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date: 11 December 2017

Serial Killing and Representation

Summary and Keywords

Serial killing is an age-old problem, though it was not popularly known by that name until the 1980s. It took the rise of mass media and the mechanisms of mass production to create the conditions for the rise of serial murder in the modern world. The mass media representation of a series of murders arguably dates back to the notoriety accorded to the so-called Jack the Ripper killings of prostitutes in London in the autumn of 1888. The Ripper murders stand at a particular nexus in the representation of true crime, where fact and legend immediately fused in popular media to create a terrifying new modern, urban mythology of a preternaturally cunning human super-predator: one who strikes from the shadows to commit ghastly murder with impunity and then retreats back into that darkness until the next atrocity. Since the days of Jack the Ripper, a ghoulish pantheon of other serial killers has captivated the public imagination through representation in media: the Zodiac Killer, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy Jr., Henry Lee Lucas, Richard Ramirez, and Jeffrey Dahmer, just to name a few. However, the term “serial killer” did not enter the American popular vocabulary until the 1980s, so in another sense, the true representation of what we now know as serial killing could not begin until it had this latest, proper name. In tandem, as cultural consciousness of serial murder expanded, fictional serial killers proliferated the media landscape: Patrick Bateman, Norman Bates, Francis Dolarhyde, Lou Ford, Jame Gumb, Mickey and Mallory Knox, Leatherface, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan, Tom Ripley, and a host of others. Serial killers as they exist in the popular imagination are media constructs rooted in sociological/criminological/psychological realities. These constructs originate from collective fears or anxieties specific to a particular time and place, which also means as times and the cultural zeitgeist change, the serial killer as a character epitomizing human evil is endlessly reinvented for new audiences in popular media.

Keywords: serial killer, serial murderer, serial killing, Jack the Ripper, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris, homicide, violent crimes, criminal profiling, criminal profiler

Serial murder, though a global phenomenon, has long fascinated Americans, who already have a history of fascination with sensational murders to a degree seldom matched in other nations. Serial murder both as a term and an idea entered American culture at a specific historical point well documented by researchers. Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through the early 1990s, the United States experienced what Philip Jenkins calls a “serial murder panic”—not the first time the country had undergone such a panic over seemingly motiveless mass murder, but the first time it was given a new name to describe what many then assumed to be a new phenomenon. Though definitions vary somewhat, serial murder is commonly defined as two or more murders committed in a series over time, with a so-called “cooling off” or latency period between each murder. This definition distinguishes it from other multiple murder scenarios, such as but not limited to the mass murderer, who kills numerous people in one act of violence and usually in one narrowly limited location, often involving guns or explosives; the spree killer, who kills two or more victims at two or more locations, with little to no break time between; the ideological killer, who is able to persuade others to kill; and the for-profit killer, such as a professional “hit man,” who murders for material reasons. The origin of the term “serial killer” is disputed, with the American FBI agent Robert Ressler most commonly given the credit for its coinage during the 1970s, but the term can be found in various publications as far back as 1930. What is indisputable is that “serial killer” as both term and concept did not become widely known until the 1980s. This escalation of attention to serial murder was driven by media and complicit state and federal law enforcement agencies and other groups with a vested interest in garnering public support (and thus resources) for their various political and social reform agendas. Serial killing’s media-whipped perception as a social scourge, as well as different agencies’ and researchers’ differences of opinion as to how to even define serial murder, resulted in the United States Congress legally defining serial killings as a “series of three or more killings … having common characteristics such as to suggest the reasonable possibility that the crimes were committed by the same actor or actors” in the Protection of Children from Sexual Predator Act of 1998 (quoted in Bonn, 2014, p. 7). This definition was the end product of two decades’ worth of enormous publicity given to serial murder in the United States. Jenkins argues that groups as ideologically and politically diverse as feminists, homosexual rights advocates, black rights activists, traditional conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and others found the serial killer useful as a social threat to mold public opinion into support for a given cause that, it is argued, would greatly reduce the threat (2009, pp. 3–4). None of this is to deny that serial murder exists or is not a problem; rather, Jenkins maintains, the threat during a serial killer moral panic is perceived to be much greater than it really is because of the intensity of media over-reportage of sensational cases, and a corresponding public fascination with and demand for more such stories, both in non-fictional and fictional form.

Inversely, as through this mediated process the serial killer becomes the ultimate outlaw, he (or she) becomes more attractive, even at an unconscious level, to that part of the human psyche that is drawn to chaos, mayhem, and rule-breaking. Ashley Donnelly identifies this development as the “next wave of serial killer pop culture—the anti-hero… . Authors and film directors were presenting us with characters for whom there was no obvious foil in their works, characters we were forced to identify with and, in some instances, to root for” (2012, p. 21). Donnelly identifies some of the first serial killer anti-heroes, originating in the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, as Henry from John McNaughton’s film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Patrick Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991), and Quentin P. from Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Zombie (1995). These anti-heroes are not necessarily sympathetic, but the narrative point-of-view compels audiences to identify with them in unsettling ways that suggest the potential for murder in everyone. Thus, the genre evolved again in ways that reinscribed clearer, more comforting moral boundaries for mainstream audiences and turned the anti-hero into something resembling a hero or at least a sympathetic protagonist. The serial killer as hero trend reached its culmination in two iconic figures: Dr. Hannibal Lecter from the Thomas Harris novels and their film adaptations; and Dexter Morgan, the vigilante serial killer from the Jeff Lindsay novels and the popular Showtime television series based on them.

Even following the terror attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, when one might reasonably suppose that cultural attention would be refocused on the terrorist as the personification of evil, the serial killer remained a stock popular culture villain, if for no other reason than as a nostalgic look back at a simpler time. David Schmid elaborates: “Serial murder is able to both translate the frightening realities of post-9/11 America into comprehensible terms and serve as a perversely positive nostalgic oasis” (2005, p. 66). Representing the serial killer as the embodiment of evil or dangerous but attractive Other, then, serves a variety of useful purposes across the ideological spectrum and goes a long way toward explaining why serial murder, though a social rarity, retains such a hold on the public imagination through both crime reporting and fictional tales.

Representations of sensational real-life murders have traditionally been popular subjects for mass media. Serial killing in particular lends itself well to such treatment. First, as Richard Dyer argues, human beings are innately drawn to seriality or repetition because of the anticipation of wanting more in the next repetition of a pleasurable event. Thus, while (fortunately) few take pleasure in repeat murders, almost all human beings can seek out the deferred pleasure of infinitely prolonged narrative in various media formats. Dyer claims that “it is only under capitalism that seriality became a reigning principle of cultural production, starting with the serialization of novels and cartoons, then spreading to news and movie programming” (1997, p. 14). Thus the historical rise of serial murder in public awareness coincides with the technological means to produce a serialized narrative, which itself satisfies the human desire for seriality.

Sonia Baelo-Allué frames the synergy between media representation and serial murder this way: “… We might postulate that part of the pleasure that U.S. audiences get out of consuming serial killer narratives derives from the way serialized homicidal crimes seem so well-adapted to mass cultural forms” (2002, p. 75). She then compares a serial murderer’s crime to a television series that resists narrative closure because that would mean “cancelation” of the series (2002, p. 76). The episodic nature of the crime is partly to credit for its popularity as a subject for media representation, indeed deriving its most widely-accepted name from serial storytelling structure. Each murder in a serial killing rampage constitutes a separate chapter in the story of the crime, with the frequently escalating level of violence in each subsequent murder mirroring the mounting series of complications and crises to be found in the popular narrative. Eventually the murder series ends, sometimes dramatically with the capture or death of the killer, sometimes inconclusively with the killer eluding justice; this resolution too, however satisfying or unsatisfying, echoes the structure and climax and following denouement of the narrative representation trajectory.

When one examines the history of the media representation of serial killing, what is particularly noteworthy is how such representation blurs the line between the actual and the figurative, fact and fiction, reality and virtual reality. Along these lines, Caroline Joan Picart and Cecil Greek find a close connection between the representation of serial murder and the precedent established in gothic literature. In the latter tradition, characters grapple with unreal horrors based in subjective interior imaginings projected upon the outer natural world. By contrast, in what Picart and Greek call a “gothic criminology,” actual horrors, for example, serial murder, “produce and prevail in the social construction of modernity” (2003, p. 40). For Picart and Greek, gothic criminology explains the interconnection between the quasi-supernatural trappings and radical interiority of gothic fiction and how factual representations of serial murder typically are “framed in gothic terms, which are essential to plotting the social construction of where evil resides within modernity” (2003, p. 40). The theoretical framing and social construction of serial murder often moves between what Picart and Greek call the “real” and “reel” (film) worlds. In practice, that movement is described this way: “The criminal justice system and citizens alike, draw upon the combined work of true crime writers, FBI profilers, journalists and Hollywood screenwriters in their quest to flesh out the nature of serial killing” (2003, p. 40). Picart and Greek conclude their formulation of gothic criminology with this observation: “… The discussion of serial killing is a porous mixture of fact and fiction, scholarly and journalistic accounts, and profiler and academic studies” (2003, p. 61). Gothic criminology accounts for why the study of serial murder from any one academic or professional perspective so quickly becomes enmeshed in the difficulty of sorting out the factual from the fictional.

As Picart and Greek argue, serial murder as a cultural phenomenon is particularly vulnerable to the kind of confusion of signification often endemic to the postmodern condition, diagnosed by Robert Conrath as “the collapsing together of traditional epistemological categories of fact and fiction, veracity and verisimilitude” (1994, p. 149). To many, there is not much difference between Jeffrey Dahmer, the real-life cannibalistic serial killer, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the fictional cannibalistic serial killer—a conflation that Richard Tithecott notes was encouraged by the journalistic reporting of the Dahmer crimes as their discovery coincided with the popularity of Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs, which established Dr. Lecter as a cultural icon (1997, p. 9). The film further references serial killers Ed Gein and Gary Heidnik in the character of Jame Gumb, who imprisons women in his basement (like Heidnik) in preparation for killing them and flaying them to wear their skins (like Gein). The rich cross-fertilization between reality and representation blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction to produce what Jeffrey R. Di Leo calls a cartoon version of a serial killer: “In the translation of serial killing to its performance and promotion, a complex semiotic process creates multiple layers of signification concerning the event and its perpetrator… . The realness of these killers and their crimes gets buried under multiple layers of signification. A ‘hyper-real’ … image soon displaces any remaining fragments of the reality of the horrific event and their personage” (2004, p. 25). In this sense, then, many serial killers are driven to attain celebrity based on the profligate representations of past serial killers enshrined in popular media, said representations themselves having entered the collective discourse as the result of previous crimes, which in turn were fueled by even earlier representations, ad infinitum. To carry the loop of seriality forward even as it looks backward, the latest high-profile serial murder spree is in its turn represented, ensuring the reality/representation cycle repeats, just as the serial killer kills repeatedly.

Serial killing as a phenomenon is inextricably linked to, indeed inseparable from, its representation in the media for the following reasons. First, serial murder finds a ready accomplice in the media, a point made ad nauseam in Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers (1994) in the character of Wayne Gale, tabloid television anchor who exploits the hyper-violent crimes committed by Mickey and Mallory Knox for ratings success and personal gain. “The serial killer is a discursive construct,” elaborates Alzena MacDonald, “a figure that has been reified in popular culture… . The numerous … portrayals of serial killers (‘true crime’ accounts and fictional) are strongly informed by the reported detestable and bewildering behaviors of real-life criminals” (2013a, p. 2). The serial killer’s extreme level of repetitively violent action renders him or her one of the most theatrical of all criminals (second, perhaps, only to the mass-murdering terrorist) and thus also one of the most suited for media representation.

Second, as David Schmid observes, the rise of the serial killer as media icon is the result of a convergence of various media agendas: how “the media routinely overreport violent crime” (2005a, p. 14); how the increasingly competitive media market demands ever more grisly, violent stories which in turn stoke audience appetite for such fare; and how the selective, tabloidesque presentation of relatively rare crimes such as serial murder perpetuates a media-constructed myth that there is an epidemic of violent interpersonal crime. The apparent randomness of victim selection (“anyone could be next”), as Vincent F. Sacco says, serves “the interests of both news workers and others who seek to frame crime problems. News stories about random crimes have great dramatic value, as the media frenzies that surround serial murders illustrate. Moreover, the advocates to whom news workers have access … often stress the random nature of a particular form of victimization since problems must be seen as more urgent when everyone is threatened” (1995, p. 150). For Robert Conrath, the ubiquity of serial murder in the media actually constitutes a crisis of representation: “The serial killer is a product of the pervasive penetration of media technology and televised representations into our daily lives, into the intimacy of our bedrooms, our dreams, our language” (1996, p. 153). The overt message of such saturation levels of representation is that everyone is at risk of serial murder (or terrorism, or whatever other violent activity is the media locus), which then justifies various regressive or progressive agendas for claims- and policymakers. For these reasons, then, the media amplifies the specter of serial killing, which in turn accelerates the burn of collective anxieties and the range of reactions to them.

MacDonald diagnoses the media construction of the serial killer as particularly symptomatic of the United States of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: “While the experience of sequential killings is not particular to late capitalist society, its representation is. Although serial killers and serial killing now feature in almost every aspect of contemporary media, until relatively recently no terminology or discourse was available to articulate its practice, and hence there existed no language to adequately speak its representation” (2013a, p. 3). For MacDonald, late capitalism is the natural home of the serial killer, whose mediated crimes are consumed by eager audiences in a particularly troubling manifestation of the market economy meeting consumer demand. Christina Lee implicates consumerist desire and practice when she writes that the

figuration of the serial killer (and late capitalist) … holds sway over the public imagination not only because of its deplorability, but also because we—as the audience—have helped create it and participated in its fetishization… . The serial killer is a social functionary; a cautionary dark reflection of specific cultural and historical contexts.

(2013, p. 119)

From this perspective, the serial killer is not an inhuman Other, but simply a more extreme agent of accepted cultural practices. Julie B. Wiest goes so far as to claim that serial killing

is primarily a cultural phenomenon, not the result of individual deficiencies. Much of the current research on serial murder hails from a psychological tradition and is individual centered… . Serial murder is a deviant means to gain culturally valued feelings of power, control, dominance, success, satisfaction, and pleasure through individualism, competition, and risk taking, especially for those with limited resources and legitimate power.

(2011, p. 3)

In American culture, Wiest maintains, inconsistent but powerful messages about individual success, fame, and violence as a means of asserting agency sometimes combine into a lethally combustible mixture in otherwise powerless people (typically men) who then murder serially to achieve a level of attention, social impact, and criminal celebrity that is accorded to few other crimes. Of course, this fame would not be possible without representation in the mass media.

The Cultural History of Serial Killing

Criminals who murder numerous victims on separate occasions over time for their own idiosyncratic pleasures are at least as old as the history of the ancient Roman Empire. According to Katherine Ramsland, for example, many criminologists identify a Roman poisoner, a woman named Locusta of Gaul who worked in the service of the notorious Emperor Nero, as one of the first historically documented serial killers (2005, p. 3). Before 1600 alone, other historical serial killers include nobleman Gilles de Rais, accused of murdering well over 100 children; Peter Stumpp, the “Werewolf of Bedburg,” executed for killing and cannibalizing women and children; Giles Garnier, the “Werewolf of Dole,” also executed for cannibalizing children; and noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory, the “Blood Countess” of Hungary who allegedly bathed in the blood of virgin women. In later historical eras but before the 1900s, serial killers such as the Harpe brothers; the “Red Inn Murderers,” Pierre and Marie Martin; the “Ratcliffe Highway Murderer,” John Williams; Jesse Pomeroy; the “Bloody Benders” of Kansas; poisoner Dr. Thomas Neill Cream; Belle Gunness; and “Bluebeard” H. H. Holmes all achieved a certain degree of criminal celebrity made possible through advances in journalistic technology, though all pale before the infamy accorded Jack the Ripper, who lives on, so to speak, in dozens of books, movies, television shows, graphic novels, video games, and the like.

However, the notorious serial killers of past eras could not compare to the magnitude of attention given to the serial killers of the media-rich 20th and 21st centuries. The early 20th century saw its share of notorious (and to this day unsolved) serial killer cases, including the Axeman of New Orleans in 1918–1919, the Cleveland Torso Murderer of the 1930s, and the Phantom Slayer of Texarkana in the 1940s. However, beginning in roughly the late 1950s to the early 1960s and continuing through the 1980s, serial killers seemed to increase exponentially as the media reported more and more cases. (Not coincidentally, representations of serial killers in fiction also began to proliferate in the mass media, with the template being set in 1960 by Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho, itself based on a true-life serial killer case.) Multiple murderers such as Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, the so-called “Moors Murderers” in England; the never-caught Zodiac Killer; the Boston Strangler, later believed (not without controversy) to be Albert DeSalvo; Juan Corona; Edmund Kemper; Herbert Mullin; David Berkowitz, or “the Son of Sam;” Ted Bundy; John Wayne Gacy Jr.; Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, or “the Hillside Stranglers;” Peter Sutcliffe, “the Yorkshire Ripper;” Henry Lee Lucas, who claimed to have killed 600 people (a claim now debunked); Richard Ramirez, “the Night Stalker”—all formed a steadily mounting crescendo of reported atrocities throughout a period of roughly 20 years that forever put the serial killer in the spotlight as a mass-media villain. Almost all of the killers listed above have been represented in books, movies, television programs, songs, and art based on their crimes. Other notorious cases continued to receive media attention into the 1990s and into the 21st century, which introduced the world to Jeffrey Dahmer; Aileen Wuronos; Gary Ridgway, arrested in 2001 for the Green River killings of the 1980s, and Dennis Rader, arrested in 2005 for the BTK killings of the 1970s and who appears to be the inspiration for the character of the Trinity Killer in the fourth season of the Showtime series Dexter. Whether there are more serial killers in the past 100-plus years or not, it certainly seems as if there are, with new cases receiving intense media scrutiny across multiple media made possible by advanced communications technology, the speed of transmission faster than ever before in human history.

Not every serial killer achieves this kind of recognition or celebrity, just the same as not every event is categorized as newsworthy. What elevates one serial killer to celebrity status and relegates another to obscurity depends on a number of variables, according to Ramsland: the socioeconomic status of both killers and victims, the social conditions that lend themselves to the exploitation and murder of those victims, the spectacle or gruesomeness of the acts themselves, and so forth. Ramsland notes that the “story of serial killing is a form of cultural narrative” (2005, p. 1). Peter Vronsky, also noting how some killers, such as the unknown perpetrator who killed 49 people with an axe in Texas and Louisiana between 1911 and 1912, fade from the headlines while others, such as Jack the Ripper, become immortalized, argues that “London was the center of a huge newspaper industry while Louisiana and Texas were not. The story of Jack the Ripper was retold and entered popular myth and literature—while the Louisiana-Texas axe murderer faded from public consciousness” (2004, p. 31). Vronsky concludes that the public awareness of serial murder as a threat depends on how the crimes are reported or represented, and thus to what extent these crimes endure in future media representations.

As Harold Schechter and David Everitt observe, “People have always been intrigued by the kind of homicidal maniacs we now call serial killers, and every time a new mass medium has been invented, it’s been used to gratify this primal fascination” (1996, p. 185). Schechter and Everitt trace the mass media representation of serial murder from the so-called “penny press” (the predecessor of today’s tabloid journalism) through the phonograph and radio representations of the crimes of the 19th century serial killer H. H. Holmes to the earliest screen incarnations of villains such as the child murderer in Fritz Lang’s film M (1931). Schechter in his book The Serial Killer Files (2003, pp. 367–402) dedicates an entire section to what he calls “serial killer culture,” comprised of non-fiction books, literature, television programming, movies, songs, art, comic books, serial killer artifacts known as “murderabilia,” serial killer trading cards, and video games. The present study focuses on true crime, fiction, television, and cinema as the most culturally transformative and impactful of these media.

Serial Murder, True Crime, and the Turn to Fiction

True-crime books date back to the 17th century, when bestsellers had already been made possible by technological advances in the printing press, with the publication of John Reynolds’s God’s Revenge Against Murder and Adultery (1621). One of the first serial killer true-crime books, Frank P. Geyer’s The Holmes-Pitezel Case (1896), inaugurated the century-plus literary tradition of practically each notorious serial killer having an entire book (and often, more) devoted to his or her crimes (Schechter & Everitt, 1996, p. 250). A representative survey of the serial killer true-crime genre will find books on the following from all historical periods and nationalities, all of whom became criminal celebrities in his or her own right through sensational media reportage: David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, Andrei Chikatilo, John Christie, Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert DeSalvo, John Wayne Gacy Jr., Ed Gein, H. H. Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Theodore Kaczynski, the “Monster of Florence,” Jeffrey Nilsen, Carl Panzram, Dennis Rader, Richard Ramirez, Gary Ridgway, Aileen Wuronos, and the Zodiac Killer. True-crime writers who have written influential case studies in the serial killer genre include Phillip Carlo, Tim Cahill, Patricia Cornwell (better known as a writer of crime fiction featuring serial killers), John Douglas, Gerald Frank, Robert Graysmith, Robert Keppel, Erik Larson, Stephen Michaud, Jack Olsen, Douglas Preston, Robert Ressler, Ann Rule, Donald Rumbelow, and Harold Schechter. Other writers, eschewing the specific case-study approach in favor of an overview of the history, etiology, meaning, and sociology of serial murder, include Jack Levin, Elliott Leyton, Joel Norris, Katherine Ramsland, Peter Vronsky, and Colin Wilson.

All of the above killers, as well as countless lesser-known ones, have also been the subject of innumerable feature film and television documentaries or as episodes in long-running “tabloid TV” programs (often featuring re-enactments of the crimes) such as A Current Affair (1986-1996), America’s Most Wanted (1988–2011), Hard Copy (1989–1999), and Inside Edition (1989–). Many of the same killers have also been represented in fictional movies for both theatrical and television distribution. For instance, a spate of low-budget, independent “biopics” adhering as closely as possible to the known facts of the cases were released in the 2000s, the most notable being Ed Gein (2000); Bundy (2002); Dahmer (2002), starring future star Jeremy Renner in the title role; and Gacy (2003). Some other films based on true-crime cases, boasting A-list talent, achieved critical accolades and more mainstream attention, including Summer of Sam (1999), directed by the famed Spike Lee; From Hell (2001), directed by the Hughes Brothers and starring Johnny Depp, adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, itself based on one of the more dubious theories as to the identity of Jack the Ripper; Monster (2003), starring Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in an Oscar-winning performance; and Zodiac (2007), starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. and directed by David Fincher, following up his fictional serial killer opus Seven (1995) with a cinematic exploration of the pursuit of the Zodiac Killer of San Francisco.

In turn, those killers chronicled in true-crime representations are often the inspiration for fictional villains in both literature and cinema. As Philip L. Simpson cautions, however, one must

separate fictional serial killers from the actual ones… . In fiction, serial killers are often more exotic in terms of methodology and pathology, as authors seldom resist the temptation to sensationalize them in some uniquely identifiable way, no matter how restrained the narrative treatment itself.

(2000, p. 20)

The story of Ed Gein is most illustrative in the transfiguration of true-crime report into fictional narrative and how the facts of the case are altered to suit the author’s thematic concerns. Gein was a Wisconsin farmer with a mother fixation who confessed in the late 1950s to killing two women and exhuming female corpses from graveyards to not only fashion macabre decorations for his isolated house but to create a kind of woman-suit he could wear so that he could become, in effect, his mother. The sensational case generated national headlines, which attracted the attention of writer Robert Bloch. In 1959, he published a novel called Psycho, which featured a middle-aged serial killer, Norman Bates, loosely based on Gein and retaining Gein’s signature Oedipal obsession with his mother. However, it took famed film director Alfred Hitchcock’s screen adaptation of Psycho, as well as Anthony Perkins’s sympathetic portrayal of a younger Norman Bates, to fully complete Gein’s transformation into a fictional, shape-shifting monster across multiple media. As a movie, Psycho shocked the nation while achieving box-office success, thus ensuring that the psychosexually maladjusted serial killer who appears normal on the outside but hides a monstrous inner persona would become a staple of cinema. Gein serves as the model for numerous other serial killers in films such as Deranged (1974); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and its various sequels and remakes; The Silence of the Lambs (1991); Ed Gein (2000); House of 1000 Corpses (2003); The Devil’s Rejects (2005); and Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (2007).

Gein’s transfiguration into a popular culture icon, though disguised under fictional names, marks a singular turning point in the history of serial killer representation. Robert Cettl, pointing to Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s British film Peeping Tom (1960), describes post-1960 cinematic serial killers: They looked plain and everyday, if a little peculiar; they had jobs; and they interacted with other people, although sometimes with difficulty (being withdrawn and vaguely effeminate)… . Most importantly, each had a perverse sexuality they strove to keep hidden from the rest of the world, but which surfaced in regular homicide. They were, however, coded as neurotic enough to be different from normality and thus descendants of monsters.

(2003, p. 16)

Peter Hutchings concurs, calling serial killers and their closely-related genre cousins, the supernatural invincible killing machines of the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street cinematic franchises “horror’s new monsters” who stalk their victims in ordinary daily environments: “In contemporary horror cinema, these monsters are never far away, are always close to home” (1996, p. 103), even going so far as to invade the sanctity of one’s dreams in the case of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Ed Gein, the reclusive killer turned multimedia celebrity, solidified the conventions of what we recognize today as the fictional serial killer genre.

The Evolution of the Fictional Serial Killer in Multimedia Representation

Long before Gein and Psycho, however, characters who committed multiple murders—what one might call proto-serial killers—appeared in crime fiction leavened with dashes of gothic horror and modern psychological case study. Barbara Fister describes the long-standing popularity of crime fiction this way: “[It] is popular in part because it addresses our anxieties by taking us beyond the surface of things into its depths, attributing meaning and pattern to elements of the story, suggesting that the mysteries of human behavior can be solved” (2005, p. 45). As one of the more inexplicable and terrifying mysteries of human behavior, serial killing finds a ready home in literature.

Probably the most famous example of a proto-serial killer is found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1886, two serendipitous years before the Jack the Ripper killings in Whitechapel introduced the Western world to the age of modern serial sex slaying. The apparently upright Victorian gentleman and professional man Dr. Jekyll, through the plot device of a transformative elixir, liberates his savage inner self, literally becoming the repulsive Mr. Hyde to stalk the after-dark streets of London indulging not only in forbidden vices but committing various atrocities, including a brutal murder. While Jekyll/Hyde does not engage in the serial murder of prostitutes, his dueling/dual personalities certainly fit the contemporary notion of the Ripper as a respectable man of medicine by day, brute acting upon unspeakable desires by night. The Jekyll/Hyde story quickly was adapted for other media. For example, an 1888 stage play in London based on the novella ran concurrently with the timeline of the Ripper murders and led to its famous main actor, Richard Mansfield, being reported by frightened theatregoers to the police as the killer. Early silent and sound cinema, beginning in 1910, also adapted the story many times over, as did radio, starting in the 1930s. Jekyll/Hyde’s bifurcated personality type—a psyche at war with itself—is one of the tropes that most consistently appears in the fictional representation of serial murder throughout the subsequent decades. Perhaps the zenith of this multiple-personality serial killer type is reached in Bloch’s Psycho, where the protagonist serial killer becomes his own disapproving mother in order to commit murder whenever attractive women sexually arouse him.

Other proto-serial killers take their star turns in works such as Tod Robbins’s Mysterious Martin (1912), a horror novel about a writer who, lacking the necessary imagination to become a true artist, embarks on a serial murder spree to lend his work the verisimilitude and artistic panache it lacks. As Chris Mikul points out in his introduction to a reprint of the novel, the character of Martin would have fit right in to the existence of the group of “murder fanciers” known as the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder in Thomas De Quincey’s famous essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” published in 1827 (2008, p. 7). In that essay, De Quincey writes of those voyeuristic sorts who view murder, the more spectacular or extraordinary the better, as an aesthetic endeavor to be appreciated/critiqued on style points as much as any work of art. Martin, therefore, takes this appreciation of murder as a fine art to its logical albeit extreme conclusion by becoming a serial killer. The novel’s depiction of a serial killer as aesthete or artist, which owes at least part of its origins to De Quincey’s essay and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), would also continue to be a popular trope in the genre, finding its most well-known embodiment in author Thomas Harris’s character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Mass murderers, as they would be known at the time, appeared relatively early in the history of motion pictures, shortly after the turn of the 20th century at the cusp of the transition from silent to sound movies. Harold Schechter points to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Pandora’s Box (1929), and acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927)—the latter two based on the Jack the Ripper crimes—as arguably some of the earliest cinematic representations of serial killers (2003, p. 387). Fritz Lang’s German film M (1931), based partially on German serial killer Peter Kurten and starring Peter Lorre as a serial murderer of children, is widely acknowledged as a world cinema masterpiece. Hitchcock also directed an early masterpiece of serial murder, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), starring Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie, or “the Merry Widow Murderer.” Anticipating some of Psycho’s thematic concerns by almost three decades and reflecting Hitchcock’s long-standing interest in the Ripper crimes, Shadow of a Doubt brings the specter of serial murder into an ordinary American suburban neighborhood when Uncle Charlie, on the run from the police, decides to hide out with family and forms a bond with his niece, Young Charlie, who begins to suspect him of the strangulation murders of wealthy widowed women. Alternatively, serial murder is played for laughs in the black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), starring Cary Grant, about two maiden aunts who murder vagrant men in their boarding house and bury them in the cellar. Finally, no less a film luminary than Charlie Chaplin directed and starred in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), also a black comedy, this one about a man who marries women for money and then kills them. These early cinematic efforts by masterful pioneers of the medium helped establish what would become the conventions of later serial killer narrative: psychosexual mania (represented discreetly but as overtly as possible, given the rather strict content restraints of the era), critiques of cultural conditions and attitudes that contribute to crime, charismatic anti-heroes, and detectives in hot pursuit.

The 1940s proved to be something of a high point for proto-serial killer representations. A mass murderer features in Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place (1947), later adapted into a film noir in 1950 starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. In the novel, an ex-airman and aspiring crime novelist named Dix Steele joins forces with his detective friend, Brub, to find a rapist/serial killer who is terrorizing Los Angeles. As events transpire, however, it is revealed that Steele himself is the misogynistic serial killer. Through the psychology of its sociopathic villain, which paradoxically seems to originate in a too-literal absorption of the values of his society, the novel critiques the misogyny of late-1940s America and fits into the larger literary noir tradition in underscoring the corrupt(ing) aspects of American culture.

Harry Powell, the murdering ex-convict villain of Davis Grubb’s novel The Night of the Hunter (1953), is another proto-serial killer, based on the real-life serial killer Harry Powers, who was executed in 1932 for murdering two women and three children. The novel was adapted for the screen in 1955 by Charles Laughton and James Agee. Directed by Laughton, this film noir stars Robert Mitchum as Powell in a riveting performance. In both novel and film, Powell deceives his dead cellmate’s widow, Willa, into marrying him so that he can learn from her children where his cellmate hid some money from a previous robbery. After he kills Willa, Powell pursues the children as they run from him. Through Powell’s character, Grubb’s novel is a powerful exploration of the corrupted, economically depressed American South, illustrating again the common tendency of the serial killer story to use the pathology of the villain to personify the evils of the larger society. Two years later, the quintessential southern gothic writer, Flannery O’Connor, introduced readers to the terrifying proto-serial killer nicknamed “The Misfit” in her famous short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In this story, The Misfit, a murderer who has escaped from prison, slaughters (with the help of his accomplices) an entire family from Atlanta on their way to Florida. Another psychotic multiple murderer from the South—the superficially courteous but inwardly savage Deputy Lou Ford, the central character of Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me (1952)—inhabits the same corrupt American myth-scape as Powell and The Misfit, where the sins of the past (especially those of the South) intrude upon the present with lethal results. Thompson’s novel is also significant in that it is narrated in the first person from the point of view of the killer, a way of placing the reader into the mind of the murderer that would later be repeated in Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels and, through voice-over narration, in the cable television series based upon them.

The American novelist Patricia Highsmith introduced readers to conman, psychopath, and proto-serial killer Tom Ripley in her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), the first of five “Ripley” novels. As the character develops over the course of the novels, Ripley anticipates many characteristics of the serial killer anti-heroes of future decades, such as Dr. Lecter and Dexter Morgan. Like Dr. Lecter, Ripley is an intellectual polymath, gifted in languages and painting; he is courteous; he is a dapper man of leisure and wealth; he appreciates the finer things in life; he has good taste. Like Dexter Morgan, Ripley in his criminal escapades is always on the verge of being caught and then at the last second evades capture. Like both Dr. Lecter and Dexter Morgan, Ripley never faces a reckoning for his deeds. He is not a full-fledged serial killer as audiences today would define it, in that his murders are motivated more by circumstances than some inner desire that cannot be satisfied by anything except murder; nevertheless, Ripley as a sympathetic psychopath helps set the stage for characters such as Dr. Lecter and Dexter Morgan.

After the publication of Psycho, representations of characters who are unambiguously serial killers become much more common. For example, Joyce Carol Oates, seemingly taking a page from Robert Bloch and his fascination with Gein, turned the real-life serial killer Charles Schmid, also known as the “Pied Piper of Tucson,” into the character of Arnold Friend in her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966). Much as the ill-fated heroine of Bloch’s novel is destined to meet Norman Bates, Connie, the teenaged girl who is the central character in Oates’s story, draws the fateful (and presumably fatal) attention of a mysterious stranger, Arnold Friend, who rides into her small town in a gold convertible. He compels her to go with him in his car to what is surely her death by threatening to kill her family if she doesn’t.

A number of psychopathic mass murderer films also premiered in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, including The Boston Strangler (1968), directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo; 10 Rillington Place (1971), also directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Richard Attenborough as John Christie; Frenzy (1972), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, about a man wrongly accused (a signature theme of Hitchcock’s) of the “Necktie Murders” in London; Dirty Harry (1972), starring Clint Eastwood in the first of the “Dirty Harry” movies, squared off as a San Francisco police inspector against a mass murderer clearly based on the Zodiac Killer; and Cruising (1980), directed by William Friedkin and starring Al Pacino as a detective who goes undercover into the gay S & M subculture of New York City in pursuit of a killer who targets homosexual men. This last film came under criticism for its alleged homophobia, prefiguring some of the later controversies that would be attached to the films The Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct for portraying LBGT characters as deviant.

What might be called the golden age of the fictional serial killer, however, did not begin until 1981. First of all, the word “serial killer” itself was just beginning to enter the common vocabulary. Second, journalist-turned-novelist Thomas Harris published his novel Red Dragon, based upon Harris’s own research into serial killers and his interviews with FBI profilers such as John Douglas and Robert K. Ressler (both of whom would go on to have their own writing careers in the reflected glory of Harris’s stratospheric success). Picart and Greek specifically cite Harris’s work with these profilers as foundational in the social construction of serial murder as we now know it: “… crime fiction writers such as Thomas Harris spend considerable time interviewing profilers and reviewing their case files… . While the Harris characters are composites and their behaviors embellished, the verisimilitude to real life killers remains” (2003, p. 63). With this novel, according to Philip L. Simpson, “It is little exaggeration to say that Thomas Harris, for all practical purposes, created the current formula for mainstream serial killer fiction” (2000, p. 70). Red Dragon introduced readers to not one but two serial killers: the terrifying slayer of entire families, Francis Dolarhyde, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The novel, a fusion of police procedural and the kind of psychological thriller pioneered by Bloch’s Psycho, established the template of the outsider-detective (Will Graham) who seeks the assistance of an incarcerated serial killer (Dr. Lecter) in constructing a criminal profile to apprehend another, at-large serial killer (Dolarhyde).

The novel was adapted for the cinema screen twice, first by Michael Mann in 1986 and retitled Manhunter to shift the narrative focus almost exclusively to Graham, with Dolarhyde off-screen for approximately 2/3 of the movie. Starring William Petersen as Graham, Tom Noonan as Dolarhyde, and Brian Cox as Dr. Lecter, the film was a box-office failure. However, it found a redemptive afterlife on cable television and in its critical and audience re-evaluation after the film release of Silence. Capitalizing on Silence’s enormous success as a novel and film, Red Dragon was re-adapted for cinematic release in 2002, this time keeping the book’s name and starring A-list actors Edward Norton as Graham, Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde, and (of course) Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Lecter. Finally, in 2015, the novel was adapted once more for the last half of season three of the NBC network television series, Hannibal (2013–2015). In what turned out to be the last season for the series, Hugh Dancy played Graham, Mads Mikkelsen played Dr. Lecter, and Richard Armitage played Dolarhyde.

While Red Dragon proved to be a bestseller for Harris (and would continue to make its mark on the culture through cinema and television), it wasn’t until his publication of The Silence of the Lambs (1988) that Harris and his creation, Dr. Lecter, achieved true cultural immortality. In Silence, Harris retools the formula from the previous novel, this time substituting a young female FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, in the role previously occupied by Will Graham. Starling enlists Lecter’s aid to track down a serial slayer of young women, “Buffalo Bill.” Clearly a genre heir to Ed Gein and Psycho’s Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, whose real name is Jame Gumb, despises his own identity so much that he settles upon a rather literalist method for changing himself into what he perceives to be a beautiful woman by donning a “suit” stitched together from the flayed hides of his female victims. However, the real fascination of the novel is the mentor/mentee relationship between Starling and Dr. Lecter, two equally matched and powerful intellects engaged in a contest of wills where both want something from the other. Through its success, Silence is undoubtedly the wellspring from which popular crime narratives of the 1990s and into the 2000s flow. Without Silence, and the Academy-Award winning film adaptation of it starring Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Lecter and Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling and directed by Jonathan Demme, it is difficult to believe there would have been the 1990s wave of serial killer novels, movies, and television shows—a wave that may have subsided somewhat in the 21st century but still continues to advance steadily.

The wave reached a definite high-water mark in the mid-1990s, with mainstream Hollywood turning out serial killer movies with a vengeance. Jennifer 8 (1992) starred Andy Garcia as a policeman on the hunt for a serial killer of blind women and Uma Thurman as the killer’s potential victim. Oliver Stone’s blackly comedic indictment of the mass media, Natural Born Killers, premiered in 1994, starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Robert Downey Jr., and Tommy Lee Jones. Ironically enough for a film that satirized the murderous influence of mass media, Natural Born Killers itself was accused of inspiring several “copycat” murders, including the Heath High School shooting of 1997 and the Columbine High School shooting of 1999. Oliver Stone and Time Warner were even sued (unsuccessfully, ultimately) for product liability in 1995 after a teenage couple watched the movie and then went on a shooting spree. Perhaps fittingly, Natural Born Killers was quickly followed by Copycat (1995), starring Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver as a detective and forensic psychiatrist, respectively, teaming up to catch a serial killer who replicates the signature murders of historical serial killers; and David Fincher’s Seven (1995), a cinematic case study in slowly mounting dread about a visionary serial killer (played uncredited by Kevin Spacey) inflicting contrapasso justice upon people he believes are guilty of one of each of the seven deadly sins. Morgan Freeman plays a world-weary detective, mere days from retirement, trying to reign in his new, ambitious, and hot-tempered partner, played by Brad Pitt. This ill-suited partnership ends in tragedy when the John Doe killer exploits the wrath of the younger detective to craft as shocking an ending for a mainstream serial killer film as the genre had seen, though Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had a similar ending in the sense that the sympathetic female lead ends up dismembered in a parcel left on a desolate road.

Harris helped the wave crest again with the publication of what turned out to be a controversial follow-up to Silence, called Hannibal, in 1999. This novel departed considerably from the formula (serial killer versus detective, based on Harris’s own interviews with FBI criminal profilers such as Ressler and Douglas) established in his previous two novels. In Hannibal, Starling and Dr. Lecter form another alliance, this one to save the doctor from a grisly vengeance intended for him by one of his surviving victims. Their alliance ends with Starling, at first wounded and under the influence of drugs and hypnosis but later acting on her own free will, becoming lover and consort to Dr. Lecter—this last development being that which puzzled, even outraged, many fans of Silence. A somewhat desultory prequel, Hannibal Rising (2006), expands upon a backstory offered in Hannibal, in which Hannibal Lecter as a young child loses his sister to a predatory band of cannibals in war-torn Lithuania and grows up to be a young medical student in France who is also seeking revenge upon her killers. Since then, Harris has not published any further novels.

In effect, [Philip L. Simpson concludes,] Harris could now claim responsibility for a new multimedia subgenre of psychological horror centered on preternaturally cunning serial killers, often engaged in lethal courtship with strong professional women. Yet none of his numerous emulators came close to matching either his artistic achievement or his cultural impact.

(2010, p. 17)

Film adaptations of each novel inevitably followed. Anthony Hopkins reprised his role for Ridley Scott’s film Hannibal (2001), with Julianne Moore taking over as Starling because Jodie Foster (along with Silence director Demme) had allegedly bowed out over her concerns about the direction Harris’s novel had taken for the franchise. While a box-office success, the film did not fare as well with critics as its predecessor. The film Hannibal Rising premiered in 2007. It was the first of the franchise to have its screenplay authored by Harris. Gaspard Ulliel plays a younger Hannibal Lecter as he evolves into the cannibalistic serial killer. The film’s underwhelming box-office take seemed to effectively stall the franchise until producer Bryan Fuller combined elements and characters from all four of Harris’s serial killer novels for the television series Hannibal, which aired in 2013 for three critically acclaimed series. Though propped up by critics and the series’ own sympathetic network, low audience ratings ultimately led to the series’ cancellation in the summer of 2015. A vocal population of the shows’ viewers (known among themselves and the industry as “Fannibals”) have kept the pressure on NBC and Fuller to find a new home for the series, perhaps on a premium cable network or other subscription service such as Netflix. As of this writing no definite progress has been made to renew the show, but all of the major cast and creators (including Fuller) have indicated a willingness to return for at least another season if schedules permit.

Other notable serial killer fiction takes a wide variety of approaches to the subject matter. In the profiler/forensic analyst mode inaugurated by Harris, Patricia Cornwell’s series of crime novels are perhaps the best known. They feature a strong female protagonist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, who uses her forensic expertise in her role as medical examiner and later independent consultant to help resolve, among other cases, serial murders, including those committed by her nemesis, Temple Gault. The first novel, Postmortem, was published in 1990 and the series so far includes 23 novels with more undoubtedly to come. Some other serial killer franchise novels include Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series (13 books). The first novel in the series, The Bone Collector (1997), introduced Rhyme as quadriplegic ex-forensic criminalist facing off as a reluctant hero against serial killer Peter Taylor, aka “the Bone Collector.” Denzel Washington played Rhyme in the film adaptation (1999). Rhyme confronts other serial killers in different books in the series, such as The Vanished Man (2003) and The Cold Moon (2006). James Patterson’s Alex Cross books so far number 23, with Kiss the Girls (1995) as the second of the series featuring two serial killers known as “Casanova” and “the Gentleman Caller.” The film adaptation (1997) starred Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman as Cross. Other formidable serial killer antagonists for Cross include Kyle Craig, aka “the Mastermind;” the “DC Audience Killer;” and the “Wolf.” John Sandford, whose real name is John Roswell Camp, is the author of the “Prey” novels (26 of them), which are centered on police detective and war games designer Lucas Davenport, whose cases frequently involve particularly brutal serial killers.

Though not part of a large series, historian Caleb Carr’s second novel, The Alienist (1994) is a noteworthy addition to the profiler/killer canon, set in New York City in 1896 as psychologist or “alienist” Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, working for police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, assembles a team to profile a serial killer. Carr’s third novel (1997), The Angel of Darkness, sets the same cast of characters on the trail of a female serial killer of infants. A decade later, the film Untraceable (2008) updates profiling for the digital age. A computer prodigy seeks revenge upon a society that televised and exploited his father’s public death-by-suicide by committing a series of torture murders, involving elaborate contraptions reminiscent of the Saw films, streamed live onto the Internet. In the FBI’s Cybercrime Unit, Special Agent Jennifer Marsh, played by Diane Lane, and her partner Griffin Dowd, played by Colin Hanks (who also guest-starred in season six of Dexter as a religious visionary serial killer) are charged with the task of uncovering the identity of the killer by following his digital trail. In the Swedish literary sensation The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005), author Stieg Larsson creates another digital age heroine, orphaned computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, who is not a profiler per se but as a researcher for hire joins forces with disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist to solve the mystery of a wealthy CEO’s missing grandniece and, in the process, discovers that one of the family members is a serial killer of women. The novel tackles many lofty themes, but prominent among them is the misogyny of contemporary Swedish society, embodied by the novel’s two primary villains, serial killer Martin Vanger and lawyer Nils Bjurman, who betrays his trust as Salander’s legal guardian by raping her—an act for which Salander takes brutal revenge on him. In fact, the novel’s original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women, showing the significance of the theme to Larsson. The novel was adapted for Swedish cinema in 2009 and for Hollywood in 2011 by director David Fincher, returning for a third time to the serial killer genre.

Two television drama series of the mid- to late-1990s, Millennium (1996–1999) and Profiler (1996–2000), both featured troubled criminal profilers cast from the Will Graham/Clarice Starling mold. The former, created by Chris Carter, who was then riding high on the phenomenal success of his series The X-Files (1993–2002), portrays the investigations of ex-FBI agent and forensic consultant Frank Black into serial murder cases that appear to be connected in various quasi-supernatural ways to some vaguely defined but looming apocalypse tied to the dawn of the new millennium. Profiler is rooted firmly in the natural world, albeit a heightened melodramatic one; nevertheless, lead character Dr. Samantha Waters possesses for all practical purposes the same ability as Frank Black to summon near-hallucinatory visions of how crimes unfolded after examining clues left at crime scenes. The utility of these quasi-psychic powers to decipher the coded messages of the killer’s signature and thus lead the profilers to the identity of the killer is undeniable from a practical narrative point of view, and also serves to locate the profiler in the same liminal, uncanny space (situated somewhere outside of norm-defined civilized life) as the killer. Both Black’s and Waters’s visionary ability to see the past are clearly indebted to Will Graham’s eidetiker, not-quite-psychic mental powers, which is why it is fitting that NBC series Hannibal reclaimed the “quasi-psychic profiler” mantle for Graham in 2013.

A number of serial killer novels and films do not follow the traditional crime fiction template of detective versus criminal as outlined above, but rather follow more in the Jim Thompson/Robert Bloch/Patricia Highsmith literary tradition of what Simpson calls the “psycho profile” genre, wherein the killers do not “come to any true moral reckoning with their consciences… .The killers escape personal accountability in such a way as to spread blame for murder among the society that helps create ‘monstrous’ serial killers” (2000, p. 136). These representations do not follow any particular generic formula, other than to consistently implicate both the audience and society in the promulgation of a culture of deviant individualism fueling the killers’ murder series. Among these, the most exceptional include Joyce Carol Oates’s Bram Stoker Award-winning novel Zombie (1995), based on the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer and later turned into a short-film adaptation directed by Tom Caruso. Exquisite Corpse (1996), a novel by Poppy Z. Brite, was rejected by publisher after publisher for being too violent and nihilistic until Simon & Schuster, which ironically had passed on the novel American Psycho a few years before, purchased it. The novel features two homosexual serial killers, one based on Dennis Nilsen and the other on Jeffrey Dahmer, whose “signatures” involve cannibalism and necrophilia. They join forces in the French Quarter of New Orleans to find and kill their “perfect” victim, a gay Vietnamese boy named Tran. Susanna Moore’s novel In the Cut (1995), later adapted into a film directed by Jane Campion (2003) and starring Meg Ryan, is the story of a college professor having an affair with a homicide detective when she begins to suspect he may be a serial killer. In many ways the story is a gendered inversion of the more well-known Hollywood movie Basic Instinct (1992), starring Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas, in which a male detective begins an intense sexual relationship with a bisexual female novelist he suspects is a serial killer.

Though Basic Instinct was not without its controversy, mostly over its sexual politics and the infamous leg-crossing scene during the police interrogation of Sharon Stone’s character, none of it matched that which greeted the notorious novel American Psycho (1991), by the so-called “Blank Generation” writer Bret Easton Ellis. Its publication cancelled by its first publisher, American Psycho was picked up by Vintage Books for paperback publication and quickly generated an uproar among feminist organizations for its perceived misogyny. To this day the book may not be sold to minors in countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Ellis received numerous death threats after the book’s publication. The novel’s protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is a Wall Street businessman who may also be a serial killer; the narrative leaves it deliberately ambiguous if Bateman is imagining the graphic murders depicted in the book. Bateman’s rapacious behavior and obsessive consumerism constitutes a scathing indictment of American business greed, a point that was at first obscured by the controversy over the violent scenes but later emphasized to much more favorable critical and audience reception in the book’s film adaptation (2000), directed by Mary Harron and starring Christian Bale as Bateman. A musical adaptation of the novel followed, premiering in London in 2013 and then on Broadway in 2016. The progression of American Psycho from marginalized, “outlaw” novel to fairly-respected movie, to musical is itself illustrative of how “domesticated” or mainstream the serial killer story has become over the past two decades.

Finally, one of the most striking serial killer representations of the 21st century is that of Dexter Morgan, an antihero of both a long-running book and television series who manages the nearly impossible feat of making a murderer many times over sympathetic to audiences. Douglas L. Howard is correct when he states that “We might well consider the series … to be the next evolution of the ‘serial killer genre’” (2010, p. xv). Dexter first appears in fiction in Jeff Lindsay’s novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004). Encapsulating practically every trope and convention of the serial killer genre to date, Lindsay creates a fusion of police procedural and psychological case study by placing Dexter as the first-person narrator in the employ of the Miami-Dade Police Department as a forensic blood-spatter analyst. Dexter is also a sociopathic, relatively emotionless serial killer, prodded into murder by an inner voice he calls the “Dark Passenger.” However, Dexter has been instilled earlier in life with a code of ethics by his foster father and a police detective, Harry. Recognizing that the boy Dexter would grow up to be a serial killer, Harry redirected Dexter’s homicidal compulsion into targeting killers who have otherwise escaped justice. As a forensic analyst, Dexter has the perfect cover to allow him to identify and track murderers, whom he then kills and disposes of neatly, leaving no evidence. In each of the eight Dexter novels so far, Dexter as serial killer confronts ever more brutal serial killers, all the while having to learn how to be more “human” with taking on the responsibilities of family: husband to his wife, father to his child and stepchildren, and brother to his police officer sister, Debra.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter formed the basis for the first season of Showtime’s series Dexter, airing in 2006. Starring Michael C. Hall as Dexter, the series ran for eight seasons, diverging widely from the rest of Lindsay’s novels, until 2013. The television series garnered high ratings for most of its run, numerous awards, and generally positive critical reviews; however, it also drew fire from the Parents Television Council for its violence when the CBS network announced it would broadcast reruns. Additionally, several high-profile real-life murderers were said to have been influenced by the show (a charge of the kind that bedeviled Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers). One of the most notorious is Mark Twitchell, a would-be filmmaker in Canada who was arrested in 2008 for and later convicted of the murder of a man he lured to a garage set up to resemble the type of “kill room” used by Dexter in the series. Crimes such as Twitchell’s are examples of what Loren Coleman calls “the copycat effect” in his book of the same name (2004), wherein a criminal is influenced or inspired, at least in part, by media portrayals of sensational crime to commit new crimes modeled upon the “roadmap” given by the previous representation. In that the relationship between spectacle and spectator has always been a part of the representation of serial murder, the appropriation of the iconography, methodology, and signature of a represented murderer to commit an actual murder is a chilling testament to the power of media to blur the boundaries between life and fiction.

The Power and Appeal of Serial Killer Representation

No small amount of hand-wringing and tongue clucking has been expended upon the question of why violence in media is so irresistible to so many consumers and the creators who cater to them. The representation of serial killing is particularly troublesome to some in this regard, symptomatic (so they say) of a larger cultural coarsening if not outright moral decline and fall. Part of what makes serial murder such an unsettling subject in representation is the violence level, even though represented violence holds great power over audiences. Additionally, the ubiquity of smart phone and other digital camera technology makes recording and dissemination of real-world violence as it happens more accessible to larger audiences than ever. Though originating in reality, it is important to note that recorded real-world violence is still a representation, its ultimate received meaning dependent upon a number of factors, such as the framing of the subject, the context around the subject which may or may not be evident in the image itself, the awareness of being recorded on the part of the human agents within the image, the built-in biases and preconceptions of the viewing audience that color how they process the meaning of what is being viewed, and so forth. What constitutes aesthetically and/or morally acceptable representations of violence is a fraught subject that goes well beyond the bounds of this essay to address. Suffice it to say here, even fare as critically lauded as Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, made by respected Hollywood establishment types for a mainstream audience, found itself under attack from some critical and audience quarters for its stylized depiction, more suggested than explicit, of flayed women (as well as what some decried as its problematic gender politics and demonization of transsexuals).

Then there are the films such as John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which as a low-budget independent film is as far from the slick, polished Hollywood aesthetic of Silence as can be imagined. The film depicts a sequence of truly random murders, one horrifying home-invasion recorded by the killers, the climactic dismemberment murder of the female lead, and a complete lack of any sort of legal or even moral consequences accruing to the killer. Henry’s power to unsettle is profound enough that the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board gave it an “X” rating (commercial death for a feature film) on the grounds of not a few specific scenes but rather its overall “disturbing moral tone.” Steffen Hantke, writing about the effect on an audience of the violence in Henry, argues that the film’s power is not totally accounted for in a narrative that seems as drained of emotional affect as the sociopathic titular character himself, who takes no visible pleasure in his drab routine of murder, or the lack of aesthetic polish of the film itself (though both factors may certainly contribute). Rather, Hantke claims, the film’s deployment of violence breaks all the usual Hollywood rules for depicting it “legitimately.” Henry’s violence is not cathartic, it is clearly motivated by perverse sexuality, and its aftermath if not its commission is depicted in grotesque, lingering detail. This type of gratuitous violence, summarizes Hantke, is disturbing because

It is the absence of discernible purpose, of reasonable proportionality, of expected cause and effect relations, which cuts the representation (in this case the one showing violent imagery) lose [sic] from its reasons for existence, stripping it of functionality and turning it into an end in itself.

(2001, p. 34)

Of course, one’s tolerance for disturbing media depictions of violence is quite subjective, but Hantke’s distinction between legitimate and gratuitous violence is helpful in understanding why some serial killer narratives find mainstream success and others remain marginalized. Some serial killer representations are just too powerful to find more than a limited audience.

However, as numerous authors have pointed out, there is nothing novel about attraction to representations of violence, the more spectacular the more compelling. Eric Dietrich and Tara Fox Hall call out the attraction for what it is: “gruesome horror is vivid and exciting” (2010, p. 93). Noting the long history of audience attraction toward monsters in art, Dietrich and Hall maintain that the serial killer possesses an undeniable allure, both in fiction and real life. In fiction, the storytellers typically go out of their way to represent the killers as darkly charismatic in some way: larger than life in physical power, intelligence or cunning, and psychological influence over others; grander than life in metaphysical evil and depravity. Dietrich and Hall further elaborate that “what is actually alluring is the idea of the serial killer, but only when that idea is contemplated from a certain, specific, safe reference frame that allows both the positive and negative emotions associated with serial killers to be experienced at the same time” (2010, pp. 94–95). The negative emotions aroused by the spectacle of serial killing are evident enough: shock, revulsion, terror. But what could the positive emotions possibly be? For Dietrich and Hall, humans are forever caught between their drive to follow rules for an ordered society and an equally strong inner impulse to shatter those rules to pursue the dictates of the self; serial killers thus represent (vicariously) the ultimate freedom afforded to those who break the ultimate rule: thou shalt not kill. In this sense, then, Dietrich and Hall conclude that “In our usually unacknowledged desire to break free from society’s rules, we not only condone the … serial killer’s actions, we champion them. We have taken real killers and transformed them into sympathetic heroes and put them in our stories” (2010, p. 101). A concurrent explanation for the appeal of serial killer representation involves how the powerful negative emotions elicited by such acts in reality may be safely contained within representational strategies, creating a secure space in which audiences may confront fears in order to work through them in terms of the solutions presented by the media or, lacking solutions, at least express and thereby purge fear. So one explanation for the power serial killer representation holds over the collective imagination is what might be called the voyeuristic/cathartic one: audiences simultaneously take vicarious pleasure and fear, a potent brew indeed, in watching the killers’ shattering of one of the strongest taboos.

How the serial killer breaks this taboo matters in how he or she is represented. Many if not most serial killer representations go to great lengths to depict how uniquely the killer carries out his or her murders. As the profilers and criminalists of popular fiction might say, “What is the killer’s signature?” It’s not so much how the killer kills—the modus operandi—but the particular flourish or personal mark(s) the killer leaves upon the victim in order to meet a specific fantasy-driven compulsion. While real-life killers may or may not leave signatures, in their media representations they almost always do. The more grisly that signature, the better for audience fascination. As “signature” implies, the killer is a type of performance artist. Looking at serial killer representation, Louis Bayman identifies a “recurrent fantasy of the serial killer as tasteful. Frequently, representations offer an image of the serial killer as a figure who is as disproportionately interested in culture as culture already is in it” (2013, p. 145). Creativity and visionary psychopathy both rely on control and expression of the fantasies originating in the imagination, which accounts for the persistent trope of the similarity between the twin compulsions of artistry and serial murder.

Joel Black writes of the similarity, for example, between what he calls the “terrorist-killer” and the film director: both “know how to manipulate the media and how to play on the fantasies and the fears of their mass audience, and they are profoundly aware of the effect their actions will have on their enthralled spectators” (1991, p. 17). For Black, the performatively inclined serial killer is striving for an immediacy of sensation or authenticity lacking in media-saturated modern existence:

In the postindustrial, postmodern society of the late 20th century [and to which we can add the 21st], where violence is routinely sublimated into art and where almost every aspect of reality has been aestheticized by advertising and the mass media, the criminal sociopath may be the individual who desperately tries to see the world as it “really” is, in all its unsublimated, sublime violence.

(1991, p. 25)

However, this quest to find authenticity through violence is doomed to failure, a point made by Bayman when he says that, while serial killer narratives often draw the connection between murder and aestheticism, nevertheless “they also suggest there is something deadening in the indulgence of taste… . combining an extra-rational appetite for sensation with a cultivated, amoral detachment” (2013, p. 159). In fiction, Thomas Harris’s killers—Francis Dolarhyde, Jame Gumb, and Dr. Lecter—are all presented as performance artists in the service of a transcendent authenticity that for them can only be captured, paradoxically, through a public series of murders.

Because killers such as Dr. Lecter loom so large in the theater of our collective imaginations, they tend to be frightening out of all proportion to their actual occurrence. But this disproportionate collective response is illuminating, in that fear of the homicidal stranger-next-door represents real concerns about the alienation and anonymity of modern life: another theory as to the power of serial killer representation. Kate Williams explains its fascination this way:

Today, most of us would be more likely to kill ourselves than be murdered—we die from overeating, drinking, smoking, or lack of exercises. But we do not terrify ourselves with artistic representations of giant cigarettes or bottles of whisky, or demand art that explores the conditions that will destroy us—cancer, obesity, and heart disease… . Instead we relish fear of the stranger—the mysterious murderer, the monster running untamed.

(2012, p. 50)

She claims the audience attraction to the murderous arts is contemporaneous with the modern world’s improvement of living conditions and life expectancies, finding expression in the progression of artistic movements from the terror of the sublime articulated by Edmund Burke in the 18th century, the gothic atmospherics found in the novels of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, the unleashed horror of our own scientific creations in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the terror of the divided human psyche in an anonymous urban environment conducive to criminal acts in Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As this last novel captures so effectively, the anomie made possible by the dehumanization of modern life, in which people are isolated from one another through massive population growth and mobility and even one’s seemingly respectable neighbor may well be hiding dark secrets, is a critical component in the germination of the serial killer as a mass culture villain. The novel’s deployment of gothic imagery and conventions also speaks to the strengths of Picart and Greek’s gothic criminological theory, in that the novel serves as a bridge to the representation of serial killing in the 20th century and how gothic fiction is found embedded within the DNA of that representation.

A final explanation for the lasting imaginative hold of serial killer representation on audiences involves the communal need to re-establish conventional social structures in the face of some great moral or existential crisis. Simply, the serial killer narrative is a response to widespread anxiety and serves as a normalizing agent through the safely contained representation of an otherwise destabilizing social threat. The serial killer’s hideous crimes compel even more fascination than the usual tales of grue because they are so seemingly random, defying the usual narrative conventions that those who suffer great harm somehow brought it upon themselves. This need to explain what appears unexplainable accounts for other common elements found in representations of serial murder: that the killers are quasi-supernatural in their attributes of stealth and concealment, thus constructing simulacra resembling more familiar frames of reference of metaphysical evil found in earlier repeat-killing monsters such as vampires and werewolves; that the killers are the result of bad upbringing; that victims through their lifestyle choices that made them vulnerable to predation somehow deserved what happened to them; and that the killers operate according to patterns that, while undetectable to the common person, may be “read” (and the killer unmasked) by a professional or amateur detective, profiler, or criminalist of superior analytical and intuitive abilities. To uncover and explain something, even if that explanation causes people to face unpleasant truths, is to re-contain chaos.

Any given representation of serial murder encodes within its structure the anxieties of the historical moment, the most unspeakable of which are those that suggest the society itself is inherently corrupt and in need of violent reform. Schechter and Everitt describe it this way:

Certain criminals exert a powerful fascination because they seem to embody the darkest impulses and obsessions of their day—all that is most reprehensible about any given age. As much as any hero or celebrity, they personify the spirit of the time—what the Germans call the zeitgeist.

(1996, p. 335)

By embodying the worst aspects of society, serial killers in their representations often “star” in a kind of cautionary tale or morality play. In this contemporary fable, a serial killer, often imbued with quasi-supernatural powers of animal cunning if not superior intellect, exploits the carelessness of a culturally privileged class of victim, for example, a female college student hitchhiker. The moral lesson here is that the young woman, whose hitchhiking defies conservative restrictions placed upon her liberty by the expectations of her middle- to upper-class society, finds herself victimized by a human predator who de facto carries out the punitive will of the society against which she has transgressed. Alternatively, the serial killer, once more serving as a de facto agent of the status quo by reifying conventional morality through violence, may target individuals of a lower and/or disdained socioeconomic class—criminals, drifters, homosexuals, prostitutes—whose lifestyles incur not only the disapproval of the mainstream but a latently homicidal wrath given expression by the serial killer. In one sense, then, the serial killer is an agent of the state, or what Alzena MacDonald calls its “moral functionary” (2013b, p. 42), best illustrated in the fictional character of Dexter Morgan, who works for the state to do the dirty work it cannot do.

The rise of the slasher film during the late 1970s and 1980s, concurrent with that of the serial killer narrative, is another manifestation of a collective anxiety to reinscribe the rules of conformity during a time of anxiety over the social ills caused by inherited corruption. Examining slasher films such as Halloween and Friday the 13th, Karra Shimabukuro insists quasi-serial killers such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, who have suffered from community sins of the past, are stand-ins for the folkloric bogeyman, whose role is to punish “the children for the sin of the parents, ensuring that a terrible sort of justice was carried out, and while the means may have been horrific, there was a clear understanding of why these children were punished” (2014, p. 50). The same function can be ascribed to serial killers in many of their representations. Take, for instance, Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, who punishes random victims who place themselves at risk in a rootless society and attributes his murderousness to an abusive mother. Even the seemingly motiveless evil of Dr. Lecter turns out, ultimately, to be rooted in the trauma of how his younger sister was killed and cannibalized, which then compels him to recreate the cannibalistic cycle to punish those whom offend him in some way (usually through being rude). From this perspective, then, serial killers are not insane at all, but operate according to the ruthless logic of a corrupt society. Even more frightening, as Jon Stratton puts it: “… there is a new feeling that serial killers are, in the social experience of everyday life, normal people” (1994, p. 19). Thus, in spite of the best melodramatic efforts of generations of various creators to depict serial killers as beyond-the-pale psychopaths or an “ultimate evil,” these individuals instead become manifestations of what Hannah Arendt in another context (the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann) called “the banality of evil.”

In conclusion, the subtext of the serial killing cultural narrative always speaks to the cultural conditions of its place of origin. Scott Bonn, referencing the sociological theory of social constructionism, maintains that the phenomenon of serial murder itself has developed “in particular social contexts… . The social constructionist perspective envisions reality as a dynamic and constantly contested process—that is, reality is reproduced by people acting on their knowledge and their subjective interpretations of it” (2015, p. 156). Given that serial killing is a cultural construct, the serial killer functions both as a repository for all that strikes fear in the communal heart and an agent for suppression of those same fears. The serial killer’s polysemy of meaning allows for practically any reading from any ideological perspective. The serial killer embodies fear of the potential for violence within all, fear of the impact of the past upon the present, and fear of the deadly future.

Review of the Literature and Further Sources

As the preceding illustrates, serial killing has obviously grown exponentially in terms of media representation. A great deal of social, behavioral, and criminal justice research has been conducted into the phenomenon of serial murder itself. Studies of serial killing representation have tended to focus on specific artifacts: movies, novels, television shows. However, major cultural studies of its representation have somewhat lagged behind. Universally, these studies examine serial killing representation as expressionistic of contemporary values, fears, and desires.

One of the earliest major studies of the cultural meaning of serial killing representation is Jane Caputi’s study, The Age of Sex Crime (1987). Published at the height of the 1980s serial killer panic, Caputi’s work addresses one of the most vexing questions facing any scholar of the representation of this crime: is the serial killer genre itself misogynistic even as it spotlights the sexual terrorism endemic to patriarchal culture? Caputi is in the forefront of those critics of the serial killer genre who have pointed out its misogyny in focusing so obsessively on female victims. Caputi writes that “serial sexual murder is not some inexplicable explosion/epidemic of an extrinsic evil or the domain only of the mysterious psychopath. On the contrary, such murder is an eminently logical step in the procession of patriarchal roles, values, needs, and rule of force” (1987, p. 3). This central question—is the serial killer story a critique or an endorsement or both simultaneously of murderous sexual psychopathy—is debated to this day among critics of the genre.

Philip Jenkins’s study, Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide (1994) takes on how serial murder is reflective of social tensions and contested meanings. He defines at length the process by which the mass media constructs or represents serial killing, beginning with the identification or singling out of serial murder as a focal point within the whole range of criminal activity, then framing serial murder depending upon the interpretation and perspective of the framer as a particular type of problem (criminal justice, religious, moral, gender-based, etc.), often linked to a larger social phenomenon, that demands certain solutions. Given that very few people would defend serial killing as a behavior, linking it to another undesirable but more common behavior, such as consuming pornography, has the effect of amplifying the perceived threat of the more common behavior (2005, pp. 5–7), which in turn can be used to justify more repressive laws, social policies, and behavioral restrictions.

Mark Seltzer has contributed two significant book-length studies of serial killer representation. His first, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (1994), was published simultaneously with Jenkins’s. Seltzer identifies a pathological intersection, “wound culture,” between the public and mass-mediated violence. He defines wound culture as “the public fascination with torn and open bodies and opened persons, a public gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound” (1998, p. 1). A key element of wound culture, according to Seltzer, is the fascination with psychology, but a particularly vapid and voyeuristic kind in which the psyche and its secrets are laid bare and then repackaged in repetitious clichés for mass consumption. The serial killer in this wound culture is one of its most extreme manifestations of an otherwise common affliction: a kind of psychological outlaw, whose very being is constructed through compulsive, repetitious killing rooted in past psychosexual trauma and whose killings are then reconstructed and re-represented in countless media platforms. Seltzer’s next study in this context, True Crime: Observations on Violence and Modernity (2007), again examines, among other kinds of true crime, serial killing. Of true-crime representations of serial murder, Mark Seltzer argues that they resonate because modern life, for all of its first-world conveniences, is characterized by its endless stream of encounters with strangers (any one of whom may be hiding a lethal interior life) and the hollow, media-perpetuated, pop-psychology clichés that for most people constitute their only means of expression, but an expression singularly divorced of any authenticity or rich emotion. In such a media-saturated, deceptively intimate but impersonal environment, the serial killer represents or acts out the hollowness, the meaningless mechanical repetition of action, exhibited by the larger culture.

Richard Tithecott’s study, Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer (1997), also takes a social constructivist approach by leveraging media coverage of the Dahmer case to study how journalists and other opinion makers created a media monster and, significantly, what the audience embrace of that monster tells about American culture. According to Tithecott, law enforcement agencies appropriate the language of psychology to redefine monstrosity for the purposes of social control and surveillance. He also argues that “we construct the serial killer in our own image. I suggest that we are both thrilled and horrified by what we see, that we exist in a kind of horror movie which we write and perform for ourselves daily” (1997, p. 9). Tithecott argues that the culture itself has empowered the serial killer to act on its behalf to enforce (brutally) its own values and desires.

Philip L. Simpson approaches the field from a slightly different angle in Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction (2000). Acknowledging the social constructivist approaches of Caputi, Jenkins, Seltzer, and Tithecott, Simpson explores what might be called the mytho-poetic character of serial killing representation. In other words, while serial killers reflect back upon society its desires and phobias, media busily works at turning these criminals into larger-than-life mythic beings who resemble superficially the folkloric monsters of past eras (vampires, werewolves) and become quasi-supernatural or transcendent. Doing so meets some metaphysical yearning in a postmodern era that seems otherwise devoid of meaning or, perversely, too crowded with contradictory meaning: “The literature and legends that have coalesced around uber-criminals answer the human need to personify free-floating fears, aggravated by the perplexing indeterminancy of the postmodern world, into a specific, potentially confinable, yet still ultimately evil, threat” (2000, p. 2).

David Schmid’s Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture (2005) starts with the bold claim that the serial killer is not just a celebrity, but the exemplary celebrity of the contemporary era. Schmid identifies a decline in merit as a necessary prerequisite for fame in today’s media-saturated environment, where media must always be fed new subject matter to create new celebrities. Therefore, notoriety and fame are essentially the same thing. Being seen is good enough, and it is easy enough to be seen with media platforms everywhere. Media opinion makers, who have traditionally been fascinated with crime anyway, now have technologies to transmit images and stories instantaneously, and globally. Therefore, a few isolated events can quickly become a “trend.” Serial murder cases make good copy, as even serial killers themselves usually know: following their exploits in the media, toying with the media, cultivating their image as carefully as any celebrity. Schmid analyzes how serial murder has always had social dimensions and how serial killers and media operate together to construct their own self-serving but congruent ends.

Finally, three other recent studies stand out. Scott Bonn’s Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers (2014) is an ambitious mix of empirical research, including correspondence with Dennis Rader and David Berkowitz, and cultural analysis. Bonn’s stated agenda is to “explain and dissect the complex reality of serial homicide and debunk many of the popular myths that surround serial killers” (2014, p. 6). The last section of the book is of particular interest in that he finds that representation of the serial killer both aggravates and reduces public anxiety: fear of the super-predator on the one hand and reassurance that his/her “evil” stands apart from civilized norms. Serial Killers - Philosophy for Everyone: Being and Killing (2010) is a collection edited by S. Waller divided into seven sections, with each contributor examining the philosophies of various serial killers, the ethics of evil, the public fascination with serial murder, the lack of empathy in serial killers, ontology of serial murder, and psychological aberrations of serial killers from different academic disciplines. The essay collection Murders and Acquisitions: Representations of the Serial Killer in Popular Culture (2013), edited by Alzena MacDonald, gathers under one cover diverse meditations upon serial killing as it serves the state, serial killer pornography, the role of museums in serial killer movies, forensic analysis in television crime dramas, and case studies of Dexter, The Strangers (2008), the Saw movies, and American Psycho.

Further Reading

Bonn, S. (2014). Why we love serial killers: The curious appeal of the world’s most savage murderers. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.Find this resource:

Caputi, J. (1987). The age of sex crime. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.Find this resource:

Cettl, R. (2003). Serial killer cinema: An analytical filmography with an introduction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.Find this resource:

Jenkins, P. (1994, 2009). Using murder: The social construction of serial homicide. New Brunswick, NJ: AldineTransaction.Find this resource:

MacDonald, A. (Ed.). (2013). Murders and acquisitions: Representations of the serial killer in popular culture. New York: Bloomsbury.Find this resource:

Picart, J. P., & Greek, C. (2003). The compulsion of real/reel serial killers and vampires: Toward a gothic criminology. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 10(1), 39–68.Find this resource:

Ramsland, K. (2005). The human predator: A historical chronicle of serial murder and forensic investigation. New York: Berkley Books.Find this resource:

Schmid, D. (2005). Natural born celebrities: Serial killers in American culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Seltzer, M. (1998). Serial killers: Death and life in America’s wound culture. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Seltzer, M. (2007). True crime: Observations on violence and modernity. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Simpson, P. L. (2000). Psycho paths: Tracking the serial killer through contemporary American film and fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.Find this resource:

Simpson, P. L. (2010). Making murder: The fiction of Thomas Harris. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.Find this resource:

Tithecott, R. (1997). Of men and monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the construction of the serial killer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Find this resource:

Vronsky, P. (2004). Serial killers: The method and madness of monsters. New York: Berkley Books.Find this resource:

Waller, S. (Ed.). (2010). Serial killers philosophy for everyone: Being and killing. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

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Bonn, S. (2014). Why we love serial killers: The curious appeal of the world’s most savage murderers. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.Find this resource:

Caputi, J. (1987). The age of sex crime. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.Find this resource:

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