Son of hope

In a video aimed at turning young thugs into Christians, serial killer David Berkowitz confesses, "I was a real jerk."

Published July 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Hey, Mom and Dad! If you're worried that your child is in danger of becoming a serial killer and would rather he be a pro-life Jesus freak, now there's a video just for you.

Gospel Films Inc., which apparently makes religious-cum-educational tapes for "teens at risk," has released a 32-minute blockbuster soon to be distributed to a prison or school near you. "The Choice is Yours -- With David Berkowitz" is a low-tech display of harried Christian propaganda and a lengthy interview with America's original postal-worker-turned-psychopath, "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz, who has loudly undergone a vast born-again Christian conversion while serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in the maximum-security Sullivan Correctional Facility.

Narrator/interviewer Bill Meyers, a middle-aged Jay Leno-type guy in an elastic-waisted leather jacket and jeans, seethes with reasonableness and sincerity, seems to want to really communicate with today's kids about the choices they make and isn't afraid to use almost "harsh" teen language to do it. "It's a funny thing about adolescence -- we start questioning everything. For some, our parents suddenly become cruel dictators, or mutant morons," he says with a shrug. He seems to be able to look through the TV screen and see us, the troubled teen audience, nodding with approval and thinking to ourselves, "Hey, this guy is speaking our lingo. We relate." Meyers then introduces a visual metaphor for a "bad choice" by spreading two small, black, foam tubes into a V on the sand at the beach. At first, the bad decision is only a few degrees off from the good decision. Get it?

The video then paints a portrait of David Berkowitz as a nerdy, fat kid and attributes his wholesale slide off the deep end to "drugs and drinking," "wanting to fit in" and "peer pressure" to be "cool." Berkowitz is now a fat, ranty, used-car-salesman type of 47-year-old Bronx guy who thumbs obsessively through a red plastic Bible and proclaims that he was "a real jerk" back during his murder spree.

About half of the film is interviews with hapless inner-city teen ex-thugs for Christ, who have renounced prostitution, drug addiction and gang-banging in favor of walking through the park in the sunshine, carrying Bibles and wearing big, glassy-eyed smiles on their faces.

"On the street, I ended up selling myself for sometimes just a hamburger," says one raspy-voiced girl with dyed red hair and a wandering eye.

One sobby teenage girl discusses the awful "physical and emotional scars" she received from getting an abortion, focusing primarily on the fact that she now considers this "murder" a horrible decision she'll now have to live with forever. The film, true to its form, cuts to a shot of a mangled fetus.

Another boy discusses with remorse how he "afflicted peer pressure on others" and contracted a venereal disease at 15 because he didn't wait to be married to have sex. "I had so many women at the time, I didn't even know who I got it from."

"Violence doesn't really birth anything," says another young man, wisely.

The video paints jail as a dark and despairing, sin-filled place you really don't want to go: "In the county jails," says a teen ex-junkie, paling with trepidation, "especially the female county jails, homosexuality is, like, a big thing." Horrors!

Meyers, walking through a dark park in an Eddie Bauer-ish anorak, discusses Berkowitz's descent into mayhem: "Nothing worked for David. Nothing could fill that emptiness, that void deep inside him. That longing to be loved and accepted. Hmmm," he pauses thoughtfully, resting an elbow on his knee, holding his chin in reflection, "I wonder how different that is from the rest of us. But instead of turning to something positive to try and fill that void, David Berkowitz turned --" he pauses for drama, "to the OCCULT." The camera pans ominously down to a table with three candles, a Ouija board and a tarot deck. Ooooooh. Scaaaaary.

An overweight girl with long, stringy hair speaks to us candidly about her experiences worshipping Satan: "In the beginning it starts out as 'OK, this is fun, there's no harm,' yet, um, like, week by week, month by month, you can see a difference, you get sucked into the darkness and then you sit there going, 'Whoa,' ya know. It started out as a fun time and it ended up in total dark reality."

Berkowitz attributes all of the 1977 murders to his involvement in Satanism: a bad crowd he fell in with when he was "looking for friends," who hung around and did what originally looked like "innocent little rituals" with Anton LaVey's "Satanic Bible." Berkowitz says that Satan worship eventually caused him to be "a slave and servant of the devil" and that, due to various oaths and "blood pacts," he was unable to break free from his neighborhood congregation of Satanists. "Possession by evil spirits," he claims, according to a New York Times article, is what caused him to listen to the urgings of his neighbor's black Labrador retriever, which told him to randomly find young couples making out in cars and girls with long, brown hair and shoot them in the face.

The girl who got the abortion seems to be the only person in the film in touch with any kind of deep remorse for killing anything. The film seems to make the point that David Berkowitz, because he is a born-again Christian now, is a much better and more enlightened person than all those teens out there still drinking and having gay and/or premarital sex and having abortions, which are practically just the same as shooting people in the face. Jesus Christ died for David Berkowitz's sins! Isn't that fucking great? Isn't that rich? He's forgiven! Everything is OK.

The real question is, What kind of sicko Christian organization would stoop to using the fame of a serial killer to promote teen interest in Christianity?

The foam tube metaphor comes back to haunt us, as Bill Meyers stands over the now long and wide V made of many lengths of tubing, representing a long path of repeated bad decisions. "Amazing, isn't it, how just a few wrong choices can ruin an entire life. Like Berkowitz, regardless of how far you've gone off the path, there is a way to come back. No matter how much wrong you've done, there's a way to have every wrong we've ever done be completely forgiven -- David Berkowitz found that way."

Berkowitz, with his nobody-will-give-you-a-better-deal-on-a-Mazda demeanor, announces that he has been visited by God Almighty and given a new name. "At one time, I was called tha Son of Sam. Today, God has said, 'You are now tha Son of Hope!" Berkowitz punctuates each word by pointing aggressively into the viewer's eye, "That's my new name, tha Son of Hope."

Roll over, Jesus.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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