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Thursday, February 29, 2024
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"Pop Culture, Trash TV and Serial Killers: The Work of David Schmid"

While sitting in the office of David Schmid, Ph.D., it isn't the bookcase overflowing with books about serial killers and crime fiction that stands out. It's the chalkboard scribbled with "You're the Best Dad Ever!" and the ‘I heart Dad' painted pictures that do.

This is the chamber of a man deeply fascinated with and immersed in the subject of serial killers. Although his daughters, Lucia and Liliana, are too young to understand what their daddy does – and some might even deem his research to be a bit strange – Schmid is not embarrassed by the topic that captivates his interests. He is happy to pursue his passion.

Schmid, an associate professor in the English department, has always had an insatiable curiosity to ask ‘why?' Even as a young boy, he had taken it into his own hands to satisfy his inquisitive mind. He has taught classes on subjects such as ‘Popular Culture' and ‘Crime Fiction' here at UB for over 17 years

Schmid has authored one book on serial killers, titled Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, as well as written over 10 essays. He also has two other books in the works. His goal has always been to inform the public – not sensationalize the subject.

"I think every research focus has a personal dimension to it, [and it's] the reason why people end up writing about certain things," Schmid said. "I think, obviously because of the kind of stuff I write about, people assume…that [it] means some kind of traumatic event [happened] in my time."

However, that isn't the case.

Beginning in his homeland of England, Schmid's interests stem from being a first generation college graduate, and the first in his family to graduate high school. He said he wanted to do something that would be of interest to others, specifically his family. While attending the University of Sussex in England, Schmid was inspired to write his Masters thesis on serial killers after finding a book called The Lust to Kill, written by Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer.

"He was classically trained in the English literary canon at Oxford while an undergraduate at Pembroke College," said Carrie T. Bramen, an associate professor in the English department, and Schmid's wife. "It is this strong foundation that has allowed him to do such innovative work in a range of cultural forms, regardless of whether the U.S. academy considers such forms lowbrow or highbrow. That distinction rightly bores him."

When Schmid moved to the states in his mid 20s, his interest in the subject grew stronger after several high profile legal cases. He was also drawn to the subject with the release of movies like The Silence of the Lambs. He knew then that violence in America wasn't something to accept and ignore, but to explore and understand.

"I think that doing the kind of research I do started off in some ways as an attempt to understand my adoptive [American] culture," Schmid said. "I still have that sense of sort of being a part of this culture but not from it…when you're researching a subject you have to be simultaneously very engaged with it and at the same time keeping it somewhat at a distance. And I suppose that's a pretty good way off describing how I feel about the U.S…Writing about something like this gives me a way to explore aspects of the culture that interest me."

Early on in his devotion, Schmid realized the advantage of keeping his research separate from his normal, everyday life.

"If you took everything to heart and let it have that big of an effect of you, I don't think you could do it," Schmid said.

The one time Schmid said that the topic negatively affected him was while writing his Masters thesis on the famous British series of child murders, also known as the Moor Murders. The Smiths, at the same time had produced a song about the case called "Suffer Little Children."

"After I wrote about that, I couldn't listen to that particular song anymore. It was just too creepy and it upset me too much," Schmid said. "I think that as long as one has the ability to compartmentalize what one does, you get by fine."

Serial killers in American society are just one of Schmid's many interests. He is also interested in other aspects of contemporary culture that many people consider "disreputable," like celebrity culture.

"People don't necessarily want other people to know they're a big a fan of the Kardashians or that they watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills like religiously. If you're looking for ways to connect to people outside of the academy, those are the kind of subjects I think is useful to look at," Schmid said. "They are so popular and, because as an academic, my job I feel is to sort of help people think about those things more critical than what they do."

Schmid, however, is not free from a few of his own guilty pleasures, one of which includes watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, though not religiously. Add to this, Angry Birds, Facebook, games on Facebook, Evangelical Christian TV channels (despite being an atheist), and sports.

"They're all sort of cultural versions of car crashes. You know how people slow down to watch and see what's going on…we're not even sure why we do it but we do it because everyone does, and we're just hoping to see something," Schmid said. "What it is, we're not quite sure. But we're just compelled to watch even though the best angle of our nature knows that it's something we should try and resist, and those are the things that particularly interest me because I feel the same kinds of temptation."

Schmid's interest and research has become well known both inside and outside the realms of UB.

"David is a star, and quite rightly one of the most popular professors in the English department for his intelligence, his accessibility, and his wit," said Andrew Stott, an associate professor in the English department and student adviser. "He's a wonderful mentor to students and also one of the most naturally gifted cultural theorists I know with the knack of writing or speaking brilliantly on almost any aspect of popular culture. As such, he's always on the clock, whether it's watching TV, reading a magazine, or staring out the window. In this sense, he's a human dynamo."

Schmid is often asked to contribute his mind and thoughts on certain subjects. Most recently, an academic in Australia putting together a book of essays on serial murder in popular culture asked Schmid for an essay on the TV show, Criminal Minds. Schmid also just started writing about one of his favorite TV shows, The Wire. He has decided to re-watch both series, obviously for reasons other than the guilty pleasure.

Schmid is the first to admit that his works is rather unique.

"My wife does a very different kind of research, that's more traditional and that's more based around archives and that type of thing," Schmid said. "It understandably sort of drives her crazy when she sees me watching TV and asks, ‘what are you doing,' and I say ‘I'm researching.'"

He and his wife met while doing the same master's degree at the University of Sussex. Afterwards he followed her to the U.S. in order to pursue their relationship, and attended Stanford University to be with her. Schmid admits that up until then, he had never even heard of the school, but his wife assured him that it was a good one.

"It is true that I work on niceness while David studies the nastier side of human behavior," Bramen said. "I suppose we represent a yin and yang pair. But even though he is immersed in popular culture for his scholarship, watching awful movies, television shows and internet websites, what people don't realize about David is that he has surprisingly high culture tastes when it comes to his personal interests outside of his research. He knows, for instance, as much about the contemporary classical music scene as about popular music, and he is extremely well-versed in international cinema and literature."

Schmid said that he has the best job because he is actually getting paid to ask the questions behind what fascinates him, and then try and find out the answers.

Schmid also enjoys his job as a professor: a role he never planned for and never saw himself fulfilling.

"When you've spent five years in a Ph.D program, you've essentially sort of disqualified yourself from any kind of gainful employment, so being a professor is the only option left open for you," Schmid said. "But I have to say, it's one of those happy coincidences that you sort of fall into…something you love doing and I really couldn't imagine myself doing anything else."

Schmid encourages both his students and his children to experience their intellectual curiosity and the journey that follows. He offers information to students in ways that make them understand it and also see it from all perspectives.

"Dr. Schmid believes in his students and it shows in how much time and attention he devotes to them. It is no surprise that he has won multiple teaching awards," said Tim Bryant, Ph.D., one of Schmid's former colleagues. "[His classes] fill quickly because of his popularity as a teacher and his abilities to bring a critical focus to the literature and ideas of popular culture."

Schmid stresses that students should enjoy themselves throughout college, and also take the opportunity to get to know their professor better.

"When people come into my classes, I want them sort of to forget about why they're there and … instead just get into the material for its own sake and lets just like go on a journey together and explore these subjects and see where it takes us," Schmid said. "That's as much as I can do for my students and if I‘m able to succeed in doing that, then that's enough."

Email: features@ubspectrum.com


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