The abnormally normal serial killer

46: Jeff Daniels as Bloodwork’s aptly named serial killer, Noone (no one), who is literally “the man next door” to Clint Eastwood’s profiler.

47: The Bone Collector’s serial killer first appears as a medical technician, guarded from suspicion because of the invisibility awarded to white heterosexual masculinity.

48: Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) learns to self-proliferate in The Matrix Unloaded in an uncanny image of white male non-distinction.

49: With his freshly applied facemask, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman looks eerily mannequin-like.

50: The narcissistic, body-obsessed Bateman even flexes his muscles in the mirror while in the throes of having sex.

51: Bateman waxes lyrical about the 80s band Huey Lewis and the News before hacking his business rival to death with an axe in a scene replete with postmodern parody.

52: A shot of Seven’s “abnormally normal” serial killer, “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey), as he tells Detectives Mills and Somerset that he’s not exceptional, though his work is.

53: Sevenís John Doe has to call out to Detectives Mills and Somerset in order to be arrested and complete his elaborate staging of the Seven Deadly Sins.

54: Red Dragon’s serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), has tattooed his body with the image of Blake’s “The Great Red Dragon,” which acts as a punitive super-ego, inciting him to kill.

55: Copycat’s Peter Foley is actually one of the anonymous, unmarked, young white males asked to stand up during Helen’s opening lecture, though his identity is only apparent retrospectively.

56: An early shot of Peter Foley: the light bounces off his glasses underscoring his lack of depth and interiority.

57: Peter Foley assuming the role of a caring doctor in one of his many attempts to acquire a specific identity.

58: Natural Born Killer’s Mallory videotapes the killing of Wayne Gayle – elaborating on the film’s discursive concern with the relationship between serial violence and the media.


The “abnormally normal” serial killer

The anxieties about the lack of white, heterosexual male distinction that I have outlined above are also played out in the figure of what Mark Seltzer, in a study of real-life and fictional serial killers, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (1998), has dubbed “the abnormally normal serial killer” (9) [open bibliography in new window], who, alongside the sexually deviant and “white trash” killer, populated cinematic screens in the 90s.  Seltzer argues that the profile of the serial killer emerges as the very icon of “the mass in person” —  “the species of person proper to a mass-mediated public culture” (7). For example, he notes that it is commonplace for coverage of real-life serial killers to comment on his dead average looks (read white male), such as the court psychiatrists of Jeffrey Dahmer, who commented:

“Dress him in a suit and he looks like ten other men” (10).

Seltzer’s comments also apply to many serial killer films where the killer is “the man next door,” literally in the case of Blood Work, since Noone resides in the boat next to Clint Eastwood’s FBI profiler (still 46). Moreover, his very name — “no one” – self-consciously highlights the anonymity of the serial killer profile. In Stepfather (1987), the serial killer is even closer to home; he is a stepfather who moves from family to family, killing his new wife and stepchildren when they disappoint him. Blue Steel’s female cop, Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis), unwittingly dates the film’s psychokiller, while in Resurrection (1999), the killer masquerades as a profiler in whom Detective Prudhomme (Christopher Lambert) confides intimate details of the case. In The Bone Collector, the serial killer is a seemingly inconsequential medical technician, just one of the many faces that come and go in Rhyme’s apartment (still 47). In all these cases, the killer’s unremarkable appearance is afforded through the universal, anonymous status allotted to white, middle-class masculinity. Indeed, one of the few films that screens an African American serial killer, Switchback (1997), reveals just how ingrained the profile of the hypernormative, white male serial killer is. Bob Goodall  (Danny Glover) seems an unlikely suspect even in a genre that delights in unexpected twists and reversals, precisely because he does not fit the profile. Moreover, Danny Glover’s star persona as a paternal, supportive African American, cultivated primarily by his role as Mel Gibson’s buddy in the Lethal Weapon series, also works against easy audience acceptance of his villainous status, with the title itself alerting us to the switching of generic roles.

For Seltzer, serial killing must be understood within the context of a “machine culture,” characterized by mass-mediated societies, economic modes of mass production, serial consumption, and an intimate

“identification with technology that seems to empty out the very category of the subject” (20).

Seltzer contends that in such a culture, attempts at self-origination, of which serial killing is a part, will always be marked by failure since self-invention has now been routinized and the self-made man has been absorbed into the indiscriminate mass (219). Even the “abnormal normality” of the killer is dependent on “primary imitation” — looking and acting like everyone else — which is

“premised on the self as an empty category and as an effect of imitation and not its cause” (68).

Seltzer addresses the issue of the maleness of serial killing by suggesting that the serial killer channels “the withering of self-distinction […] in the direction of a distinctively gendered violence,” which “produces the torn and leaking and opened body — the un-male body — as its ‘proof’” (144). Implicit in his argument is also the fact that new modes of work, the demands of consumerism, and technologies of simulation impinge particularly on the male subject, since the association of masculinity with productivity and self-definition is violated. However, he does not address the issue of the race of the serial killer profile, with whiteness assuming its privileged position of representing the dominant norm. What interests me, though, is how concerns about “machine culture” and the failures of identity are indexed in contemporary cinema through images of the serial killer, whose sterility and emptiness is inextricable from his white male status.

One noteworthy example is the virtual reality fantasy, Virtuosity (1995), which features a white male computer programme made up of an identikit of the personalities of 200 serial killers, who is not surprisingly (virtually) embodied by a white male (Russell Crowe). His sterility is played off against the “surplus symbolic value” (Rogin 417) awarded to his passionate, grounded, African American adversary (Denzel Washington), a victim of racist abuse in the prison in which he has been wrongly incarcerated. Virtuosity conflates the serial killer with the depthless, disembodied, terminal cybersubject, who, in popular 90s cinema, is also most often represented by images of hypernormative, white masculinity. The most obvious example of this trend is The Matrix (1999), whose evil agents (computer programmes who patrol the matrix) all have the commonest Anglo-Saxon names imaginable — Mr. Smith, Mr. Brown, Mr. Jones — and all share a blank expression, identical suits, ties, tie-pins and sunglasses. This lack of white male self-distinction is further played out in the sequels when Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) learns to self-proliferate in an uncanny image of white male sameness (still 48). The human resistance, on the other hand, is made up of multi-cultural men and women, the suggestion being that diversity is a signifier of the human. These films reinscribe Cartesian discourses whereby white males, as the universal identity, can (virtually) disembody themselves more easily than women and people of colour, who have historically been represented as being at the mercy of their bodies. However, the films also articulate contemporary anxieties that this very disembodiment, enabled by the lack of surplus signification attached to white male bodies, entails implications of sterility.

American Psycho (2000), based on Bret Easton Ellis’ bitingly satirical novel, also puts the figure of the anxiously empty serial killer to transactional use, deploying it to explore concerns about hyperreal, postmodern, capitalist culture. Set in 1980s United States, and comprising an acerbic critique of yuppie culture, the film, like the book, trades on analogies between serial consumerism and serial killing (Seltzer 65). The protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), is the diametrical opposite of “white trash.” He is a monstrous incarnation of a yuppie, and serial killing the trope through which the sterility and horrors of patriarchal capitalist culture are both explored and exploited. Indeed, Bateman’s choice of predominately female victims suggests complicity between patriarchy and capitalism, with his wealth allowing him to buy victims, such as the prostitute he lures into his home, and to evade capture because of the invisibility that his moneyed, white, heterosexual, male status affords him (Grant 27).

As with the novel, Bateman is the film’s narrator, a trend of making the serial killer uncannily familiar that films such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Natural Born Killers and Man Bites Dog (1991) have also deployed, though his dully delivered voiceover works more to portray his inner-emptiness and chilling postmodern ennui than render him psychologically complex. For instance, when Bateman is getting ready for work, his voiceover lists his beauty routine, which includes an inventory of brand products, a distancing device deployed throughout Ellis’ novel (Brock qtd. in Simpson 148). As he applies a facemask that, combined with hard lighting and Christian Bale’s unnervingly affectless performance, renders his face uncannily mannequin-like, he informs us in a voiceover:

“There is an idea of Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an identity. Something illusory […] I am simply not there.” (still 49)

This lack of affect could be explained in psychoanalytic discourse as a self-protective gesture that enables him to avoid feeling at all in order to ward off trauma. But in the terms of the film itself, this emptiness is represented as inextricable from the hyperreal, commodity culture he inhabits. Bateman is pure simulacrum, an assembly of male images taken from the visual culture that surrounds him and a cliché of previous serial killers, his very name (a play on Norman Bates) rendering him nothing but a copy of a copy. Moreover, while Bateman and his friends rampantly consume, they are never shown producing. Rather their working day consists of an endless round of compliments on appearance and attempts to make reservations at exclusive restaurants (still 50). His monstrous need to penetrate and dissect the bodies of his victims thus seems to function as a means of puncturing the tyranny of the image and laying claim to the real of the body, along with a lost, primal, productive masculinity. In the case of female victims, his grizzly dismemberment of their bodies also works to reaffirm sexual difference and secure male self-distinction in the manner that Seltzer suggests (144).

That Bateman is immersed in hyperreality is represented through Harron’s postmodern stylistics, such as obvious pastiches of the slasher film, complete with chainsaw, dramatic music and masochistic identification with the female victim function. The murder of his rival Paul Allen (Jared Leto) (for having a better business card!) is also screened in an ultra-stylized mode that prevents easy identification and highlights its status as pure performance. As Allen sits on the sofa, Bateman dons a plastic raincoat and dances around the room to the 80s pop hit, “It’s Hip To Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News, whose banal lyrics Bateman deconstructs as an insightful comment on the pleasures of conformity (still 51). With this upbeat pop song as soundtrack, the film deploys a Tarantino-influenced, unnerving mixing of humour and violence, though the actual murder is performed off-screen, shifting attention to Bateman’s sterility and the culture that produced him. At the same time, parody, as Linda Hutcheon has argued, both subverts and reasserts what it parodies, deploying the codes of its object to communicate a second level of meaning (101). For this very reason, many feminist critics, far from being repulsed by Bateman, critiqued the film for glorifying male violence. Harron’s parodic strategies, therefore, might also function as an act of self-legitimization, allowing audiences to enjoy consuming celluloid violence in a guilt-free mode, even as they simultaneously communicate the “waning of affect” and depthlessness that Fredric Jameson has argued is intrinsic to postmodern culture (10), and that the film posits as constitutive of moneyed, white, heterosexual masculinity.

In keeping with this hyperreal mode, the film ends with the suggestion that Bateman’s murders are merely a figment of his warped imagination. As with Fight Club, then, it is implied that we have been anchored into the perverse fantasy life of an unreliable narrator who views violence as the only means available for men to break the chains of an oppressive, feminizing commodity culture in which masculinity circulates as an image. Whether the murders that unfold as real on screen actually happened or not, then, is a moot point, as the film questions our ability to separate violence from its representation and people from commodities.

Another such example of the “abnormally normal” serial killer can be found in David Fincher’s apocalyptic Seven. John Doe, a neo-conservative religious zealot, carries out a series of elaborately staged murders, each one punishing a representative of one of the seven deadly sins, and each sin forming the means of the murder. Doe’s appearance is average par excellence. As Richard Dyer notes, until Doe gives himself up, skilful camerawork, lighting and editing render him faceless,

“a silhouette of a pork pie hat and three-quarter length mac” (Seven 41) (still 52).

On handing himself in at a train station, he even has to shout several times before detectives Somerset and Mills take notice, and even then his face is lost in the crowd (still 53). Spacey’s performance is also the epitome of deadpan, his face expressionless except for the odd ironic smile, and his lines delivered with monotone, colourless precision (45). While it is never clear whether his name John Doe is self-chosen (43), Somerset acutely observes that he has become “John Doe” by choice. Officially he does not exist: he has no bank records, no social security number, no employment records, and even cuts off the skin on his fingertips to avoid leaving fingerprints. He is both Everyman and no man.Thus, as Dyer argues, on the one hand, Doe does not fit into commonplace serial killer profiles (victim of child abuse, mentally disturbed, sexually perverted) and even mobilizes those discourses to throw police when he leaves behind the fingerprints of his next victim, who perfectly fits the FBI identikit profile (35). Yet, on the other hand, he represents other aspects of the profile purely by being an anonymous white male (39). But if it is the privilege of white masculinity to be unremarkable, the casting of Morgan Freeman as Somerset certainly works to make Doe’s whiteness, and, by extension, the whiteness of serial killing, more visible (40), much like Denzel Washington’s blackness in The Bone Collector.

Of course, John Doe’s very ordinariness is the means by which he can escape suspicion on the route to becoming utterly extraordinary, immortalized by his intricately staged murders that have to enter the public realm if his religious crusade is to have its desired results. Killing for Doe is inextricably bound up in the public sphere, even understood as a profession that bestows on him an identity that he, as an “average” white male, lacks but desperately craves:

“I am not special. I’ve never been exceptional. This is though. What I’m doing … My work.”

In this respect, he mirrors the confessions of several real-life serial killers. Ted Bundy, for instance, referred to his serial rapes and murders as his “professional job,” suggesting that his sense of masculinity was profoundly dependent on being a productive worker (Newitz, “Serial Killers” 69). Similarly, British serial killer Dennis Nilsen posited his killings as a “career,” imagining his arrest at retirement age:

“If I had been arrested at sixty-five years of age there might have been thousands of bodies behind me” (Seltzer 18-19).

Doe’s attempts to literalize the seven deadly sins is indicative of the same failure of distance from representation that marks many other 90s serial killers in films that screen what Seltzer terms

“the contagious relation of the subject to imitation, simulation, or identification, such that identification brings the subject, and the subject’s desires, into being, and not the other way round” (65).

For instance, whereas Norman Bates killed because he had become m/other, Buffalo Bill kills in order to become other: it is his desperate need for female identity that drives him to kill. Serial killing thus seems to act

“in the service of the fantasy and not the other way around” (137).

In Taking Lives the serial killer also kills in order to adopt the identity of his victims, a response to the trauma of being the twin brother his mother loved least, the suggestion being not only that he internalized his mother’s antipathy, but also that being a twin rendered self-distinction a difficult affair. In Red Dragon, Dolarhyde kills in an act of identification with Blake’s empowering image of “The Great Red Dragon,” which forms a punishing superego, goading him to kill. Dolarhyde chooses his victims from family movies developed in the photo-lab where he works. Thus, as Seltzer notes of Thomas Harris’ novel, on which the film is based, Dolarhyde identifies with “mass reproduction generally,”

“literaliz[ing] the cannibalistic devouring of other people as objects of consumption” (114) (still 54).

Copycat’s Foley also kills solely to gain an identity, copycatting the modus operandi, the victims, and crime scenes of famous serial killers that he learnt about through the popular media. In other words, Foley has fully identified with technologies of reproduction, sharing their modes of seriality and simulation, even as the film intimates that it is those very processes that stripped him of identity in the first place. As with Seven, Copycat takes pains to empty out Foley’s identity through his dead average appearance, though in this case, Helen’s framing lecture works to make his maleness and whiteness visible in retrospect. Our first glimpses of Foley render him inconsequential. He is one of the men asked to stand up during Helen’s lecture and then he later greets a cop at the police station (still 55). In both cases his image is lost in a sea of bodies and his identity is only apparent on second viewing. His first appearance coded as the killer is faceless — just a brief close-up of his glasses that reflect back the image of his computer screen (still 56).

Moreover, Foley is utterly chameleon-like. Before his dominant, invalid wife/girlfriend, he is an awkward, sexually repressed, boyish figure. Then, when she gives him permission to return to his computer, his expression immediately changes into a smirk as he skips Norman Bates-like down the stairs. As he enters his gothic basement, the mobile camera lingers on the photographs and newspapers clippings of his crimes that he has plastered on the wall. Then, an oddly low-positioned camera trains on Foley donning a doctor’s white coat, before panning right to reveal the shocking sight of a woman’s legs and then her body strapped to a bed, with a plastic bag taped to her head, slowly asphyxiating her. As Foley punctures a hole in the bag to enable the woman a few panicked gasps of breath, he assumes the identity of a doctor, and just as he is about to inject her, with an eerily tender bedside manner informs her, “this is going to hurt a little bit, I’m afraid” (still 57). Like the white male who falsely confesses to the first murder in a desperate bid for recognition, then, Foley also lacks a coherent sense of self.

Despite its thematic concerns about the role of the media and popular culture in glamorizing serial killing, though, Copycat knowingly recycles previous films (most obviously The Silence of the Lambs) as well as citing real-life serial killers as part of its copycat narrative. Indeed, as if to advertize its complicity, the film’s title shot is a computer-generated image of a rubber stamp repeatedly imprinting the title of the film across the screen, a serialized repetition of a signifier divorced from any referent. Other serial killer films, such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, American Psycho, Copycat, The Cell, and Natural Born Killers reference their complicity by showing serial killers videotaping their murders. This trope builds on the self-knowing exploration of the pleasures of horror spectatorship first screened in Michael Powell’s inaugural Peeping Tom, which implicated the spectator in Mark’s murderous, white, male gaze (still 58) Other films, such as Red Dragon, Copycat, The Silence of the Lambs all show killers who save press clippings of their crimes, playing into popular understandings of serial killing as “a symptom of a society in which worth is measured in terms of fame” (Dyer, “Kill and Kill Again” 146). In other words, it is suggested that it is not enough for these white male serial killers to simply kill. Killing must be performed, witnessed, reproduced, and made spectacle for an imagined external other. Serial killing is thus represented as a response to “the killer’s panic about the failure of self-distinction in the mass,” as Seltzer puts it (135) — a failure that is posited as a white male predicament.

In this essay, I have not attempted to engage with the aetiology of real life serial killers, but rather to trace some of the transactional uses to which representations of white masculinity are put in the contemporary serial killer movie. Films with sexually deviant or “white trash” serial killers find ways to demonize those categories within white masculinity that threaten it with contamination, though the process of othering is never totalizing and can always yield unexpected instabilities. Those films, on the other hand, that represent the serial killer as hypernormative, both Everyman and no man, are more complex, airing anxieties about the implied emptiness of white, heterosexual masculinity and its relation to oppression in an age characterized by identity critiques. Of course, any examination of white, heterosexual masculinity is always dogged by fears of reconsolidating its dominance, while probing into its underlying insecurities can shore up its contemporary appeals to victim status. Writing specifically about white, heterosexual masculinity is also difficult precisely because its ordinary status allows it to occupy both poles of the universal/particular binary. It is both all and nothing — grounds for both privilege and anxiety. For example, it is precisely because normative white masculinity can stand as a default subjectivity that these killers can represent general anxieties. That is, at the very moment that the whiteness and maleness of serial killing are registered, the gendered and raced specificity of serial killing can then be subsumed by broader concerns about postmodern culture, revealing the ultimate privilege of white masculinity to act as a universal term even in the act of proclaiming itself to be in crisis. Despite these problems, I would like to end by echoing Thomas DiPiero’s assertion that, despite the attendant risk of further normalizing them, theorizing “average white guys,” is essential

“since the work that goes into obfuscating white men’s gender and racial characteristics is also responsible for sustaining their political, cultural, and economic dominance” (115). 

In other words, it is important to remember that straight white men may well be “ordinary” but they are always also extra-ordinary as well.

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