In the News: Sensationalism and serial killers

Some of you may have heard of the serial killer Paul Steven Haigh. He’s from my home state of Victoria. He murdered 7 people, including a 10 year old child. He didn’t even stop killing when he got to prison, and murdered a cellmate. Reportedly he said it was because he didn’t want another murderer to have had a higher body count. He seems completely unrepentant for the things he did. He even blamed the mother of the child he murdered for putting the child in the position of being a witness to Haigh’s crimes, thus forcing Haigh to murder the child. It’d be difficult to call this man anything kinder than ‘monster.’ 

While his last murder was back in the 90’s, he’s found his way back into the news. I saw this article, from July 2017, and wanted to discuss it with you.

A brief overview in case the article vanishes from the internet: Paul Steven Haigh asked for a pack of tarot cards in prison. He was denied. He is now asking the Supreme Court to rule that he’s allowed to have tarot cards, because he says it’s part of his religious practice1.

This is sensationalism. People are fascinated by serial killers and mass murderers. They want to know what sets these monsters off. What makes them tick. What makes them different from ‘normal’ people. That’s fair enough. It’s probably good to know what to look out for. Stuff that feeds that morbid curiosity sells a ton of papers. At least to start. These killers have a short shelf-life in the news. You can’t keep publishing articles about the same guy and expect readers to remain interested, unless you’re able to find something strange and new to say every time.

Tarot has a reputation for being weird and spooky. The Pope has said bad things about it. The fact that Haigh does it makes him look a little more kooky and unhinged. A little more dangerous. It’s a great new angle to the old Haigh story. A new way to use this killer’s monstrous acts to sell more papers and get more clicks.

This article reveals a pretty huge double standard.

If Haigh had asked for a crucifix or a bible, we wouldn’t be seeing this.

If he had been asking for Christian paraphernalia, chances are he wouldn’t have been refused in the first place. If a reporter caught wind of it, we might see an article about how he’s ‘found God’ or that he’s ‘repentant.’ It’d be a nice fluffy little story. But it’s also not that interesting, so it would probably only have got into the paper on a slow news day.

If he were refused a bible or crucifix, that would be more of a story. Something like ‘the prison system is preventing a criminal from repenting.’ And of course, there would need to be a reason published, like ‘they don’t want him to have a cross because he might use it as a weapon to kill again.’ That would be pretty sensational. Perhaps the reason would even be reasonable, given that Haigh has killed cellmates.

The article, of course, doesn’t do anything of the sort. We don’t get to see the reason he was denied the cards. It says a reason for denying access to the cards was given in writing, but it’s not published. We just get to hear that Haigh thinks the reason was ‘mean’ and ‘prejudiced.’

This feels like an attempt to get the reader to feel a little bit vindictive, because this guy is a murderer, and prison is punishment, so ‘mean’ is justified.

Again, if this were about a bible or crucifix, that’s not the angle the article would have taken. It’d be all about how everyone has a right to seek Jesus and repent.

I suspect the reason Haigh wasn’t permitted to have the cards, whatever it is, is too boring to print. It could be something like ‘tarot cards could be used for gambling, and gambling is prohibited in this prison.’ Or, it could be something like ‘the tarot deck Haigh has requested has nude pictures in it, this prison considers nudity of any kind to be pornographic, and pornography is prohibited.’ Both would be fairly standard objections to a tarot deck. The second one can be gotten around relatively easily buy buying a deck with no nudes, and the first is… kind of silly, because you can bet on rock-paper-scissors. Can’t exactly prohibit hands.

This article bothers me because it uncritically plays into the societal double standard that places Christianity2 on a pedestal, and anything outside that is an aberration.

The only reason this makes the Haigh story interesting again is because people have weird ideas about what tarot is. Talking about it without explaining what it is, or addressing his claims that tarot is a spiritual practice just serve to reinforce the stereotype. It’s probably not the intention of the author (the author just wants to print a story that people will read), but it still means that readers unfamiliar with tarot will use that article to build or reaffirm negative stereotypes. This article helps to malign tarot in the eyes of the public. It helps to reaffirm misunderstandings and unfair representations of tarot in popular media. It’s disappointing because it undoes so much work that has been done to try to break down the false idea that tarot is evil.

But it could be worse. Imagine the articles that would have been printed if Haigh asked for a Koran.

One day I’ll find a nice article about tarot. When I do, you can bet I’ll be right here, gushing about how awesome it is.

May the cards fall in your favour,

  1. Update! An article published November 1st confirms that Haigh won his appeal to get some tarot cards, but that certain cards depicting “inappropriate and objectionable” images were removed from the deck. If it’s an RWS deck, I’d bet those are the Star, Lovers, Devil, and World due to full-frontal nudity, and maybe Sun and Judgement because they have nudes too. Chariot and Wheel of Fortune are less likely candidates, but there are naked breasts on the sphinxes, so those might have been taken out too.
  2. And, to a lesser degree, other socially acceptable religions like Judaism or Buddhism.

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