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Tyrrell, Kimberley --- "The serial killer in cinema" [2001] AltLawJl 100; (2001) 26(6) Alternative Law Journal 274

The serial killer in cinema

Kimberley Tyrrell[*]

The representation of the serial killing phenomenon varies across the dramatically increasing number of feature films that have dealt with this disturbing topic in recent times.

As Andrew Tudor has shown in his study of the horror film, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of films featuring psychotic or disturbed individuals as killers or monster-figures since the 1960s, replacing more conventional forms of threat such as vampires, werewolves, or aliens.[1] This psychologically troubled character has increasingly taken the form of the serial killer since the term was coined by FBI agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s. [2]The serial killer, briefly, is characterised by several key elements, though these are often debated.[3] The official FBI definition is ‘three or more separate events with an emotional cooling-off period between homicides, each murder taking place at a different location’.[4] In addition, although this is more contentious, the killer is most frequently a white, single, middle-class, heterosexual male, aged 20–40. Often abused as a child and from a dysfunctional and disadvantaged family, they exhibit a history of violence and possess above-average intelligence, are employed, and able to function in social situations.[5]

In the decade since the commercial and critical success of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a film that helped create a popular and persistent image of the serial killer, there have been several dozen ‘serial killer’ films. These may feature protagonists or characters who are compulsive and repetitive murderers, and share characteristics consistent with serial killers without being named as such. More frequently, they are films that focus explicitly on serial killer discourse, on the detectives and particular procedures of investigation involved, and of the real-world correlates of killers raised to celebrity status. The representation of the serial killing phenomenon varies across films. Some evince a deep awareness of dominant criminological perspectives on the phenomenon and present their killers and crimes in accordance with these views (for example, Crime Time, 1995, Freeway, 1996, and Post Mortem, 1997) while others depart from these widely held beliefs and deploy the term and actions with relative inaccuracy or for comic effect (for example, Dark City 1997 and Serial Mom, 1993 respectively). In addition, the representation of the serial killer fluctuates across films, from hero to monster, from inevitable by-product of culture to an inexplicable force of nature, from irredeemable to pitiable. This range of portrayals is particularly vital in terms of how the killer is marked as aberrant, despite his conventionally normative identity, within the film. Representing heterosexual white masculinity as dangerous and deviant in itself is a difficult task, and there are few examples that do not include some other, and more conventional, form of derision and stereotyping. This usually occurs in two linked ways.

In the first, the serial murderer displays some of the attributes, behaviours, or characteristics that have often been derogated and marginalised within culture, typically in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and race. This stigmatisation occurs most frequently in relation to aspects of identity that historically have been subject to negative representation, such as femininity (Butterfly Kiss, 1994), homosexuality (Cruising, 1980), or ‘foreign’ ethnicity (Diary of a Serial Killer, 1997). These attributes are stressed as an important component of the killer’s identity and deviance, even to the point of comprising the title (for example, Single White Female, 1992, Serial Mom, 1993). Their difference from the white male norm is explicitly marked and presented as an integral component of the visible deviance of the serial killer.

The perception of the white, heterosexual, middle to upper class, propertied male as the template and ideal subject position of humanity in post-Enlightenment culture has been roundly criticised and undermined on multiple fronts by feminist, critical race, and post-colonial theorists.[6] The cultural norm is often presumed to be universal and neutral, as both the standard and the paradigm of humanity. This presumed universality is discussed by Joe L. Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg as ‘the privileged construction of a transcendental, white, male, rational subject who operated at the recesses of power while at the same time giving every indication that he escaped the confines of time and space’.[7]

Elizabeth Grosz points out the necessity of analysing the ‘neutralization and neutering’ of particular subject positions. This is in order to dismantle ‘the universalist and universalizing assumptions of humanism, through which women’s — and all other groups’ — specificities, positions, and histories are rendered irrelevant or redundant.’[8] In addition, these subject positions are also stigmatised by their difference from this norm. In what Michel Foucault termed a ‘society of normalization’, the marginalised and abject are defined in terms of their difference, and in particular as different from the norm, as unable to embody or approximate standards and ideals.[9] One crucial component of racist discourse, as bell hooks notes, is that the non-white subject is always excessively particularised, always marked as dissimilar and non-normative, even when in a supposedly positive or beneficial manner.[10] The simultaneous specification and stigmatisation of certain racial identities is part of the ongoing constitution of whiteness as template and norm.

This notion is echoed by Robyn Wiegman, who believes that ‘the universalism ascribed to certain bodies (white, male, propertied) is protected and subtended by the infinite particularity assigned to others (black, female, unpropertied)’.[11] The seeming neutrality of the cultural ideal is ghosted by a very particular identity, one that is protected from specification by its status as assumed template. These same characteristics are frequently also displayed by the serial killer, who mimes and hyperbolises these facets of identity.

The serial killer as average white male

The second method of representing the aberrance of the serial killer involves the fracturing and demonisation of conventionally valorised categories of dominant identity such as whiteness, heterosexuality, or masculinity. For example, ‘inadequate’ masculinity is perceived as effeminate or abject (To Catch a Killer, 1991, The Silence of the Lambs), the blue collar status of the killers in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) and Natural Born Killers (1994) is brought to the foreground, and the racial validation typically accorded to whiteness is reworked as ‘white trash’ (Kalifornia 1993; Kiss the Girls, 1997). In contrast to the films featuring female, homosexual, or non-white killers, in these films the serial killer presents a more nuanced account of the effects of marginalisation, one that is located within the parameters of a hegemonic identity, but which is just as potent as more obvious forms of discrimination and exclusion.[12]

In deviating from the normative presumptions underscoring whiteness, heterosexuality, and masculinity, the serial killer is rendered marginal, dangerous, and deficient. He embodies the normative subject position but in an overt and awkward manner, and while nominally manifesting certain privileged identities he displays levels of hierarchy within these hegemonic terms. To take a notorious example, the gender and sexuality of the character Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs attracted much critical attention, which started with protests by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual activists who argued that his representation was offensive and would incite violence and hatred. His aberrant personality and monstrous drives are primarily presented through his unique sexuality, as male and seeking to be female, determined to become a woman through crafting a suit made from female skin, a ‘woman suit’.

Gumb’s inability to properly embody and enact heterosexual and masculine conventions renders him abject and monstrous. Though carefully described as neither transvestite nor transsexual, as having male lovers yet not being ‘gay’ in conventional terms, the character was nonetheless taken as improperly gendered and as offensively straddling the lines between genders. This confusion was responded to with much reported homophobia directed at the character by audiences, a funnelling of ambiguity into a convenient and historically over-determined target.[13]

Abnormal normality and banality

A dominant perception or belief concerning the serial killer in much recent literature is that he could be ‘anyone and anywhere’, and that he is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of humanity. As Mark Seltzer cites a court psychiatrist’s opinion of Jeffrey Dahmer, ‘[d]ress him in a suit and he looks like 10 other men’.[14] Richard Tithecott notes of the serial murderer: ‘[h]is image says everything and nothing, for it is “normality” which stares back at us’.[15] The insistence on the ‘abnormal normal’ serial killer comprises one of the most striking and contradictory facets of serial murder discourse.[16] It is such a predominant refrain that Mark Seltzer devotes extensive time in his book on serial violence to analysing the sheer banality and redundancy of this kind of assessment on a number of levels, deriding its generality and inefficacy.[17] Yet the identity that is presented as both comprising normality and being abnormally normal, the identity that is a cliché within serial killer discourse, is rarely questioned as referring only to specific portions of the population, or as complicating the notion of the norm in any substantial way. Most importantly, it is never discussed as a highly particular identity.

I wish to pursue the notion of banality in a different way to Seltzer. Drawing from Judith Halberstam’s reworking of Hannah Arendt’s influential formulation of the ‘banality of evil’ in terms of contemporary monstrosity, I argue that banality need not only mean ordinary, hackneyed, or dull, but that it also implies commonality and responsibility. Halberstam, in her discussion of contemporary monstrosity, notes that:

evil works often as a system, it works through institutions and it works through a banal (meaning ‘common to all’) mechanism. In other words, evil stretches across cultural and political productions as complicity and collaboration and it manifests itself as a seamless norm rather than as some monstrous disruption.[18]

Halberstam focuses on the norm as monstrous rather than the potential hemorrhaging of it or a neat opposition of monster to norm. Her recognition of the shared quality of experience and of the ability of norm and monstrosity to function in tandem stems in part from Hannah Arendt’s assessment of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann at his famous 1961 trial for the deaths of countless prisoners. Arendt argued against perceiving Eichmann as ‘Bluebeard’, as a monstrous and supernatural figure, as this perception would defeat the purpose of trying him as a sane, rational, and culpable human being.[19] To believe in his monstrosity, she argues, undermines the ramifications of Eichmann’s actions by insisting on his singular threat and ignoring that his potency was derived from being part of a broader system of belief and action. Against this, Arendt argued that ‘[t]he trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal’.[20] Though the cases are not comparable, this terrifying normality is also present in serial killer discourse, albeit in a different register and with far different consequences and scope. Part of the sheer horror engendered by the monstrously banal is that the agents of violence are so unremarkable, and that the only noteworthy or spectacular element is the frequent disparity between these acts of horrific violence and their bland perpetrators.[21]

The serial murderer, unlike many other monster-figures or sources of threat in horror films or psychological thrillers, is an implacably non-supernatural or mythological protagonist; that is, he is explicitly human. Part of the horror that he generates is due to his ordinary, non-fantastic status, and it only adds to the tension that many serial killer films are based (however loosely) on the exploits of ‘real life’ killers.[22] In addition, the serial killer threat is sparked by more than just his status as human and a statistical probability. The serial killer is banal in a second sense of the term, as he is not just an ordinary or everyday threat, but also his identity is so common as to be bland, neutral, and standard.

The effaced and neutralised ‘universalism ascribed to certain bodies’ described earlier by Wiegman is an important component of the serial killer’s threat. While his violent actions and the suffering that he causes are terrifying, it is also the serial killer’s simulation of this very particular identity that undergirds the uncanny threat he presents. Certain phrases used to describe the killer, such as the boy next door, nice and quiet, the last person you’d expect, have become clichés of serial killer discourse. The tendency to foreground the ‘abnormal normality’ of the serial killer has resulted in a peculiar tension within serial killer literature in that the serial killer’s identity as white, male, middle class, and heterosexual has achieved such a level of notoriety and familiarity that it has become a stereotype. Yet this highly particular set of characteristics are rarely questioned as either adding up to a distinctive subject position, or that this specific configuration belies the notion that the serial killer could be anyone, anywhere.

The profile

A key moment in many serial killer films is when someone, typically a police officer or an expert in the field, is called on to give their testimony regarding the identity and future behaviour of the as-yet unknown murderer. Predictions are made based on evidence left behind, clues are gleaned from the pattern of behaviour evinced, and a character sketch of the murderer is constructed. In addition, each description of a suspected or apprehended serial killer is careful to note his ‘vital statistics’, the particulars of his physical appearance, such as hair colour, eye colour, height, race, gender, height, hair and eye colour, and distinguishing marks. In particular, none fail to distinguish whether the perpetrator is white or male. These are joined by theories and suggestions concerning the potential behaviour of the killer, what may have contributed to the outbreak of violence and the creation of the criminal mindset, and what resources can be effectively deployed against the killer.

This is based on the motives and methods employed, and popularised, by the FBI. They compile a statistical ‘profile’ of the killer based on items at the scene, observations, behavioural patterns, and similarities to other cases gleaned from interviews with other killers, amongst other clues. This sketch and a brief outline of a disturbed childhood, aberrant mother, or fractured personality are enough to qualify as an acceptable history and set of motives for the killer.[23]

This process of locating and specifying the identity of the serial killer, or at least his crude statistical outline and potential motivation, occurs in a curious scene in Resurrection (1999). A serial killer has been ritualistically murdering specifically chosen victims and leaving clues indicating the religious significance of the deaths and the connections between these deaths. There has been little progress when the protagonist Detective Prudhomme is suddenly informed that there is an uninvited ‘FBI profiler’ seated in his captain’s office, awaiting a meeting. ‘What is he going to tell me?’, he demands sarcastically, ‘I’m looking for a white male, 25–45 years old?’ Nonetheless, he and his partner meet with the FBI agent, who in the course of the conversation soon opines that ‘[b]ased on what I’ve seen so far, I’d say you’re looking for someone of above average intelligence, white, 25–45 years old’. He stops when the two officers begin to smirk, and asks them if something is funny, before continuing with his assessment. The twist, in this scenario, is that the putative FBI agent, whose authority and accuracy of comments is never questioned, is later revealed to be the murderer in disguise, simultaneously confirming and undermining the integrity and accuracy of the profile.

This level of recognition and dismissal is extraordinary in respect to the relatively recent terming and popularisation of the category of the serial killer, even when contextualised in terms of the long history of serial violence, the high public interest in the phenomenon, and the massive popularity of contemporary serial murder narratives. Yet it does not imply criticism of the perceived redundancy of the profile, nor a questioning of the values and attributes that constitute the cliché.

Race and/as whiteness in the serial killer film

Race is rarely figured as an important or constitutive element of the serial killer film. There is very little discussion, in academic and popular culture analyses, as to why it is that white males commit this form of violence, and why their crimes are not seen to be indicative of, or stemming from, their race in the same way that other males are ‘racially profiled’. This is not to suggest that the current racist equation of race (with ‘race’ typically read, in white supremacist culture, as non-whiteness) and crime is beneficial or valid, but to highlight the motivated portrayal of the serial killer.

Despite the overt, even graphic portrayal of the serial murderer as belonging to a specified ethnic group, this component of his identity is somehow left untouched by this association. His actions are never seen to cast whiteness in a negative light, or to confirm racist stereotypes about white people. Richard Dyer, in his influential book White, offers a set of statements that display some of the inequity involved in racial representation. They express some of the conditions and experiences available to white people solely on the basis of their race, and range from ‘I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race’ to ‘I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group’.[24] These statements are particularly apt in terms of serial killer representation, as both these notions, of speaking ‘for’ one’s race, as well as any negative or violent behaviour automatically reflecting on one’s race, are notably absent in films about serial violence.

In addition, the vast majority of killers, law enforcement officers, and victims are white. The environments that they inhabit, their lifestyles, living spaces, jobs and behaviour, are coded as white. Investigators confidently predict the race of the serial killer based on the race of the victim, given that they so overwhelmingly hunt within their own ethnic/racial group of the killer, although interracial killings are becoming slightly more prevalent.[25] Yet serial killer crimes are rarely acknowledged as racially motivated beyond efforts to locate the ‘cause’ of serial violence within childhood (as abuse, neglect, or learnt behaviour) or physical trauma, both of which can be seen to reveal a basic awareness of entwined racial, gendered, and class relations working to inform subject positions. These positions and forms are racialised in the sense that all subject configurations are implicated in dominant strands of meaning, by which no one person, idea, or system can step outside of this nexus of signification.[26] This partially reflects the difficulty of locating white criminals as racially accountable. Crime is rarely seen to ‘reflect’ on the white community or white ethnicity in the way that racial minorities are consistently stigmatised by stereotypes. [27]

When race is featured as race in the serial killer film, it is generally in terms of an overt intrusion into an implicitly white world, most often through a character who is foregrounded as foreign, strange, or ‘ethnic’. Deviations from the white norm are marked as such, and are often commented on as a sign of difference. The few serial killer films to feature non-white protagonists display the ethnicity or nationality of the character in markedly pointed ways, for example, highlighting the treatment of the Latino male protagonist in The Honeymoon Killers as ‘exotic’, connecting him through music, dancing, pronounced accent and taste in clothes to well-worn stereotypes.

In Kiss the Girls, Dr Alex Cross, an African American forensics psychologist, travels to North Carolina to search for his missing niece, where he encounters much initial resistance from the local law enforcement. It is plausible that his role as an outsider, as an expert offering unsought advice, has irked the men; it is equally plausible that the all-white team is initially hostile to him for unspoken racist reasons, at least until he has ‘proven’ himself to them. Yet the whiteness of the two serial killers never arouses suspicion, causes interest, or is considered a core component of the killer’s psychological makeup, environment, or motivation.


The presumed normality of whiteness, heterosexuality, and masculinity are strikingly displayed and made accountable in Copycat (1995). The banality and constitutive ‘absence’ informing the serial killer’s identity are given a sharp twist in an extraordinary early scene. In it Dr Helen Hudson, an expert on serial killing, delivers a speech on the phenomenon, and seeks to demonstrate the sheer indistinguishability and perverse ‘normality’ of killers simply through pointing out their similarity to her audience. She invites the male audience members to stand, and then specifies those whom she wishes to remain standing: ‘[n]ow would everyone under 20 and over 31 take a seat. And if you’re of Asian or African American descent, you may sit down’. As these men are filmed and their images are projected onto a large screen onstage, Helen asks the rest of the audience ‘[s]ome pretty cute guys don’t you think? I mean, if one of these fellows asked you out for a drink you’d go, wouldn’t you?’ But as she speaks the most recent image of a wholesome, amused audience member has been replaced on the screen by a black and white image of Edmund Kemper. The film reverts to brief shots of the now somewhat uncomfortable males, both in the audience and on the screen. ‘Well, let me tell you something’, Helen continues, as a colour slide of John Wayne Gacy, dressed in the notorious homemade clown costume that he used for charity work, is displayed, ‘nine out of ten serial killers are white males aged 20–35 — just like these’.

Just like these. Hudson’s implication is clear; the killer is not easily distinguished or located. Yet rather than finding this to be a frightening depiction of a menace defined by its apparent normality, her words and actions reduce the potency and viability of the apparent banality of the killer. Her act of individuation and deliberate re-presentation of these figures renders them highly specific and accountable, and gives the serial killer an extremely visible, and recognisable, public face.

[*] Kimberley Tyrrell is PhD student at The University of New South©2001 Kimberley Tyrrell (text)©2001 Jane Cafarella (cartoon)

[1] Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie, Basil Blackwell, 1989.

[2] Ressler, Robert K., and Schachtman, Tom, I Have Lived In The Monster: Inside the Mind of the World’s Most Notorious Serial Killers, St Martin’s Paperbacks, New York, 1997, p.1.

[3] Although a ‘wide variety of motivation and behaviour amongst serial killers’ is acknowledged, researchers tend to focus more upon their similarities, drawn from information gathered at crime scenes, interviews, and various psychological assessments. Douglas, John, and Olshaker, Mark, Journey Into Darkness, Heinemann, 1997, p.36.

[4] This cooling off period may take several hours or years. Schechter, Harold and Everitt, David, The A–Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, Pocket Books, New York, 1996, p.69.

[5] Investigators typically find at least one but usually multiple examples of what they term the ‘homicidal triangle’ (or ‘triad’). Research into serial killers’ childhood experiences revealed that virtually all included ‘enuresis — or bed-wetting — at an inappropriate age, starting fires, and cruelty to animals or other children’. Douglas, John and Olshaker, Mark, Journey Into Darkness, Heinemann, 1997, p.36.

 Other predictors include abusive or dysfunctional families, a long record of misdemeanours, problems with authority, and interest in aggressive or violent images and pornography. Killers tend to murder within their own ethnic group, and target a particular type of victim, most often sexually desired or otherwise compelling strangers.

[6] See, for example, Delgado, Richard (ed), Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1995, and Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, in Sarah Harasym (ed.), The Post-Colonial Subject: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, Routledge, 1990.

[7] ‘Addressing the Crisis of Whiteness: Reconfiguring White Identity in a Pedagogy of Whiteness’ in Joe Kincheloe, Shirley R. Steinberg, Nelson M. Rodriguez, and Ronald E. Chennault (eds), White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998, p.5.

[8] Grosz, Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward A Corporeal Feminism, Allen and Unwin, 1994, p.ix.

[9] Foucault, Michel, ‘Disciplinary Power and Subjection’ in Steven Lukes (ed.), Power: A Radical View, Blackwell, 1986, p.241.

[10] hooks, bell, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, Routledge, 1994.

[11] Wiegman, Robyn, American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender, Duke University Press, 1995, p.6.

[12] Newitz, Annalee, ‘Serial Killers, True Crime, and Economic Performance Anxiety’ in Christopher Sharrett (ed.), Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media, Wayne State University Press, 1999.

[13] Fuss, Diana, ‘Monsters of Perversion: Jeffrey Dahmer and The Silence of the Lambs’ in Marjorie Garber, Jann Matlock, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (eds), Media Spectacles, Routledge, 1993.

[14] Seltzer, Mark, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture, Routledge, 1998, p.10.

[15] Tithecott, Richard, Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer, The University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1997, p.6.

[16] Seltzer, Mark, citing Eugene H. Methvin in Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture, Routledge, 1998, p.10.

[17] ‘The Profile of the Serial Killer’ in Seltzer, above, ref 16.

[18] Halberstam, Judith, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, Duke University Press, 1995, p.162.

[19] Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Faber and Faber, 1963, p.253.

[20] Arendt, Hannah, above, ref 19, p.253.

[21] C. Fred Alford notes, ‘[n]o wonder Arendt’s thesis of the banality of evil is so threatening. It takes the proportion out of evil, making its cause unequal to its effect, making light of our suffering, revealing our tormentor to be not Satan but a ridiculous fool.’ What Evil Means To Us, Cornell University Press, 1997, p.135.

[22] See Cynthia Freeland for an excellent discussion of ‘realist horror’ in The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror, Westview Press, 2000.

[23] Freeland discusses the ‘familiar empty formula’ of the explanation of the serial killer, above, ref 22, p.179.

[24] These examples are from Peggy McIntosh, Dyer, Richard, White, Routledge, 1997, p.8.

[25] The predictive nature of this statistic has been qualified in recent years due to interracial killers such as Gary Heidnik and Jeffrey Dahmer.

[26] Razack, Sherene H., Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms, University of Toronto Press, 1998.

[27] There is a tendency to individualise crime if a white perpetrator is involved, downplaying environmental influences. Kaminer, Wendy, It’s All the Rage: Crime and Culture, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

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