Cult-TV Theme Watch: Serial Killers

Vampire, Werewolf, Mummy, Zombie…Serial Killer?
At first blush, the formulation in the above sentence may seem strange.  But there can be little doubt that in the past quarter century of horror cinema and genre television, the serial killer has emerged as an important addition to the pantheon of famous”monsters.”
A serial killer is (broadly) defined as a person who has murdered at least three people and done so according to some internal clock or schedule.  In general, serial killers are extremely intelligent, and boast some history of trauma or instability at home.  Serial killers were often abused as children, and began their “career” in death by harming small, defenseless animals.  The late 1980s and early 1990s brought a new awareness of the serial killer into the mainstream national dialogue. Ted Bundy, who killed more than 30 people, was executed in Florida in 1989.  Aileen Wournos, a female serial killer, was apprehended by police in 1990.  Perhaps the most notorious serial killer of this era was Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered seventeen victims between 1978 and 1991, before his capture.
The new popularity of the serial killer as a movie and TV “monster” coincided with a period in the pop culture during which audiences had begun to demanding more gritty naturalism, and less theatricality or artificiality.  The serial killer movie format, often a police procedural, not only studied the psychology of this new monster, but detailed the scientific – forensic – methods by which to catch the beast.  No longer were crucifixes, holy water or “faith” going to do the trick.  Nope, we needed DNA samples, fingerprints and other tricks of the new trade.
The 1990s represents the great era of serial killers in film and television. This was the epoch of Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal Lecter and his cinematic progeny (in Copycat, Scream, Se7en, etc.)  
On television, Chris Carter’s brilliant initiative, The X-Files (1993 – 2002) often featured serial killers in standalone “monster of the week” episodes, including “Irresistible,” “Grotesque” and “Paper Hearts,” thereby setting this human “monster” deliberately alongside fictional creatures like Fluke-Men, shape-shifters, the Golem, the Djinn and more.
Carter’s second series, Millennium (1996 – 1999) tread even more deeply into the territory of serial killers, gazing at human monsters that seemed made by our modern society, and which exposed some crucial aspect of life in the 1990s.  I’ve always made the claim that Millennium uses the individual serial killers in the program in much the same fashion that Star Trek utilized the different planets visited by the Enterprise.  Each week on Millennium, Frank Black had to countenance a different serial killer, and study, investigate and understand the context that had created him or her, as the Enterprise would look at the problems and accomplishments of each world it explored.  In undertaking his task, Frank was able to reflect meaningfully on some important or controversial aspect of American society as it neared the millennium.
Serial killers were featured on Millennium in episodes including the Pilot, “Dead Letters,” “Kingdom Come,” “Blood Relatives,” “Wide Open,” “Weeds,” “Loin like a Hunting Flame,” “The Thin White Line,” “Lamentation,” “Broken World,” “Paper Dove,” “The Beginning and the End,” “The Mikado,” “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Darwin’s Eye” and others.  
 Again, in many of these situations, the “monster” was merely the dramatic avenue by which Carter, Spotnitz and the other series writers could explore some intriguing aspect of our culture.  “Loin like a Hunting Flame” gazed at the line between reality and (sexual) fantasy in the new age of Viagra.  “Weeds” examined the notion that gated communities could provide safety for well-to-do residents, and concluded that the wolf might already be lurking inside the affluent sanctuary.   “Wide Open” also gazed at the idea of safety and security, and wondered whether security systems could prevent the “darkness” from entering our suburban homes.  “The Mikado” brilliantly and diabolically tallied the ways that new technologies could be exploited by a monstrous serial killer.
What I have always admired so deeply about Millennium is this notion that by facing the darkness created by serial killers, Frank actually observes and critiques the world that created such monsters.  Sometimes it seemed the world he faced seemed like one without real emotional connection between people (“Blood Relatives”) and sometimes it felt like a world that had lost all sense of mercy or decency (“Through a Glass Darkly”).
After Millennium, the most significant serial killer series in TV history is likely Dexter (2006 – ), which focuses on the anti-social Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a blood-spatter expert who would have been a creature as monstrous as any Frank Black ever captured had his father, Harry (James Remar) not intervened early and become his mentor and role-model.  Now Dexter, according to Harry’s Code, kills only those “monsters” (other serial killers) that the law cannot reach.  Dexter’s monstrous drives and appetites have been harnessed and directed, so much so that many people view the character as a hero, not just a protagonist.
What makes Dexter so intriguing is not merely his pro-social vigilantism, but rather the fact that the series positions the character — again a Star Trek reference — as a character very much like Lt. Data or Mr. Spock.  Like those predecessors, Dexter is an outsider from humanity, observing the “emotional” human race from some distance.  
Because (again like Spock or Data), Dexter lacks the capacity to feel or understand feelings, he can with great dispassion comment meaningfully on human contradictions, curiosities and frailties.  He is the serial killer as alien outsider, wishing he could be human, but knowing that his humanity is but a mask.  He’d like to belong, but he can’t.
Lately, serial killers have been the beneficiaries of another interesting twist. In programs such as True Blood (2008 — ), all manners of supernatural monsters exist and intermingle with man’s world.  We’ve met vampires and werewolves, for instance.  But in the first season, the real evil is presented not by such creatures of the night.  Contrarily, it is a human serial killer, Rene (Michael Raymond-James), who symbolizes the ultimate danger, and therefore the ultimate villainy.  I suspect this development is a literalization of the notion that the evil lurking inside the heart of man, is, in some sense, the scariest thing we can imagine.
Creatures that go bump in the night are scary, but men that do so are downright terrifying.  We know they are real, and that in this case, there are such things as “monsters.”

3 responses to “Cult-TV Theme Watch: Serial Killers

  1. Great article on the subject, John. As you may recall, I credit Thomas Harris' second book, RED DRAGON, in my 2010 piece for ushering in this tide of human monster in literature and TV/film (with a shout-out to your earlier post on the theme. Well done, my friend.

  2. In your book,'Horror Films of the 90's', you said that "Se7en" was not as good as "Silence". The Academy and probably the majority of critics probably agree with your assessment, but I do not. But in your synopsis of "Se7en", you used such descriptive phrases as "absolutely shattering" & "utterly uncompromising". IMO, "Se7en" is a film unlike any other serial killer film before or after, the void of space could not be darker than the end of Fincher's masterpiece. And I do think that "Se7en" can be classified as a masterpiece. 17 years later, it is "Se7en" that I compare all subsequent serial killer films too and not "Silence".AS for tv…I never got into "Millenuium", I tried, I wanted to like it considering I'm a X-phile, but it just did not click for me.However "Dexter" is tremendous! Though I will say that the last season w/ Edward James Olmos was by far the weakest of the series so far, and I hope this is not the start of the proverbial slide for this show.

  3. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.Chellame TV Serial

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