Has a Cultural Artifact
|Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector|
in Silence of the Lambs
We have seen in the last two generations the rise of the serial killer as a cultural artifact. In the past serial killers were fairly rare although it should be noted that crime statistics are historically very unreliable. Now it appears that compared to the past serial killers are no longer rare but “common”. Just why this is so is subject to dispute. What is not in dispute is that serial killers have become part of the very fabric of our society and culture just why that is so and what effects it has on our culture are matters worth exploring.1
First a few definitions. By serial killer I do not mean any mass killer of human beings. After all if sheer number of killings was the criteria than we would people the ranks of serial killers with bureaucrats, politicians, CEO’s of corporations, assorted generals and soldiers who in the course of carrying out their duties commit acts of atrocity.2
Nor does the term serial killer refer to individuals who are not the mass killers mentioned above who kill in a frenzy of blood lust.
No the serial killer is someone who usually one at a time kills, usually by careful planning and calculation. The victims are carefully selected and usually killed in a ritualized fashion. The killer is usually at least in relation to the killing highly “rational” and intelligent. These killings can take place over days, months or years. The serial killer can wait years between killings his, (Serial killers are almost always men.), next victim.
It is the cold calculation and the carefully orchestrated helplessness of the victims that terrifies people in regards to the serial killer. Along with the fact of killing frequently combined with gruesome atrocities inflicted on the victim.
Just why someone becomes a serial killer is not known. Certainly genetic or biological reasons seem to be a most inadequate reason / explanation. Certainly also attributing it to environmental factors, such as a brutal upbringing etc., doesn’t explain a lot. The reason is that although in individual cases it may “explain” the motives and “rationality” of the serial killer it does not explain the phenomena has a whole. Most importantly it does not explain why the number of serial killings and killers has gone up in the last c. 80 years. No explanation of psychological factors or genetics can adequately explain the rise in numbers of such killers.
It should be mentioned that this phenomena is in many respects an American one, although the increase in numbers of deaths and killers crosses national boundaries. But it should be made clear that the genetic and psychological factors that help to produce sick, demented and twisted individuals existed in the past without generating the numbers of serial killers we have right now. So what has changed?3
It could be argued that the only thing that has changed is the amount of information we have and that in the past the ability to detect serial killers was a good deal less and that the appearance of a rise in numbers is an illusion brought on by increased data.
This seems to be in error. Although the statistics for crimes other than murder are pretty unreliable everywhere in the world until the 1940’s at the earliest; it does appear that has indicated above the statistics for murder are fairly reliable.
What the statistics for murder show is that in the Western world there was for centuries, with a few blips, a definite downward trend in the murder rate. The fact that populations massively increased may have served to disguise the decline in the murder rate. For it is likely that the number of murders went up although the rate was going down.
Thus by the 1930’s the murder rate in much of the western world was fairly low. In England it was at c. .5 per 100,000 which is stunningly low. This low rate seems to have had little to do with increasingly effective police methods or coercive prisons etc. It seems to have largely been the effect of socialization against resorting to violent solutions to personal problems and affronts and the tendency of society to condemn and not celebrate violent solutions to problems.
In other words it was the establishment of guilt norms. That people should feel internalized guilt if committing violent acts. This was against a shame ethic in which all acts including violence were excused as a response to being publicly or otherwise shamed.4
In the late 1950’s the crime rate began to go up for reasons that are obscure in most of the Western world. We not sure why. It is thought it may something to do with the fact that the post-World War II baby boom created a bumper crop of young people and a horde of young men who tend to be more criminal than any other group. The idea was that has this group of “Boomers” aged the crime rate would go down. It is certainly true that beginning in the mid 1970’s murder rates stopped rising in virtually all western countries. The big exception was the USA in which the murder rate continued to stay very high until the mid 1990’s it has subsequently experienced a drastic decline.5
It is in this atmosphere of crime rising that the modern serial killer emerged.
Of course serial killers had existed in the past but the past two generations or so have seen a massive increase in their numbers far above the increase in the population. So just why?
Well in my opinion it boils down to two things. In the first instance the serial killer seems to be someone who is for whatever reason frustrated and angry and that frustration and anger finds its outlet in calculated murder. Now the frustration could have its origin in abuse has a child or some other trauma but in the past such people who were predisposed to carry out the serial killer “solution” to their frustrations and anger did not do so. Further whatever level of frustration that they felt as adults that keyed into or pushed childhood created buttons of anger and frustration did not result in murder as the "solution". After all the majority of people who experience childhood frustrations, abuse etc., do not appear to “solve” their frustrations by going around killing people in horrific ways.6
This being the case then what is the additional factor(s) that cause people to go to the serial killing “solution” to their problems? I suspect that at least one of the facilitators to that “solution” is media and media does it in two ways.
One aspect of the media is that it sanctifies violence as an acceptable solution to the problem of frustration and being thwarted and is thus made the “correct” and “acceptable” solution to the problem of being frustrated in your wants and desires and as a solution to being oppressed and being taken advantage of.
Thus we get Hollywood movies where violent solutions to problems are glorified and the deaths of those that oppose you and frustrate you justified. Violence is not shown has the last refugee “solution” but has the first and “best” solution. And those that exercise righteous violence are excused and justified indeed glorified.7
Thus we get the Hollywood revenge movie. One thinks for example of movies like A Time to Kill, in which the action and plot are deliberately set up for the viewer to approve of a man going to a court house and gunning down two defendants. Instead of being a last resort measure it is a first resort measure and everything about the movie is designed to force the viewer to approve of the killer's righteous vengeance.
And of course the various Rambo movies celebrate the need for vengeance and punishment and dwell with exquisite relish on maiming, violence and death. That is just one of many movie series that carry on the tradition of justifying violence has a solution and relish in the deaths of malefactors. Another series to heroize the righteous avenger of frustration and wrong is the notorious Death Wish franchise, in which has per usual everything in the movie is set up to excuse, justify and rejoice in the protagonist righteously taking out his frustrations by gunning people down. It is a powerful statement about the need of a “little man” frustrated by how things are going to exercise his righteous wrath and gun down the sub-humans who created his frustrations. Everything in the movie is constructed to justify his murderous activities and the “system” is shown as weak and clueless and our hero despite gunning down people almost always armed at best with only knives shown as a hero. In fact the joy and pleasure our hero takes in gunning down “scum” is palatable and of course the movie is set up so we cheer him on.
The Dirty Harry movies are another franchise created filled like the above with Mary Sues so the writers and audience can vicariously enjoy inflicting mass death. Once again our hero is frustrated by the system and the “rules” don’t allow him to operate like the unaccountable member of the police he wishes he could operate as. Supposedly for a “good” cause he, beats, abuses and threatens and yes he kills “scum”. And like the other movies described above the movies are set up so we applaud him for it. And of course the hero / murderer is in a constant state of frustration due to the system which keeps his righteous violence in check. And that is to be deplored according to the movie’s gestalt.8
In literature we get, an early indication of the rise of the serial killer, in the works of Mickey Spillane. Spillane’s “hero” Mick Hammer, aside from being a Mary Sue character is a psychopath and an extreme one at that. He revels in fights, mayhem and dealing death. And it is a very special death, often a sexualized, perverse death in which our “hero” revels in it and enjoys it, to use an expression, “to the bone”. It is clear that in many respects Mike Hammer’s gun is a penis and every time he shoots he metaphorically ejaculates. Thus we get the extraordinary scene in I the Jury in which Mike confronts Charlotte. He has figured out that she has killed his partner along with some other people and Mike knows that if it ever went to trial it would fail so righteously he says:
“No Charlotte, I’m the jury now, and the judge, and I have a promise to keep. Beautiful as you are, as much as I almost loved you. I sentence you to death.”9
Then we get the sex linking it inexorably to the violence.
Her thumbs hooked in the fragile silk of the panties and pulled them down. She stepped out of them as delicately as one coming from a bathtub. She was completely naked now. A suntanned goddess giving herself to her lover.10
Our righteous hero who doesn’t trust the judicial system and so of course is justified in gunning down an unarmed naked woman shoots her in the belly. And again we read about how it was justified. Mr. Spillane writes that there was a gun behind Mike and she would have killed him if he hadn’t shot her. Of course given that he just told her he would kill her. Who could have blamed her? But the final moment of sheer sadistic relishing in the righteous infliction of death now follows:
“How c-could you?” she gasped.
I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy,” I said.11
Thus does Mike Hammer relish and enjoy the cold blooded killing of an unarmed woman. And of course everything is set up to excuse and justify his behavior. Subsequently Mike Hammer has a literary character would kill and kill again, and beat, maim and torture suspects. He would relish and enjoy inflicting death with a sexualized joy and pleasure. In virtually all respects Mike Hammer would remain a psychopathic killer who enjoyed killing and Mickey Spillane would continue to write him in such a way has to justify his killings. Mike Hammer would kill the deviants, the strange and the “unnatural”, the “scum” that needed to be killed.
If the media especially in the USA have set up the idea of violence has an acceptable solution to problems, especially those of personal “injustice” and frustration it has also done so by big media coverage of criminal cases.
It has done this through the coverage it gives of serial killers. It has made every effort to make such people famous and thus important. Thus we get saturation coverage of serial killers and killing. The reason for this is of course obvious. Such cases provide “news” at little or no cost and guaranteed viewers who will watch it because it is sensational; encouraged to do so by a news media that finds covering such stories easy and cheap. After all covering real news is too hard and expensive. Murder is just so much easier and thus sells more advertising and boosts profits.12
Thus we get the absurd coverage of the Simpson case which reached levels of sheer idiocy few news stories have ever reached. Especially unimportant ones like that. Thus serial killers get lots of coverage in TV and news media, i.e., magazines, newspapers and now the Internet. We get cases like the Bernardo case in Canada in which for years and years various newspapers, and TV relentlessly flogged the story and at the drop of a hat put pictures of Karla or Bernardo on the front page.13
And of course we see the vast profusion of true crime books, that function has violence porn to titillate their readership with bated breath depictions of murder, torture and mayhem.
Thus we get a media that gives to frustrated, angry people the attention they crave and feel they so richly deserve.
In fictional term we have the way the serial killer is portrayed. For example we have TV series like Criminal Minds that dwell lovingly on the serial killer and dwell over every salacious sick bit. The audience can thereby enjoy vicariously the sexualized violence and depravity.14
If the true crime genre is violence porn there is the serial killer in film. Thus we get the movie Silence of the Lambs, in it we meet Dr. Lector who is a serial killer who kills his victims and then eats parts of them. He is portrayed as diabolically evil, almost infinitely clever and resourceful; a demonic figure. In other words he is a “hero”. Ordinary people are helpless against his evil, demonic cleverness and so he plays with people and kills them at will. One expects that fire and brimstone will exude from his pores. He is of the demonic and not of this world. The fact is of course that serial killers are nothing even approaching that but the figure of the serial killer as demonic evil is alluring to some. And by giving a fictional serial killer such a demonic aspect perhaps it encourages others to see in becoming a serial killer a way to capture and be that frightening great figure?
If Hannibal Lector is the serial killer as demon than Bill in the movie is the serial killer has freak. He kills women has a way of constructing a “body suit” so he can be a “real” woman, but again the image of the serial killer as demonic and infinitely clever and most importantly not one of us is made central and obvious.15
But the most obvious implication of the above is that the way the media portrays and in fact glorifies serial killers implants the notion in some fragile and vulnerable minds that the serial killing is a good “solution” to their problems and frustrations.
Specifically what it gives to the serial killer is the attention that he, (Almost always a he.), feels is unjustly withheld from him. The fact that the media concentrates attention on such crimes makes him feel and know that at last he will get the attention he deserves. Further much of the media justifies and excuses the use of violence has a solution to frustration and legitimizes killing as righteous retribution by a hero.
Thus in many respects the serial killer is told that violence is a just solution to his frustrations and problems and further that such a solution gives him the attention he richly deserves. Of course the fact that so much of the media focuses with such obsessive interest on the acts etc., of the serial killer insures that the serial killer is not in the slightest wrong that killing people en mass will give him the attention he “deserves”.
This being the case it is likely that cultural factors have played a powerful role in the rise of the modern serial killer. Both in terms of setting up the idea that murder is an acceptable solution to frustrations and personal injury, in fact in culturally sanctifying revenge or killing, and further by giving frustrated individuals the sure knowledge that their murderous doings will get them lots of attention.
In other words serial killers do it in part for the publicity it generates. I suspect if there was little publicity there would be fewer serial killers or killings. They would find other less destructive “solutions” to their frustrations and injuries to self.16
Thus in a culture saturated with images of the righteous killer, in which insults to one’s personal honor are thought to justify mindless violence in retaliation and further that such acts of vicious mayhem generate a lot of media attention we should not be surprised by the growth of the serial killer. I suppose we should be grateful there are not more.
In the end it appears that freedom has its price and in our case one of the prices is how the culture plays into the warped psyches of some people and helps to produce the lethal “solution” of serial killing.
It appears that we will have to redouble our efforts to inculcate in people that the solution of violence in our cultural artifacts belong in our cultural artifacts and do not spill over into real life.
1. Leyton, Elliott, Hunting Humans, McClelland-Bantam Inc., Toronto, 1987, pp. 1-22.
2. For an overview of the modern political Tyrant see Chirot, Daniel, Modern Tyrants, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994.
3. Footnote 1.
4. Leyton, Elliott, Men of Blood, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1996, pp. 99-114. See also posting I did, Here.
5. IBID, Leyton, 1996, pp. xiv, 114-116, See United States Crime Rates Here.
6. Leyton, 1987, pp. 297-326.
7. See Leyton, 1996, pp. 81-86.
8. A Time to Kill, Wikipedia Here, Death Wish, Wikipedia Here, Rambo, Wikipedia Here, Dirty Harry, Wikipedia Here.
9. Spillane, Mickey, I, The Jury in Mickey Spillane: Five Complete Mike Hammer Novels, Avenel Books, New York, 1987, pp. 1-136, at p. 135. (I, The Jury was originally published in 1947.)
11. IBID, p. 136.
12. Leyton, 1987, pp. 312-326.
13. In Toronto the Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun was especially diligent in finding any excuse to put Karla and Bernardo on the front page.
14. See previous posting Here.
15. See Silence of the Lambs, Wikipedia Here.
16. See Leyton, 1987 for many examples.