Table of contents
2 Serial killers
2.2 Serial killers as popular culture phenomenon
3. Serial killer fiction
3.1 Serial killer fiction as a variation of detective fiction
3.2 The role of the serial killer in serial killer fiction
4 Comparing the depiction of the serial killer in Frankenstein and Dexter
4.1 Why comparing Frankenstein to Dexter?
4.2 Nature vs. nurture, or why do they kill?
4.3 Monster or genius?
4.4 Organized vs. disorganized, or how do they kill?
4.5 Conclusion: How do they compare?
5 Conclusion and outlook
The main focus of this paper lies on the depiction of serial killers in fictional works. Many fictional serial killers were inspired by real-life serial killers and therefore the lines between the realms of fiction and reality are quite often blurred. This is why the paper starts with addressing real-life serial killers. Their status as a popular culture phenomenon as well as their relation to fictional serial killers is to be examined. The topic then shifts to serial killer fiction and the role of the serial killer in serial killer fiction. In order for this paper to be not limited to theoretical reflections only, it ends with a brief examination and comparison of two at first glance very different fictional serial killers: Frankenstein’s monster and Dexter.
2 Serial killers
The term ‘serial killer’ is relatively young, as it was not until the 1970s that it was coined (Bartels 1998: 499). Before the 1970s, there had apparently been no demand to find a name for this very specific type of killer:
Until well into the 1960s, the detection ratio for murder in the USA was almost 100 per cent: the criminals could be convicted within a year, as they came from the victim's circle of friends, acquaintances, or even relatives. During the 1970s, however, there was an increase in murders of strangers. Ever since, 5000 cases annually remain unsolved, that is, 25 per cent. This type of criminal fits into none of the existing patterns of investigation and his motivation is not clear. Furthermore, he kills not only strangers but also people he knows well or is related to (ibid.).
It was former FBI Agent Robert R. Ressler who coined the term ‘serial killer’ “in reference to predominantly white male multiple killers between 17 and 30 years of age who have committed at least three murders in different places and at different times” (ibid.). What distinguishes serial killers from mass murderers or spree killers is the so-called ‘cooling-off period’, which describes the amount of time that lies between two individual killings (Baelo-Allué 2002: 9). In contrast to serial killers, mass murderer “kill multiply at an identical place within the same context of events” and spree killers “kill within a short time in different places” (Bartels 1998: 499).
2.2 Serial killers as popular culture phenomenon
A question that one might ask themselves when dealing with serial killers is: why is it that people are so fascinated, not to say obsessed with them? It is not only serial killer fiction that sparks people’s interest – real-life serial killers do so, too:
[T]he serial killer has found himself at the vortex of a complex network of merchandizing: biographies, of course – every serial killer of any renown has inspired at least two or three book-length biographical accounts – film rights and made-for-TV movies, documentaries, but also the obligatory appendages of the culture industry – tee shirts, board games, comic books, trading cards, toy dolls, and Halloween masks (Conrath 1994: 150).
So why is it that people obsess over serial killers, but not over mass murderers or spree killers? What makes serial killers – despite the horrendous crimes they commit – so appealing to people?
The seriality of the killings might be one reason. As Baelo-Allué (2002: 9) points out, seriality is a concept that can be found in different fields of modern day life. She goes into further detail about this by claiming that “[u]nder capitalism, seriality has become a principle of production” (ibid.). Seriality is not only one of the driving forces of the capitalist society, but also a pattern frequently occurring in modern day mass culture:
The seriality of serial killers, or at least, the seriality of the myth-like serial killer created through the arts and the media, has similar effects to those produced by different forms of serialised mass culture such as the television serials and series, the film serials, the novels in instalments, or even the newspapers. Repetition makes us understand patterns and know what to expect next time. Thus, after each new instalment the audience is left wanting more, enjoying a mix of repetition and anticipation. In the case of serial killing each new murder becomes a new instalment, a new chapter in the news. People keep ‘buying’ the chapters, craving for a conclusion that may disclose a pattern or may impose an interpretation on the random material. […] This obsession with finding a pattern that allows a self-contained conclusion has also permeated the interpretation of real murders (ibid.: 9f).
In short, one can say that people obsess over serial killers because their crimes follow a certain pattern. People love to find patterns and make speculations about what is going to happen next on the basis of those patterns they find.
What should also be pointed out is that there is a very interesting communication model between the serial killer and his, or in very rare cases her, audience. Through his crimes, the serial killer communicates with his audience. With every crime he commits, he speaks to the public, he feeds them with new pieces of information helping them to construct a pattern based on his crimes.
The phenomenon of “cultural criss-crossing”, as Baelo-Allué (ibid.: 7) calls it, is also particularly interesting. She claims that serial killers “belong to the realms of both reality and fiction” (ibid.) and that the lines between both realms are blurred. One is provided with strong evidence supporting her claim:
Nowadays we witness how, on the one hand, real-life serial killers are ‘narrativised’ by the media by turning their killings into coherent patterns, or how they copy the murders of fictional serial killers; on the other hand, we see how ‘serious’ literature writers of great prestige write true-crime literature, or how fictional serial killers copy the deeds of real killers or try to resemble them. The interactions are never-ending […] (ibid.: 7f).
The conclusion one might want to draw from this is that fictional serial killers excite people because they cross into real-life. Real-life serial killers entertain us because we, influenced by the media, read them as fictional characters. Both fictional and real-life serial killers thrill us because there is some sort of interaction between them.
The last point that has to be considered when asking oneself why serial killers are so popular is their profile, their identity. As already addressed in 2.1, the term serial killer was coined in reference to predominantly white male multiple killers between 17 and 30 years of age. Conrath (1994: 144f) tries to describe the stereotypical serial killer. The stereotypical serial killer is a middle-class man with his I.Q. above average living in the suburbs. He is so ordinary and mousy that they could be anyone, even your next-door neighbor. Clearly not all serial killers fit this stereotype. The FBI even warns that “[t]he relative rarity of serial murder combined with inaccurate, anecdotal information and fictional portrayals of serial killers has resulted in [..] common myths and misconceptions regarding serial murder” (Morton 2008: 3). They do however confirm that the majority of serial killers are fully integrated into society. Could this be the reason why we find serial killers so appealing? Is it thrilling to know that serial killers are living among us? Do we get excited by the idea that they lead the same lives we do, only with the slight difference that they moonlight as serial killers? Conrath (1994: 145) even takes it one step further:
Fed up with the power brokers of anonymous mass murder, alienated from faceless slaying, these criminals give a certain subjective clarity, a certain down home, grassroots ‘I can kill too’ – and therefore ‘I too exist’ – scenario to what has become an increasingly abstract, fragmented, and dysfunctional project: the American Dream, freedom as the Founding Fathers conceived it.
It may seem debatable whether or not serial murder can be seen as a very twisted realization of the American Dream, but it does not appear to be too far-fetched to claim that moonlighting as a serial killer is what makes the ordinary man stand out from the crowd. The serial killer has something many people who are feeling swallowed by the faceless crowd strive for – a unique identity that sets him apart from other individuals. Consequently, the serial killer becomes an anti-hero, making us aware of the fact that there is “something rotten in suburbia”, as Conrath (ibid.) puts it. In the suburbs, where everything is the same, the serial killer becomes a rebel, someone who infiltrates the established system. Especially those who are unsatisfied with life in the suburbs and its paralyzing sameness seem to find this very appealing.
All in all one can say that there multiple factors contributing to the fascination revolving around serial killers: the seriality of the killings, which is a central principle of modern day life, the specific communication process between the serial killer and his audience, the blurry lines between fictional and real-life serial killers and last but not least the image of the serial killer as the ordinary man who dares to shake up the system.
 To simplify matters, the serial killer will from now on be referred to as ‘him’. When speaking of ‘the serial killer’, both female and male killers are meant.
- Arbeit zitieren
- Stephanie Eßer (Autor), 2013, The Depiction of Serial Killers in Fiction, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/230996