‘One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the Twentieth Century.’ ― Jack the Ripper (1888)

Man, Myth and Monster

The hysteria surrounding serial killers is often linked to the birth of the media where, during the industrial revolution, the mass-circulation of newspapers during the early 19th century fed stories attracting more and more attention to such heinous acts of violence. The most infamous —’Jack the Ripper’ — was a name coined by the media to sell a story and, over the years, Jack became more myth than man. No one knows who wrote his words, yet they have continued to inspire film from Hammer horror to the graphic literature of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell in their definitive Ripper tale, From Hell, originally serialised from 1989 to 1998. A film adaptation followed in 2001 from the Hughes Brothers but lacked the density of Moore’s research and the major points of the original work. So rich and mythic is the work that the aforementioned quote has become somewhat of an enigma but one thing is for certain, whoever wrote such potent words — murderer, journalist or Moore himself inspired by the original letters — they were right.

Although the term ‘serial killer’ was used in lesser-published works during the late 1960s, it was the research of FBI investigator Robert Ressler who coined the term ‘serial homicide’ during a lecture in 1974. The term ‘serial killing’ was used more broadly during the 1980s when it was published in The New York Times in the spring of 1981 to describe the Atlanta serial killer Wayne Williams. Less than one per cent of murders in any given year are committed by serial killers and, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s report on serial murder in 2012, 12.5 per cent of murders were committed by victims’ family members, illustrating we should be more afraid of our relations.

True crime has always provided a healthy debate when discussing a moralistic stance, especially when a film potentially romanticises or glamorises such serious cases. The approach to such material should either pick an important perspective and protagonist — such as Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) — or similarly with the likes of the unsolved Jack the Ripper case — become something mythic; a faceless killer often lost in time and space; a monster who represents the worst in all of us.

Ressler’s legacy, having analysed the impact of such individuals on society — from the Manson Murders to the charismatic Ted Bundy — is there to inform us all. Yet, there has always been something off-kilter when separating the pragmatic approach in solving a crime and how a ‘killer’ personality reflects the popular zeitgeist — their faces emblazoned on hipster T-shirts — feeding into the cultural landscape. Discussion in itself elevates these killers’ egos all the more — transforming them into the iconic status they sought in the first place. All the while their actions echoing through the media and sometimes shaping the horror genre itself; framing our limited edition Krueger prints and posting photographs of our Jason NECA figures on Instagram.

Amongst the discussions and escapism of horror, the most important thing it teaches us is how to control our own fears. The strange fascination in the monstrous and evil lurking in the world often delivers an overwhelming anguish we want to understand. Fiction is often the doorway in — helping us later understand those truths our parents protected us from — preparing us for the real monsters in life.

But what makes serial killers even more disturbing is when they don’t resemble a monster. As already briefly mentioned; those individuals who may appear to be normal members of society; married; family home… their cake and eating it. Jeffrey Dahmer was considered so unthreatening his victims were returned to him, while John Wayne Gacy was welcomed as a clown (alter egos, Pogo and Patches) to children’s parties, even winning recognition for his fundraising work despite the assault and murder of at least 33 young boys.

In September 1978, serial murderer Rodney Alcala took part in an American TV show called The Dating Game, presenting a prime (or prime time) example of ‘blending in’. On the show a single woman would question three single men hidden from view; if it sounds familiar to UK readers, yes, it was the US forerunner to Blind Date. When a female contestant picked Alcala and spoke to him backstage she decided not to go on the date, having picked up on his ‘creepy’ vibe. Her judgment ultimately saved her life as he had, unknown to the producers, already raped and murdered two women before the broadcast and, over the next two years would kill three more. A killer staring the American public directly in the face while filmed and immortalised; a case in point that somehow subverts or makes a blatant mockery of the entertainment business as he slipped through the fingers of law enforcement. His act so brazen, not even the best of filmmakers could have come up with the idea.

Take John Carpenter’s seminal slasher, Halloween (1978), released the same year as Alcala’s TV appearance. Michael Myers displays no vanity — no desire to be seen or heard — he is an empty shell and a remorseless killer closer to a great white shark than anything human. What is interesting about Carpenter’s approach is how much he shifts the perspective to Michael as we see through his eyes from the opening scene. Although the end of the prologue reveals his six-year-old face — as he stares directly at us — his identity as an adult is hardly revealed. 

The use of the mask isn’t so much about concealing his identity but helps dehumanise Michael further while also enabling the audience to project themselves and be reminded of their dark side. However, in the danger of the film slipping into pure exploitation, it is Jamie Lee Curtis’ ‘final girl’, Laurie Strode, who grounds Halloween by delivering such a memorable female lead we continue to champion. Following on from Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the blueprint of Halloween guided the slasher sub-genre through the next decade by creating iconic masked killers, handing them a weapon of choice and setting them loose on those wayward teens. From Jason Voorhees’ Goaltender mask and machette in Friday the 13th Part III (1982) to Freddy Krueger’s burnt visage and customised glove in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Hollywood capitalised on murder and mayhem in gratuitous ’80s fashion.

Of course the master of horror, Stephen King has written many stories inspired by true crime. Houses of horror present axe-wielding maniacs and Gacy inspired killer clowns who feed on children’s fear; but its perhaps the Crypt Keeper — AKA ‘Moonlight Man’, from his 1992 novel, Gerald’s Game — that shares more than a passing resemblance to Ed Gein, as he digs up and molests the dead.

Most horror films entertain because there is just enough to separate the fictional killer from the real one — in King’s case, often choosing a combination of spiders, aliens and parasites — dark fantasies that have taken modern horror towards other realms. 

When real-life horror becomes a docudrama, then we often endure through close examination. But if we romanticise them we take a disturbing step closer to becoming the killer. We prey on the victims through their eyes — rather than relating to the victim — and in this choice of direction, respect is lost as the killer becomes objectified. As we watch, are we contemplative or simply revelling in the thrill of the kill? Are we attracted to the killer or repulsed? 

In Chuck Parello’s docudrama Ed Gein (2000), the ugly nature of the killer is skirted around. Indeed, based on what has been discussed so far, tackling such subject matter is a difficult balance. Revealing too much about a killer’s past may humanise him and create sympathy for the killer while saying too little would fail to explore the motivations. Unfortunately, Parello’s intention to delve into Gein’s psychology is overshadowed by its low budget delivering something dangerously close to an exploitation piece. The film remains fairly tame for the most part as Gein interacts with the locals and, much like John McNaughton’s superior Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) remains cold and detached. A natural companion piece to Henry is the Belgium pseudo-documentary Man Bites Dog (1992) from directors Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel. Funny and disturbing in equal measure, it pulls no punches, drawing you into its central conceit of following a serial killer and his film crew. Although Ed Gein isn’t as voyeuristic as these two examples, it is clear that Parello was attempting similar jarring effects in contrast to the rest of the film that would ultimately shock the audience. Parello doesn’t loiter over the remains of Gein’s victims but he fails in his disregard for them. 

These kinds of films should inspect and respect in equal measure. Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place (1970) was specifically produced as a comment on capital punishment and focuses on the actions of British serial killer, John Christie (an unrecognisable Richard Attenborough), one of his victims Ethel Evans (Judy Geeson) and her husband, Tim Evans (John Hurt); the innocent man who was hung for the murder of his wife and child. Fleischer — having already directed The Boston Strangler (1968) — perfectly balances the vile acts of Christie with the sympathy and struggles of the Evans family. As far as serial killer movies are concerned, 10 Rillington Place is one of the best.

Patty Jenkin’s Monster (2003) is a rare addition to the canon centred on the female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. The film provides another example of carefully approaching such controversial subject matter as Jenkins explores Wuornos’ life through a vicious cycle of cause-and-effect that leads an individual to murder… again and again. Charlize Theron — who was witness to her mother murdering her father in a domestic violence case — is unrecognisable and delivers an Oscar-winning performance; the most harrowing role of her career so far. Monster does not glorify, but explores the complexity of a sad and troubled individual that questions what evil is; Wuornos, for some, represents every female victim who has been overshadowed by their killer’s infamy and, in turn, caught up in hatred and circumstance, becomes the serial killer herself. Nick Broomfield’s documentaries Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) are a must-watch, the latter of which will have you questioning the death penalty. The ultimate consequence to one’s actions, which, in the case of Aileen Wuornos; the truth only suits her when she sees an easy way out.

Concluding the Truth

Hollywood often transforms serial killers into cult heroes, heightened all the more by the media, feeding the public’s appetite for the macabre while blurring fact and fiction. For some, it seems no different to being morbidly drawn towards a road traffic accident. For the majority of us raised to respect life we struggle to comprehend an irrational mind compelled to torture and kill. Such contempt and unnatural behaviour make us question our humanity, tapping into an important base instinct. Sometimes the killings are planned, other times random which makes the acts unpredictable and terrifying; a strange conduit for primal feelings of fear, anger and survival.

The world of the serial killer is a lurid landscape where those who are fascinated are compelled to understand evil — an attempt to emphasise with the good and the bad — which once again brings up the idea of humanising the serial killer. With this in mind, there is then a danger of making him less scary and, in turn, more accessible like a cartoonish Freddy Krueger. We are more comfortable with the dehumanised figure as the serial killer should draw a clear line in the dirt and hold a mirror up to society. Ignore the artifice the mass media presents of a monster’s mug shot, because in reality those eyes staring back at you are there to remind us that the killer is one of us. If something positive can be taken from such atrocious crimes, we at least begin learning something about ourselves.

For now, the monster is our dark avatar — the characters we play with and the stories we tell — providing some security in acting out our own nightmares in some weird grownup fairy tale; a primordial beast that will always remain in our psyche. It’s a sinister attraction we learn to live with and the only fix that keeps the darker impulses at bay so we don’t become the stories other people tell. Such stories are certainly not for everyone, but any good film, despite its genre, should be treated as a crime scene; analysed so that we learn all of the intricate details. Appreciators of horror are not sick, but only have a healthy appetite for understanding what scares us and how it may reflect those important wider issues.

This is what George A. Romero understood. In Night of the Living Dead (1968) social commentary becomes a potent fuel that hides under the shuffling corpses of the undead. Released at the height of the counterculture movement, the film became a milestone within genre filmmaking. It wasn’t about a single killer but in his broad approach, Romero set out to highlight the problems in America. By the late ’60s the nation was completely desensitised to violence — from Gein’s house of horror to the Boston Strangler, the Cold War, assassinations of JFK, his brother, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Vietnam War footage and riots on the street — a home invasion of uncensored news footage over TV dinner.

This ‘white problem’ of cause-and-effect manifested as a horde of zombies; the perfect analogy for the civil rights movement and tensions surrounding the politics of the time. Night of the Living Dead reaches a critical climax when the lead protagonist — a black man — is shot by the ignorant white folk. Romero’s commentary and bleak ending not only reflected the time period but now, more than ever, echoes the recent deaths of George Floyd and Jacob Blake fuelling riot hordes amongst a global pandemic. All of which has taken place in Ed Gein’s state of Wisconsin. Truth and coincidence?

When serial killers manage to charm their way onto prime time television it only further highlights how warped the American Dream has become over the years. A veneer of perfect smiles and killer charm. I’ll leave you with the words of Bob Barker — the longest-running host of the popular game show, Truth or Consequences from 1956-1975 — “Congratulations, Mr Crawford. For you, we have the new McCulloch model 142 chainsaw with pistol grip and fingertip controls. Light and compact it cuts firewood *cough* and trims trees *cough*… to the rest of you out there, hoping all your consequences are happy ones.”