Serial killers are a prominent component when it comes to modern-day, western cultural products. Primarily, they are featured in a number of mediums including movies, books, and television.
Consequently, they (as cultural products) have a tremendous effect on the general populace who regularly consume such representations (Smith, 2011). When one stops and takes a step back from this trend, the fascination and mass appeal of fictionalized serial killers seems rather morbidly absurd.
An individual, who murders a minimum of three individuals with a cooling off period as a popular topic in media is bizarre (LaBrode, 2007). Crimes for financial gain or emotional motivations may be placed within a reasonable territory, but the systematic killings of innocent, vulnerable, and a usually unknown victim is a strange phenomenon to explore and popularly consume (LaBrode, 2007).
However, research has indicated that the serial killer embodies and reflects the anxieties and fears society holds at the time (Jarvis, 2007; Schmid, 2005); which can help explore why there is a growing interest in the serial killer personality.
With the rise of television as a popular medium, this fascination has also spread to the realm of series television (Bednarek, 2014). This allows for a unique and in-depth analysis of the serial killer in a form that is evocative of the “serial” novel from its Gothic history (Wills, 2014).
Television serials, as they have evolved over time, have come to incorporate a unique introductory segment called a title sequence. This concept essentially introduces the viewers to the show and also maintains the function of introducing and providing key thematic elements to their audiences (Bednarek, 2014; Bell, 1992). Therefore, keeping in mind the cultural fascination and embodiment of the serial killer along with the prominent usage of television title sequences, the following article has sought to explore the following research question: How do contemporary “Serial Killer” television shows of the past decade (2005-2015) depict the serial killer as culturally significant persons (who embody societal tensions) and what are their ensuing implications?
This question will first be answered by outlining previous research in this topic area in the form of a literature review. Next it will discuss the methodological details of the ensuing research study. Then it will highlight the key findings from the conducted qualitative content analysis in the next section. Finally, it will conclude with the findings’ significance, implications, contribution to criminology, limitations, and thoughts on further research.
Academic research on serial killers (as defined earlier) has been prevalent since its origin in the Gothic literary tradition; which began in Europe in the mid-eighteenth-century and investigated elusive atmospheres of the supernatural — combining both horror, mystery, pleasure, and awe that emphasised the bizarre and paranormal (Wills, 2014).
The study of both mythic monsters and the bestial human (like vampires and werewolves), as well as real-life serial murders starting with Jack the Ripper in the late 19th-century, have generated significant curiosity amongst academics in the Gothic tradition and serial killers (Schmid, 2005; Wills, 2014).
Scholars in the form of storytelling that has seamlessly blended historical fact and folklore have traced this fascination with the serial murderer; it has been evaluated in the lens of a cultural phenomenon that is now inseparable with western culture (Jarvis, 2007; Smith, 2005; Schmid, 2011).
In regard to this, it is important to note that the focus of this paper will be within the domain of cultural criminology, or the study of crime and criminality in the context of society’s culture. Cultural criminology analyzes societal imaginations as they are captured in cultural products.
The current fictionalized serial killer has been evaluated in-depth within this framework and conclusions claim that its Gothic origins are still strongly rooted, despite having been redressed for the twentieth-century audience, such that the modern serial killer is referred to by Simpson (2000) as the neo-Gothic Villain (p. 15) and by Wills (2014) as the post-Gothic serial-killer (p. 68).
This emphasizes how modern interpretations of serial killers are still viewed through the lens of monstrosity and otherness adopted by the Gothic tradition. Scholars have agreed cultural products constructed around serial killers reflect the moment’s anxieties, fears, and doubts on both a societal and individual level (Hamilton, 2011; Jarvis, 2007; Schmid, 2005; Simpson, 2000; Smith, 2011; Wills, 2014). Donnelly (2012) remarks: “The serial killer figure […] is a malleable manifestation of social anxieties” (p.21). So, serial killers’ transgressive appetite, through simultaneous experiences of revulsion and pleasure, projects the audiences’ fantasies and nightmares onto these monsters (Hamilton, 2011).
Subsequently, cultural criminologists have realized that there is a growing need to understand the projections of crime and criminality in popular cultural products, including serial killers, alongside their potential effect on the larger populace (Ferrel, 1999; Rafter, 2007; Welsh, Fleming & Dowler, 2011; Gregoriou, 2010; Smith, 2011).
These efforts help to identify the social anxieties that are shared in a broad public domain, which will be unpacked, by carefully identifying the effects of specific representations with each other.
This relational process is key in articulating the uneasy place the serial killer occupies in our cultural imaginations (Smith, 2011). These analyses have been supplemented with many publications from other discourses, exploring slightly different caveats of the same phenomenon. Gregoriou (2012) unpacked ideologies of a famous television serial killer by assessing a series of message boards dedicated to the television show.
They highlighted the intertextual opinions of contributors who saw the crimes to be interchangeable with fact and fiction. Others explored how the serial killer is explicitly portrayed in the image of a white male endorsing a highly gendered and racialised ethos that was actively working towards its own self-preservation (Santaularia, 2010; Phillips 1998).
Phillips (1998) undertook this research by focusing on recording exchanges between critics in a village discussion surrounding the cultural product. Some took a very different approach and conducted a randomised control trial that sought to monitor the influence of audio in serial killer television, specifically soliloquised narration, on viewers’ perception and affinity towards the serial killer (Semmler, Loof & Berke, 2015).
Meanwhile, other scholars focused on the musical score as a contributing factor to delineating specific perceptions of a murderer (Fahy, 2003). All these various types of inquiry have sought to tackle the serial killer cultural phenomenon in television serials from different angles. It is important to mention that other well-established fields and discourses within the criminological discipline also dissect and study the serial killer as well, such as scientifically based approaches and criminal profiling.
But because this study is exclusively based within the cultural criminology domain, they have not been tapped into for the purposes of this analysis. Consequently, in light of the aforementioned research and with what Bednarek (2014) refers to as the “new golden age of TV”, there is a serious lack of research on television series’ title sequences in the serial killer sub-genre.
Television title sequences are included in the majority of television series. They function as the thematic introduction of the show to its viewing audience, marking the beginning of each episode.
This continuity between all episodes remains one of the few constant factors within most shows, despite any other changes within its content (Bednarek, 2014). As a result, title sequences work as a show’s thematic bedrock, a microcosm of the entire show. Despite previously conducted qualitative content analyses (Bednarek, 2013; Bell, 1992; Gripsrud, 1995; Moschini, 2011) and quantitative content analyses (Benarkek, 2014) of title sequences, there is no available research on how these sequences thematically introduce serial killers to their audiences, especially within its respective sub-genre. To fill this gap, research into title sequences in this paper will function as a proxy of delineating a consolidated view of how serial killers are thematically portrayed in serial killer television shows.