Everything has the potential to be appropriated for the proliferation of domination. This is not so much because the dominating system is that powerful, but because power is baked in. Making it easy to be annexed for various narratives. As Foucault writes, “Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.” Or to put it bluntly – in a world where we’re ripping children from their mother’s arms – the cruelty is the point.
In the genre of the serial killer, cruelty is not only the point it’s also a reference point for the values that dominate our daily lives. Serial killer content reinforces the system through a set of actions that play into a handful of recognizable narratives. The system fabricated the serial killer. Ultimately, these actions and narratives in mass entertainment signal to the audience what it takes to be a successful, powerful, and dominant individual in the system.
It might seem super fucked up to accuse the mass media’s portrait of a serial killer of representing a checklist for life success. “You’re reading too much into it” I can hear someone mutter over my shoulder at a dinner party. Yet, entertainment is not neutral nor innocent. What we take influences how we perceive the world. It’s difficult to fall for propaganda when we’re actively aware of its existence. Power succeeds partially because it is so well hidden.
We are dealing with the mythology of the serial killer; both fiction, and fictionalized real-life accounts. Mythologies are superb disguises. For starters, our society has a narrow definition of what constitutes a mythology; it relegates mythology to history. Secondly, mythologies are effective because they conceal themselves as natural. Real-life serial killers are, including their motives, not one in the same with how society fashions conceptions of the serial killer. The fiction builds off the reality, fleshing it out, empowering it, and many times altering it.
So, what is being communicated (signaled?) by the mythology of the serial killer?
First, the benevolence of public institutions and figures of authority are upheld in serial killer narratives. The authorities are always in pursuit of the killers. Regardless of whether the antagonist is caught or not, the heroes are always the police, FBI, etc. The heroic mythology of those in power is upheld. In some cases, the narrative of the heroic cop/detective hell-bent on bringing the killer to justice acts as a coverup of the uncomfortable reality. Ted Bundy impersonated police officers to lure his victims, as Ashley Alese Edwards outlines in Refinery29:
“The way in which Bundy found his victims is somewhat of a footnote in the series and movie because it’s a very inconvenient truth: He did not lure women with his wit, but rather tricked them by pretending to have a broken arm or pretending to be law enforcement. He snuck up behind them at night, when there was no one around. He crept into their rooms under the cover of darkness while they were fast asleep, at their most vulnerable.”
The comforting heroism of the detectives rushing in to stop the atrocities of an evil man is addictive. In those moments, we are reminded, not of the senseless violence and deaths at the hands of the police, but of that warm feeling we get every time the cops stop a killer. We want to be reminded that the police are here to protect us “little guys” from the “big bad wolves.” It is in these moments that the loyal enforcer of a suffocating system is mythologized into the “keeper of the peace” and “protector of the weak.”
As Joseph Grixti, writes in “Consuming Cannibals: Psychopathic Killers as Archetypes and Cultural Icons,” serial killers function as continual reminders to be constantly vigilant, and the “ultimate rightness of law-enforcement structures.” Vigilance plays into our irrational fears. It justifies surveillance, and the copious amounts of security features we are sold on a daily basis.
The mythology of the serial killer helps in propping up the securities industry. A few frightening stories and you end up buying a security system, despite living in a safe neighborhood, a secure apartment complex, an upper class white neighborhood, or whatever it may be. The serial killer narrative is not solely responsible for this. But, in a society where horror is commercialized, and where information glut necessitates the spread of grotesque atrocities, it is no surprise that fear is so addictive (even in the most idyllic of communities).
Secondly, serial killer narratives play into stereotypes and assumptions of different groups, specifically rigid gender roles and behavior. Women are the overarching victim in serial killer stories. Jane Caputi, in her book “The Age of the Sex Crime” argues that serial killer films usually include the following elements: reference to the established sex crime tradition, the killer corresponds with the police/media, psychological or physical abuse at the hands of the mother is usually to blame for the killer’s actions, the killer expresses love and/or assistance for his victims, female victims are responsible for their demise, and the killer is punishing women for their sexuality and/or disrespect toward men. This constant connection between females, violence, and victimization communicates a handful of social values.
First, the predominance of female victims implies both the weakness of women, and their dominated nature. Here, both implications communicate patriarchal perceptions that pervade the female body. Women are perceived as weak. Their weakness demands (and justifies) male dominance. The serial killer narrative illuminates this patriarchal dominance of women while reinforcing it to unsuspecting eyes. Serial killers target women because the killer perceives women as weaker, and women, thanks to social standards and upbringing, are easier targets (a stereotype strengthened by serial killer stories).
The consecutiveness of the serial killer, how he consumes one victim after another (a thought we will discuss in greater detail later), adds to the perception of the female body as an object to be consumed by men one after another. The objectification of women. The serial killer narrative pulls from this patriarchal conception of the female body, illuminating or reinforcing the narrative depending on the viewer.
This patriarchal foundation also naturalizes the male serial killer; who’s behavior is seen as in-step with stereotypical male behavior. Although a serial killer’s behavior is outside social norms it still plays to preconceived notions of male violence and domination. In “Crime and the Gothic: Sexualizing Serial Killers,” Caroline Joan (Kay) S. Picart outlines how this accepted reality leads society to laud the serial killer:
“…men who violate social norms/laws are seen merely as untamed or uncontrolled men. Male serial killers may be detested as aberrant, but the audience often ambivalently views the male serial killers’ skills of tracking, trapping, and physically overcoming their prey as skills that normal or real men are supposed to have as men.”
Male serial killers merely “went too far” with their natural abilities. Men are supposed (or expected) to be dominant, bent toward the physical and material, overly sexualized, and aggressive. The serial killer merely takes his nature too far, outside the bounds of the socially useful.
This is why female serial killers are largely left out. They are alien creatures, as Picart describes in her piece. Outside a few accepted tropes (the black widow, revenge/avenge against an abuser, the hysterical woman, witch, man-hater etc), the female serial killer is seen as an oddity. This is because the female is the “other” in relation to male; the subordinate, the excluded, marginalized. If man is expected to dominate, the woman is the one to be dominated. If man is expected to be aggressive and violent, the woman is the one to receive it (and to be at a disadvantage in the face of it). If she is not a manic “man-hater,” what else could she be but a victim?
The last social value serial killers signify is the hierarchy of competency. Society fancies itself a meritocracy. The best and the brightest get the best of everything society has to offer. They get into the best schools, get the best jobs, and receive all the praise. They rule. To be successful in our society is to be deemed competent and morally upstanding, only to be disproven with the atrociousness of crimes (and even then it’s not guaranteed). This competency hierarchy manifests itself in social rhetoric and myth, specifically the mythology of the serial killer.
Building on Picart’s connection between men’s “natural” abilities and society’s glorification of the serial killer’s talents, is this myth of competency. A genius is still a genius, even if he does sadistically slaughter dozens of innocent women. It is assumed that horrible acts on the scale of a Ted Bundy require a competent intellect to carry them out. Murder can be seen as a difficult act, especially in this age of the surveillance state. To carry out a successful murder, to get away with it requires someone “smart.”
Our idolization of intelligence leads us to not only find “intelligent” people fascinating and worthy of our time, but to elevate their skills and tactics. Our consumption of serial killer entertainment is partially an obsession with the intelligence of murderers. Every sly murderer becomes a case study to satisfy our fascination with the intellect (i.e. competency) of the murderer. Intelligence and competency will bring success; even murderous success. The serial killer’s high competency obliges him a place of dominance. People fear and respect him. Murder is not the reason for this admiration; it is that he can murder with such skill and effectiveness. As mentioned earlier, Ted Bundy’s story has been mythologized to such a degree that we’ve forgotten how he killed so many women.
Although the plight of the serial killer is thoroughly mythologized and fictionalized, it illuminates more than just society’s values and narratives. As is common with many stories, they can propagate a narrative and give it away. The serial killer reinforces harmful stereotypes and values. They also represent the monstrosity of the system we live in, in such a freakish and insane manner that we can’t help but exclaim rage and disgust.
Fictionalized serial killers can be thought of as social extremists: they accentuate what we take for granted as normal. “Norms” incapsulate customs, values, behaviors, perspectives, and assumptions that define what is accepted and what is excluded or other. Serial killers take this and shoot for the moon. Our consumer repetition, for example, is accentuated by the serial killer. Bodies are consumable, throwaway objects to the serial killer, just like natural resources and labour are thrown away with no second thought by you and me daily. In the “Monsters Inc.: Serial killers and Consumer Culture,” Brian Jarvis connects “the commodification of violence in popular culture” with the “violence of commodification itself.”
Jarvis reminds us that consumption is itself violent: it devours and destroys. Our consumerist society produces an endless stream of products and services fashioned from the destruction of finite natural resources. We are not creating life, much less anything that can be connected to an objective value. Our consumption has turned any and all into objects for our feasting. We sexualize women (and yes, even children) to sell; objectifying them to the point of stripping their humanity from them. Cute videos of animals and babies, designed for quick consumption, objectify the very thing the videos signal we value. Babies and our pets are just dopamine hits of cuteness; thrown away and forgotten when they no longer serve their objectified function.
The fictionalized serial killer, especially the cannibalistic one, is the epitome of this consumerist lifestyle. Victims are objectified, by projecting a façade onto their humanity. The victims can represent the serial killers abusive and/or lackluster sexual history. Here, the serial killer sexualizes his consumable object. The victim might also represent the serial killers painful social life, alienation, or inadequacy. In both cases, the serial killer objectifies and consumes humans as a fix for their brokenness, like a shopping addict.
The objectification of the victim is how the serial killer participates in consumerism. The serial killer might already be an avid consumer, like that of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho; probably the more obvious comparison between serial killing and consumerism. In fact, Bateman experienced the same high while killing that he did while shopping (a high many of us feel when we shop, buy, or receive an Amazon package in the mail).
The objectification of the victim resembles our consumption habits. We are detached from the origins, processes, and effects of the objects we consume and eventually spit out. Even when some semblance of awareness is provided (usually by the corporation), it is still geared toward an infinite consumption. Companies don’t shut down because they “made enough.” They shut down because they lost in the infinite game of production and consumption. Similarly, serial killers don’t stop because they “killed enough.” They stop because they lost.
The serial killer does not know his prey. He does not care. In the few instances where a serial killer “gets to know” his victim, it is to romanticize the victim. It assists with the end result: to reap pleasure, to partake in a fantasy.
It is in this way that the serial killer, as described by Jarvis, is more of a “Nietzschean distillation” of consumerism’s humanization of objects and objectification of people, than a “barbaric transgression of the norm.” The serial killer narrative is not a reminder of the barbaric. It is a reminder of our reality; an endless cycle of exploitation, ruin, and waste (i.e. death) for our own hedonistic pleasure.
A facet (and driver) of our hedonistic reality, that the serial killer actualizes, is our hierarchical social structure. The serial killer is at the apex of the social hierarchy. To dominate the hierarchy requires strategic thinking toward resources, environments, and ultimately people. The average dominator exerts their position in the hierarchy via prestige, management, or power-grabs (i.e. bullying). The serial killer takes this to its ultimate extreme. He hunts, violates, and kills not just for pleasure, but for the feeling and signaling to others of his social dominance.
With the dominance of the hierarchy comes several benefits: leisure, and accumulation without contributing to the community. The serial killer signals his materialistic position in society by consuming people (objectified and dominated). He does not add, only subtract. He does not worry about producing, saving, or time-management; he takes whatever, whenever and wherever he likes.
Thorstein Veblen expounded on this in his “Theory of the Leisure Class.” The leisure class are those who benefit from, but do not add to, the greater community. They do not produce, they consume; living in comfort and security on the backs of the worker class. Veblen references barbaric cultures as the origins of the leisure class and consumption lifestyle. A conquered tribe would be enslaved, becoming the primary producers, while the conquerors lived off their labor in ease. The rulers (kings, aristocrats, warlords) being the apex of this system. The leisure class is exempted from useful employment; their chief activity being the non-productive consumption of resources and time. The form leisure, consumption, and work take in your life signals your location in the social strata.
For the serial killer, his identity and “work” is the non-productive consumption of human bodies. Humans become luxury goods for the serial killer. He consumes the most valuable of assets in the consumer society: the workforce of the leisure class.
These symbolism, signals, and representations can seem at first glimpse explanations without subsequent action. Nothing is innocent, but then what next? So what? Some of you might feel slighted, threatened by what has been described; as if this is an accusation. You go on the defensive, either because it is a part of your identity, or you just enjoy serial killer films and hate when people attack what you love.
My aim is not to rip you from something you enjoy, kicking and screaming. Lighting the object on fire is not the goal. Lighting the myth of “this is just entertainment” is.
It is also an alignment between personal values and participation. Our interactions are not isolated. They do not exist in a vacuum, with only our conscious intentions as evidence of our innocence or guilt. Our contact with serial killer literature becomes a conduit for the transfer of values and perspectives that we might not consent to if presented with it openly. Would you read a book about how to efficiently objectify and use people for your own sadistic ends? What if I handed you the book, leading with “I think you’d like this”?
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In this society, where power is present in everything everywhere, we can expect its mythology to spread to all areas. The beauty of social myth, however, is that once it is uncovered as myth it becomes a traitor to its mission. Once you become aware of its existence, it begins to serve you, signaling where the dominant social narrative has taken hold. The floodlights can be blinding and scary from a distance. But once behind them, the area is illuminated.
The serial killer is a poster child for this. Serial killer narratives package the blood, innocent lives lost, destruction, selfishness, materialism, and power that is then sold to eager consumers who “ew and aw” at the grotesque insanity of it all. All significance is lost on the audience. They lap it up.
It is this state of ignorant, ceaseless consumption that must be subverted. Besides the obvious nothingness and meaninglessness of such an existence, this state of ignorance turns you into a passive receiver. You take it all in, unaware of it is shaping your worldview and expectations.
Maybe you continue to consume more and more entertainment, strengthening the social propaganda you have come to believe is “who you are.” It constricts, closing you off to alternative possibilities of what a “life” could look like. You continue to grasp for the force-fed lie. Clamoring over others, dismissing injustice, and failing to see the emotional and mental turmoil in others, you shrink.
Your odds of reaching the ultimate apex of that which you are – a consumer – is slim. You will never start preying on the weak, hunting and capturing them like animals. You will definitely never consume another human being, like a cannibal. You will just go on stepping on people (and stepping over others), using them to further your infinite desires (just look at the inhumane labor practices that prop up the fashion and tech industries). Cannibalism becomes a mindset. Your eyes become those of a serial killer: looking for the next dopamine hit. Everyone is an object to use, abuse, and toss.
All I am asking is next time you watch a serial killer movie or listen to a true-crime podcast episode, you ask yourself how this could be affecting you. And, why you consume this entertainment in the first place.