The dark heroes of popular culture
I WOKE UP early this morning and it was almost as if he stood there in the room. The feeling of fear and dread in me was so palpable… It is strange to think that the reader of these words has no idea of who he is or what he has done. Of how many women have died in what vile circumstances. Thus begins the journal of medical student Arthur Conan Doyle in David Pirie’s The Night Calls set in 1878 Edinburgh. A serial killer is on the prowl, and a baffled police rope in Professor Joseph Bell (the real- life model for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes). We readers experience the spine-tingling delight that comes from being snug in our armchairs while danger is building up for Doyle, his mentor, and the victims in late 19th century Edinburgh. What is even more thrilling is the fact that the fictional killer is based on a real-life one, Jack the Ripper, who roamed the crowded tenements of Whitechapel at that time. Our pleasure is enhanced by the fact that in the back of our minds, we know that our chances of being killed by a serial killer are infinitesimal. Statistics say that only 25 serial killers function in the US at any given time (and are responsible for less than 1 per cent of all murders in the US each year). Presumably the same proportions hold in other countries too and probably in other eras as well.
There is no doubt that the cult of the serial killer has become a central part of the 20th and early 21st century’s mythology—Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers, television series like Millennium, Profiler, Mindhunter (FBI agents study serial killers), The Killing, True Detective, Bates Motel (revisits Psycho), The Following (the serial killer is a literature professor who loves Edgar Allan Poe’s work), The Bridge, The Fall, Luther and so on. Who doesn’t remember the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a film based on Robert Bloch’s famous book who, in turn, had drawn inspiration from Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein? Gein was also the inspiration for Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. The lure of the serial killer is very much part of our era’s popular culture, with America, Britain, Scandinavia and Japan leading the pack.
Closer home and in time, a Noida-based businessman and his servant were awarded the death sentence in multiple cases (which are still on- going) in what has come to be called the Nithari killings. Nithari is the village where the skulls and bones of 16 bodies, mostly children, were found near Moninder Pandher’s house in 2006. Other Indian serial killers in recent times include Raman Raghav, who killed 40 slum dwellers in Mumbai in the 1960s (Anurag Kashyap has made a film entitled Raman Raghav 2.0), Auto Shankar (who abducted and killed 9 girls in Chennai in 1988), Charles Sobhraj (who preyed on Western tourists between the ages of 12 and 24), Mohan Kumar ( a primary school science teacher who used cyanide to kill 20 women), and Devendra Sharma (an Ayurvedic doctor who presumably hated taxi drivers because he and his accomplices lured and beat 20 of them to death and then sold their vehicles). Two female serial killers—Renuka Shinde and her sister Seema Gavit—who kidnapped and killed six children will be the first female duo to be hanged in India. Another woman, Mallika, who lured and killed six female devotees with holy water laced with cyanide, is serving life imprisonment.
Serial killer thrillers can trace their genesis to the hunt for Jack the Ripper in the late 19th century. Police investigative techniques were beginning to shift towards explanations that emphasised rationality and science, rather than the supernatural. It is in the investigative efforts— the emphasis on empiricism and identification of patterns—to track the serial killer that one sees the hand of science and rationality, and notices a clear break from the mysticism and supernatural elements of the past.
The first stories appeared in the form of newspaper reports on these and other murders. One of the policemen in charge of the Ripper investigation was Sir Edward Bradford who had told the public that he would bring his experience with the Thuggees in India to bear on the investigation. The Times of India report from that era scoffed at any comparison between Thuggees (who were a tribe and worked in gangs in lonely rural areas) and the Ripper (who worked alone and in the most crowded part of Whitechapel).
Other reports highlighted copycat Rippers in places as far apart as the Deccan and the US. A newspaper article from 1890 Hyderabad is headlined ‘An Indian Jack the Ripper’ and goes on to report the brutal murder on Saturday night, ‘by a respectable looking Mahomedan’ residing in the City of Hyderabad who murdered a teacher in the Zenana schools. Abdool Hoosain met her in the City and asked her if she would undertake to teach some of his children, to which she replied in the affirmative. It describes the murder and the disposal of the body in a wicker basket, which was made into a parcel and sent to the railway station with a cart man. Unfortunately for the murderer, the train had left, and the parcel was left in the warehouse. Noxious fumes from the decomposed body led to its discovery, and the murderer (who had committed other such killings) was arrested.
Another article in the Times of India dated March 12th, 1894, speaks of a Secunderabad Jack the Ripper, on the prowl with a sword or a knife, ‘who has wounded a lot of people, all of the servant class. So far none of them have died from the effects of the wounds, but I do not think he is to blame for that,’ says the correspondent wryly. Across the ocean, as The Atlantic points out, when the crimes of HH Holmes, who had murdered an unknown number of people in a ‘Murder Castle’ that he had built in Chicago, came to light in 1894, it seemed that America had its very own version of Jack the Ripper. That Hearst newspapers paid Holmes $10,000, an extraordinary sum at the time, for his confession testifies to the immense public interest in the case.
The explosion in the demand for serial-killer memorabilia occurred from the 1970s, when real-life serial killers had become part of popular culture in the US. By 2006, you could buy action figures of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy from Spectre Studios, items actually made by serial killers themselves from Serial Killer Central, and various related items (locks of hair and the like) from Supernaught.com.
WHY DO WE experience this fascination with serial killers? Let’s examine some scholarly texts and popular culture for the way serial killers have been depicted and what they say about how we, as readers and viewers, see them.
These killers share certain characteristics. He or she (female serial killers are rarer) has a very high IQ, reads philosophy and history and is urbane and charming and kills a particular type of person (usually women). Patricia Highsmith says that her criminal heroes may be psychopathic or neurotic, but they are also fairly likeable or at least not repugnant. Hannibal Lecter is a mix of the animal (keen sense of scent, cannibalistic, hunter) and the cerebral (genius psychologist). A real life serial killer, Ted Bundy, was charming enough to lure 36 women at different times into his car and murder them. Our fascination is perhaps triggered by the question why such non-misfits become such monstrous misfits.
One answer comes from Jacques Derrida. Serial killers emerge as primeval prophets or lawmakers, he says. We are all fascinated by a form of justice that is free of morality and legal procedure, of due process, of a fair trial. It appeals to the primeval instinct within us to dispense with the law in favour of receiving justice. We are fascinated by their ability to flout social norms, and by the strangeness of their motives; the FBI says they kill because they want to! Authors have followed suit. Highsmith did not give us a detailed exploration of the motive or the origins of what made her fictional character Tom Ripley a serial killer (apart from a brief glimpse of his difficult childhood with Aunt Dottie).
Another scholar says they operate as a mirror of the ‘individual and social evils’ of their times, while others call them ‘justice figures’ (the movie Se7en where the serial killer, John Doe, played by Kevin Spacey, punishes others for their crimes) and ‘guides’ (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs guiding the young FBI agent Clarice Starling to catch Buffalo Bill) and even ‘anti- heroes’ (Dexter Morgan in Dexter who is employed as a Miami blood splatter expert who only kills ‘bad people’).
Writer Caleb Carr suggests that the serial killer embodies an unbridled monstrosity, which resists or challenges scientific expertise. His or her motives contain a kernel of pure unmotivated evil, which will always lie just outside official knowledge, and remains a powerful and seductive source of our fascination for the sociopath.
The Victorians too were obsessed with the question of what drives a serial killer to become one. They looked to psychologists for an answer. The alienist (from the French term ‘alieniste’ which refers to alienation) who became a key resource for detectives in the early 20th century, suggested explanations anchored in the psychological, behavioural and environmental (abandoned by mother, abusive father, etcetera) aspects of the killer’s life. The explanation—a serial killer is one because he likes to kill—was not palatable to the Victorians, just as it is not acceptable to us a century later.
The serial killer is not a professional hitman whose kills are governed by money and amorality. The serial killer has a moral code, regardless of how perverted it may be. But distinguishing between a serial killer and a vigilante like a Charles Bronson in Death Wish, is more difficult. Both have a moral code in the sense that both are motivated to restore order; that their killings will be instrumental in plugging the gaps in the justice system. Unlike the hitman, the latter two are not motivated by money. Serial killers and vigilantes use murder as a form of social cleansing to remove what they perceive as the most dangerous elements of society, those that the legal system has often failed to deal with. Their role becomes less of a reflection of social ills, as they become operatives who will fix such problems.
The serial killer may see himself as a moral agent, as John Doe of Se7en and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho do, but by murdering, they not only break the ‘do no harm to others’ moral code of a civilised society, but also break the laws that secure the web around citizenship. Our fascination with serial killers forces us to grapple with moral and ethical questions such as— isn’t murder evil? Skilled authors and scriptwriters are able to pose these dilemmas to the reader/viewer and make them even root for the killer—like many of us did for Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and for Dexter. Or at least give us a glimpse into the motivations of such killers, as Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood.
How do we, who are meek, law abiding and non-violent, find ourselves empathising with serial killers? Turns out we follow extremely complicated moral reasoning; one being, it is not murder if the serial killer is working on the side of law and instituting an order. From a sociopath of the 1950s-70s, and the vigilante of the 1980s, the turn of the 20th century saw the serial killer in fiction, films and TV shows, moving to the side of law, and engaging in the rituals and following a code that usually characterises policemen, soldiers and bureaucrats. Dexter follows the code—choose carefully amongst those who deserve to be killed—and engages in a ritual (prepares with rubber sheets, duct tape, etcetera) that leaves no evidence behind. Hannibal Lecter helps the FBI rookie catch Buffalo Bill. In the film, The Star Chamber, a group of judges take the law into their own hands and send a professional killer when the justice system lets off guilty criminals.
But is it murder if you kill an innocent person, and/or if the killing is motivated by self-interest (as Ripley’s killings were) rather than merely a need for justice? This is where the tweaking of one’s moral sense occurs. Though we may be rooting for Dexter, our moral compass goes off-kilter when we find that in some episodes, he has killed an innocent person but is not punished for the deed.
These moral ambiguities we face while watching or reading about serial killers, have intensified with the emergence of a different type of serial killer the fictional space—a sociopath without a moral code. In David Pirie’s novel, Professor Joseph Bell and Conan Doyle realise that they are dealing with a new and terrifying kind of murderer—a man who kills for the art of it. This has blurred the line between the serial killer and the professional hitman who too sees his work as an art rather than a profession.
At the same time, as a reflection of our societal ‘progress’, the serial killer genre has become more politically correct, and perhaps more egalitarian. Martin Priestman points out in the Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction that unlike in the 60s and 70s where the female victims were portrayed as having partly invited their deaths, the fiction of today places the blame squarely on the killer, not the victim. The genre has also engaged with systemic issues. Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses combines the serial killer thriller with a tale of high level corruption. Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman does the same in the Swedish context. From roots in the domestic/family and societal arenas, the blame for the birth of the serial killer now encompasses a system; it is attributable to the rotten core of the state. But in the final analysis, the killer is still not to blame. We have not arrived at a place where we look evil in the eye and call it by its name.