Background to Way Past Evil #2: serial killers as modern monsters.
While we’re still on the subject of serial killers, here’s a question: why are so many people fascinated by them? After all these are depraved, sickening creatures who have renounced their humanity and caused untold suffering. But among all the countless theories put forward by psychologists, criminologists, sociologists and the rest one may be particularly helpful in helping us to understand where the deep and continuing fascination with these creatures comes from, culturally at least: we could see them as the latest in a long line of monsters that illuminate something about a society at a given moment in time, with an ability to represent different kinds of terror throughout history.
As Stephen T. Asma writes in On Monsters, ‘Monster derives from the Latin word monstrum, which in turns derives from the root monere (to warn). To be a monster is to be an omen.’ But an omen of what? Of the fact that something is wrong? That a creature has emerged which embodies a threat - not only actually, but also symbolically - to the human world's social or moral order?
Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), perhaps the best known and most enduring modern monster of all, a figure who’s been interpreted as embodying widespread fears about social change in a country in the grip of the social upheaval of the industrial revolution, and with new concerns about the social responsibility of science emerging.
Monsters in various forms have held a place in every culture throughout history, and of course have figured prominently in Western film and literature for centuries. They take many forms, from demons, ghouls, and evil spirits; to vampires, werewolves, witches, and zombies; to mythic creatures such as Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman, the Mummy, Godzilla, and the Loch Ness Monster. But, despite differences in form and period of popularity, the representations of various ‘cultural monsters’ have remained relatively consistent, including elements of insanity or possession, depravity, and wickedness.
These monsters frequently take human form but are depicted with animalistic characteristics – being emotionally void, predatory, and savage. Indeed, the most common word used in the news and popular media to describe a serial killer is ‘monster’ and many are given nicknames that include the word monster, as well as monstrous descriptors like ripper, stalker, slasher, butcher, and vampire. This process of picturing human killers as monsters has been visible at least since the Jack the Ripper murders of the late 19th century.
There is another twist to all this, however. Peter Vronsky (as mentioned in the previous post) and others have argued that since the 1980s there has been a shift, or second way, of portraying serial killers in the United States: as the charming guy-next-door. Vronsky identified this shift as beginning with media reports of Ted Bundy, whom he called the ‘new postmodern serial killer role model’ Others have agreed that the ‘human monster’ image once common in media representations of serial killers has given way to a more modern one that describes these killers as unusually handsome and charming - much, frighteningly enough, as Bundy himself seems to have been.
This ‘normalisation’ of repulsive killers may in itself be a bit of a worry - we certainly thought so when we first watched Dexter, the first portrayal of a serial killer in which the viewer was invited to be entirely sympathetic to the murderer. Could it be that the transformation of these people into the smoother kind of monster involves a recognition that something is deeply wrong with Western society? Or is this newer way of (sympathetically) portraying the killer itself a part of the problem - a cultural extension of moral depravity and relativism itself?
Stephen Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History Of Our Worst Fears