Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Culture

Visuals

Charles Manson
Charles Manson

The Internet Movie Database lists 852 movies and television series associated in some way with serial killers.  By this writing, there are probably more.  They include comedies such as Arsenic and Old Lace, about a pair of elderly female serial killers, to several renditions of Helter Skelter.  Several are based on actual killers, such as John Christie, Keith Jesperson, Karla Homolka, Ted Bundy, Albert DeSalvo, and Andrei Chikatilo. Others simply play off the public's fascination with killers.  In fact, the intelligent, clever serial killer is so overplayed now that critics complain when they see it in movies like Saw and Saw II.

Albert DeSalvo's choker necklaces
Albert DeSalvo's choker necklaces

Among the more intriguing films is Kalifornia, which features Brad Pitt and David Duchovny, about a journalist who crosses the country to write about famous crime scenes in various places.  The "Kali" part of the title refers to the Indian goddess who demanded blood sacrifices.  A more gruesome depiction is Natural Born Killers, which is a disguised commentary on the public's consummate and oblivious fascination with serial killers.

Video Cover: Kalifornia
Video Cover: Kalifornia

A recent attempt by First Look Pictures to put out a series of movie-like biopics about individual (or team) serial killers, which one can find in any video store, fails in part because some are inaccurate. This lackluster attempt is disappointing largely because there's no need to report the facts erroneously.  One gets the impression that the directors are trying to leave their own artistic mark on the story, but most people who know the cases will steer clear, even if some are good renditions.  While the actors tend to resemble the people they play, helping to affirm the documentary "feel," the series generally fails to live up to its promise.

Television shows, too, have gotten into the act, with serial killers showing up on everything from daytime soaps to HBO.  The various crime series, such as the three C.S.I.s and Law and Order, are natural venues for plots about such investigations.  Criminal Minds, for example, is devoted almost entirely to how profilers track down serial offenders, the way the now defunct Profiler once was. Usually, the killers are the bad guys — the foils against which detectives (and other types of investigators) can hone their skills.  However, that may be about to change.

Book cover: Darkly Dreaming Dexter
Book cover: Darkly Dreaming Dexter

In the Miami Herald in October 2005, Glenn Garvin reported that a serial killer could be Miami's next television hero.  Planned for Showtime, "Dexter" will feature a killer who's "lovable," even laudable.  "I'm pretty confident that no TV series has ever had a serial killer hero before," said Robert Greenblatt, Showtime's chief programmer.  It's based on the novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter.  The main character is a blood spatter pattern analyst who kills other serial killers, and apparently a gentleman with a good sense of humor.  The final decision has not yet been made to pick up the 10-13 episodes in production, but if it is, the show may be on the tube by next fall.  Reportedly, the Miami-Dade police insisted that their name be changed in the show.  Apparently they weren't keen on the idea that they might tolerate a serial killer in their ranks.  Or perhaps they just see through this unoriginal plotline and don't want to be embarrassed by it.

Something similar happened to vampires, the Gothic supernatural creature most often compared with serial killers: they went from frightening monsters in literature and film to silly Sesame Street characters and becoming the butt of Halloween jokes.  To make a serial killer into a likable hero indicates that this icon has lost (or may lose) its edge.  Perhaps we may yet see a serial killer plush toy that talks when you pull a string.

But the question remains, why are people so fascinated with this type of offender to the point of collecting things by or about them?

 

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