The Traditional Monster Among Us: The Psycho Serial Killer

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock

What first-person narrative accounts told from the monster’s perspective and monster tales highlighting cultural relativism effectively assert is that, while we still recognize and refer to traditional monsters as such, the idea of monstrosity has been decoupled from physical appearance and today refers first and foremost to the intention and desire to do harm to the innocent.

This redefinition of monstrosity, however, creates a conundrum for contemporary citizens: how does one remain safe in a world in which anyone could be a monster? This is the powerful epistemological anxiety underpinning the popularity of contemporary crime programs like the ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ franchise, narratives of psychopaths and serial killers, and in a twist with very practical “real world” implications, paranoia concerning terrorists.

What Shrek and Sully and Lestat and Edward Cullen present to us are traditional monsters that act humanely — that demonstrate the care and concern for others and the range of emotional responses which we currently define as characteristic of humanity; what Psycho’s Norman Bates (1960), and his figurative offspring, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (book, 1991; film, 2000), The Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter (book, 1988; film, 1991), to a certain extent the Showtime series Dexter’s eponymous antihero, and popular conceptualizations of terrorists such as the September 11 hijackers all have in common is that they look human while in reality being, from the contemporary perspective, monsters.

Through his antisocial actions, the psychopath and the murderous terrorist make visible the internal lack of humanity obscured by their human facades — they are monsters on the inside.

Norman Bates, the antagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Psycho’, famously played by Anthony Perkins, is arguably the poster boy for the contemporary monstrosity. What is so disconcerting about Norman is just how normal and average he appears. Clean-cut, polite, and diffident, Norman disarms those whom he encounters with the appearance of wholesomeness.

What the viewer dramatically discovers at the end of the film, however, is that Norman is not one person, but two — he suffers from multiple personality disorder and has internalized his “mother,” who refuses to allow him to express adult male sexuality and instead orders him to kill any woman who arouses his lust.

Norman thereby defies the conventional expectation that an individual personality be singular and coherent. He is in a sense possessed, compelled by a demonic force within to commit monstrous acts. The result is a disconnection between his external wholesomeness and his internal diseased state. He is a monster whose monstrousness only becomes visible through his actions.

The shock of ‘Psycho’ is the revelation of Norman’s mental disorder. Bret Easton Ellis tips his hat to ‘Psycho’ both through the title of his novel, ‘American Psycho’, and through the name of his antihero protagonist, Patrick Bateman. Ellis, however, in curious ways inverts ‘Psycho’.

To begin with, the narrative is a first-person account told from Bateman’s perspective, in which he first reveals his obsessive materialist “yuppie” concerns with wealth and status, and then increasingly details his sadistic murders involving rape, torture, cannibalism, and necrophilia.

Who the murderer is in ‘American Psycho’ is not concealed and, as a result, the narrative suspense is shifted to when and whether he will be caught. In the end, though, Ellis undercuts the reader’s expectations by raising questions as to whether Bateman has actually committed the horrendous acts that he narrates or rather if they were all in his mind — sick fantasies.

Like Norman Bates, however, Patrick Bateman presents a facade of normality that obscures his monstrous, sadistic desires and, again like Norman, Patrick is clearly mentally deranged. Whether a murderer in fact or in fantasy, Patrick nevertheless is a Harvard-educated Wall Street monster whose monstrosity defies easy visual detection.

In contrast to Norman Bates and Patrick Bateman, who are made easy to revile in the end, Thomas Harris’s creation, ‘Hannibal Lecter’, and ‘Dexter’ of the Showtime series of the same name, based on the novels by Jeff Lindsay, are especially interesting — and troubling — manifestations of the psychopathic serial killer, as each is presented to varying degrees as simultaneously monstrous and heroic.

Hannibal Lecter is a brilliant, soft-spoken, and cultured psychologist — which jars greatly with his murderous and cannibalistic impulses. As with Norman Bates and Patrick Bateman, one would not know Lecter for the monster he is were his psychotic tendencies not explained to the viewer and then revealed through his actions.

Nevertheless, despite knowing Lecter for a monster — indeed, in Silence of the Lambs’ most brutal sequence the viewer observes Lecter reveal himself from beneath the flayed face of one of his guards that he has used to disguise himself — the narrative still manages to present Lecter as an attractive and compelling force.

Because he is cultured; because his foil in villainy, Buffalo Bill, is so repulsive; because of the bond he forms with Detective Starling (Jodie Foster) whom he assists; and because he is so vastly more interesting than the repressive system of law and order that underestimates him, our sympathies are strangely enlisted on behalf of Lecter.

Showtime’s ‘Dexter’, who is essentially Hannibal Lecter with a stricter moral system, engages those same sympathies. Dexter is the monster aware of his own monstrosity — he takes pains to hide it, but cannot suppress it entirely.

As revealed in the series, Dexter is a sociopath who was taught by his adoptive police officer father to direct his murderous tendencies only toward other killers.

Dexter must have proof that an individual is guilty of murdering an innocent person, lacks remorse, and intends to kill again before he murders the murderer.

Dexter (who in interesting ways seems indebted to Kevin Spacey’s character, John Doe, in ‘Se7en’ [1995] who is a sociopath that kills those he considers reprehensible) is the dark side to the superhero narrative — he is essentially Batman if Batman did not only brutally apprehend villains but also intentionally killed them. And the trick of the series is to seduce the viewer into not just excusing but indeed sanctioning Dexter’s “eye-for-an-eye” system of justice that allows him to be both hero and murderer.

What Dexter, however, has in common with almost all accounts of serial killers and psychopaths is that, on the surface, he looks like a normal, average person. His monstrosity is an internal, irresistible force that compels him to harm others.

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