When I was younger, my brother and I would get together with some of the other boys in the neighborhood, usually after dinner, just before dark, and play a game called Manhunt. Assuming most everyone knows what this game is, I will skip an explanation. Needless to say, the kids on my street had a lot of fun playing this game. Often we would recruit other kids from the neighborhood and play with sometimes as many as 15 people. For me it was the most fun when we had girls join us. I remember always attempting pair up with the girls that I usually had crushes on at the time.
That was the 1970s and the summers of boyhood. As magical as those summers were, there was also a sinister element running through them. I remember distinctly when the serial killer known as the Son of Sam was terrorizing parts of New York. Even though we lived three hours away upstate, I can recall the adults talking very nervously and cautiously about this killer. It seemed that everywhere one looked the Son of Sam was on the news or in the paper. To my childhood mind he had become a kind of celebrity that was not quite real. If I remember correctly, there was a short period when I became interested in serial killers; not for what they were doing, I cannot comprehend what it would be like to kill another human being, but because of the cult status that followed them and the attention they received from the media.
The talk of the Son of Sam and serial killers became the dominant topic of conversation among my friends. One night someone (I hope it wasn’t me, but memory fails me here) suggested that we change the name of our Manhunt game to Serial Killer. The gist of the game would be that every one of us would take the name of a different serial killer and play a game where every man (or boy) simultaneously looked after himself and hunted for the others. At the time my next-door neighbor had made some of us in the neighborhood rubber band guns out of wood in his basement. The guns shot runner bands and would sting something awful. Anyway, we would race around among our houses and hide. When we “caught” someone we would never hesitate to shoot. Our only sense of justice would be to shoot first and ask questions later. It may be telling that despite this type of justice there was seldom peace among us; someone was always fighting, and it was usually my brother and me.
The fact that we played a game we called “Serial Killer” gives me a lot to think about today, especially now that I have children of my own. I’ve never wanted to be a serial killer except in the safety of a childhood game. When African-American boys started to go missing in Atlanta in the early 1980s, I remember my mother becoming much more strict about where she let my brother and me go, and for how long. I suppose every childhood, as magical as it can be, contains a serpent in the garden. Ours happened to be the image and celebrity of serial killers on the loose.