Heat is Murder: On Sunscreen and Serial Killings
is hot for many reasons. Punishment, by itself, is not the
only consideration. Dante's thermostat may be in the red for
inspiration…or as a forewarning…or as a symbol
of passion to motivate us up here on the upper crust of planet
earth. But sitting in the summer heat of an un-airconditioned
doctor’s office yesterday, I was convinced that, at
the very least, hell is real.
visit to Dr. Drake's dermatology hot spot was as an escort
and chauffeur. Aunt Evelyn, 75 years old and still smoking Marlboros,
had a suspicious growth removed from the end of her nose.
She needed a diagnosis and a ride. I provided the wheels.
takes many forms. On the way to Dr. Drakes, the Coast Highway
at rush hour was apopletic pandemonium. Stuck behind a Ryder
Rental truck — beach goers on foot streaming by — I
made the mistake of commenting on the vast array of noses
about to be sacrificed to the sun. Aunt Evelyn — an
avid tanner in her youth — was unamused. Later, when
the nurse summoned her to the examination room, Evelyn was
in her own private underworld. The face of hell, I thought,
is not slathered with sunscreen.
was a time when the majority of white folk actually wanted
their skin to be white; when lack of color meant independent
wealth and leisure; time to play board games, go to tea and
relax indoors. In that world you weren’t accomplished
unless you were fashionably pale.
to last turn of the century,
when the white lower and middle classes left farms and fields
to work in factories and offices, white skin was less a symbol
of affluence and more a symbol of containment. Then, after
the War to End All Wars ended, haute couture gave
its approval to toasted skin. It was 1922 — the seminal
moment of tanning history. French designer Coco
Chanel returned to Paris from a vacation on the French
Riviera. Somewhere— perhaps on the Duke of Westminster's
yacht — she tanned her skin in the sun. From that point
on, a brown look was standard among the white and fashionable.
was style for the skin. The free-spirited, free-dressing Coco,
tossed off her hat and blissfully bared her body to the Ultraviolet.
For decades to come fashion designers everywhere created women’s
wear simply to show off tannage, and millions of sunbathers — including
my Aunt Evelyn — flocked to the beaches. By the '50s
and ’60s, Southern California was the nexus of the tanning
community where the word was: "Nothing flatters you like
came the ’70s and the ozone layer. A University of California
at Irvine researcher by the name of Sherwood
Rowland discovered that our protective sun-screening atmosphere
was disappearing at a rapid rate. Scientists said that depletion
of the ozone layer would allow more Ultraviolet rays to
reach the Earth's surface — Newport Beach, included.
UV rays cause cancer (usually a few good burns before you’re
20 will suffice) a suntan might not be such a good thing to
have. Pale might actually be smart. But along the beaches
of predominantly Republican Orange County, where a tan is
almighty, Coco’s sun-worshipping doctrine prevailed.
By the 1980s, conservative talk show hosts — and others
in denial — were saying that the theory of ozone depletion
was a hoax. Rush
Limbaugh — Orange County’s Patron Saint — proclaimed
that anyone who said otherwise was "a dunderhead alarmist."
I’m not alarmed by semi-nude bodies baking on beaches.
I have no problem with a tan complexion or the fact that 800,000
cases of skin cancer were diagnosed in America this year
(unless, of course, I become number 800,001). I don’t
even have a problem with the fact that almost one American
dies every hour from melanoma, or that the number has doubled
since 1980. I figure, with any luck my enemies spent a good
deal of their childhood in the sun.
simply know how fiendish the sun can be. Not only does it
bake the skin, it bakes the brain. Consider Charles
Manson, the Escondido
McDonalds Massacre, the Bob’s
Big Boy Slayings …and, of course, Richard
was a punishing heat that August in 1985 when Ramirez was
at the peak of his serial killing disorder. If you took his
rampage seriously, you slept with your windows closed, suffocating
in a stifling indoor oven (Ramirez entered the homes of his
victims through open windows on hot nights). The Night Stalker,
as he was known, fancied himself a Satanist — I’m
more inclined to think that his cerebrum was oven roasted.
Southern California sunbathed by day, Ramirez planned his
next killing. At the height of the heat wave, a nocturnal
visit to two suburbanites in nearby Mission
Viejo marked the turning point of his killing career.
It was Richard Ramirez’s last attack…and the time
of my last sunburn.
days leading up to his arrest were some of the most unpleasant
of my life. I made the mistake of sitting on the first base
side during a day game at the Big
A (or Anaheim Stadium or Angel’s Stadium or Edison
Field—whatever you want to call it) with no protection
from the sun. By the 6th inning I was medium. By the ninth
I was well-done. The following nights, as temperatures soared
above 90 degrees in my airtight bedroom, my charred skin blistered
they caught Ramirez, he had a crazed, unrepentant look in
his eye. It was apparent he was not the type of person who
would wear sunscreen.
neither was Aunt Evelyn. When our eyes met again in Dr. Drake’s
reception room, there was bad news. Her growth was malignant.
deal," Ramirez said at his sentencing. “Death comes
with the territory . . . see you in Disneyland."
sun beats down, cooking bodies and brains. Hell is seductive.
is not always happy. Heat is murder.
— Nathan Callahan, June 17, 2003