SERIALITY--And--Vicarious Solutions to Social Problems
Between 1983 and 1985 serial murder became one of the most intensely debated issues in the US media, both in serious news outlets and in popular culture. The result was a general panic in the USA in relation to serial killers. At the time I was living in a remote backwater of Australia, in the small town of Katherine, 3 hours by car south of Darwin, about as far as possible from this American social panic and still be on the surface of the Earth.
Part of the essence of serial crime was, and still is, that the offender has a cooling-off period between acts, a chance to stop and think, and yet returns to commit evil once again. Augmenting the horror of the individual crimes are the attributes of delay, repeated premeditation, and compulsivity. Though the killer cools down between crimes, he never really has the option of desisting. I use the pronoun he intentionally because in addition to the fact of repetition, the serial concept also contains a whole demographic profile for both offenders and victims, a package of ideas that could, back then, ultimately be traced to the FBI's Behavioural Science Unit, the BSU.
As a student and then a teacher of behavioural studies from the 1960s to the 2000s I came to take an interest in this subject after I retired from a 40 year working life in 1999. But in the early 1980s, I was working some 60 to 70 hours a week as an adult educator. I was a father of three and a husband in addition to having many community responsibilities as the secretary of the local Baha’i community. I did not keep abreast of the events in the media at the time. I knew nothing about serial killers, although I could have told you a little about the famous Jack-the-Ripper. These killers were viewed as predators, metaphorically as wolves, preying on weaker human beings. These victims were the "silent lambs" commemorated in Thomas Harris' celebrated book, and the even more influential 1991 film: Hannibal Lector.
The popular magazine Psychology Today asserted that "in an increasingly large number of stranger homicides, the killer seems driven to murder not by some rational reason but by a serious psychological disorder.” A whole new officially-inspired mythology of the serial murder came to emphasize that the monstrous behavior was distinctive to a time and place, that it had never really occurred before the late 1970s, and that it was extremely rare outside the United States.
In reality, though, multiple homicides have been the prerogative of no particular society; serial murder has always existed in the United States, and has often been the subject of extensive writing and debate. It is also a highly infrequent phenomenon, accounting for only one or two per cent of all homicides—nothing like a quarter as the popular mythology was telling the media when I was living in the Australian outback.
From the late 1970s moralist campaigns emphasized threats to children and women. They were presented as the victims of lascivious hedonistic males who pursued an 'anything goes' hedonism to an unacceptable and somewhat logical conclusion. Hedonistic America had become a society of wolves and lambs: such was the popular view. By about 1984, American media and popular culture were more dominated by scare stories about lethal dangerous outsiders than perhaps at any other time in the nation's history. Serial killers joined drug-lords, molesters and Satanists in the popular demonology. Today’s stereotypical serial killer – the white everyman – has become fully integrated into popular culture. Daytime talk shows are devoted to such killers, as are comic books, trading cards, fan clubs, crime novels, news specials (often employing “dramatic re-enactments” in an obvious, yet confused, display of fact and fiction), and main-stream movies such as the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme). With the phenomenon of serial killers so heavily evoked in various forms of popular culture, it follows that research and analysis on the subject would most obviously be located in Cultural Studies.
By the first decade of the third millennium, by 2001, I had retired from the world of jobs. I have watched many a who-dun-it in the years 2001 to 2012; serial killers have been all the rage in these who-dun-its. For an extended analysis of the compulsive and addictive, obsessional and driven, irrational and rootless, lustful and violent, individual, sexual, and repetitive aspects of serial killers go to: (i) Philip Jenkins, “Catch Me Before I Kill More: Seriality as Modern Monstrosity,” Cultural Analysis, Volume 3, 2002; (ii) Richard Tithecott, Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1997; and (iii) Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture, New York and London: Routledge, 1998.
The opposite of serial killing is control
in self and society. The more luridly &
improbably we portray serial murder,
rape, or molestation, the more we are
exalting the need for control, restraint,
and authority. Packages of ideas about
serial killings are deeply conservative, &
we are given lots of law-order messages.
A serial killer is a monster, a word that
in its origins suggests not just something
that is threatening, but a something to put
on display; & observers are meant to draw
negative messages---that the times are evil
and that we suffer from supernatural forces
or, in secular terms, something has gone very
wrong with our society. A monster warns us
that we must set things right and the exact
nature of the monstrosity is a lesson in how
we must rectify behavior. We must be what
the monster is not. If monsters exemplify a
seriality we must exercise choice & control.
We must respect those forces when they are
imposed upon us. Concern for serial killers
peaked between about 1983 and 1994. Since
then scholars have paid less attention to this
phenomenon, this uniquely perverse culture
of celebrity. But outside the scholarly work
devoted to this issue, some of the shrewdest
comments are to be found in Oliver Stone's
1994 film Natural Born Killers----in which
serial murder becomes a symbol of a moral
pollution. Stone gave us his fictional pair of
killers: Micky and Mallory & our fascination
indicated the extent to which vulgar popular
culture had come to saturate American life.
The culture shaped the deeds of those violently
perverted, while also simultaneously preventing
masses of the population from viewing these acts
only as a form of entertainment....And the media
irresponsibility produced memorable images of
young aficionados comparing current superstars
with the demigods from yesteryear. Only Charles
Manson, it seems, had anything like the charisma
of Micky and Mallory who were "way cooler........."
In this context, we recall the claim made by investigator
Robert Ressler who argued that he coined the term
serial murder about 1976 on the analogy of the movie
"serials" he had enjoyed as a child, dramatic stories of
crime and pursuit. I believe his claim is incorrect, since
the term does appear before his time, but his idea is a
fascinating one because it locates the origin of a serial
murder. The irony of all this is that popular construction
of serial murder has involved the characteristics that are
identified as building blocks of the mythology of this
seriality itself. As we see the constant creation and the
recycling of media accounts, the proliferation of texts
and images, above all the endless repetition of claims,
it is difficult not to describe this process as compulsive,
irresistible, obsessive, and lacking any natural ending.
To be repeated again on another who-dun-it for the
prurient interest and entertainment of the masses who
vicariously solve the problems of society on television.
Stereotypically, seriality in its worst sense, no matter how
parlous the offenses described, is always presented in terms
of prurient sexuality, of the vulnerability of lovely victims.
married for 45 years, a teacher for 35, a writer & editor for 13, and a Baha'i for 53(in 2012)
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