Murder, She Theorized

Serial killers have become the cultural anti-heroes of the age. Scott McLemee considers a new book that traces the back story of a morbid trend.

May 15, 2013

Around 50 serial killers are active in the United States at any given time, according to the retired Federal Bureau of Investigation agent John Douglas, who wrote some of the standard monographs on violent crime, as well as any number of true-crime paperbacks. The figure sounds remarkably low, given serial killers’ ubiquitous and nearly mythological status in the American imagination over the past couple of decades. As a movie reviewer once pointed out, they must be the most overrepresented demographic in contemporary popular culture.

You could probably find 50 of them right this minute, just by turning on the TV. The fictionalized serial killer is now a stereotype, albeit one constructed mainly of idiosyncrasies. He practices bizarre private rituals full of psychosexual significance (murder itself being one of the rituals) and is known to the public by a pseudonym, as was his symbolic ancestor Jack the Ripper. His motives are oblique at best. On the one hand, he is in the grip of obsessions and compulsions; on the other, the killings often embody a degree of creativity, however mis-channeled or diseased. He is a kind of deranged artist or malignant demigod, turning inner chaos into violent order.

In real life, of course, there have been plenty of sloppy, impulsive, and totally unimaginative serial killers, but they, evidently, are not nearly so entertaining. When one shows up on screen at all, it is likely to be in a rural setting, where generations of inbreeding has erased all impulse control, with the victims ending up barbecued, or their skin and bones turned into clothing and household decoration.

In either version, we have an almost archetypal symbol of evil, more or less plausibly rendered in human form, with no supernatural explanation necessary or implied. At the same time, we should be wary of interpreting as too deeply meaningful the prevalence of a stock character who, most of the time, exists simply as a convenient device for setting the detective in motion -- or giving the horror-movie viewers someone to dread, perhaps while rooting for him at the same time.

Every so often, the archetype short-circuits and the plot device goes haywire, and you get something like “The Following,” a recent series on the Fox network. In it, Kevin Bacon plays a retired FBI agent whose mission is to fight a cult of aspiring serial killers led by a literature professor who is obsessed with gothic romanticism, or possibly it’s romantic Gothicism. The professor is “brilliant and charismatic, but psychotic,” as the Internet Movie Data Base helpfully explains, which in this context means he has a British accent. He sends his minions out to perform sundry Edgar Allan Poe-inspired atrocities. He also does some serial killing himself, as his schedule permits.

I see that the IMDB page for “The Following” states that there are now 300 serial killers active according to the FBI. Either the bureau was overlooking five-sixths of them until recently or the professor is a very good teacher.

An interpreter of compulsive homicide rather than instructor in it, Lisa Downing treats the contemporary fascination with serial killing as one element of a complex process of marking and policing social norms of sexuality and identity. The biographical note on the cover of The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer (University of Chicago Press) indicates that Downing is a professor of French discourses of sexuality at the University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom.

From that description, the profiler will surmise that Downing keeps theoretical company with Michel Foucault, and indeed, his conceptual fingerprints are all over the book. In her title, the word subject does not mean topic (per ordinary usage) or even the general philosophical sense of subjectivity as consciousness and agency. Rather, it has Foucault’s particular nuance of being “subject[ed] to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge.” In this sense, the “subject of murder” refers not (just) to the individual committing the act, but to all the institutions and interpretive frameworks that come together in identifying and defining the murder: law, psychiatry, penology, and ideas about male and female behavior with regard to sex and violence.

Downing’s first section consists of three chapters on cases from the 19th century, beginning with that of Pierre-François Lacenaire, a poet, criminal, and boulevardier executed for murder in 1836, and continuing with Marie Lafarge, a Frenchwoman convicted of ending an unhappy marriage in 1840 by feeding her husband rat poison. The third chapter, leaping across both decades and the Channel, takes up the case of Jack the Ripper – hardly the first instance of what the sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing would label Lustmörd (“lust murder”), but the one that would prove iconic. Each became a national and even international sensation, thanks in part to the writings of the killers, but also because other authors were inspired to comment on their cases.

The three main chapters in the second section, covering the 20th century, involve figures now routinely classified as serial killers (a category also retroactively applicable to the Ripper). The most notorious of them is Myra Hindley – at the time of her death a few years ago still one of the most hated women in England – who helped Ian Brady rape and murder a number of children and buried their bodies on the moors outside Manchester. The story of Dennis Nilsen, the British necrophile and serial killer, resembles that of Jeffrey Dahmer, although Nilsen was more prolific.

Downing’s treatment of Aileen Wuornos, a homeless prostitute who shot several clients, challenges the idea that she was a serial killer, given that the murders can be understood as revenge for the violence she endured from men, rather than as the work of a psychopath. A final chapter considers children who kill, and includes perhaps the most sinister photograph in the book: a surveillance camera image from a shopping mall showing two boys, about 10 years old, leading away a toddler who they then beat to death with rocks.

What we have here, to put it one way, is a variety of homicidal acts with very little in common, with few parallels even among the murders themselves, apart from a degree of celebrity (Lacenaire and Lafarge had their defenders) or public outrage. At another level, however, each murderous career is defined not just by the means and motives for killing, but by a surrounding matrix of attitudes about self-control and gender difference.

The whole “serial killer as artist” mythology that I mentioned at the start of this column is a case in point – a late flowering of the idea emerging in the 1830s: “Lacenaire wished his poetry, his crimes, and his own highly stylized self to be received by the world as the avid Romantic critic receives the artwork: appreciated or subject to disapproval only as beautiful objects, according to purely aesthetic criteria.”

Brady, the Moors murderer, rationalized his behavior in similar terms, fortified with passages from the Marquis de Sade and Nietzsche. Medical and criminological speculation over the decades made room for this sort of “subject of murder” by treating the behavior as the product of some kind of excess – an overcharged libido, perhaps, or a grandiose ego. But no such interpretation was ever offered for Hindley’s participation in the murders. I’m not sure how you would quantify visceral loathing, but as much of it as Brady inspired, Hindley provoked more of it.

“Female murderers are special,” according to Downing, “because they are seen to lack something that is perceived as essential to femininity….” A default or normative definition of the human equates it with the male (don’t blame the feminists for this interpretation, angry readers, but direct your ire to Aristotle). Hence “femaleness equates to something other to, and less than, maleness, but with culturally ascribed saving virtues such as a capacity for nurturing and an affinity with an ethics of care.”

Hindley not only used children's trust in her to lure them to her death, but showed no remorse during the trial; while Brady's crimes and demeanor were cold, hers were taken to be even more inhuman. Doubly so, in fact. But identifying and purging the monstrous, however strong the drive to do so may be, never brings the story to an end. There’s always another monster being born, or sitting in the audience.

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Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

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