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Crime and Culture: Week 8, Lecture 1

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Mark Wood

on 30 April 2018

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Transcript of Crime and Culture: Week 8, Lecture 1


This week, we focus on the cultural fascination
with the serial killer and the lionisation of extreme
violence. We consider how the serial killer is represented
as a brilliant, fascinating, and yet monstrous figure.

How do we represent the serial killer? What are the dominant paradigms are used in cultural representations of the serial killer?

We will consider the dominant motifs in the
contemporary serial killer film including the failures of
the criminal justice system, the figure of the genius-murderer, and the role of clinical psychiatry.

Two main examples:
True Detective (season one)

definition but generally hinges on:

Two or more victims in separate events

Ritual to the killings

Same offender(s)

Involves a period of ‘emotional cooling-off’

Appearance of normality between killings

(See Schmid 2005)
Is it the idea of the monster – the aberration that we cannot fully explain – that lies at the heart of our fascination with the serial killer?

Modern depictions (and understandings) of the serial killer combine the notion of the criminal as the ‘artist,’ that is the genius-murderer, with that of the criminal as mentally ill and requiring psychiatric scrutiny.

From the 19th century, the criminal came to be understood as a combination of a
moral monster
and a
subject of abnormality
(Foucault 2003).

Through the media and the discourse of criminology, we construct the serial killer as a monstrous figure that leads his or her life beyond the discourses of good and evil (Downing 2013).

Numerous serial killer films have drawn on real-life killers such as Wolf Creek (Ivan Milat), Psycho
(Ed Gein), Gacy (John Wayne Gacy), Ted Bundy (Ted Bundy) and Monster (Aileen Wuornos).

‘The serial killer is a social aberrant, yet also a cultural construct. It is a figure of popular myth, with the actions of a notorious few creating the source for the manufacturing of a line of simulacra, imagined identical copies for which no original exists. […]
The very serial nature of the killer, the ritualistic behavior in a sequence of murders identified by numbered victims, establishes a classification and compartmentalization of the crime.
Media interest and consumer appetite are perhaps sustained by the knowledge of a sequence’
(Conrich 2012, 160).

“The serial killer figure, like all archetypes of Otherness in horror, is a
malleable manifestation of social anxieties
… Popular culture thrives on explanation as a way of abating fears of violence and fears of Otherness…
In serial killer films, we know that the monster we are watching is supposed to look normal—we recognize this as one of the things which scares us

(Donnelly 2012, 21).
Cultural products derived from serial killing and serial killers have become a thriving enterprise in the United States where
attracts eager customers (Jarvis 2007).

Although it might be tempting to dismiss the phenomenon as the sick hobby of a deviant minority, murderabilia could be viewed as an extension of the mainstream
with the serial killer.

Serial killers captivate our imaginations and they have become part of our consumerist landscape.

PSYCHO (1960)
The film defied numerous conventions of cinema.

The perpetrator is described as an abnormal individual who suffers from a sick mind.

The psychiatrist is the oracle of answers.

Norman is portrayed as being distressed by a psychosexual obsession with his mother.

Psychoanalysis was a thriving practice in 1960s America, especially among the middle to upper middle class.

SEVEN (1995)
Seven depicts a serial killer who combines banality and omnipotence. The police are powerless, outplayed by a masterful killer.

The film evolves in binary oppositional terms and depicts a transition between two eras/modes of policing (recall Barthes codes of narrative analysis).

Seven offers multiple images of
throughout the film: bodies, cities, and morality.

See Allen 2010 for an analysis of justice in Seven.

TRUE DETECTIVE (2014-2015)
True Detective is a show about the hunt for a serial killer but the criminal is in the background while the focus is on the psyche of the detective.

The narrative is about something larger than the hunt itself: the purpose and meaning of life.

This spiritual journey that Rust Cohle experiences during the process of policing is more important than the serial killer. Note that the journey and the quest are mirrored in the Deep South setting.

'Cohle and Hart's preserve is not the familiar city of crime fiction ... but a strange
- a world that bites back (Thacker, 2015: 4). Distinguishing the series further still, Cohle's Lovecraftian nihilism and pessimistic view of humanity as a "tragic misstep in evolution" presents a fundamental contradiction to the aim of liberal order and renders the act of detection a patently futile endeavor' - Linnemann (2017: 9).

Serial killing and the
lionisation of violence 2
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Monster (2oo3)

Conrich, I 2012. Mass media/mass murder: serial killer
cinema and the modern violated body. In Mason P (ed.)
Criminal Visions: Media Representations of Crime and Justice
. pp.156-71.

Donnelly, AM 2012. The new American hero: Dexter, serial killer
for the masses.
The Journal of popular culture
, 45(1): 15-26.

Downing, L 2013.
The subject of murder: Gender,
exceptionality, and the modern killer.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M 2003. Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de
France, 1974–1975. New York: Picador.

Jarvis, B. (2007). Monsters Inc.: Serial killers and consumer
Crime, media, culture
3(3): 326-344.

Linnemann, T 2017, ‘Bad cops and true detectives: The horror
of police and the unthinkable world’,
Theoretical Criminology
, DOI: 10.1177/1362480617737761

Schmid, D 2006.
Natural born celebrities: Serial killers in
American culture
. University of Chicago Press.

Thacker, E 2015.
Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of
Philosophy Vol.3
. Alresford: Zero Publishing.
Full transcript