The Monster Body of Myra Hindley

Cathy Hawkins

My mommy always said there were no monsters, no real ones. But there are.
Newt in Aliens (1986)

A Monster Dies

In November 2002 a "real" monster died. Her name was Myra Hindley. In the north of England in the early 1960s, Hindley and her lover, Ian Brady, carried out a series of crimes known as the Moors Murders. Together they killed at least five young people varying in age from 10 to 17 years. Since the time of their trial, an extreme level of public hated has been expressed for both killers, with the most severe approbation reserved for Hindley. This hatred continued virtually unabated until her death. When a painting of her by artist Marcus Harvey appeared at the 1997 "Sensations" exhibition in London, it was defaced and had to be protected from further damage.1 She was often represented as an individual of monstrous proportions and propensities.

I read about her death by chance in The Sydney Morning Herald on 23 November 2002. A brief article referred to Hindley?s death after falling ill while still serving a life sentence. When admitted to the West Suffolk Hospital, in Bury St Edmunds, she was found to be suffering from pneumonia complicated by heart disease. She was 60 years of age.

The newspaper article I read was headed "Even Hindley's body has power to terrify". In brief, it read:

Even in death Myra Hindley was so hated that 20 local undertakers refused to handle the ceremony. . .

[T]he firm had to be hired by an increasingly desperate prison service from somewhere about 300 kilometres away after 20 funeral directors in Suffolk, where she died, had declined to handle the ceremony. Hindley was so noxious, it seems, that even the presence of her corpse for a few minutes in the back of one's hearse was too dangerous for comfort. . . .

So just how bad, exactly, is too bad to bury? Would [undertakers normally] turn down a pedophile? Or a serial killer?

It seems, not for the first time, that Hindley has set new standards. The serial killer Fred West, who committed suicide while on remand . . . caused nothing like such a fuss in burial as Hindley. ( Addley, 2002)

I found this description of the power of Hindley?s dead body to be singular in the extreme. Moreover, the reference to Fred West was a powerful one. In December 1994, Frederick West was charged with twelve murders (although police suspected that he may have committed many more). His victims were females of various ages, many being sexually tortured before being killed. West buried several bodies in his own backyard in Cromwell Road, Gloucester, dubbed the "House of Horror" by the British press. Fred West hanged himself in his prison cell while on remand. The news report of Hindley?s death implied, however, that this man?s crimes, his dead body, and his funeral service (as far as is generally known) presented no difficulty to the undertaker concerned. Hindley?s body was another matter.

Prompted by this article, I searched for related news items. One was a headline in a British tabloid TheTelegraph reading: "Myra Hindley, the Moors monster, dies after 36 years in jail" (Sapsted and Bunyan, 2002). A Skynews report summed up the story under the title "Icon of Modern Evil":

Myra Hindley became one of the few female icons of evil to haunt the nation.

Her part in the Moors Murders gave her an infamy which remained undimmed by 36 years in jail. (n.a., 2002).

Accompanying one report was a photograph showing the gateway to the crematorium were her body lay under police guard. A large placard, fixed to the fence of the crematorium, proclaimed "Burn in Hell". There was no mention of who placed the placard. The question that occurred to me, however, was not who did it, but rather who was meant to read it. Its form of address was direct: I took as its meaning: "You, Myra Hindley, you burn in hell." While its rhetorical form is recognizable, the underlying hatred of this message seemed directed at her very soul, finding satisfaction only by her eternal damnation.

How could this dead woman?s body?or indeed the living woman herself?"terrify"? What kind of monster was this that even funeral directors wanted nothing to do with her cremation?

Along with Ian Brady, Hindley was present at, helped in, or knew about, at least five killings taking place from July 1963 to October 1965. The first victim was a sixteen-year-old girl, Pauline Reade, on her way to a dance. The disappearances of two twelve-year-old boys, John Kilbride and Keith Bennett, followed at six monthly intervals. Later a ten-year-old girl, Lesley Ann Downey, disappeared going to a local fair. All these people were physically abused before death, killed apparently for Brady?s sexual gratification. They were then buried in shallow graves on Saddleworth Moor, outside the city of Manchester. The last to die was seventeen-year-old Edward Evans, whose killing took place in front of a witness (David Smith, Hindley?s seventeen-year-old brother-in-law) who revealed the attack to the police.

Although police believed the pair responsible for these five deaths, evidence was found only in relation to three crimes. Brady and Hindley were indicted and pleaded not guilty to all charges. They refused to incriminate each other then and for many years after their imprisonment. Evidence indicated Hindley played an active part in the deaths and the details of the Moors Murders presented in court were chilling. The pair made a tape recording of the sexual abuse of Lesley Ann Downey. This became damning evidence in the prosecution?s case when played in court. Investigators also discovered photographs of the same child in sexually explicit poses. Police believed that Hindley helped procure the first four victims by enticing them into her small van, then transporting their bodies to Saddleworth Moor. Photos depicted the lovers returning to the moor to hold picnics next to these graves.

On 6 th May 1966, at the age of 23, Hindley was found guilty of two murders ( the deaths of Downey and Evans) and of being an accessory to the murder of a third person ( Kilbride). She received a sentence of life plus seven years. Ian Brady, found guilty of the murder of the same three victims, was also sentenced to life imprisonment (where he remains). Twenty years later, Hindley and Brady confessed to the murders of Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett. Up until that time, Hindley had steadfastly denied her guilt in these deaths, and this admission shocked many of her supporters. They were not re-tried, as it was deemed not to be in the public interest.

Monstrous Crimes

The story of Myra Hindley, a convicted murderer who became a monster, is a narrative of the body, and in a sense she haunted me for quite some time. Among other issues, I felt compelled to know how Hindley?s monstrosity was woven into, and created by, a series of cultural narratives of the monster.

In Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), Judith Halberstam observes:

Within the traits that make a body monstrous?that is, frightening or ugly, abnormal or disgusting?we may read the difference between an other and a self, a pervert and a normal person, a foreigner and a native. (1995, p. 8)

While historically situating the creation of monsters in cinema and literature, Halberstam describes how such extraordinary creatures claw at the boundaries and distort the borders of the popular imaginary. She warns us to be cautious of normalizing discourses, that we should be "suspicious of monster hunters, monster makers, and above all, discourses invested in purity and innocence" (1995, p. 27). More than just a monster, however, Hindley was clearly a female monster. Marina Warner has noted that the "deadly female predator" is a recognizable element in many mythical narratives, both ancient and contemporary (1994, p. 3). In drawing on Julia Kristeva?s concept of the abject, Barbara Creed used the term "monstrous-feminine" to describe feminised monsters in popular cinema. In The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993) Creed identifies a range of characterisations which, she argued, carry the non-phallic power of the femme castratrice, such as the possessed woman, the monstrous womb, and the witch. Margarit Shildrick also calls upon cultural critics not simply to "equate . . . sexual difference with monstrous difference, but to mark those places where the two signifiers are doing similar work" (2002, p 28).

Hindley disrupted many of the gendered positions of traditional femininity, particularly those related to crime. Feminist criminologist Ngaire Naffine asserts that crime is itself an inherently gendered activity. The sex of the offender is the most notable issue in crime statistics, and criminal behaviour is "something that men are expected to do, because they are men. And women are expected not to do, because they are women" (1997, pp 5-6). The gendered construction of the female criminal is not confined to criminology itself but, as sociologist Belinda Morrissey points out, is fundamental to legal and media narratives that "construct a subjectivity for the protagonist which becomes vitally important in her discursive acceptance or rejection" (2003, p. 3). As examples, Morrissey offers the cases of Karla Homolka and Valmae Beck, both instances in which women were convicted of violent attacks on young women in concert with their lovers. She observes that these women "failed to perform their gender correctly" in terms of legal and media discourses (2003, p 157). In particular, Morrissey identifies female complicity in sexual assault as a key subversion of gender.

For many years Hindley denied her involvement in the crimes and refused to present herself as either a perpetrator or as a victim of Brady?s manipulation. Her refusal of the gendered subjectivity of the victim, her perceived coolness and sanity, her lack of feminine contrition, drew the ire of the media and, through them, the public imagination. In her book Myra Hindley: Inside the Mind of a Murderess (1988), Jean Ritchie remarks that Hindley was "a very hard case indeed. A few tears, a bit of genuine embarrassment and shame might have served her own cause better" (1988, p. 116). She did not break down in the witness box in a womanly fashion. In an Australian context, the supposed lack of emotional responses of the protagonists in the Lindy Chamberlain and the Kathleen Folbigg trials attracted similar public scrutiny and media reporting. Hindley could have used the passive femininity of the deluded, victimized woman to mitigate her crimes. The refusal to do so magnified her gendered monstrosity. In the mid-1980s, Hindley adopted the discourse of victimization and argued that she had acted under physical and psychological duress from Brady. It was too late: Hindley?s monstrosity was passed the point of public renegotiation.

The narratives of Myra Hindley that I began to unearth illustrated many of the imbalances Halberstam describes in the imaginary monsters of the Gothic tradition: the disturbance of gendered and behavioural boundaries, the dread of Otherness, the display of monstrosity written on the body. The narratives also clearly draw on the mythical notion of the "unnatural" woman who threatens the patricidal order, with the preternatural powers of Lillith, Medea, or the Gorgon. That is, they point to where and how the monster and the feminine disorganize binaries, those borders of difference, around which identity is structured.

I expected that locating these characteristics would produce a clearer picture in my own mind of Hindley and her actions. They did not. Moreover, I remained concerned with another question about monsters. How might one accommodate not a fictional creature?Frankenstein?s Bride or Vampira or Carrie or the vagina dentata of the Aliens?but a real person who committed actual crimes? I was drawn to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen?s essay "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)" in which he identifies the fractious nature of the monstrous. In writing about the cultural construction of monsters, Cohen maintains that, when looking for such creatures, it is only possible to find and temporarily bind together "a loosely integrated net?or, better, an unassimilated hybrid, a monstrous body" (1996, p 3). That is, the monstrous body seems to inoculate itself again easy portrayal, to exist, as Cohen writes, as a "displacement" (1996, p 4). Thus, some parts of Hindley have inevitably evaded me, have defied my ability to comprehend both her crimes, and the way in which she became a public monster.

At this point, I should state that my own reactions to Hindley are not neutral. I find her an unappealing figure and I believe that her misdeeds were premeditated. The murders of these five young people were (and remain) ugly events. This does not mean, however, that the creation of Hindley the monster was a foregone conclusion, springing inevitably from her crimes. The search for Hindley can reveal particular mass-mediated narratives of the body; stories that have permitted us, as Cohen puts it, to "[read] cultures from the monsters they engender" (1996, p 3).

Hindley As Narrative

When I mentioned to a colleague that I was writing about Hindley, she related an anecdote. She was living in England in the 1980s when Hindley and Brady confessed to the last two murders. In an effort to locate the remaining gravesites, authorities returned Hindley and (separately) Brady to Sandleworth Moor. It was reported in the media that Hindley was secretly transported to Manchester by train. Prior to her arrival at the station, police were said to have apprehended a male relative of one of the victims waiting on the platform with a knife. Rather than arresting the man, police let him go with a warning. I could find no confirmation of this event, and it seems unlikely that Hindley ever traveled this way. While it could have happened, I believe the incident may be a composite of episodes that occurred at other times, retold and popularly circulated.

I am grateful for the story because it illustrates three important points. Firstly, it is essential to acknowledge the extent of public anger produced by the deaths of the children in the Moors case, both at the time of their trial and in the years since. In 1966 it was necessary to conduct the court case in the town of Chester, miles away from the enraged Manchester crowds. In particular, this rage was directed towards Hindley, and undoubtedly there were those willing to kill her given the opportunity. The UK had repealed the death penalty just before the pair came to trial, and this was the first infamous case where capital punishment was not an alternative.

Secondly, the media played an important role in the Moors case. There was a great deal of visual drama extracted by the events, and newspapers illustrated exposés with photos of the windswept Saddleworth Moor being scoured by dozens of police in search of lonely gravesites. Richie goes further than most, relating the "bloody history" of Saddleworth Moor. This includes ghostly manifestations, some said to be the spectres of dead children murdered in an earlier era (1988, pp 25-6). Such tales may indeed have added to the local feeling of repulsion at the crimes, but also serve to link the narrative of Hindley and Brady to a longer mythic tradition of intangible evil.

Thirdly, it is the stories told about Hindley (and female killers in general) with which I am concerned here, rather than the need to determine "truth" about actual lives. The Myra Hindley I am writing about now exists only within narratives such as the one offered by my colleague. Hindley is an object about which are constructed a series of culturally and historically anchored stories (of which this paper is one). Very little of Hindley?s own voice is found. Birch believes that there were, in fact, efforts made to silence the prisoner. She suggests that the opportunity for insights into Hindley?s actions were lost, suppressed by a British Home Office worried about public opinion (1994, pp. 56ff).

Narratives about killer women narratives are found in a number of textual sources, ranging from true-life crime books, internet sites (such as ), women?s magazines, tabloid newspapers, to (what we might term) more serious forms of journalism. A few sources on Hindley are book-length, such as Ritchie?s work (1988), while others are chapters in works like Women Who Kill: Profiles of Female Serial Killers by Carol Anne Davis (2001). Writing about the gendered coverage of crime in relation to the Australian "lesbian vampire killers" case, Deb Verhoeven notes: "Popular media reports of the women?s trial are often difficult to distinguish from "quality" or "serious" journalism and criticism" (1994, p. 101). Verhoeven contents that differences between media disappear when it comes to reporting of women considered sexually aberrant, with explanatory strategies being formed within restrictive media discourses on gender and sexuality.

Almost all the true-crime stories on female serial killers emphasize childhood histories of terrible abuse, such as the young life of Rosemary West (wife of Fred West). In her book on women murderers, Davis offers various descriptions of childhood abuse, and suggests that "the most crucial thing that . . . female killers have in common is that they weren?t raised in loving or stable homes" (2001, p 250).2 In opposition to these stories, Hindley narratives tend to describe her as a perfectly normal girl and young woman. Her life as a working class girl in dour, post-war Manchester is depicted as unremarkable. Although her parents had split up, most accounts report that she came from a loving family. Davis alone of those I have found describes Hindley?s early childhood as one in which she watched her drunken father beating her mother, and assumes this means she was no stranger to abusive relationships (2001, p 28). All do agree, however, that the young Hindley was a keen churchgoer, adored animals and children, and was sought-after as a baby-sitter. As a teenager, she went out with boy friends but did not seem interested in anything more serious. Davis asserts that Hindley possessed an IQ of 109, described as "only slightly above average" (2001, p 29), and that she later obtained a university degree (in humanities from the Open University).

Most narratives assert that Hindley?s normal life changed when, at the age of nineteen, she met the handsome and intellectual Ian Brady. According to Davis, up until that time the teenager was a virgin and had shown no evidence of "promiscuity" (2001, p 250). Hindley wrote romantically about Brady in her diary almost from the moment she set eyes on him. The couple would eventually become inseparable: playing, working, and even living together in contravention of the social mores of the times. Hindley rejected her Catholic upbringing and adopted Brady?s fascination with Hitler and the Nazis (a unpalatable interest in post-war Britain), as well as his absorption in the works of Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade. She took the nickname of "Myra Hess" after the wife of Rudolf Hess. She also styled herself after Irma Grese, an infamous Nazi prison guard, copying her bleached blonde hair and leather boots. As her relationship with Brady grew, Hindley seems to have adopted a more extreme lifestyle and belief system. These changes appear to be the outcome of choices Hindley made to please herself and her lover. In their true-crime Encyclopedia of Modern Murder, Wilson and Seaman declare "Once they joined forces, Brady and Hindley showed total disregard for the conventions in everything they did" (1983, p 55). The denial of traditional beliefs and ideals, the conscious joining of their "forces", implies unwomanly deliberation and rationality on Hindley?s part. This description also invokes the spectre of malevolence, and seems to imply that the couple actively conjoured up their own monstrous selves.

After her conviction for murder, the trial judge believed that Hindley would revert to a more normal, recuperated femininity. He asserted: "Though I believe Brady is wicked beyond belief without hope of redemption, I cannot feel that the same is necessarily true of Hindley once she is removed from his influence" (quoted in Stanford, 2002). Brady is thus presented as a contaminating factor, the originating agent for the killings. BBC correspondent Peter Gould makes an important observation concerning this issue of agency in the Moors killings. He remarks:

Hindley in particular provokes the strongest emotions, because people find it difficult to understand how a woman?and apparently a sane woman?could be involved in such dreadful crimes against children. However much she tries to minimise her involvement in the murders, the fact is that without her Brady would have found it much more difficult to commit the crimes. (quoted in Summers, n.d.)

In mass-media texts, women involved in violent crime such as murder are often presented in victims of systemic abuse and/or coercion by dominate males. Yet Gould does more than implicate or damn Hindley, he poses a question that is rare in the narratives. He asks us to consider how much her decisions and actions influenced Brady to carry out the murders. Would Brady have considered the Moors killings without her help? Similarly, Gould also seems to suggest that Hindley, as a female, bears both burden of her own guilt and the weight of Brady?s offences. She was not only herself a killer but was responsible for the sins of the man who physically performed the murders.

The "strongest emotions" referred to by Gould are not only saved for Hindley, but extend to all those who might in any way seek to counter the monster narratives. Over the years, several public figures took up Hindley?s cause, particularly in terms of prison reform (when she became a so-called "political prisoner", remaining in custody long past the term generally served by inmates in her position). The tabloid media invariably cast such people as foolishly duped by an evil Hindley. Lord Longford took up her case and, as Birch notes, "was branded a ?looney?" by the press (1994, p. 44). In the mid-1980s, Peter Timms (former prison governor and a minister in the Methodist church) became Hindley?s counsellor. When he began to report on her normality, he too received widespread disapproval for being conned by a duplicitous and monstrous woman.

One narrative retold by both Ritchie (1988, pp 31-32) and Davis (2001, pp 32-33) relates to a young woman who gave evidence at Hindley?s trial. When the teenaged Hindley began her relationship with Brady, she talked to her friend May Hill and passed her a letter. Hindley claimed to be very afraid of her new boyfriend, relating that he had drugged and abused her, took nude photographs of her, and threaten the lives of her family. If anything untoward was to happened, Hindley asked Hill to take the letter to the police. Although Hindley later recanted these allegations, Hill testified to the contents of the letter in court. Ritchie relates:

"She was a perfectly normal girl until she met him," the friend [said] . . . . But today she is no friend of Myra?s: she herself became the victim of a local hate campaign when she volunteered information about the letter before Myra?s trial, and she wants nothing more to do with any attempt to rehabilitate Myra?s reputation (1998, p. 32).

Ritchie does not deal with unreasoned hatred and death threats directed towards Hill. Instead, she implies that the guilt for all the repercussions of the crimes rests solely with Hindley. By denying even the teenaged Hindley?s humanizing fears, monster narratives privilege those stories focused on her slide into degeneracy.

While the Moors Murders were a complicated series of events and criminal actions, they are widely regarded as sex crimes. As such, it is understandable that popular discourses of sexuality and gender were mobilised in order to comprehend the deaths of five young people. Sexual narratives are constructed so that we might understand that unnatural bodily acts pervaded the lives of the killers, acts that ran counter to heteronormativity and (in Hindley?s case) discourses of "natural" feminine behavior. For example, true-life crime sources ascribe high sex-drives to most female killers. The narratives related by Davis, for example, point out that female killers such as Karla Homolka and Rosemary West, as well as many others, were highly-sexed (2001, p. 242). Such issues of sexuality are intrinsically bound up in those discourses of purity and innocence that Halberstam warns of in the creation of monsters (1995, p. 27).

Few popular texts fail to mention that Brady and Hindley were involved in (what is presented as) depraved sexual activity well before they embarked on their murders. It is implicit within true-crime narratives that these activities speak of pre-existing sexual "perversion", as well as of Hindley?s subservience to Brady. Wilson and Seaman express this forthrightly by writing that "their warped sexual appetites" pre-dated the crimes (1986, p. 55). The sexuality of the couple does seem to have disrupted traditional sex roles and rejected heteronormative behaviours. Hindley posed for sexually explicit photographs for her lover (found after their arrest). She told a police investigator that Brady wanted certain kind of sex acts; for example, he would masturbate while she placed a candle into his rectum (Cawson, 1995, pp. 21-22). Later, Hindley would claim that Brady forced her into these kinds of activities (Birch, 1994, p. 41). It is difficult to know, however, where to situate this claim without knowing more about Hindley?s own sexuality at that time. More pertinently, she appears to have narrated a submissive sexuality for herself, presenting these sexual acts as distasteful and her place in them as victimized. In this narrated self offered to the police she does not, for example, situate herself a penetrative woman (in the case of the candle) or as one engaging in pornographic performance (in the case of the photographs).

One of the most significant narratives in the construction of Hindley?s monstrosity is her role as a child-killer. Commenting on female child-killers, Marina Warner astutely brings together the elements of sexuality and maternity. She notes that such woman seem to "disqualify themselves from the rank of mother, and from the category of woman altogether. A woman like Myra Hindley is seen to embody a violent sexuality that is more appropriate to the male than the female" (1998, p 3). This is echoed in many texts, such as an article by Paul Hyett (incongruously found in the journal BuildingDesign):

Horrified that a woman should so totally deny our enduring belief in the sanctity of motherhood, we have been unable to come to terms with Hindley. Accordingly, she suffered punishment more severe than that of Brady?or indeed any other male murderer (2002, p 11).

Hindley was not a mother. It is the concept of the maternal that she threatened, seemingly to replace it with a cruel, self-serving sexuality that repudiated the very idea of the nurturing woman. Just as in some discursive environments the material body can become monstrous (Shildrick, 2002, p 44), many narratives base Hindley?s monstrosity upon her crimes against the gendered construction of the mother. Her repudiation of the maternal seemed sane and cool, and served to shatter a key cultural boundary of the feminine.

Some narratives explicitly link monstrosity and homosexuality. For example, once imprisoned Hindley rejected heterosexuality, adopting lesbianism and embracing feminist ideas. Most notoriously, in the early 1970s she had a passionate relationship with Pat Cairns, a female warder in Holloway Goal, and together they planned an escape. Birch draws attention to Jean Ritchie?s assessment of this incident in relation to Hindley?s sexual identity. Birch comments that Ritchie, like others, was looking for confirmation of monstrous "perversion":

[Ritchie] cites the "jailbreak plot" as evidence of Hindley?s unsavoury promiscuity, her power to manipulate others . . . . Questioning her status as a "real" lesbian, Ritchie joined numerous other journalists in presenting Hindley as a she-devil, who has duped all those who feel that her remorse is genuine. . . . While admitting that many women prisoners engage in sexual relationships with other prisoners, she insists that Hindley?s own were perverse, tainted, and implicitly links her "unstable" sexuality with the deviance that led her to murder (1994, p. 50).

Ritchie also refers to Hindley?s "illegal lesbian activities" whilst in Durham prison (1988, p 198), neatly painting an image of illicitness, of moral and sexual corruption in all her intimate relations. For Ritchie, it is not possible for Hindley the monster to form any genuine sexual or emotional ties. Unlike Hindley, Brady always denied any homosexuality on his part. While Brady claims that he met his final victim, the seventeen-year-old Edward Evans, outside a railway café (Ritchie, 1988, p 76), most accounts say that Brady picked up Evans in either a pub or in a gay bar (for example, see Summers, n.d.). Wilson states directly that Evans was a homosexual (1995, p. 493). Forensic evidence on the teenager?s body suggesting that he had removed his clothing in Hindley?s house before he died, leads Davis to assert that they had had a "threesome" that night (2001, p 39).

It is worth noting how these discourses of sexuality and childhood work together in the narratives, particularly in relation to Halberstam?s warning about ideas "invested in purity and innocence" (1995, p. 27). Whilst all the Moors victims were under the age of majority, two of the five were teenagers. Yet mass-media texts tend to refer only to the deaths of "children". Here I am not trying to argue about the definition of "the child" for, no matter how we cast the term, the deaths of all the young people were brutal. Nevertheless, the assumption seems to be that Edward Evans, at seventeen, wasnot a child, whereas the sixteen-year-old Pauline Reade was included in that category. As a result, Evans is often omitted from the list of victims. For example, a BBC internet report on Hindley?s death writes that she "was jailed for life in 1966 for murdering two children", but later confessed to two more child-killings ("Moors murderer Hindley dies", 2002). Despite his youth, it seems that homophobic narratives construct Evans as an adult. Presumed to be sexually aware and active, the young man?s fate was tainted by sexual indeterminacy; he allowed himself to be picked up by the predatory Ian Brady. Despite the cruelty of his death, Evans is not the "pure" victim sought by the monster hunters.

The Monster Face

Writing about the cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, RichardTithecott observed that "[w]e are happier if our monsters remain gargoyles" (1997, p.20). In the case of Myra Hindley, more than any other female criminal, the representation of her misdeeds and her monstrosity have been written on her gargoyle body. While one tabloid report described Karla Homolka as "the ice-cold, dead-eyed child killer" (Ford, 2002), it is the image of Hindley that seems to overshadow all the narratives of the female killer.

FIG. One: Myra Hindley

Figure One is the infamous police mug shot, taken at the time of Hindley?s arrest, which is said to represent the embodiment of pure feminine evil. It is a picture reproduced in many true-life crime publications and media reports, and appears on the cover of Ritchie?s 1988 biography. Peter Stanford of The Guardian puts it this way:

That Medusa-like snap-snot of her, taken in 1966, with her peroxide hair swept up and back and a fixed, almost defiant, look in her eyes, became one of the icons of crime in the latter part of the 20th century (2002).

It is worth noting Stanford?s use of the word "defiant" as a damning description, as though defiance of the law has no place in the repertoire of the female criminal.

In a rare insight behind the image, Birch offers Hindley?s own description of the photograph (1994, p53). Hindley claimed that her expression was compounded by sleeplessness and fear, that is was an assumed mask to cover her alarm. No doubt Hindley was experiencing fear at this point, as she and her lover were about to be revealed as murderers, but this does not in itself explain the particular resonance of the image. Importantly, Hindley?s description draws attention to the conditions under which the photograph was taken, to the production of the image at a specific time and for a particular purpose. It was produced in the confrontational and disciplinary setting of a police station. Its purpose was to capture the likeness of an individual prisoner for the purpose of recording and processing her arrest. The photograph is stark. It is meant to be stable, static, devoid of desires. It is also a public (as opposed to a private) image, a picture to be scrutinized rather than glanced at, created to be a literal rendering of its object (denotative rather than connotative). Yet it is widely distributed and read in a very different way, constructing Hindley as a visual phenomenon representative of her "true" or underlying monstrous being.

There are a number of versions of the image in circulation, mainly differing in the amount of cropping applied to the picture. Some show more of Hindley?s upper body and shoulders, revealing the kind of clothing worn at the time of her arrest. External trappings of dress are stripped from the close-cropped shots. The image most often reproduced is an extreme close-up, with the top of her head and the lower chin sometimes missing. Some have the contrast increased, serving to deepen the dark areas around Hindley?s eyes and lighten her hair, giving a shifty appearance and a helmet-like look to her face and head. The stray curls at the side of her neck have been removed in another version of the image, making the face harder and more caricatured. The image can be found as a "cut-out", without background. This is the face of a monster and, nearly forty years after it was taken, we are not encouraged to see it as anything else.

FIG. TWO: Ian Brady

Figure Two is Ian Brady?s mug shot, and it depicts a very unprepossessing man who just charged with three premeditated murders. In fact, this seems to be a bad photograph of Brady, who Davis describes as "very good looking", bearing some similarity to both Elvis Presley (2001, p 31) and James Dean (p 45) . The picture can be read as every bit as sullen and defiant (if one is predisposed to this reading) as Hindley?s photo, yet I have found no commentary that remarks on Brady?s expression of taciturn insolence, or links him to monstrosity. In a recent true-life crime magazine, a story on the Moors Murders reproduces the mug shots of both killers. Brady?s picture is labeled "the making of a sadist", while a heavily doctored Hindley bears the question "What made her a monster?" ("The Moors Murderers", 2003, pp 76-77).

Researching female killers on the internet, I found a picture of another woman. I did not recognize her face immediately, and this failure surprised me: not because the face is dreadful in any way, but simply because it is not an image used, like Hindley?s, to represent evil. Figure Three shows a round-faced woman of early middle age. Her overly-large glasses lend her an innocuous?perhaps motherly?look. She does not seem to glare defiantly at the camera. On surface appearance only, it is a face of normal femininity.

FIG. THREE: Rose West

This woman is Rosemary West, wife of Frederick West. Following her husband?s suicide, Rosemary was convicted of the murder of ten females over an eighteen-year period, including those of her daughter and stepdaughter. She also violently sexually assaulted young people, including members of family, and is serving life imprisonment. The surprising thing about this picture is not that a murderer can look ordinary, but rather that Rose West?s image is so little seen, that her face is not well known (except perhaps to those in Britain at the time of the trial). D espite her crimes, the popular media do not use this face to personify feminine evil or deviance in the public imagination. No matter how you crop Rosemary West?s face, it does not look medusa-like (or indeed, Medea-like). In fact, journalists at her trial were said to have "scrutinized Mrs West compulsively" hoping to see some sign of her monstrous inner self (Burn, 1996, p. 153). They could not. Although the tabloid media dubbed her "the most depraved woman on earth", they tended to illustrate their stories with pictures of the "House of Horror" (where many of the victims bodies were buried) rather than with Rosemary West?s face (Burn, p 154).

Pamela Hansford Johnson was present at the harrowing trial of the Moors Murderers, and her book On Inequity: Some Personal Reflections Arising Out of the Moors Murder Trial (1967) conveys her own repulsion for the killers and their crimes. Johnson?s text also reveals a willingness to view Hindley (particularly her face) as monstrous, and to depict her in these terms:

Sturdy in build and broad-buttocked . . . she could have served a nineteenth-century Academy painter as a model for Clytemnestra . . . The [hairstyle] is far too massive for the wedge-shaped face; in itself it bears an uneasy suggestion of fetishism. But it is the lines of this porcelained face which are extraordinary. Brows, eyes, mouth are all quite straight, precisely parallel. The fine nose is straight, too, except for a very faint downward turn at the tip just as the chin turns very faintly upward. She will have a nutcracker face one day (1967, pp 22-23).

The description seems gratuitously spiteful, yet Johnson?s construction of Hindley as a figure of repugnance at the trial is significant. One remark is particularly illuminating. Johnson claims that, throughout the court case, on-lookers wanted the prosecution to take a stronger line with Hindley. They wanted "to see someone break her down. . . . to understand what was going on behind that pink and white mask" (1967, pp. 97-8). Hindley?s crimes and the narratives of her body coalesce behind this "mask". As a point of comparison, Johnson simply writes that the accused man Brady looked "almost tragically gaunt", had a "well-cut mouth" and overall seemed "ordinary" (1967, p 22).

Helen Birch?s analysis of the Hindley arrest photograph draws on a popular cultural tradition of "the unknowable blonde with a heart of steel", but is most persuasive when she asserts:

[T]hat photograph, counterpointed by articles which often unwillingly interrogate its meaning?mad or bad? devil or dupe??opens up a chasm between the idea of femininity as guarantor of idealism, nurturance and nature and its opposite: violence, depravity and nihilism. . . . This is perhaps one reason why we find the gaze of the sexually active, childless woman who killed children so profoundly disturbing. . . . it tears across the boundary of sexual difference. (1994, p 53)

Hindley was portrayed as passionless and unemotional, and her mug-shot has come to represent these qualities. Hindley?s body resists the gendered construction of traditional femininity: it was never perceived "leaky" or unstable. In their work on mass hysteria and popular culture, critical psychologists Lisa Blackman and Valerie Walkerdine also argue that when the feminine has customarily been linked to "emotion, passion, desire, irrationality and madness", women such as Hindley symbolically threaten the discursive fabric of gender (2001, p 137). Of all female killers, Hindley does more than menace accepted gender stereotypes. Hers appeared to be an impermeable body, her face a mask of defiance, resilience and deception. The photograph stands for the female who cannot be penetrated.

In her article on Hindley?s death, Addley reports the words of an undertaker. He asks her how people would feel "if it was their mother or their grandfather in the same chapel of rest or in the same hearse as Myra Hindley?" (2002). Such a question strips any sense of humanity from the living and the dead woman. In particular, the narratives of Hindley?s appearance have the ability to show us a monster, a woman whose various and heinous crimes are written?and can be read?on her body.

Myra Hindley was a woman who did untold harm to others. In this sense, her monstrosity was created by her crimes, by her own acts of cruelty and murder. The repugnance felt by the victim?s families, and by the larger community, is comprehensible. In the closing remarks to her book, Ritchie speaks for two mothers bereaved by the Moors Murders: "Mrs West and Mrs Johnson both believe that [Hindley] was and is a monster, an inhuman creature who cannot be discussed rationally" (1988, p. 290). Yet such accounts can mask a culture?s own complicity in the mediated creation of monstrous narratives. As Morrissey observes, when female killers are "monsterized" they can be placed outside the mainstream of society and their deeds mythologised as evil (2003, p. 25). My purpose here has been to inquire into mediated understandings of Hindley, and to question how popular texts delineate between the deeds of a human being and the way those deeds are culturally inscribed. The task is neither conclusive nor complete, for monsters are illusive. There is always some part of them that evades both enunciation and comprehension.


Addley, Esther (2002) "Even Hindley's body has power to terrify". Sydney Morning Herald, 1037697876250.html

James Cameron (1986) Aliens. 20th Century Fox/Brandwine Production.

Birch, Helen (1994) "If looks could kill: Myra Hindley and the iconography of evil", in Helen Birch (ed.), Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp 32-61.

Blackman Lisa, and Valerie Walkerdine (2001) Mass Hysteria: Critical psychology and media studies. Houndmills, Basingstoke, and Hampshire, NJ: Palgrave.

Burn, Gordon (1996) "The Trial", Granta 53, pp. 146-155.

Cawson, Frank (1995) The Monsters in the Mind: The Face of Evil in Myth, Literature and Contemporary Life. Lewes, Sussex: The Book Guild.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome (1996), "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)", in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (ed.), Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, pp 3-25.

Creed, Barbara (1993) The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

Crime Library. On line, available:

Davis, Carol Anne (2001) Women Who Kill: Profiles of Female Serial Killers. London: Allison and Busby.

Ford, Catherine (2002) "We'll never forgive: Karla Homolka can forget about ever living a normal life", Halifax Daily News,

Halberstam, Judith (1995) Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham and London: Duke University.

Hyett Paul (2002) "The Ghost of Myra Hindley", Building Design. November, p 11.

"Icon of Modern Evil", Skynews, article/0,,30100-12169839,00.html

Johnson, Pamela Hansford (1967) On Inequity: Some Personal Reflections Arising Out of the Moors Murder Trial. London: Macmillan.

"Moors murderer Hindley dies" 2002. BBC.

Moors Murderers, The (2003) Real-Life Crimes 1(2), pp 75-84.

Morrissey, Belinda (2003) When Women Kill: Questions of agency and subjectivity. London: Routledge.

Naffine, Ngaire (1997) Feminism and Criminology. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Ritchie, Jean (1988) Myra Hindley: Inside the Mind of a Murderess. Sydney: Bay Books.

Rosenthal, Norman, et. al. (1998) Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. London: Thames and Hudson/Royal Academy of Arts.

Sapsted, David, and Nigel Bunyan (2002) Myra Hindley, the Moors monster, dies after 36 years in jail, The Telegraph,

Shildrick, Margrit (2002) Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London, SAGE.

Stanford, Peter (2002) "Myra Hindley", The Guardian,,3604,841049,00.html

Summers, Chris (n.d.) "Crime Fighters Solved Moors Murders". BBC News Online,

Tithecott, Richard (1997) Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. Madison, Wisconsin and London: University of Wisconsin Press.

Verhoeven, Deb (1994) "Biting the hand that breeds: The trials of Tracey Wigginton" in Helen Birch (ed.), Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp 95-126.

Warner, Marina (1998) London Review of Books, 1 January.

------- (1994). Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time. The 1994 Reith Lectures. London: Vintage.

Wilson, Colin (1995) Written in Blood: A History of Forensic Detection. London: HarperCollins.

------- and Donald Seaman (1986) Encyclopedia of Modern Murder 1962-1983. London and Sydney: Pan.

Verhoeven, Deb (1994) "Biting the hand that breeds: The trials of Tracey Wigginton" in Helen Birch (ed.), Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp 95-126.


1 This painting is reproduced in Rosenthal et. al. (1998, p 87). My thanks to Daisy Little for this reference.

2 See, for instance, the Crime Library accounts of Rosemary West?s childhood (