Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Serial Killers, Superheroes & Imperialism: Part 1

There’s certainly nothing new in our obsession with serial killers, particularly the gory details of their crimes. Jack the Ripper was perhaps the first and most famous of a long line of mass murderers that have inspired films, books, and articles. His combination of brutal, ritualized murder, sex, and the taunting of legal authorities set the archetype for almost all future representations.
Since the time of “Saucy Jack” the interest in mass murders of this type has grown, becoming a genre of film and novels unto itself, with probably dozens of each produced and published each year, from teen slasher films to art films like “Man Bites Dog”. The subject warrants multiple Wikipedia pages and hundreds, if not thousands, of “fan sites” dedicated to either specific serial killers or to serial killers in general.
One of the interesting things about serial killer representations in popular culture is how plastic they are. That is, the character of a serial killer, beyond having some specific technical similarities (ritual, emotional disconnection from victims, lack of guilt, etc) can fit almost any mould.
There is the award-winning Showcase series, Dexter, about a serial-killer-as-boy-next-door-slash-vigilante-superhero. We all love Dexter because we don’t see anything wrong with executing bad people. He’s a working class, lower tech, less ridiculous version of Batman. And he’s just so huggable.
He’s like you and me. Hell, if you were Dexter, wouldn’t you kill that murderer, those heartless and brutal smugglers of illegal immigrants, or that nurse with an enthusiasm for euthanizing patients? Dexter, the mass murderer, ironically, satisfies our desire to overcome that sense of powerlessness we all feel towards one of the greatest bogeymen of our time: random killers specifically and criminals more generally. We become the mass murderer, in a sense, through our identification with him.
In this way he’s not so very different from the more monstrous and more aristocratically charming character of Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector. If Dexter is Batman, Lector is Lucifer, the fallen angel. His ultimate history, in many ways similar to Dexter’s – and all superheroes – is one of childhood trauma that marks him indelibly, followed by a struggle to understand and control his special powers. Hannibal Lector is reminiscent of Magneto, the vengeful Jewish mutant from the X-Men series who seeks to destroy all non-mutants as a result of his experiences in World War Two.
These aspects of the serial killer - his/her plasticity and their kinship superheroes/supervillains and supernatural figures – vampires also come to mind - is worth exploring further. All of them say something about our culture more generally that could be valuable in unearthing the origins of our society’s pathologies.
TOMORROW: Part 2, Death Cult Nation
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