The "Craiglist Killer's" creepy viral promotion

A murder fuels a TV movie -- and a Web campaign with a genuinely disturbing message

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 30, 2010 8:31PM (EST)

Jake McDorman as Philip Markoff in "The Craigslist Killer"
Jake McDorman as Philip Markoff in "The Craigslist Killer"

Lately, amid the confused kittensFacebook fails and pictures of breasts that make up Buzzfeed, you'll find the Normal Lives of 10 Notorious Serial Killers. You'll find the 14 Creepiest Ted Bundy Quotes. You'll find a handy comparison of notorious Craigslist killer Phillip Markoff and a string of recent unsolved murders in New York. And among the yellow badges for stories that qualify as "trashy," "cute," or "WTF" are ones that are "killer" -- featuring the tiny face of actor Jake McDorman in his role as Markoff for the forthcoming Lifetime TV movie. "Killer," by the way, in this case doesn't mean actual snuffing out of life. It designates those things Buzzfeed recognizes as unusually baroque, like what the world's fattest woman ate for Christmas dinner.

Buzzfeed's aggressive, sociopath-themed partnership with Lifetime's movie about an Internet-fueled crime is on many levels a natural. The site is a daily addiction for the kind of Net culture geeks who don't need anybody to explain Craigslist and its "adult services" history to them, who probably followed the story of the brutal murder of Julissa Brisman in 2009 through the suicide of her killer, Markoff, in a prison cell last August. That just doesn't make any of it especially good for the soul.

To be fair, much of the awfulness of the promotional enterprise belongs to Lifetime, a place which, if not for the phrase "based on a true story," would be little more than a collection of "Desperate Housewives" reruns. Its "Craigslist Killer" movie Web page is an exploitation bonanza, featuring a bloodstained delete key and links to "enter to win" a "Date with Death" book or look at "true crime photos" illuminating the story. Sure, let's take a gander at Brisman's grieving mother, or the funeral home where her funeral was held, right above the caption describing her as "a woman who had advertised her massage services on Craigslist." And then I'll just go shower my brain.

But at least if I've somehow made the commitment to look at Lifetime, I know what tawdry nightmare I'm in for. Buzzfeed, on the other hand, is more an accurate -- and random -- reflection of Net culture itself, a place that hands us adorable puppies and psychopaths in the same crazy basket of "Look what's trending!" And as a journalist friend says, there's something about those juxtapositions that flattens all of them. It distills the horror of a woman killing her baby down to a mere "ew," putting it then in the same league as say, cat jeans.

And now, Buzzfeed mashes up the real death of Julissa Brisman, who was beaten, shot repeatedly and left in a pool of her own blood, with a TV movie starring the guy from "Greek," and then circles it back to a  list of 10 genuine, disturbing Craigslist ads from "potential serial killers." Seriously. Oh, and don't forget to "Catch The Craigslist Killer, the all-new Lifetime movie, premiering this Monday at 9/8c." Also, have you seen the hilarious girls of eBay?

It gives an unnaturally equal weight to real tragedy, Lifetime movies and funny charts. And when it deems Kanye's new video as somehow awesome enough to merit a little "killer" Phillip Markoff badge, that isn't just numbingly sad. It's straight up ew.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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