[On November 17, 1894, infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Holmes and four other murderous histories, leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on true crime from one of my favorite scholars!]
On how two pop culture genres portray monstrous serial killers.
I’m sure the discipline of abnormal psychology would have something to say about this, but to my mind it’s virtually impossible to truly understand the motivation behind decades-long, horrifically brutal serial killing sprees like those undertaken by Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. I’m not going to get into the most graphic and disturbing details, but suffice to say that these men didn’t just kill dozens of strangers; they committed acts before, during, and after those murders that defy any rational (or irrational) explanation I can imagine. Moreover, both admitted those acts with (it seemed) pride during their eventual trials and (in Bundy’s case) the media interviews that accompanied them. While it’s tempting to say that we shouldn’t even try to understand such monstrous acts and figures, you don’t have to be an abnormal psychologist to recognize the importance of engaging with every kind of human identity and experience, even (perhaps especially) the most unnerving or repellent. And as is so often the case, cultural texts—and specifically here two genres of popular culture—have offered their own interesting and illuminating portrayals of the Bundy and Dahmer stories.
The first genre also happens to be one of the most ridiculed in American pop culture: the made-for-TV movie. As that hyperlinked listicle makes clear, there have certainly been plenty of terrible TV movies, although of course no cultural genre is without its bombs. And I think that the genre does allow for a certain kind of film to be made, one that might not work as a big-screen blockbuster but that offers a fictionalized spin on a real-life story (the model in particular for the sub-genre often known disparagingly as a “Lifetime movie”). Between them the Bundy and Dahmer cases have (by my admittedly unscientific count) produced at least five made-for-TV movies over the last thirty years, some starring well-known actors like Mark Harmon and Billy Campbell (both of whom played Bundy, in 1986’s The Deliberate Stranger and 2003’s The Stranger Beside Me respectively) and others with lesser lights. There are plenty of differences across those films, but to my mind they all resist the horror/slasher tendency that might come with cinema treatments of the stories, choosing instead an almost domestic drama dynamic more appropriate to the small-screen. In so doing, they at least ask us to imagine serial killers as part of our everyday world, rather than extreme or superhuman exceptions to it as is sometimes the case with film killers like Hannibal Lecter.
The second pop culture genre I’m thinking of offers a very different kind of portrayal of serial killers like Bundy and Dahmer. The Law & Order TV franchise has long promised stories “ripped from the headlines,” and has indeed, across all three of its shows, often delivered fictionalized accounts of real cases that explore both their legal and psychological facets. Neither of the episodes I’m focused on here portayed Bundy or Dahmer precisely; but both created similar serial killer criminals who, thanks in part to phenomenal guest actors, opened up such stories in new ways. On Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Fred Savage played a charismatic serial rapist and killer who was smart enough to defend himself in court and convincing enough that another defense attorney fell for his lies until she saw irrefutable evidence of his crimes; the episode linked rape culture to serial killers like Bundy in a way that forces viewers to see Bundy as something more than simply a monstrous aberration. And on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Neil Patrick Harris played a lonely and troubled serial killer who kept and ate parts of his victims, yet with whom Vincent D’Onofrio’s Detective Bobby Goren came to sympathize (to his colleagues’ frustration and anger); the episode sought to portray and understand the psychology of a monstrous killer like Dahmer better than any other cultural text I’ve encountered. We may never truly get killers like these, but cultural texts can help us get a bit closer.
Next serial studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other serial killer histories or stories you’d highlight?