Culture Canvas: The saga of the serial killer
When I tell people that I'm obsessed with serial killers, they are a little shocked. But I'm actually hooked to the serial killer narrative: stories with lots of bodies and gore. It delves deep into complicated pasts and twisted minds to understand the psychological gratification of killing.
I am extremely cross with Amazon Prime right now: they've taken off my favourite series, Criminal Minds. Criminal Minds, a crime drama series created by Jeff Davis, which follows the lives and cases of a group of profilers working for the FBI's Behavioural Analysis Unit, has been around since 2005. But I discovered it only late last year.
And was hooked.
Part of the reason for this, of course, was the presence of Shemar Moore, one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen on television. But it helps that the show is also extremely well-written and paced, and there is an authenticity about its various characters I find compelling. Sure, it's too formulaic: how a team of beautiful, gifted, and intelligent people catch serial killers isn't particularly original. And, yes, often, unnecessarily violent: one bludgeoned blonde is enough to get the message across, you don't need five.
But Criminal Minds was a fabulous way to get in my cardio at the gym (though I’m not sure whether it's the workout or the fear factor that elevated my heart rate). And I'm still figuring out what to replace it with, but that's another story.
When I tell people that I'm obsessed with serial killers, they are a little shocked. Anyone whose known me for a while knows that I can be a bit of a softy. I sob during sad movies or books; get my heart smashed into smithereens over and over again; howl into my pillow when I get pulled up at work. I gently flick caterpillars off my clothes, am loath to kill cockroaches, and am trying to go vegan because "I can't love my cats and eat a chicken," as I told a friend.
Murder, however, fascinates me. I don't just mean the good old-fashioned sort, the ones you associated with Sunday morning reading over a laidback brunch. Sure, I loved Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Poirot, Miss Marple, Nancy Drew and the more recent Cormoran Strike. And yes, I followed the life stories of Doctor Crippen, Lizzie Borden, and Beulah May Annan and Belva Gaertner (Fun Fact: These were the ladies who inspired the play, Chicago) with abnormal avidity.
But I'm also hooked to the serial killer narrative: stories with lots of bodies and gore. It interests me differently, of course. A whodunit is about motive and suspects and clues. The serial killer narrative, on the other hand, delves deep into complicated pasts and twisted minds to understand the psychological gratification of killing.
I think of the first as a more British phenomenon (Jack the Ripper, notwithstanding) and the latter as a more American one. Perhaps I'm being too simplistic here, but George Orwell's excellent essay, Decline of the English Murder influences this view. In this essay, Orwell compares some of Britain's most famous murders - Dr Palmer, Mrs Maybrick, Dr Crippen, Joseph Smith---to a more recent one, the Cleft Chin murder, and finds the latter less appealing. The perfect murder, one that a News of the World reader will particularly enjoy, has to have domesticity as a background, he writes in his essay. According to Orwell, "With this kind of background, a crime can have dramatic and even tragic qualities which make it memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer.” The Cleft Chin murder, on the other hand, "had no depth of feeling in it," writes Orwell, attributing it to the dance-halls and false values of the American film. The two murderers, an ex-waitress Elizabeth Jones and an American army deserter, named Karl Hulten, went on a six-day crime spree resulting in the death of a nurse, the attempted murder of a hitchhiker, and the killing of a taxi driver named George Edward Heath. Orwell is not impressed by the spree and clearly sees it as an American-influenced phenomenon. "Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanized,” he says.
America certainly seems to have a lot of serial killers. I have enjoyed the disturbingly-dark novels by James Patterson, Jefferey Deaver, Lisa Gardner, Patrician Cornwell, Tami Hoag and more. And have spent many hours trawling through the now-defunct Crime Library, a website that chronicled the lives of terrible people like Dennis Rader (BTK), Wayne Williams, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy. I have also watched much television around serial killers, real and fictional.
It's come in useful while defending India on an international forum. When a friend told me that I must be very grateful to be in advanced America now and not in unsafe India, I pointed out that Ted Bundy who raped and killed innumerable women was also an American Phenomenon. (knowledge is the best shield against microaggression, really)
But, the flip side, to all this vast knowledge, is that I am firmly convinced that serial killers lurk all over the place. And am now petrified of social media, dating sites, empty streets, late-night cabs, dodgy hotel rooms, railroad tracks, big isolated houses and parks at dusk.
I'm not justifying my somewhat macabre interest in the serial killer narrative. But believe me, I'm not alone. I'm not even that far gone, I promise. I do not suffer from hybristophilia - a condition where you get attracted to people who've committed terrible crimes—for starters. Never, in my wildest dreams, would I compose a letter like this one, written by a lady called Janet to Ted Bundy. "I got the letter you sent me and read it again," she wrote him. "I kissed it all over and held it to me. I don't mind telling you I am crying. I just don't see how I can stand it anymore. I love you so very much, Ted," she wrote. And while I certainly have, much to my mother's chagrin, liked the bad boys, I would never and I mean never have sent a cupcake with the words "I love you" to a man as ghastly as Californian "Night Stalker", Richard Ramirez. (This came from Cindy Haden, an alternate juror at his trial).
Nor do I have any interest in "murderabilia", murder artefacts collected by people obsessed with serial killers, a surprisingly vibrant market. Take MurderAuction.com, "a sort of eBay for this so-called 'murderabilia," as this Vice article puts it, founded by Richard Harder. Some of their most exciting items? Charles Manson's booking cards; paintings by serial-killers Tommy Lynn Sells and John Wayne Gacy, a copy of a magazine once owned by Dennis Rader.
But I do like the adrenalin jolt a "How to catch a serial killer" book/series induces. And I find the origin story of a serial killer, where brain chemistry and genetic makeup collide with social factors and environment, fascinating.
So why are people so obsessed with serial killers?
Criminologist Scott Bonn says that it's a universal obsession. "Serial killers excite and enthral people, much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters. People don't want to look, but they can't look away," he says in this May 2019 article.
Marissa Harrison, a professor of psychology, adds that it also can offer you evolutionary benefits. "You would pay attention to, and have interest in, the horrific, because, in the ancestral environment, those who 'tuned in' to horrible events left more descendants, logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli," she says in this article.
And yes, there is a gender element to it -- women watch more serial killer shows. "Women are fascinated by true crime because it's a facing your fears thing," says Julia Davis, editor of Crime Monthly magazine in a BBC article. Also, women tend to be more compassionate about the victims of serial killing. "They put themselves in the position of the victim, the victim's families, especially if the victim is a woman and there's a real emotional jolt and emotional reaction," adds Davis.
Not everyone, however, believes that an obsession with serial killers is simply a harmless exercise in escapism. Laura Bogart of The Week, for instance, says that this pop-cultural fixation with serial killers is problematic. She says that it turns us, collectively, "into versions of those women, easily titillated by life-annihilating violence; able to oh-so-casually forget, or even acknowledge, the humanity of victims — many of whom are women, children, poor people, people of colour, or members of the LGBTQ communities, people who already struggled to be seen as fully human, fully worthy, long before they trusted the wrong smile, got in the wrong car, or heard the window glass breaking."
I can't say I disagree entirely with her; sometimes the brutality of a serial killer narrative leaves me sick to the stomach, unable to breathe or get out of bed. Mandy Patinkin, who played Jason Gideon—fabulously, I must admit -- on Criminal Minds left the show for exactly that reason. He describes Criminal Minds as these "horrific misogynistic tales, told over and over again, and the torture of women and children" and that playing Gideon "was destroying my heart and soul."
But it is also true that cultural edifices are and have always been a reflection of reality. And the serial killer seems to be an American reality. According to Dr Mike Aamodt, a forensic psychology professor at Radford University, the US has the highest number of serial killers in the world. "One of the most comprehensive catalogues is the Radford Serial Killer Database, which has nearly five thousand entries from around the world—the bulk of them from the United States," points out this article in the New Yorker. I snuck a look at the database and discovered that the US had created 3204 serial killers, 4.35% of the total number of killers in the world (Fun Fact: India has 80).
I'm not saying that glamourizing serial killers is alright, it certainly isn't. Nor is fetishizing brutality or dehumanizing victims to drive a story forward. But I am also convinced that creating narratives around the serial killer if done with sensitivity and intelligence, can have some cultural value. As GK Chesterton points out, fairy tales—and yes, let's be honest, there are plenty of serial killers in fairy tales, including Baba Yaga and Blue Beard—aren't really "responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear."
I like to believe that I watch/read so much about serial killers because what these narratives also do, is drive the idea that pure evil can be defeated. Or as Chesterton puts it, so beautifully, confirms that "limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear."
PS: It helps that the knight looks like Shemar Moore, I rest my case.