From the start of Gavin Whitehead’s academic career, he has been intrigued by the horror genre in its many manifestations. His honors thesis at UNC-Chapel Hill was titled “Sit Still, Shut Up, and ‘Learn’: The Horror Film’s Treatment of the Classroom,” which earned him highest honors in 2012. Gavin graduated with a DFA (Doctor of Fine Arts) in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale University in 2022. His dissertation explored horror theater in London from 1794 to 1931 and “placed a special emphasis on stagecraft and the history of special-effects technologies—the most important aspect of any nineteenth-century horror production.”
The Art of Crime began as an idea for a podcast about incendiary art when Gavin was reading The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography by Thomas Postlewait as a graduate student:
“[Postlewait’s book] includes a chapter about the legendary 1896 premiere of the absurdist play, Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry. Provocative by design, Ubu so inflamed the audience on opening night that a riot supposedly broke out in the middle of the show. I thought to myself, ‘It would be cool to make a podcast—maybe a miniseries of eight or nine episodes—about art and artists that have started riots.’ I filed it under ‘M’ for ‘Maybe later in life.'”
Roughly a month or two after reading Postlewait’s chapter, Gavin got the idea for a more general history podcast about the unlikely intersections between true crime and the arts:
“It’s hard to say what precisely triggered this thought, but it almost certainly sprang from my doctoral dissertation…One of my chapters examined the popularity of true-crime entertainment throughout the second quarter of the nineteenth century. This more general podcast could come out in seasons, I imagined, and each season could tackle a different theme. One of them could even revolve around art and artists that have started riots.
“While brainstorming ideas for other seasons, I thought of actor Richard Mansfield and children’s author Lewis Carroll, both of whom (believe it or not) have been accused of being the infamous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, who murdered at least five women in London’s East End in 1888. I wondered if other artists had fallen under suspicion and after some light googling, I discovered that they had. Thus, I arrived at the theme of my first season, The Unusual Suspects: Artists Accused of Being Jack the Ripper.”
Gavin’s favorite episode thus far has been the third episode of season one, titled “Jekyll, Hyde, and Jack the Ripper: Richard Mansfield”:
“It tells the story of American stage actor Richard Mansfield, who originated the dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Boston and took his production to London right before the Ripper crimes commenced. Mansfield’s portrayal of Hyde was so terrifying that one playgoer named him as the Whitechapel murderer in a letter to the City of London police. ‘Jekyll, Hyde, and Jack the Ripper’ has a special place in my heart because I found out about Mansfield and the Ripper allegation while researching my dissertation. There’s lots of cool theater history in this episode—I explore the drudgery of touring the English provinces in a traveling theater company as well as the challenges of dramatizing Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example.”
In speaking to how his time with the DOECL prepared him for his career, Gavin thought back to writing his senior honors thesis:
“Writing the thesis certainly provided me with the skills I need to conduct large-scale research projects. After all, a ton of research goes into every episode of The Art of Crime. The senior thesis also made me a stronger writer. For the sake of clarity, I favor short sentences, and I developed that preference while working on my thesis.”
We can’t wait to see where Gavin’s podcasting career goes next! Stay tuned for more alumni spotlights on past DOECL students.