An excerpt from
Natural Born Celebrities
Serial Killers in American Culture
Natural Born Celebrities:
Serial Killers and the Hollywood Star System
Violence is cinematic…It's like putting mustard on a hot dog.
—Filmmaker Abel Ferrara
Film, Violence, and Stardom
The existence of famous serial killers in contemporary American culture brings together two defining features of American modernity: stardom and violence. Not surprisingly, therefore, film is unique among popular cultural media in its potential to shed light on the reasons why we have celebrity serial killers because it is a medium defined by the representation of acts of violence and by the presence of stars. One of the founding figures of the medium, Thomas Edison, seems to have had a long-standing interest in violence and was also attentive to the ways in which fame could be used in conjunction with the representation of violence. One of the earliest phonograph recordings he produced featured an actor reading the confessions of H. H. Holmes, and one of his first kinetoscopes showed the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Although the depiction was not entirely convincing, the audience was shown the executioner swinging his axe and Mary's head rolling onto the ground. Film's preoccupation with the representation of violence continued in the first narrative movie, Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), which showed a beating victim thrown from a moving train and climaxed with the massacre of the train robbers. Such examples underline Vicki Goldberg's point that from its very beginnings, cinema "laid claim to a more extensive and intimate view of death."
The representation of violence is so central to film that one can even periodize the history of the medium by tracing changes in how it has represented violence. Constructing this history also allows us to track the evolution of the market for serial killer movies. Fierce debates about the social consequences of film have been a constant feature of the medium, and more often than not this debate has focused on the supposed consequences of filmic representations of violence. Before 1930, filmmakers were technically free to include as much violence in their films as they wished, as long as they could weather the resulting controversy. In 1930, however, in a gesture of self-regulation in the face of concerted censorship efforts, the film industry passed the Production Code, and from that time until 1966, when the code was revised, the possibilities for the depiction of graphic screen violence were restricted. The 1960s modification of the code, which was largely a response "to the more liberal and tolerant culture of the period, particularly the revolution of social mores tied to the youth movement," enabled the production of tougher, more violent, and more controversial films such as Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969).
As Stephen Prince has noted, it is thanks largely to the efforts of filmmakers like Penn and Peckinpah that graphic screen violence, a new and highly controversial feature of 1960s cinema, has now become a pervasive feature of contemporary filmmaking, "We cannot, it seems, go to the movies today and avoid for very long the spectacle of exploding heads and severed limbs, or escape the company of the screen sociopaths who perpetrate these acts." Although the serial killer undoubtedly plays a dominant role in today's ultraviolent cinema culture, he is by no means an anomalous figure either in the history of film or in the landscape of contemporary film. Rather, the serial killer takes his place alongside such figures as gangsters, vigilantes, and cyborgs in the heavily populated pantheon of contemporary film's violent protagonists.
Like violence, stardom has played an equally important role in film from the earliest days of the medium. Richard deCordova dates the emergence of a recognizable star system in American cinema to the early years of the twentieth century and argues that "the star system has been central to the functioning of the American cinema as a social institution." The centrality of stardom to film has both textual and economic dimensions. Textually speaking, once the star system became well established in Hollywood during the late teens and 1920s, stars functioned as a principle of narrative coherence and stability, both in individual films, which told the story of the star protagonists, and in the larger context of a series of films, as particular stars developed a coherent star image that allowed them to be typecast in recurring roles.
The textual coherence represented by the star was always simultaneously an economic coherence. As Cathy Klaprat has argued, "Stars established the value of motion pictures as a marketable commodity. In economic terms, stars by virtue of their unique appeal and drawing power stabilized rental prices and guaranteed that the companies operated at a profit." Stars were economically central not only to the film industry itself but also to the satellite industries that grew up around Hollywood and that devoted themselves assiduously to circulating images and information about the stars, whether in the form of entertainment magazines, gossip columns, or fanzines.
Stars not only were important to the development of film, however, but also made a crucial contribution to the development of the modern celebrity system in general. Before the advent of film, the building of the celebrity system had an improvisatory and primitive quality. Film gave celebrity new layers of discursive and institutional complexity in the process of creating the modern concept of stardom, as Emanuel Levy explains: "Stardom has neither been exclusive nor confined to film. The entertainment world in the United States (theater, ballet, opera) has always been centralized and star-oriented. Nonetheless, because film is a mass production medium, on a bigger and more standardized scale than the live, performing arts, it has magnified the star phenomenon to a system of huge proportions." The contribution of film to the development of the modern celebrity system, a system unparalleled in both its reach and profitability, is just one way in which the medium prepared the ground for the emergence of celebrity serial killers. Another equally important influence is the complex network of associations between the medium of film and seriality. Part of the reason that film has played such an important role in the articulation of stardom is that it seems to promise the completion of a concept that is otherwise incoherent, as John Ellis has indicated in his description of the star image: "The star image is…an incomplete image. It offers only the face, only the voice, only the still photo, where cinema offers the synthesis of voice, body and motion. The star image is paradoxical and incomplete so that it functions as an invitation to cinema, like the narrative image. It proposes cinema as the completion of its lacks, the synthesis of its separate fragments." Unlike presentations of the star in photos, writing, and radio, where elements of the star are offered in pieces and without movement, film seems to offer the tantalizing possibility of presenting what Ellis describes as "the completeness of the star," a completeness only hinted at by the fragmented nature of other media. However, as Ellis goes on to argue, the film medium is unable to complete the star image because the cinematic image and the film performance both rest on what Ellis describes as "the photo effect, the paradox that the photograph presents an absence that is present." Rather than experiencing the absent-presence of the star in film as frustrating, the film audience responds to this perpetual sense of incompleteness with an optimism that perhaps next time the star image will be completed. As a result, stardom becomes implicated in serial structures (one form of which is the sequel), where the audience hopes that "maybe in the next film I'll have access to the star's complete personality."
Although Ellis's account makes the film audience seem rather gullible, it has the virtue of illustrating how films can become involved in serial patterns and how those patterns are connected to the articulation of stardom. Evidence suggests that connections between seriality and stardom in film go back many years. In the early teens, the fame of such stars as Mary Pickford was built from a series of films. In this context, a "series was a group of films that featured a particular actor or actress and was marketed to exhibitors as a package." At first glance, there is no reason why these associations between seriality and stardom should necessarily lead to the phenomenon of famous serial killers, and yet it should come as no surprise to learn that serial patterns are especially prominent in films about serial murder, as critic Amy Taubin has pointed out in her discussion of slasher movies:
In such films serial killing is a function not of character, but of the internal narrative structure and motifs (the piling up of bodies one after another). Even more importantly, it is a function of the relationship of each film both to its sequels and to all the other serials in the genre. It is the killer's ability to rise from the dead in film after film—rather than his appearance, his physical strength or even the extreme sadism of his actions—that demonises him. Thirty years of these films have primed audiences to bind the words "serial" and "killer" into the image of a superhuman monster. "He's back!" "Coming Again this summer!"
As Taubin indicates, serial killer movies not only make seriality as both theme and structure a defining feature of film but also use that seriality to promote the celebrity of the filmic serial killer, enabling movie psychos such as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, and Michael Myers in Halloween to become the famous stars of their own long-running and extremely profitable series of movies.
Although these "slasher movies" of the 1970s and 1980s signaled the beginning of the modern obsession with seeing serial killers on film, they by no means inaugurated audience interest in the subject. Serial killers have been appearing on film since at least 1926, when a young Alfred Hitchcock released The Lodger, his movie about Jack the Ripper. Since that time, there have been numerous landmarks in serial killer movies, from Fritz Lang's classic study of psychopathology, M (1931), to Hitchcock's paradigm-shifting Psycho (1960). Regardless of the richness and variety of film's long-standing preoccupation with serial killers, however, the vast majority of these representations tend to share an interesting feature: an unwillingness to broach, even obliquely, the subject of famous serial killers. A lot of films depend either explicitly or implicitly on the existence of a serial killer celebrity culture, but the vast majority of these films do nothing to acknowledge the existence of this celebrity culture. To some extent, this silence partakes of a more general silence in the film industry on the subject of violence in film. As journalist Bernard Weinraub has pointed out, "the one issue over which the Hollywood hierarchy has direct control and responsibility—violence in films—has left industry executives uncharacteristically silent…Left unspoken is a tenet that Hollywood executives are almost reluctant to acknowledge: violence sells." The success of serial killer films in particular demonstrates the "salability" of violence to contemporary film, but this is not a subject that filmmakers and industry executives are going to comment on unless they absolutely have to. When they do, their tone is usually defensive because they are under attack from the self- or government-appointed culture police concerned about the deleterious social influence of violent films.
What we might call (with apologies to Thomas Harris) "the silence of the films" with respect to the fame of serial killers is more than an example of the medium's overdetermined relationship to violence. It is also another instance of a phenomenon I discussed in the introduction: both popular cultural representations of serial murder and studies of those representations have had remarkably little to say about the fame of serial killers because to do more than acknowledge the existence of that fame cursorily might make it necessary to discuss one's own imbrication with and contribution to that fame. In the case of film, however, that reluctance is particularly acute because of the importance of "identification" to the medium.
Identifying (with) Serial Killers
In the introduction, I discussed the delicate issue of whether the fame of serial killers in contemporary American culture is due partly to the way they inspire feelings of fascination, perhaps even admiration, as well as revulsion in many people. According to Simon Watney, "the question of identification—its nature and its conditions—lies absolutely at the heart of the film star phenomenon," and so film returns us to the issue of the fascination exerted by serial killers and to the following questions: can we explain the existence of famous serial killers by claiming that many people "identify" with those killers in the sense of admiring them and wanting to be like them? To what extent does an audience's identification with a film star provide a model for understanding contemporary American culture's identification with the serial killer?
In thinking through the relationship between the audience and the film star, it is tempting to follow the example of many film critics and explain the profound impact of the film star image in contemporary popular culture in terms of wish-fulfillment or imitation. In his classic early study of stardom, Edgar Morin argues that "the spectator psychically lives the exciting, intense, amorous, imaginary life of the movie heroes, i.e., identifies himself with them." In other words, one could argue that audiences identify with film stars and serial killers in the sense of wanting to be like them and that these figures therefore reflect the desires of their audience.
The vast majority of academic and popular criticism of violent movies in general and serial killer films in particular usually follows Morin's lead and criticizes such movies for encouraging/facilitating sadistic (male) viewer identification with the killer. The assumption of the centrality of viewer sadism has been a particularly prominent feature of feminist criticism of the slasher movie, and in Men, Women, and Chainsaws, her groundbreaking reevaluation of the genre, Carol Clover provides a trenchant critique of this assumption: "I do not…believe that sadistic voyeurism is the first cause of horror. Nor do I believe that real-life women and feminist politics have been entirely well served by the astonishingly insistent claim that horror's satisfactions begin and end in sadism…horror's misogyny is a far more complicated matter than the 'blood-lust' formula would have it." Clover proposes as an alternative the possibility that "male viewers are quite prepared to identify not just with screen females, but with screen females in the horror-film world, screen females in fear and pain." The critical furor that greeted the publication of Clover's book supported her argument about "the official denial of such identification" and had the virtue of stressing what should have been an obvious point: that structures of cinematic identification are enormously complex and cannot be schematized easily, if at all.
Much the same might be said of Steven Shaviro's important work in The Cinematic Body, which in many ways extends Clover's analysis by arguing for the constitutive role played by masochism, passivity, and abjection in the act of film viewing. Not only does Shaviro reject the claim that desire for sadistic mastery of the image is the motivating force in film viewing, but he actually relocates sadism in the filmic apparatus itself, rather than in the viewer's gaze: "Images literally assault the spectator, leaving him or her no space for reflection…When I watch a film, images excite my retina, 24 times a second, at a speed that is slow enough to allow for the impact and recording of stimuli, but too fast for me to keep up with them consciously. Perception has become unconscious. It is neither spontaneously active nor freely receptive, but radically passive, the suffering of a violence perpetrated against the eye." Shaviro's work not only has interesting ramifications for whom the audience is likely to "root" for (or identify with) in a serial killer film (suggesting, for example, that we are much more likely to see ourselves in the victim, the focus of passivity and masochistic suffering) but also suggests that the reason many people watch serial killer films in the first place is to subject themselves to fear rather than voyeuristically participate in the incitement of fear.
As important as the work of such scholars as Clover and Shaviro is, however, and as sympathetic as I am to attempts to make our understanding of cinematic identification more complex, there is another side of the story that comes from insisting upon the importance of generic distinctiveness. As Daniel O'Brien says, "Aside from vastly increasing the number of applications to the FBI Academy, The Silence of the Lambs' box-office success helped pave the way for a new horror sub-genre, the high-class serial killer movie." Clover has argued for highlighting the connections between the maligned genre of the slasher movie and the more respectable genre of the serial killer movie and has claimed that movies such as Blue Steel and The Silence of the Lambs "come awfully close to being slasher movies for yuppies—well made, well-acted and well-conceived versions of the familiar story of a female victim-hero who squares off against, and finally blows away, without male help, a monstrous oppressor." It is helpful to be reminded of such continuities, especially because many serial killer films made after and dependent on the mainstream success of Silence have routinely disavowed the very "slasher" connections that Clover mentions, but it is equally important to insist upon the differences between slasher movies and serial killer films. The iconic status of the character Hannibal Lecter indicates that serial killer movies such as Silence tend to feature more complexly individuated protagonists who therefore attract a greater share of audience identification than the faceless, practically anonymous killing machines of the slasher movie. Although I agree with Clover and Shaviro that structures of audience identification are fluid and multiple in all types of movies, I would argue that identification with the victim is more likely to be a feature of slasher movies than serial killer movies.
Similarly, although I would contest the simplistic equation of identification with imitation or emulation, it must be acknowledged that serial killers, much like film stars, do have fans, and this suggests the possibility that the existence of celebrity serial killers is indeed partly a result of the way in which consumers "identify" with these killers in the sense of wanting to be or think like them. There is certainly ample evidence to suggest that contemporary American interest in serial murder is not exclusively condemnatory. One thinks, for example, of the crowds of women who attended the trials of Richard Ramirez (aka "The Night Stalker"), Ted Bundy, and a number of other male serial killers, many of whom made concerted efforts to communicate with these killers. One thinks of the continuing saga of Charles Manson and his ability to attract new adherents after over thirty years in prison. One thinks in particular of the men described in Devon Jackson's article "Serial Killers and the People Who Love Them," one of whom says, "If people weren't interested in serial killers…wouldn't everybody just be watching Look Who's Talking Now? You need variation in the culture. You need to have the sickness. There's a part where I can relate to what they went through." The picture Jackson provides of men bonding around their shared enthusiasm for serial murder exemplifies Jeffrey Goldstein's point that "violent entertainment appeals primarily to males, and it appeals to them mostly in groups," but it also indicates that no matter how we think of what "identification" means in relation to serial killer celebrity culture, there is no doubt that it plays a foundational role in the facilitation of that culture. Moreover, there are reasons to believe that identification plays a more complex and important role in serial killer films than in all other existing forms of serial killer popular culture:
Success in solving the case is wholly dependent upon the novice's ability to identify fully with the killer, to learn (like any good detective of the genre) to desire what the other desires, to inhabit the place of the other's identifications. In narrative terms, identification is as much a plot device as anything else; identification both sets this drama of serial killing in motion and provides the ultimate resolution.
Although Diana Fuss is describing what Clarice Starling must do to track down Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, what she says applies to serial killer films in general. Such films are nearly always premised on a person's ability to identify with the serial killer in the sense of learning to think like him, coming to see the world through his eyes. This type of identification is often presented in these films as dangerous, because it can lead to the violent cancellation of one's own identity; but only in this way, these films suggest, can the serial killer be apprehended.
Structures of identification in serial killer movies can also be violent in quite another sense because, as Fuss suggests, identification is itself a form of serial killing:
Viewed through the lens of psychoanalysis, "seriality" and "killing" denote the defining poles of the identificatory process…At the base of every identification lies a murderous wish: the subject's desire to cannibalize the other who inhabits the place it longs to occupy. But as Freud also reminds us, identifications are at best "partial" and "extremely limited"; they must be continually renewed and serially reenacted, for the ego's appetite is voracious and unappeasable. Identification is an endless process of killing off and consuming the rival in whom the subject sees itself reflected.
Whether identification is present as a means of self-destruction or as a violent attack on others, serial killer movies tend to mobilize cinematic structures of identification in particularly intense and specific ways. In films such as Seven and Natural Born Killers, these identifications are heightened even further by the presence of film stars playing serial killers; in such instances, the curiosity that a film audience is encouraged to feel about the personality of the film star is overlaid by the American public's enduring fascination with "what makes a serial killer tick?" As a result, these films are appealing because they potentially offer the satisfaction of a dual and related curiosity on the part of the spectator about celebrities and killers, but this satisfaction can come about only if these films can discipline effectively the unstable structures of identification they generate.
As we will see, the dangers of identification that Fuss hints at are sometimes horrifically realized in serial killer movies, but mainstream Hollywood films about serial murder usually bring the potentially dangerous aspects of identification under control by giving their viewers a way to disavow their involvement with the serial killer characters; indeed, this disavowal is the secret to the success of these films and perhaps to the success of celebrity serial killer popular culture in general. Of course, disavowal is not limited to serial killer movies. Thomas M. Leitch has argued that the disavowal of violence has become a generalized feature of American films, especially as those films have become more and more violent: "For as representations of violence grow more clinical or shocking or disgusting or threatening, American films have developed an immensely sophisticated battery of techniques to disavow the power of the very images they are displaying onscreen." Leitch provides a detailed discussion of the techniques of disavowal used by contemporary American films and summarizes them in the following terms: "Violence can be rendered acceptable to a sensitive audience by being ascribed to an evil Other, or by being justified in rational terms, or by being limited in its effects, or by being stylized through narrative conventions or rituals that deny its consequences, or by being rendered pleasurable through appeals to aestheticism or masochism or eroticism." Film uses these techniques, according to Leitch, to deny personal responsibility—both the responsibility of the agents of violence and the responsibility of those who watch and enjoy the representations of violence.
While Leitch is undoubtedly correct to draw attention to the pervasiveness of the disavowal of violence in American film, I would argue that such disavowal is particularly complex and intense in serial killer movies, partly because what is being disavowed is not only one's complicity in the acts of violence one sees onscreen, but also one's involvement in a much larger serial killer culture industry that extends well beyond the bounds of the screen. Thus, although films such as Seven, Copycat, and Natural Born Killers seem to acknowledge their, and their audiences', implication in the popular culture that has made serial killers famous, these films never explore that implication to a degree that would make the audience feel uncomfortable. By either killing the serial murderer or suggesting that the true source of villainy lies elsewhere, these films let their audiences off the hook, letting them enjoy the fame of serial killers within a moralistic framework that relieves them of pursuing the implications of that enjoyment. In spite of their apparent self-consciousness about the problems inherent in making stars out of serial killers, these films ultimately remain silent about those problems and thus reap the benefits of that stardom.