Serial Killers: A Hackneyed Hollywood Trope

Serial Killers: A Hackneyed Hollywood Trope

The serial killer media has become an essential component of media consumerism with the changing nature of fame over the years

The serial killer is a hyper-normal human being with an extraordinary quality to camouflage himself and bypass as an “everyman” figure—that does quotidian activities as an ordinary human being while hiding his evil desires and uncanny dark secrets. He is an excellent observer and a great studier of everyday life, a master of habitual reflex with command over spaces and an unusual ability to disappear in thin air. The crime writer Amanda Howard theorises serial killers set to believe in having relative impunity to carry out their hostile urges. According to Waller and Deal in Serial Killers - Philosophy for Everyone: Being and Killing, history shows that people in power to fulfil their fantasies have no moral motivation to act good or avoid evil; they do it because they believe they can. 

Serial killers as a literary genre emerged after the onslaught of the second world war as an indirect result of the gruesome violence, torture and two major destructive war episodes the world witnessed in the twentieth century, relatively within a short period of human history. The new novelists’ writers presented a more violent and intimate graphic representation of violence and murders. The murder trope shifted from an act of a single killing to multiple murders at a different location over time, vis-a-vis the advent of mass media technology and an increase in media coverage of factual cases leading to a growing milieu of interest and strange fascination in American culture.  

Serial Killers: A Hackneyed Hollywood Trope
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Serial killers are different from spree killers or mass murderers. They are calculative, detail-oriented, and a perfect example of the panopticon model. According to the revised typology of murder in the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual (2006), “two or more separate events in two or more separate locations with an emotional cooling-off period between homicides” can be classified as serial killers. The cooling-off period can last for days, weeks, months or years and is the main feature distinguishing serial killers from other killers. But, this typology doesn’t account for the psychological profile and motivation behind the killing. Therefore, another typology by criminology scholars Ronald Holmes and James DeBurger breaks serial killers into four categories—visionary, mission-oriented, hedonistic, and power/control-oriented. 

  • Visionary type: These are driven by psychotic hallucinations and removed from reality.

  • Mission-oriented type: self-imposed duty to eliminate people he thinks are unworthy.

  • Hedonistic type: These psychopathic killers get sexual stimulation with the thrill of killing and enjoy the process. 

  • Power/control-oriented type: These are psychopathic or sociopathic killers with character disorder who lives on their own set of codes and receives gratification with the sense of having complete control over the lives of their victims.  

Films such as Peeping TomThe Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac bring out these distinctions clearly:

Serial Killers: A Hackneyed Hollywood Trope
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The film Peeping Tom revolves around its protagonist Mark. This lonely psychopathic serial killer works as a focus puller on the film set in the daytime and hunts down his potential victims at night. In the “serial killers” genre, this film rightly encapsulates the prescient voyeurism of contemporary times. Mark is shy, quiet, and mild-mannered. He carries his voyeuristic gaze (camera) everywhere along with him, and so does the audience, with his camera’s POV. His sadistic obsession is visible in filming the fears on the faces of his victims just before death. This points to a larger question of psychopathic serial killers’ behaviours, true intentions and awareness of the morally good/bad.

The philosopher Manuel Vargas in Are Psychopathic Serial Killers Evil? Are they Balmeworthy for What They Do? explains how psychopaths fail to distinguish between “conventional” and “moral rules”. She points out; that psychopaths are incapable of experiencing emotions and reacting to depictions of “harm” as ordinary people do to regulate their moral lives. In conclusion, they cannot recognise the moral significance of their work. Likewise, in the film, “a psychopathic serial killer finds dissecting a living person fascinating, fails to see any objections to doing so beyond the risk of getting caught, and proceeds with the business of torturing and killing people.” Mark’s personality and psychopathic behaviour stem from years of morbid torture and bizarre experiments by his revered scientist father to observe the nervous system’s reaction to fear. For Mark, killing people to record the expression of fear and terror as he approaches closer towards them with a spike on his tripod becomes liberating and, to some extent, fuels his personal, experimental artistic self-expression.  

Serial Killers: A Hackneyed Hollywood Trope
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The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme, has “skin” as symbolic of escapism, which gives its wearer a specific motive and aids in hiding his true personality. It presents serial killers’ fascination with the naked body, especially of women, in the form of its antagonist, “Buffalo Bill”. Bill has a peculiar obsession with oversized women’s bodies and disdain for his own body and sexuality. Hannibal Lecter is another psychopathic killer central to the film. He says, “Bill isn’t a transexual; he tries to be one”. He hates his identity, kills women, and skins them to escape his reality, which in a certain sense, arises from years of systematic abuse. Therefore, the motif of the omnipresent moth in the film suggests Bill’s transformation and change through silencing his victims. The body and skin become very important in serial killer films; serial killers are their ultimate embodiment. Lecter escapes from prison by wearing the guard’s facial skin and disguises himself as the guard. The film depicts Lecter as a mission-oriented serial killer who wants to get society rid of people considered unworthy and unfit. Thus, he aids in finding serial killers not because they are violent but because they suffer from thinking disorders associated with the ‘defective’ sequencing of human experiences. 

Zodiac, directed by Davin Fincher and based on a true-crime script inspired by Robert Graysmith’s nonfiction investigations of the case, Zodiac: The Full Story of the Infamous Unsolved Zodiac Murders in California (1986) and Zodiac Unmasked: The Identity of America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer (2002). The notorious serial killer identified himself by his zodiacal sign and cryptic messages mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and Vallejo Times-Herald. His hysterical crimes ruffled the San Francisco Bay Area of northern California. They began before the first letter he sent on August 1, 1969—eight months after the actual killing of the couple. The film focuses on the unidentified hedonistic killer, who hands out the reason for his homicidal adventure in his first cypher “Man is the most dangerous animal of all and killing them is a thrilling experience.” The mass media’s abundance of coverage, the failing relationships between Detective Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and cartoonist Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall) with their families, and a downward spiral of substance abuse by crime reporter Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), once the letters stop arriving after 1974; demonstrate America’s fascination with the “wound culture” and its role in the mythification of serial killers.  

Serial Killers: A Hackneyed Hollywood Trope
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Fame and Celebrity Status: Role of Mass Media and Wound Culture

The existence of sites such as gives undue rise to the murderabilia industry and to the fame and celebrity status of serial killers in the most egregious form. As David Schmid in Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture points out, “the most explicit rejection and condemnation of serial killer celebrity find itself implicated in (and perhaps even unwittingly encouraging the growth of) that celebrity.” It leads to a larger debate around the people who condemn and unconsciously participate in that same culture; and people’s fascination with serial killers. 

Serial killers, in some sense, represent us and work on their transgressive impulses, which most of us desire but cannot exhibit in a politically correct-driven society. They show our repressed impulses and the outrageous things we want to do or the affective measure of pure access, such as porn, violence, or sex. Therefore, the thirst gets satiated partly through serial killers and serial killer media in the aftermath of the killing.  

The serial killer media has become an essential component of media consumerism with the changing nature of fame over the years, from public acts to consumption lifestyles. People’s fascination with torn and open bodies, shock and trauma, and its dramatic representation via sensationalised coverage enhances and stimulates serial killers’ ability to do the cultural work supposedly required of them in a would culture-driven society. 

Serial Killers: A Hackneyed Hollywood Trope
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The award-winning spree the film The Silence of the Lambs had at the 1992 Academy Awards conforms to the notion of repulsion and fascination that unanimously goes with fame culture. “The star-studded evening had the film’s pivotal character, Anthony Hopkins, treated as the guest of honour, with an endless stream of flesh-eating jokes thrown in his direction throughout the evening.” The popularity and the cult of the fictitious character Hannibal Lecter also led to the production of its sequel and prequel, Hannibal and Red Dragon, respectively. 

The Psychoanalytic analysis done so far shows serial killers’ obsessive relationship with their mothers. In the 1960s, in the United States, the divorce rate increased significantly because of progressive politics and a reduction in the education gap; women sought independence. It resulted in a generation of children who grew up without a father and a general absence of their mother. In Peeping Tom, Mark seduces women, and when they get frightened, he kills them. A different angle to the film suggests Mark’s inherent patriarchal nature. He is a shy, timid, soft-spoken man; he represses his inner demons only to burst out as full-fledged violence against women that moral society prohibits and considers unworthy of living with decent people. He kills a prostitute, one of her colleagues and a crew member on a film set with dreams of becoming an actress and a nude model. The only person he doesn’t kill is Helen, a middle-class American with moral values and ways of living that fit the generalised idea of societal norms. Furthermore, the tripod he uses to kill has a spike that symbolically represents the “phallus” and the patriarchal dominance he upholds as a self-righteous figure in society with the task of getting rid of morally and ethically corrupt people. But what gives rise to the myth of serial killers?

The infamous incident in the mid-1970s, when the “BTK Strangler” wrote to a local newspaper: “How many times do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national attention” and Zodiac chilling warning to print his cypher on the first page of San Fransisco Chronicle, lest he will go on a killing spree, reflects the self-awareness to fame and desire for celebrity status; when captured will give media trials and opportunity to become famous. Therefore, the serial killer myth doesn’t conjure up its own but is a calculative plan set up by media, government, law enforcement officials, and reform groups to create a “serial killer panic”. Statistics show that during the 1970s-1980s, the newspapers and television news lowered their editorial standards to compete with tabloid media, which led to subjective and dramatic representations of crimes to garner TRPs and audience attention. Also, there was a shift from reporting other violent crimes, which constituted a significant part of overall crimes in the United States, to murder crimes.

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