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“The demons wanted my penis.” (Son of Sam/David Berkowitz) The excessive transgression of serial killers and the culture industry’s continuing fascination with them.
Transcript of “The demons wanted my penis.” (Son of Sam/David Berkowitz) The excessive transgression of serial killers and the culture industry’s continuing fascination with them.
Serial murder: a case for evil?
The Trouble with Evil
(1997) Edwin Lemert suggests that there is no 'prototypical evil'
Instead evil is a fluid concept that emerges from within shifting cultural contexts
Nonetheless, it is a universal concept
The excessive transgression of serial killers and the culture industry’s continuing fascination with them.
Son of Sam
(Richard David Falco, 1953-)
1976. Three Shootings
1977. Two Shootings
Six killed, seven shootings
In popular culture:
'Son of Sam' - Chain Gang. 1977
'Psycho Killer' - Talking Heads. 1977
'Son of Sam' - The Dead Boys. 1978
[...] 'Son of Sam' - Shinedown. 2008
Son of Sam (feat. members of Danzig, AFI, Samhain)
Out of the Darkness (1985)
Son of Sam (1999)
Summer of Sam (1999)
Son of Sam (2008)
George Carpozi (1977)
Son of Sam: The .44-Caliber Killer
Jimmy Breslin & Dick Schaap (1978)
Son of Sam
Maury Terry (1987) The Ultimate Evil
What is a serial killer?
"Serial Murder: The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events." Available from: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder/serial-murder-1#two
In its discussion of the issues in agreeing on a definition the FBI notes a lack of consensus amongst academics.
This is corroborated by Hinch and Hepburn (2008).
They describe the narrowness of the stereotype of a male killer with powerless victims who were unknown to him
The stereotype and academic studies tend to be mutually reinforcing
"The stereotype of a sexually sadistic killer has been in no small measure perpetuated by the typologies used to describe the typical serial killer. Typologies are attempts to describe the patterns by which serial killers go about their business. While they may be used to categorize individual killers, they are usually directed toward the more general task of understanding overall killing patterns among serialists. These efforts to organize and classify serial murder have some major flaws." (Hinch & Hepburn 1998)
For instance, they point to the stereotype that serial killers are male and suggest that female serial killers have been ignored by some feminist scholars (eg. Jane Caputi, Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer) in order to provide an explanatory framework that blames patriarchy.
Hirsch and Hepburn simultaneously point to the value of feminist research for examining how structural explanations help the study of serial killing to develop beyond pathological explanations.
This lecture will focus on structural analyses of serial killing and the social contexts in which it occurs.
So, whose penis did the demons want?
'Son of Sam' is a culturally embedded text as much as a serial killer
Serial killers are an object of fascination that pass into the flow of commodified images through which modern culture is consumed
Further, Chris Jenks suggests that serial killers offer us a reflection of the ambivalence of postmodernity
On the one hand: unlimited libido
On the other: mundanity and repetition
The source of the serial killer’s appeal to the postmodern consciousness lies rather in its modesty and unpredictability, it is the argument that comes from nowhere and devastates the truth. There is also the calculating but ultimately sly, serial disobedience. But perhaps most of all the appeal lies in the repeated manifestation of a chronically unstable personality. The merely mad are commonplace in the postmodern condition. Our modern psycho-killer paints his unconscious on reality without the intervention of interpretation or interaction. (Jenks 2003, 181-2)
(2014) elements of this perspective are integrated into the show's discourse.
The cops' and their quarry's madness is different only by a matter of degree and repetition is a key theme
In the following example it is argued that the extrinsic structural factor is the aggravated culture of violence and war economy that breeds the 'evil' of the serial killer
The Night Stalker
Ricardo Leyva "Richard" Muñoz Ramírez (1960 – 2013)
Many treatments of his case identify a Satanic element to his crimes
His crimes are framed within a discourse of 'evil'
This was clearly a feature of Ramirez's rhetoric:
(2002) draws attention to the social dimension of the Night Stalker's crimes.
Hamamoto points to the disproportionate number of Asian-Americans targetted by Ramirez
Hamamoto attributes the proliferation of serial killers and mass murderers in US society to the Cold War political environment and US state belligerence.
"That the homicide rate in the US continued to climb each year of the Vietnam War serves as compelling proof that the militarist imperatives of the imperial state have given rise to blowback in the form of violent crime throughout civilian society. At the outer extremes of homicidal behavior inspired by routine violence inflicted by the military, growing numbers of serial killers and mass murderers are now contributing to the body count tallied by the empire of death." (Hamamoto 2002, 119)
Of Men and Monsters
(1997)Richard Tithecott argues that serial killers most profound affront to the collective conscience is in their abandonment of reason, of modernity's humanist project:
The grandest transgression of all is perhaps that which makes us forget what it was that was transgressed [...] the meaning of the serial killer's acts come from their repetition, not their place in a narrative. Sometimes we attempt to regain control of the figure, to reassure ourselves, by placing it as the conclusion to a story of evil or of child abuse. But mostly this representation seems to disrupt itself [...] and then we see him simply doing what he wants to do with no reference to time or place, no reference to the structures of meaning to which we are accustomed to evaluate ourselves, no regard for the principles upon which we believe our language and our lives are founded.
(Tithecott 1997, 173)
Schmid makes a similar point but is more concerned with the revulsion/attraction axis:
The serial killer both outrages and thrills us by his seeming ability to stand outside the law, to make his own law, in a gesture whose ambivalent destructiveness and creativity mirror our ambivalent response to the killer, composed of both fear and attraction
(Schmid 2005, 24)
The mediated male serial killer is a complex figure who fascinates.
His is an evil that transcends categories, Simpson suggests that, "
[B]oundary dissolving is what the serial killer narrative does best
" (Simpson 2000, 155)
The impeccable manners and cultural capital of, say, Hannibal Lecter lead us to admire his amoral, nihilistic intelligence.
The boundaries Simpson describes are what contain the topology of the human: the serial killer crosses from human to inhuman with ease.
It serves as a delimiting device that signifies the boundary beyond which anti-social acts have no rational explanation
Thus it represents that breakdown in social meaning ascribed by Philip Simpson to serial killers
The frameworks of supportive meaning that legitimate mass murder (war), and sexual dominance (patriarchy) are undermined by the dissolution of meaning performed by the serial killer.
Senseless killings challenge the 'sense' behind other forms of killing
The ascription of a violent perversity conceals the depravity of our sexualised culture
The evil of the serial killer is to turn the social against itself
Branson, A.L. (2013) African American Serial Killers: Over-Represented Yet Underacknowledged,
The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice
, 52(1), 1-18
Fox, J.A & Levin, J. (1998)
Multiple Homicide: Patterns of Serial and Mass Murder, Crime and Justice
, 23, 407-455
Hamamoto, D.Y. (2002) Empire of Death: Militarized Society and the Rise of Serial Killing and Mass Murder,
New Political Science
, 24(1), 105-120
Hinch, R. & Hepburn, C. (1998) Researching Serial Murder: Methodologial and Definitional Problems,
Electronic Journal of Sociology
. Retrieved from: http://www.sociology.org/content/vol003.002/hinch.html
Jenks, C. (2003)
Philip L. Simpson (2000)
Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction.
Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press
Tithecott, R. (1997)
Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer.
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press
In our context, then, the serial killer's evil is again a question of agency. In their case, a refusal of a shared 'modern' and rational humanity.
Watch the following TV show (Hannibal (2013)) and apply concepts from today's lecture to your reading of it.
Prefiguring Hamamoto, Jenks refers us to Seltzer's suggestion that serial killing is a symptom of US 'wound culture' and a cultural fascination with broken and damaged bodies.