“I Had a Brush With a Serial Killer” is a well-respected entry in the short story form; Jay Roberts wrote quite a good one about his afternoon encounter with Randy Kraft back in the early 1980s, Chuck Klosterman wrote a marginally less good one about his friend Sarah’s evening with Michael Braae that is still worth a read if you are interested in hearing about dancing with someone nicknamed “Cowboy Mike” who committed multiple murders in the Pacific Northwest.
(A brief aside: I have little to no patience for long-winded articles asking Why Are We So Interested In Evil Anyhow, What Draws Us Toward Its Murderous Gaze Like Moths To A Flame And What Is It With You Women and Law & Order: SVU Anyhow. Murderers are interesting because most of us do not want to get murdered, and are afraid that we might get murdered anyway. There, I have answered the question. End aside.)
That said, I find myself telling the same anecdote about Peter Lorre’s daughter Catharine at every possible opportunity, because I am endlessly and horrifically fascinated by it: in 1977, she was picked up, but not murdered, by Hillside Stranglers Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi, who let her leave their car unharmed when they realized who her father was.
This is not a particularly happy story; Catharine (who was orphaned by the age of seventeen) died in her early thirties due to complications from diabetes. She was not spared from a horrific death to go on to live a long and happy life. But it is an interesting one, which is almost as good, as long as you are not any of the parties involved.
Peter Lorre, one of the greatest character actors to ever say “I intend to search your offices, Mr. Spade,” had only one child and died young; his child had no children of her own and died even younger. His most enduring starring role was as the moon-faced child murderer in 1931’s M. M, by the by, is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube, and it’s not even all cut up into segments like “M 1/9,” which is what passes for a problem in these modern times.
Anyhow. What happened was this:
Catharine nearly fell victim to “Hillside Stranglers” Angelo J. Buono and Kenneth A. Bianchi, who approached her one night in 1977 intending to abduct and murder her as they had and would do to ten women before the law caught up with them. Learning she was Peter Lorre’s daughter, they just let her go. They were movie fans and liked Lorre’s work. Catharine was 25 at the time. After the capture of Bianchi and Buono, and their photographs were made public, Catharine realized who they were. Later in interviews, Catharine stated that she never felt threatened by either man: She believed it to be a casual and friendly encounter. Bianchi and Buono stated that the only reason her life was spared was because Peter Lorre was her father.
And there you are. Bela Lugosi might also have done the trick; ditto either of the Chaneys Lon or Boris Karloff. If you find yourself in a car with a pair of at-large stranglers, try very hard to be the child of a 1930s horror star.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.