Brian Tallerico, editor of RogerEbert.com, thinks Netflix’s new crime documentary is pretty terrible, visually and substantively. He writes: “The real people at the center of ‘Night Stalker‘ push through the weaknesses of the production to make an impact.”
It hurts to hear that from Tallerico. I usually trust the verdicts from RogerEbert.com —part of the Chicago in me— and especially Tallerico’s, which are usually smart and fair. But I gotta disagree with the guy. Although I’m not qualified to be a film critic, I’ve seen a ton of murder documentaries —they’re my go-to’s, along with stand-up specials— and Night Stalker just might be the most cinematic murder documentary I’ve ever watched.
I like the shadowy look and feel of it, or maybe I just like a warped story paired with scenes of Southern California after dark. I’m guessing the series was shot post-pandemic, because the streets look dead, which only adds to the texture of the visuals.
Though maybe the show was shot pre-pandemic, and the streets always look like that. Maybe I just like the look and feel of L.A. Whatever the case, the aesthetic goes great with the story.
One of the first shots of the four-part series is one of the most memorable of anything I’ve seen in years. Shot with a drone or helicopter, the camera floats through cloud-covered Downtown Los Angeles—but the camera’s upside-down, and slightly off center. We hear a calm, clear voice, belonging to Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, as he explains why he is the way he is: “We are all evil, in some form or another. Are we not?” You hear him panting, and then groan with pleasure and pain.
It’s as though we’re entering Pandemonium, the capital city of Hell.
The main premise of Night Stalker is that Richard Ramirez was the devil incarnate—savage, unfeeling, inhuman, anti-human, a bloodthirsty monster. He’s supposed to be completely incomprehensible to us, so that we can only understand his acts as purely evil, which makes for simplistic storytelling and a good show. A few details of his tragic upbringing are mentioned in passing, as if what he saw as a child, what he was taught, offered only minor clues as to how he came to be a crazed, cold-hearted killer.
The Night Stalker was born Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramírez, in the border town of El Paso, Texas, 1960. His father was a former cop in Juárez who beat Richie for all types of reasons. The documentary mentions how his old man left him tied to a crucifix in a graveyard overnight as punishment.
Richie’s older cousin Mike was a Vietnam vet who told the 12-year-old kid everything he’d done in the war, showed him how to kill from the shadows, plus the pictures of the girls he had raped and butchered over there. In one pic Mike’s holding the severed head of one of his ladies.
Richie looked up to his cousin Mike.
Then, when Richie was 13, he saw his cousin get into it with his girlfriend and shoot her in the face with a .38, dead. The court judged Mike criminally insane and sent him to the nuthouse for four years.
People say Richie got real quiet after that, became a loner. He went to go live with his older sister, whose man liked to creep around at night, peeping through windows. He brought Richie along as a wingman. By then Richie was into weed and acid and flirting with Satan.
It was right around this time that the Night Stalker was born, though the public wouldn’t hear of him for another 10 years. His biographer, Philip Caro, says Ramirez was a freshman at Jefferson High School—same alma mater as the late, great Eddie Guerrero—when he tried to rape a guest at the Holiday Inn where he worked. The woman’s husband came in the room, jumped on Ramirez, and put a beating on him. Ramirez only got off because the couple were just visiting and never came back to testify against him.
Same thing happened to me once. Some drunk frat boy called me a nigger on Clark Street in Chicago at two in the morning. Frat Boy got stabbed in the cheek with a car key, not by me, but they charged me with aggravated battery. The guy never showed up to court and the judge dismissed the case right there.
Ramirez dropped out of school, moved to San Francisco when he was 22, and committed his first murder, they think, about two years later. He raped 9-year-old Mei Leung in the basement of the building where he was staying. Then he beat her, stabbed her a bunch, and hung her lifeless body from a pipe.
In June, 1984, he stabbed 79-year-old Jennie Vincow to death as she slept in her bed, slicing her neck so deep he nearly cut her head off. His killing spree, though, wouldn’t get going till March of ’85. Whether he’d been slaughtering people the whole time, we’ll never know. But it does seem odd that he would rape and kill a little girl, then wait almost a full year to go on a murder rampage, killing a dozen people and attacking a dozen others in a span of less than five months and some change.
There’s no point going through all the mayhem—I’m not denying that Richard Ramirez was crazy about killing, raping, and generally inflicting bodily and psychological damage to people of all shapes and sizes. The pace and savagery of his attacks has me wondering what the guy did during the daylight hours. He was a young, good-lookingish dude, even if he was bone thin and his teeth were jacked up. Did he not have a single friend, in all of California, in 1985?
It’s possible he didn’t, which is the point I’m coming to: how can we expect a man to be a friend to the world, when the world isn’t a friend to him?
What led me to this question is the mugshot taken of Ramirez after his arrest in December, 1984, for stealing a car—months after he’d butchered Jennie Vincow in her bed. While most viewers gazed into his eyes and saw a heartless demon, I saw a sad, beaten little boy.
I’ve seen that same look in a lot of people’s eyes, men and women, and I’m seeing it more and more these days. I’ve also noticed plenty of murderous tendencies in my fellow human beings, particularly an increase in anti-social behaviors and dispositions—a lot of solitary lifestyles by choice, tons of egotism, and a growing mountain of misanthropy. Somewhere in the past couple decades, mainstream culture slipped from Do you to Fuck other people, probably because Doing you is way harder.
It’s become popular to assign evil to some natural inclination, especially in our enemies. Our enemies are inherently evil and wrong. Even worse, they’re irredeemable. Once someone does something bad, it proves they were always bad, from the womb—and it was probably a bad womb, too. Once someone is wrong about something, it proves they were wrong about everything.
This kind of simple thinking is quite comforting for the simple-minded. As long as there’s no grey area, and being evil and wrong are on one end of a spectrum, and we stand on the other, we’re in no danger of ever being evil or wrong, no matter what we do or say. Our enemies can say that what we did here or there was evil, or what we said here or there was wrong, but because they’re evil and wrong in their bones, they will never be right about us, ever.
Of course, thinking that our enemies can never be good or tell the truth is what leads us astray. Trump never admits the validity of any criticism, no matter how small, which is why he’s constantly doing evil and saying wrong. Since only he can judge himself, he has no way of staying on track.
Speaking of the orange devil, the other day I saw someone on Facebook refer to his worshippers as “MAGAts.” It’s mean and, worse, it’s not even that funny or clever. It’s just someone reaching for a way to dehumanize at least 75 million of their fellow citizens, not counting the kids, or all the Trump supporters who for some reason didn’t or couldn’t vote.
They’re dehumanizing us—they keep making that known. But that doesn’t make dehumanizing them any less wrong. Why should we let those people, who we accuse of having no morals, shape ours?
And I’m not trying to act all high and mighty here. I’m only saying what I think is right—maybe not to them, but for us.
“The best revenge,” said a wise old emperor, “is to not be like your enemy.” Ain’t it though?
The wise Dr. King would’ve been 92 this week, had his enemies not dehumanized him, and while I’m not religious, though still a Christian, I’m reminded of what he told us about the true message of Christ: that it is radical to love your enemy.
But that idea’s even older than Jesus. Older than Socrates and Lao Tzu. That’s got to go back to Africa—the first cities in Sumer would’ve never been built without it.
Treat others, not as they treat you, but as you yourself would like to be treated.
That means not doing a lot of things. It means, for one, not cutting in line at Albertsons, or leaning on the horn in traffic. Each of us needs to be a citizen in the society we would like to live in, not in the society that raised us. Because if we just do what other people do, then all we have is a jumping contest off the bridge, a race to the lowest common behavior. Lord of the Flies.
So we have to do for others, including our enemies —especially them— what they seem unwilling to do for us: we have to humanize them. We have to be so unlike them, as far away as we can get. Every force requires an equal and opposite reaction, otherwise the rockets that SpaceX is trying to send to Mars would never get off the ground.
We must fight fire with water. You know what you get when you fight fire with water? You get steam. And don’t you know what steam does, fool!
The socialist revolution doesn’t mean the socialists are going to kill the capitalists, by the way. People die on both sides of a revolution, but that’s not what a revolution means. The socialist revolution means there won’t be any capitalists or workers, no rich or poor, no classes, only citizens—unique by nature, equal in worth.
I know this sounds like a lot of kumbaya bull, but it’s also real talk. And I’m glad I have enough Kahlúa and weed in me to put it on the page.
We have to humanize our enemies, which means admitting the possibility that they may be, at times, right about something and, at other times, doing the right thing. It also means admitting that, as human beings, they’re way more complicated than we’d like to believe.
Which one of us even understands him or herself?
Don’t we all suspect a little evil in ourselves? If you don’t, be careful
The Night Stalker kidnapped a cute little girl, brown hair, chubby cheeks. He just came through her bedroom window one night and took off with her in his car. She later said, as an adult, that there was something so familiar about him, even familial, that she just left with him, no questions asked. She gave the impression that he was only a tad menacing —he showed her the gun in the glovebox— but mostly he was cool.
She said that when he was raping her he kept giving her this look like, I’m sorry for doing this, but I have to, and I’m not going to stop. Then he dropped her off at a gas station and told her to tell the attendant to call 911 and have her parents come pick her up.
Wouldn’t we all like to think the Night Stalker had that evil in him since birth, that he just dropped out of his mom with horns and hooves. It’s too scary to even consider that the evil might have been put in him by the society around him. Because however awful the world was to little Richie growing up, there will be millions of people who get it way worse. I myself know at least a couple other second-generation Latino Americans who might’ve had it worse, and I grew up in the burbs.
Maybe he was born evil. Or maybe the structure or wiring of his brain didn’t allow him to behave in any other way. In his book, Personality-Disordered Patients, the psychiatrist Michael Stone notes that Ramirez was knocked unconscious a few times as a boy, “and almost died,” and how that kind of trauma would have a dramatic effect on a kid’s future personality and behavior.
And the world’s most famous brain scientist, Sam Harris, has been toying with the theory of there actually being no free will at all, that our decisions are made unconsciously before we even register them. How could we condemn any murderer then, much less judge him? He was born that way, and so to execute him for the way he was born seems a bit Republican to me.
Plus it might turn out that we’ve all been acting without thinking this whole time. More and more scientists and philosophers are admitting every day that the possibility that we aren’t who we think we are, that this isn’t the year we think it its, that we’re really just parts of a computer simulation in some not too distant future, is, by the laws of logic, virtually certain.
That means you and I are probably just bits of super-advanced AI in some computer program in the year 2121. And if we’re just bytes and not beings, then we aren’t the controllers of our own morality. We’re not bad, or good.
Still, individual responsibility has to count for something. Each of us has control over what we do, even if we don’t have control over what we think or feel.
It’s hard to know how to be good, and way harder to actually do it.