The “Monstrous” Phenomena and Monumental Crime

The “Monstrous” Phenomena and Monumental Crime
© Photograph by Eliana Atra

Edward J. Ingebretsen (2001) writes: “Monstrous bodies are the remarkable presences that appear as signs of civic omen, or trauma, and which demand interpretation: they offer a bit of each, apocalypse as well as utopia.” Indeed, the etymological roots of the term “monstrous” may be arguably traced to their Latin roots, monere (to warn) and monstrare (to point to), though monsters, as former portents of the divine, have a more complex genealogy than such an etymology can capture. Nevertheless, it is important to track the most gripping and recurrent visualizations of the “monstrous” in the media and film in order to lay bare the tensions that underlie the contemporary construction of the monstrous, which ranges in the twilight realm where divisions separating fact, fiction, and myth are porous. It is important to note the tensions of this narrative: the “monster” or contemporary “fallen angel” is simultaneously a figure of horror and repulsion, as it is of fascination and charisma; both subhuman and superhuman; and remarkably similar to the “normal” and strikingly deviant at the same time.

There appear to be two monstrous figures in a contemporary popular culture whose constructions blur into each other, and who most powerfully evoke not only our deepest fears and taboos but also our most repressed fantasies and desires: the serial killer and the vampire as creatures compelled to kill. The social construction of these figures, in feature films that invoke the genre traditions of the documentary, melodrama, horror-psychological thriller, and romance, form a crucial part of this article. This social construction will not only cover the cinematic depictions of these figures and their significance in terms of a critique of popular culture, but also in terms of contemporary criminological theories concerning serial killers’ rationality and freedom of choice, or lack thereof, in committing these crimes. The ongoing fascination with the serial killer, both in the Hollywood film and criminological case studies, points to the emergence of “gothic criminology,” with its focus on themes such as bloodlust, compulsion, godlike vengeance, and power and domination.

Drawing from George E. Haggerty’s description of the gothic novel and Stanford Lyman’s development from it of a “gothic sociology,” a starting definition of gothic criminology can be stated. ‘The Gothic novel,’ George E. Haggerty tells us, “finds its most fruitful mode of evocation in delineating an imaginative response to the objective world that is grounded in the emotions.” A Gothic criminology, by contrast, expresses itself in depicting the architectonic paradox of the supposedly objective moral universe., the natural preternaturalism that has contributed to its construction. Where Gothic fiction instructs its horrified readers in the unreal horrors attendant upon a realistically imagined fictional world, Gothic criminology teaches its readers about the actual horrors that produce and prevail in the social construction of modernity. Where Gothic literature offers “scientifically objective terminology and clearly empirical observation as a means of establishing intensely private, subjective experience,” Gothic criminology employs “preternatural imagery and occult fantasy to evoke in the reader an intellectual understanding of the actual world and to inspire a praxiological response to it.”

Gothic criminology as employed in this article gestures towards an account that moves in between the realms of gothic fiction and film, which entertains its horrified and fascinated readers with unreal horrors attendant upon a realistically/cogently imagined fictional world, and factual cases (of serial murderers) framed in gothic terms, which are essential to plotting the social construction of where evil resides within modernity. Furthermore, a gothic criminology that examines the prevalent use of such preternatural imagery or occult fantasy can prompt a critical response to how crime is theoretically modeled and popularly constructed, and assist in the development of a praxiological response to both “real” and “reel” worlds, which are intertwined in complex ways.

The roots for a gothic criminology can be seen in the early writings of American sociologists such as Edward Alsworth Ross (1907) and Robert Ezra Park, an important speaker and writer in the Progressive Movement, published ‘Sin and Society’ in 1907. In it, Edward Alsworth Ross described a new breed of monster, the criminaloid, responsible for bringing great suffering to the masses through the practice of unmitigated greed and lack of concern about worker safety or survival. Ross was referring to the “robber barons” of turn of the century American capitalism and their horrible record on such issues as wages, factory and job site safety, use of child labour, etc. Edward Alsworth Ross, a small town resident by birth, was appalled at the disparities in wealth and power that had emerged in America’s urban jungles such as New York.

Robert Ezra Park, later sociology chair at the University of Chicago, took a more global perspective on the phenomenon of “vampiric capitalism,” in his journalistic critiques of western exploitation within Africa, both of its peoples and resources. American sociology, after the 1920s, would reject the use of both journalistic and philosophical analyses of evil for a more thoroughly scientific methodology. However, the discipline then was left with great difficulties in discussing evil (now referred to as deviance) without transvaluing it as sickness or as sign of social malaise or anomie, leaving treatises on the nature of evil to more ethnographically inspired writings such as criminal biographies, novels, plays, and ultimately screenplays.

Gothic criminology seeks to return to the primordial origins of deviant human behaviour, much as Stanford M. Lyman’s (1978) ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ attempted to return the discussion of evil as socially constructed to sociological discourse. The criminal justice system and citizens alike, draw upon the combined work of true crime writers, FBI profilers, journalists and Hollywood screenwriters in their quest to flesh out the nature of the serial killing. The focus on the twilight region of fact, fiction and myth is important because it gets at the ambivalent workings of the social construction of these contemporary monsters, employing an analysis of the cinematic depictions of these monsters (using categories such as class, gender, sexuality and race). The “compulsion model” of serial killers is certainly implied in film and explicitly scientized as fact in the behavioural profile literature produced by the FBI and other law enforcement investigators. Both the serial killer as the vampire and the “mind hunters” (i.e., FBI Behavioral Science Unit) who relentlessly track them operate in keeping with the gothic tradition.

The social construction of the monstrous as evil is clearly seen in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s (1996) introduction to ‘Monster Theory: Reading Culture’. It may be summarized in the following way: the monster’s body is a “cultural body” that serves as a harbinger of “category crisis,” which renders porous categories of knowledge and form and makes fluid the realms of fear and desire. Using language steeped in Christian theological allusions, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen tells us that the monstrous, like one of Dante Alighieri’s hellish creatures, guards the “borders of the Possible,” and is “difference made flesh, come to dwell among us.” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s framework is important because it shows how the languages of theology and the Gothic imagination lurk, inhabiting the most secular of entertainment and “factual” realms. In all the films that we will discuss, we aim to excavate how formal Gothic modes form a symbiotic relationship with theatrical modes of horror and melodrama, in keeping with the political need to shape public notions of good and evil, normality and monstrosity, fact and fiction.

Rather than assuming that film is a medium that tells us little about the reality of criminological phenomena, gothic criminology as envisaged here recognizes the complementarity of academic and aesthetic accounts of deviant behaviour. By demonstrating the overlap of vampiric themes in serial murder films, “primordial evil,” using Jean Paul Gustave Ricœur’s phenomenology, becomes recognizable as an essential narrative feature of the dread that “senseless murderers,” like serial killers, seek to inspire, eliciting the same type of response as a vengeful deity. As Jack Katz (1990) stated: “Our original sense of deviance is through a nonreflective, sensual awareness of evil in the forms of dread, defilement, transgression, vengeance, sacrilege, sacrifice, and the like.” Such narrative patterns are discernible in the films that paint the converging portraits of serial killers and vampires, which we examine, using a gothic aesthetic. This is significant because traditionally, as Duncan Madsen Pirie (1977) points out, though there is a natural link between serial killers and vampires (as mass murderers), the two are usually set apart because of a conventional desire to separate a realistic account from an account of fantasy. Thus, he argues, “the true-life psychopath is very rarely a source for vampire movies. There is a world of difference between the psychological horror of mass murder and the dreamy romantic atmosphere of the undead.” Yet contemporary characterizations of serial killers converge with those of vampires, making the gothic aesthetic not an obscure eighteenth-century oddity, but a rhetorical feature of everyday life.

Also published on Medium.

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