritt (2002) details some of the process, pieced together from interviews with Misskelly and the police investigators present. This questioning culminated in a signed (printed, as Misskelly never learned cursive [Leveritt 2002]) confession that became the post on which hang all the other circumstantial evidence on. Despite the horrific legal procedure that led to the signed confession, Judge Burnett allowed the confession to be included in the trial. A tape was made of the final hour leading up to the confession and the transcript becomesbecame a point of contention in Misskelly’s trial. In Paradise Lost, the filmmakers use courtroom footage of Misskelly’s lawyer questioning Gary Gitchell about the Misskelly confession. We hear a recording of the confession where Misskelly initially says the murders happened in the morning, is corrected by Gitchell a number of times until the murders are finally said to take place in the evening, the suspected time determined by the coroner.

This leading line of questioning calls into question Misskelly’s confession but more significantly reveals a monstrous judicial process where a minor is coerced into agreeing to a predetermined set of facts, without the benefit of a parent or lawyer present. Gitchell claimed Misskelly waived his rights to an attorney. However, given Misskelly’s age and education level, it is unlikely Misskelly understood the implications of such a decision. The legal dispute over this confession raises another monstrous aspect of this trial: class.

In their response to the confession evidence, the defense brought in an “expert on false confessions,” Dr. Richard J. Ofshe. We see Ofshe point out “eight revisitings of the question of the time that the killings occurred” (Berlinger and Sinofsky 1996) and that the correct answer of “at night” was suggested to Misskelly. Once that suggestion was made, Misskelly adopted this as his story after seven previous contradictory statements. Ofshe argues that this is a classic example of getting someone to accept something out of pressure and suggestion and that this occurs numerous times during the small part of the twelve-hour interrogation that was taped.

The prosecution’s response to this was to attack Dr. Ofshe’s fees. Despite the fact that this was a capital murder case, the jury was is not informed that the defense is allotted a maximum of $1000 to pay for expert witnesses and the state did not allot any more money to support a proper defense of the indigent accused. In the film, we see the prosecutor question Ofshe about his $300/hr fee, and Ofshe is heard correcting this, stating that he charges $150/hr. for consultation and $300/hr for time spent in court. The prosecution then asserts that if Ofshe does not give the results the client wants, he will does not get the $300/hr. courtroom fee. The Prosecution also noted his “California” residence, locating him outside the American heartland where this satanic panic is taking place.

This example of attention to money and expertise in a small town courtroom demonstrates the gaps in a balkanized judicial system where access to quality legal representation is not only a matter of wealth, but also connected to place. In this case, the location offered a jury pool that appeared suspicious of “experts” hired from “California.” Though his logic was sound and his credentials impressive, Ofshe failed to convince twelve people in Arkansas that a marginally literate teenage was manipulated by a team of skilled police officers.

The mirror image of the previous example adds more detail to the monstrous judicial process represented in these films. In this second example, Dr. Dale W. Griffis, an “occult expert,” is brought in by the prosecution during Jason and Damien’s trial. Given the lack of a confession or any physical evidence linking Damien to the murders, the prosecution built the case on the resonance of the gothic narrative, tapping a “satanic panic” that occurred from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s (Greek 2003) and continues to drive public fears and anxieties today, as evidenced by the cult and satanic theories surrounding the high profile murder trial of Lacy Peterson. The proliferation of these satanic fears has been attributed to “talk show hosts” and “conspiracy theorists” who attempt to link heavy metal music and teen culture with a discourse of cultural decay and an extremist Christian vision of the “end of days” where the arrival of Satan was said to be imminent (Greek 2003). Griffis testified that he has observed “occult” people “wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black and wearing black t-shirts.”

This “expert” testimony is then revealed by the defense team to be the opinions of a man who earned his Ph.D. from a mail order catalogue and never attended any classes to earn this degree. Thus we see a prosecution team hiring an unqualified expert in their attempt to cast this as an occult crime. This is not a mere oversight but a patently cynical attempt to convince a jury that anyone who “looks occult” is capable of heinous crimes and should be judged guilty until proven innocent. This small-town, self-made expert, is another marker of class and place, where even the state resources to hire experts are limited and the cultural location of the expert supercedes credentials, resulting in a colloquial figure who legitimates the translation of the gothic narrative from the everyday imaginations of the jury to the real lives of the accused.

Foreshadowing a 2002 U.S. government “total information awareness campaign,” Griffis goes on to analyze a book library that Damien had in his bedroom, noting chapters on “the devil” and “witchcraft.” Damien becomes guilty of reading the wrong material, discovered not through a database of books he checked out but through good old fashioned possession, as the book was found in his bedroom. This possession moved from being 9/10ths of the law to being all that is needed to prove satanic intent. By simulating the role of an “expert,” Griffis, the prosecution, and the filmmakers collapse the real and the virtual into a postmodern moment dissolving the “supposed distance between images and diffuse physicality” (Hogle 2001), for Griffis was not an occult expert, he merely embodied the image of one in a courtroom.           

The judicial process becomes the most significant monster in these films, marked by class and place. The support group that formed in response to the first film raised money and hired experts to challenge the limitations of the first trials, and their presence and intentions were located by their otherness, as outsiders from the big city, there to meddle in local affairs. Like the resented white civil rights workers of the 50s and 60s who went South to help with voter registration, the WM3 supporters were viewed as part of a long tradition of meddling outsiders, interfering where they did not belong. The appeals trials documented in the second film were overseen by the same judge as the first trials, again revealing a provincialism and class-driven justice system where those who cannot afford highly skilled lawyers are forced to appear and reappear before a small circle of decision makers. This in effect is the “darkness” Bill Pritchason spoke of, the tangible limits of public defenders and a justice system divided along class lines.

Indigent defense in the United States

These films confront the monster of a class based justice system. The first trial took place during the O.J. Simpson trials and the contrast could not be more revealing. Director Joe Berlinger said,

“Paradise Lost’ is the flip-side to O.J.—it’s poor man’s justice, when you can't afford a dream team. There was a ton of evidence to convict O.J. and he walked, and in this case three poor teens had a mountain of reasonable doubt and they were convicted” (Yabroff 1996).

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees all persons accused of a crime the right to counsel in their defense; and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states must provide an attorney to any person accused of a crime (Spangenberg & Beeman 1995). This system has been left to individual states, who in many cases have allowed counties to both fund and oversee management of their public defender system. The result has been widespread disparities in the funding and organization of public defender systems. The systems are chronically underfunded, and case loads for public defenders consistently exceed state bar association guidelines, often by a factor of ten.

Examples include Wisconsin, where anyone earning more than $3000 annually is deemed able to afford a lawyer, resulting in 11,000 people who faced trial unrepresented in 2003; and Lake Charles, LA where two lawyers handle over 2500 felony and 4000 misdemeanor cases a year (Weinstein 2004). Regional disparities and rising caseloads have stressed a system that was established to provide a minimum of protection for a vulnerable population. Prior to 2002, Texas was one of four states that provided no state money for indigent defense, and in 2002, Arkansas had the lowest state and county per capita funding of indigent defense of any of 12 Southern States (Equal Justice Center, 2002). These statistics and the issues raised by the Paradise Lost films point to a spreading corrosion in our democracy that is predicated on equal treatment under the law.

The disparities posed by a patchwork indigent defense system are especially troubling when raised to the level of capital murder cases. The Innocence Project ( works to overturn wrongful convictions and cites the exoneration of 110 death row inmates between 1992 and 2002 (Scheck & Neufeld 2002). This is a staggering statistic that reveals the holes in our class-based justice system. In addition, police and prosecutorial misconduct are two of the leading causes of wrongful conviction ( and two of the most visible elements in the Paradise Lost films. In the case of the West Memphis 3, it is not phantasms or specters of Satan that terrorize rural Arkansas, rather the aggressive incompetence of small town justice, starved of the resources that would bring reason and expertise to the underprivileged. Director Joe Berlinger noted this abuse after making the first film.

"The problem with many indigent death penalty cases is that when you cannot afford a dream team, when you're poor, in a lot of southern states there is no active public defender; it is the court’s discretion to assign a regular duty attorney. And they picked lawyers who were not up to the challenge, and that happens a lot. In death penalty cases where the prosecution wants to win, they pick out lawyers who don't have the requisite experience . . . None of these guys were ready for this” (Yabroff, 1996).

As a filmmaker watching this trial, Berlinger could see the monster of justice at work, feeding on the poor to serve the needs of career and a community is search of resolution.       


Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly have all been in jail now for almost seven years. As of July 2003, their appeals are slowing, working their way through the justice system. Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch are still dead, the images of their mutilated bodies kept alive and replayed through the Paradise Lost films. This story is not over and the WM3 support group continues to raise money and awareness about this case. At the moment, there are no clear answers as to what happened on the night of May 5th, 1993. But the two Paradise Lost films have shed light on what has happened to the people caught up in the heinous crimes that took place that night.

The video tape box cover to Paradise Lost features the teaser,

“Witchcraft or witchhunt? In some places, dressing in black can get you arrested, just ask Damien…”

This lure for attention invokes the curiosity of horror, the voyeuristic fascination of seeing someone else caught in the jaws of a justice system gone wrong, cornered by a modern day torch bearing mob out to cleanse the town of “evil.” In late 20th century United States, that mob has been condensed to a few state employees, a prosecutor’s office, a judge and popular opinion that is often driven by a media that is quick to convict and is imbricated in the circulation of monstrous discourses. Yet this mob operates within a broader system that allows marginalized populations to be (mis)represented by public defenders who are under paid and under staffed, while those with power and privilege avoid jail or even courtrooms.

In this case, the private money of HBO came with the strings of access and the double-edged power of representation, creating a hybridized neo-liberal public/private trial where the camera became both a shining light in the molding  darkness of small town Arkansas and a paparazzi flash, stealing “authentic” images and casting them into the ravenous maw that is the entertainment industry. Audience action and reaction to the films have prevented this from becoming another forgotten case of (in)justice, preventing Damien and the others from falling victim to a tradition of 15 minutes of fame. As Ingebretsen (2001) reminds us, “Monsters must be analyzed, fretted about, interpreted” (3).

In this case, the monster that is our judicial system demands our attention, calls for a broader discussion of the limits of a system that is not blind to economics but rather is slave to capital, always already subjugated to an obscured class system that dispenses “get out of jail free” cards with annual dividend checks. And if you don’t happen to have one of these cards and find yourself on the wrong side of the bars, you better look like a good Christian dressed in white because in George Bush and John Ashcroft’s United States, wearing black is only one of many signs that you are not with them, but against them. In post 9/11 United States, the horrors of a satanic panic have merged with the geo-political fears of terrorism yielding a new breed of stereotyping, judicial excess and monstrous treatment of the vulnerable. Welcome to the new American Gothic. The horror show is us.                


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