2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
Everyman and no man: white, heterosexual masculinity in contemporary serial killer movies
by Nicola Rehling
Jon Amiel’s Copycat (1995) opens with renowned criminal psychologist Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) giving her stock lecture on serial killers in which she explains that serial killers murder for recognition and power, usually over women, who constitute the majority of victims. With each killing leaving them unfulfilled, they kill again driven by the hope that next time might be perfect. To highlight the group that poses most risk, Helen asks all male members of the audience to stand, and then invites those under 20 or over 35 and those of Asian and African American descent to sit down, an exercise designed to highlight that 90% of serial killers are young adult, white males (still 1). Adding that most women in the audience would probably date the men still standing, she notes that the majority of serial killers appear to be totally “normal” on the surface.
What interests me about this scene is not only the unusual highlighting of the whiteness and maleness of serial killing, but also the suggestion that there is something about white masculinity that makes it fertile terrain for the spawning of such horrendous crimes. Helen implicitly links the apparent “normality” of the serial killer with the invisibility afforded by white masculinity. At the same time, she suggests that this very anonymity is intrinsic to the pathology, since serial killers kill precisely to gain recognition. In other words, undergridding her lecture is the suggestion that white masculinity is a rather empty, depleted identity, which, in the serial killer, produces a chain of violent acts intent on attaining a form of subjectivity that remains ever elusive.
Copycat is one of the many serial killer films released in the 90s in the wake of the Oscar-winning success of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which gave a genre with its roots in the slasher cycle a newfound respectability. The popularity of the genre was immediately seized upon by the U.S. popular media and packaged up in fin-de-millennium anxieties about the state of the nation, while neo-conservatives used the opportunity to scapegoat reel for real violence. These sensationalized accounts not only eclipsed any discussion of the violence of U.S. domestic and foreign policies during the same period,[open notes in new window] but they also sidelined the gendered and raced nature of serial killing. As Richard Dyer notes, Helen’s assertion that “nine out of ten” serial killers are white males follows official statistics, and those who dispute this figure
“only manage to demonstrate small increases in percentages of women and non-white serial killers” (Seven 38). [open bibliography in new window]
White masculinity, however, has the privilege of functioning as the universal, unmarked, neutral term, a positioning dependent on the burden of excess signification carried by those bodies that are marked. Writing of African Americans, for instance, Michael Rogin argues that oppressed people are awarded a “surplus symbolic value” (417), according to which negative representations of an individual indict an entire social group. The maleness and whiteness of serial killing, conversely, both on and off screen, can remain obscured in discourses of individual pathology or more generalized discussions about the violence endemic to U.S. society.
In this essay, I would like to insert the whiteness as well as the maleness of serial killing into my analysis of the contemporary serial killer movie in order to explore the anxieties that the genre articulates about contemporary U.S., white, heterosexual masculinity. On the surface, screen serial killers have little to tell us about normative white masculinity since they occupy a position of monstrous otherness, often achieved through pathologizing discourses of sexual deviance and/or class inferiority. However, I begin by tracing how cinematic representations of non-phallic or “white trash” serial killers point to what must be excluded for the constitution of normative, white masculinity, thus underscoring its dependence on its others (that is, those identities against which it defines itself) to police its precariously unstable borders. As Jonathan Dollimore points out,
“[t]o be against (opposed to) is also to be against (close-up, in proximity to) or, in other words, up against” (229).
Consequently, while normative masculinity constructs itself as a locus of origins, it is always troubled by its mutually informing relation to its others, who often fail to provide the required stability for self-definition. Considering that uncanny doublings between detective and killer have become a staple of the genre, I then explore the effect of the detective's being embodied by a white male, whose identity is always troubled by his proximity to the serial killer.
I further tease out the very different implications of this doubling in generic revisions where the detective is a woman or person of colour, who is better able to insulate him/herself from the violence of the serial killer. This stems not only from his/her visually inscribed gender and/or racial otherness, but also his/her ability to access the positive investment in minoritized subjectivity that attends both identity politics and the postmodern celebration of difference. Such identity critiques, I argue, have resulted in concerns that white, heterosexual masculinity, as the universal, dominant, unmarked norm, is an anxiously empty identity that lacks specific content, apart from its assigned role as oppressor.
With this in mind, I end by turning my attention to a body of films which, far from othering the serial killer, represent him as “abnormally normal,” to use Mark Seltzer’s term (9). These filmic representations of the white male serial killer as unnervingly two-dimensional and vacuous allow an interrogation of contemporary concerns about commodity-driven, mass-mediated, hyperreal, postmodern culture. But in the process, they reinforce associations of white, heterosexual masculinity with sterility and emptiness, in the manner that Helen’s lecture in Copycat implicitly suggests.
The sexually deviant serial killer
The common trend of marking the screen serial killer monstrous through representations of non-phallic sexuality has its roots in Peeping Tom (1960) and Psycho (1960), whose legacies are evident in the slasher film and its upmarket relation, the 90s serial killer movie. In Peeping Tom, Mark (Carl Boehm) kills his female victims using a blade that he has fixed to his camera, attempting to capture the image of perfect fear on film. He also attaches a distorting mirror to his camera, not only forcing his female victims to watch their own murder, but also to regard themselves as monstrous (still 2). Sadistic though his actions are, they also reveal his need to bolster his failed sense of masculinist control, with his pathology attributed to the systematic abuse his scientist father inflicted on him as part of the father's investigation into the effects of fear on the nervous system. Psycho’s Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) kills women that sexually arouse him because he has psychically introjected the persona of the castrating mother he killed, installing the motif of transvestisism and transsexuality that would be repeated in numerous films, most obviously Brian De Palma’s blatant imitation Dressed to Kill (1980) (still 3).
Ever since, psychosexual killers have invariably been posited as products of a sick family, ensnared in Oedipal dramas that prevent them from achieving phallic subjectivity. As Carol Clover has argued in Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), in slasher films the masculinity of the serial killer is “severely qualified.” However phallically encoded their stabbing and slashing of female victims might be, it always belies the fact that phallic subjectivity eludes them (47).
Clover’s observations can equally be applied to those contemporary serial killer movies that recycle slasher narratives. For instance, in Copycat, in front of his domineering, bed-ridden wife/girlfriend, Peter Foley (Michael McNamara), the film’s copycat killer, is as awkward and childlike as Psycho’s Norman Bates (still 4). Helen also momentarily disarms him by taunting him with accusations of impotence. In the final chase sequence, her weapon is her hysterical but mocking laughter, which unnerves him long enough for female Detective Monahan (Holly Hunter) to shoot (still 5). In The Cell (2002), Carl’s (Vincent D’Onoforio) need to transform his victims into dolls reveals his insecurities about his masculine identity, which are again rooted in the abuse he suffered as a child.
In The Silence of the Lambs, which reworks Psycho’s transvestite serial killer narrative, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) kills size-14 women in order to make himself a bodysuit out of female skin (still 6). In a renowned scene, dancing before his own video camera, he fumbles below screen, and as he dances backwards, reveals that he has tucked his penis between his legs. Raising his colourful shawl like outstretched wings, he then completes his fantasmatic identification both with femininity and his symbol of transformation — the signature death-head moth that he leaves in his victims’ mouths (still 7). As Judith Halberstam notes, this particular scene would seem more designed to scare men than women, screening the image of “a fragmented and fragile masculinity, a male body disowning the penis” (168).
The fact that these films feature not only killers who are marked by phallic lack, but also often tough female heroines with whom we are encouraged to identify (a point I will return to), considerably complicates the rigid schema put forward by Laura Mulvey in her foundational essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), whereby the cinematic apparatus engineers identification with the sadistic, masterful male gaze. At the same time, the demonization of non-phallic masculinity and/or sexual deviance that this involves inevitably works to shore up the values of normative, heterosexual masculinity, since identity is always constructed through
“the relations to what it is not, to precisely what it lacks, to what has been called its constitutive outside” (Hall 4).
In other words, identity formation is always a process, one that requires the continual deployment of discursive and regulatory practices for the purposes of its reconsolidation. Consequently, even as the demonization of the non-phallic serial killer insulates normative masculinity from serial violence, it also reveals the latter’s dependence on its others for self-definition, and therefore its inherent instabilities.
The Silence of the Lambs reveals the process of othering at work in its representation of Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), the film’s other serial killer. In many ways they are doubled. Both violate the self/other distinction by incorporating their victims, though Lecter chooses to cannibalize them rather than dress in them. However, while Lecter, as a vicious serial killer, could by no means be termed a positive representation of white masculinity, he nonetheless functions as a fascinating, charismatic figure, gaining iconic status as popular cinema’s first serial killer hero (vampire aside) (still 8). Indeed, as many reviewers of the film noted, The Silence of the Lambs knowingly plays its two serial killers off against each other, positioning spectators to enjoy Hannibal Lecter’s escape from the authorities, but also to root for its heroine, Clarice (Jodie Foster), as she blows Buffalo Bill away.
While The Silence of the Lambs was embraced by many feminist critics for its strong female protagonist, it was picketed by lesbian and gay activists, angered at the film’s representation of Buffalo Bill, and the concomitant suggestive analogies between non-normative sexuality and serial killers at a time of rampant paranoia over the AIDS epidemic (Staiger 142). Buffalo Bill’s gruesome murders of women are directly attributed to his gender confusion and his psychic need for female identity, which the film represents through a variety of images of sexual transgression: polymorphous perversity, male effeminacy, homosexuality, transvestism, and would-be transsexuality.
Lecter, on the other hand, is only seen killing male victims (the photograph of a nurse whose face he mutilated and cannibalized remains safely off-screen), and unlike Buffalo Bill, is implicitly coded as heterosexual through his erotic interest in Clarice — despite the camp overtones in the delivery of his wittiest lines (Young 19). Lecter’s iconic status owes much to Hopkins’s compelling performance, in particular his emphatic, rasped delivery, his unnerving stiff and restrained body postures punctuated by sudden bursts of shocking violence, and his mesmerising, piercing, blue eyes, which blink with reptilian deliberation (still 9).
More importantly, unlike Buffalo Bill, Lecter is posited as a charismatic, if demonic, figure of identification, engineered through the use of controlled, tightly framed close-ups during his tense exchanges with Clarice (Tasker, Silence 10) (still 10). One meeting, which opens with Lecter ironically informing Clarice that “people will say we are in love,” is particularly erotically charged. As he hands her a file to help her with the case, a close-up cutaway shot focuses on Lecter caressing Clarice’s fingers (still 11). Lecter is also capable of perverse acts of heterosexual gallantry, such as when he talks fellow-inmate Miggs (Stuart Rudin) into killing himself as punishment for throwing semen into Clarice’s face (still 12). Thus Lecter “occupies the place of the charming but mysterious and potentially violent gothic male” to Clarice’s gothic heroine (69), while Buffalo Bill occupies the place of “the ultimate monster” (Staiger 150), positionings inextricable from the film’s discourse on sexuality.
Nevertheless, Lecter’s desire for Clarice always also renders him a potential threat — indeed, his insistence on learning about her deepest trauma in return for help capturing Buffalo Bill is posited as akin to a psychological rape. In view of the fact that most other white, heterosexual men in positions of patriarchal authority in the film show similar erotic interest in Clarice or subject her to varying degrees of sexist behaviour and/or violence, links them with the threat that both Buffalo Bill and Lecter pose, a point I explore further below. Lecter thus functions as “the other within” the category of middle-class, white, heterosexual masculinity, implicating it in his violence. However, as Elizabeth Young notes, the film’s “feminist critique of male violence against women” is severely mitigated by its demonized representation of Buffalo Bill, since it
“displaces that violence — which in social practice is overwhelmingly committed by heterosexual men — onto the fictive scapegoat of male homosexuality” (20).
Lecter is not only played off against Buffalo Bill’s sexual perversity, however. He is also differentiated in terms of his eloquence, wit, intellectual genius, and refined, middle-class tastes — he even performs the gruesome murder of his prison guards in style, to the accompaniment of Bach (still 13). Conversely, the otherness of Buffalo Bill is also inscribed through his portrayal as “white trash,” signified through his run-down abode, clothes, accent and inarticulateness, a characterization in which other 90s serial killer films follow suit (still 14).
“White trash” serial killers
The derogatory descriptor “white trash” has recently received academic attention, most notably from Annalee Newitz and Matthew Wray, who argue that
“[y]oking a classist epithet to a racist one, as white trash does, reminds us how often racism is in fact directly related to economic differences” (169).
“White trash,” they argue, is a non-dominant form of whiteness that undermines notions that white identity is necessarily “the primary locus of social privilege and power” (169). Nevertheless, this function would seem to come at a high cost in 90s films such as Copycat, Kalifornia (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994). There the serial killer is demonized through the deployment of crude stereotypes of white, working-class, rural masculinity and played off against the middle-class whites whose lives he threatens. As with the abusive, redneck sadists in John Boorman’s influential Deliverance (1972), simply being “white trash” would seem to give sufficient narrative justification for these killers’ murderous impulses.
Copycat’s first serial killer, Daryll Lee Cullum (Henry Connick Jr.), whose threat to the white, bourgeois Helen is explicitly sexual, is an unshaven, swaggering, redneck lout, with bad teeth and a crude vocabulary, who even screams out “yee ha!” after shooting a cop and spitting on his body (still 15). Kalifornia makes no bones about the class of its serial killer: as Brian (David Duchovny) and his girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes) meet Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) (whose name alone renders him an atavistic throw-back) and Adele (Juliette Lewis), Brian’s voice-over informs us:
“If you looked in the dictionary under ‘poor white trash,’ a picture of Early and Adele would have been there.”
Early has unkempt, greasy hair, scruffy clothes, and spits, swears, burps, grunts and drinks beer for breakfast (still 16). Indeed, Carrie’s original suspicions about Early are alerted solely because he offends her middle-class sensibilities. A scene at a diner makes that clear when it intercuts a close-up of Early playing with his sweaty socks at the dinner table against a shot of her disapproving gaze (still 17). Brian, on the other hand, is initially attracted to Early, and enjoys the homosocial rituals of getting drunk and learning to fire a gun with him in the face of Carrie’s disapproval. The suggestion here is that Brian’s masculinity has been jeopardized by his bourgeois, consumer-led lifestyle and his relationship with a dynamic, career-driven woman (still 18).
When it becomes obvious that Early poses a sexual threat to Carrie, however (his long-term abuse and murder of Adele are dealt with more perfunctorily), the film rehearses the common trope of remasculinization through violence. While Brian had earlier argued against the death penalty with his middle-class friends, refusing the existence of innate evil, he soon jettisons his liberal beliefs, shooting Early at close range. Brian thus guiltlessly dispenses a punishment that not only reaffirms existing class hierarchies but also differentiates him from his “white trash” other in the very act of proving that his own primal masculinity is still very much intact (still 19)
Oliver Stone’s experimental, though ideologically incoherent Natural Born Killers, on the other hand, offers a more complex representation of the “white trash” serial killer. In the tradition of the outlaw couple inaugurated by Bonnie and Clyde (1967), gender norms are violated by the fact that Mallory (Juliette Lewis) relishes in the killing spree as much as Mickey (Woody Harrelson), though her violence is contextualized against the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father (Rodney Dangerfield) as well as other male authority figures (still 20). Similarly, in the bio-doc Monster (2003), based on the life of one of the few known female serial killers, Aileen Wuornos, female violence is posited as a response not only to class injustice, but also patriarchal violence.
While Natural Born Killer’s Mickey is also given an abusive family background, unlike Mallory he is endowed with satanic dimensions, even morphing into the figure of a bald, blood-drenched devilish figure surrounded by engulfing flames in several intercutting shots throughout the film (still 21). Indeed, the stereotypically wise Native American that Mickey kills — thus forging a link between the white violence on which modern America was founded and the whiteness of serial killing — sees “demon” projected across Mickey’s chest, but believes Mallory to be suffering from “sad sickness” (still 22). Mickey, who, unlike most “white trash” serial killers, is compellingly eloquent, justifies his violence as an attempt to rise above the banality of a defiling image culture (implicitly coded as feminizing). He proudly declares himself a “natural born killer” in a scene that encapsulates the film’s pivotal discursive contradiction: blaming violence both on the contaminations of the media and an innate, primal aggression that is indexed through representations that are unavoidably classist.
The 90s trend for “white trash” serial killers can partly be attributed to their white-on-white, straight-on-straight, gender-indiscriminate violence (though women are subjected to sexual abuse, with Early and Mickey both raping female captives), which largely escape the identity critiques that have pivoted around the categories of gender, race and sexuality in recent years. In her discussion of rednecks in the horror genre, for instance, Clover argues that “the displacement of ethnic otherness onto a class of whites” is “the most significant ‘ethnic’ development” in recent popular culture (135n.21). However, it would be reductive to read these “white trash” killers solely as symbolic stand-ins for racial minorities, a reading that would overlook entrenched histories of prejudice against rural and urban, white, working-class people, who are often held responsible for their poverty. Indeed, Clover’s reading is itself also symptomatic of the ways in which class is often subsumed into racial discourse.
Newitz, on the other hand, has argued that films in which middle-class whites are abused by “white trash” villains free privileged whites from the guilt of exercising white power whilst allowing them to prove their superiority and innocence (“White Savagery” 139-44). This works to confirm classist assumptions about the abusive hypermasculinity of white working-class males and legitimize a violent resurgence of punitive power that attempts to purify middle-class whiteness, in particular middle-class, white, heterosexual masculinity, of any contamination.
However, as Newitz and Wray note, “white trash,” being both inside and outside the category of whiteness, always constitutes “both an internal and external threat” (169). This threat is evident in Stone’s more critical Natural Born Killers, which, less subtly than The Silence of the Lambs, parallels the serial killer’s violence with the violence enacted by all white male authority figures — Mallory’s father, Scagnetti the killer cop (Tom Sizemore) (still 23), Tommy Lee Jones’ hysterical prison warden (still 24), and the unctuous reality TV presenter, Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), who ends up participating in the killing spree (still 25). The film thus destabilizes the opposition between institutionalized, white, patriarchal violence and the violence of the serial killer, even as it deploys the image of the “white trash” serial killer to represent primal, unadulterated, “natural born” aggression. In the following section I further explore films that self-consciously double white male representatives of the law with the serial killer, interrogating what anxieties about white, heterosexual masculinity are screened in the process.
Uncanny doublings between the detective and serial killer: the implications for white, heterosexual masculinity
The common trend of highlighting uncanny resemblances between the detective and killer has its roots in the doubling of the hero and monster that attends the gothic tradition, where the monster represents “the other within” — that is, those fears and desires that the hero has had to repress in order to enter civilized, bourgeois society. While the monster, therefore, always functions as an othered figure, s/he always troubles the hero’s identity since s/he represents the “return of the repressed.” In the police procedural style serial killer movie, the serial killer often delights in highlighting uncanny similarities between himself and the detective, suggesting that they merely operate on different sides of the law. When the detective is embodied by a white male, any doubling between investigator and killer inevitably calls into question the detective’s sense of innocence.
Of course, in most films, the detective is redeemed in narrative closure, most often through his violent dispatch of the killer. Such a conclusion re-secures the boundaries of the detective's identity and repeats the common motif of “regeneration through violence” that Richard Slotkin has located in frontier literature and mythology, and which is endlessly repeated in popular U.S. cinema.
At the same time, the difficulty the white male detective initially faces in establishing an identity distinct from the white male serial killer, with both sharing the unmarked, universal identity of the dominant norm, not only raises questions of white, heterosexual masculinity’s complicity in patriarchal violence, but also it represents concerns about the difficulty of white male self-distinction in
“a culture that appears to organize itself around the visibility of differences and the symbolic currency of identity politics” (Robinson 3).
Red Dragon (2002), the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, and remake of the earlier Manhunter (1986), knowingly highlights similarities between the white male profiler and serial killer. One of the opening scenes reveals FBI profiler Will Graham (Edward Norton) enlisting the help of famed forensic psychoanalyst Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), whose bourgeois and professional status initially safeguards him from suspicion. As a profiler, Will’s very job is to identify with the killer’s psychic processes. When Will states, “I’m starting to be able to think like this one,” Lecter cannily replies,
“You’re able to assume the emotional point of view of other people, even those that might scare or sicken you. It’s a troubling gift, I should think. How I’d love to get you on my couch.”
When it dawns on Will that Lecter is in fact the killer he pursues, in the violent struggle that follows the two men are visually paralleled. Both are dressed in dark suit trousers and white shirts (symbols of moneyed, patriarchal authority), and both stab each other’s left side, marking their pristine white shirts with almost identical, bloody stains (still 26). After his arrest, Lecter informs Will, “You caught me because we are very much alike.” In addition, when Will’s use of an irritating journalist as bait leads to the latter’s gruesome murder at the hands of the film’s second serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), Lecter asks Will whether he enjoyed orchestrating the journalist’s death. Then, also manipulating Will’s guilt at putting his own family at risk, he taunts him by claiming, “No one will ever be safe around you.”
Lecter thus deploys his skills as a brilliant psychoanalyst in order to play on Will’s darkest fears of his own complicity. While Will asserts that there is a major difference between him and Lecter — he is not insane — the suggestion of shared characteristics is nonetheless voiced. Indeed, the final shot of Will reunited with his family in the privatized space of the bourgeois family suggests that he has turned his back on the profession that rendered his own identity and sense of innocence a fragile affair (still 27).
The Watcher (2000) and Blood Work (2002), which rehearse homoerotic narratives of a highly personal game of cat and mouse between serial killer and detective, also screen the difficulties the white male detective faces in distancing himself from the killer. The Watcher’s serial killer, David Griffin, is played by Keanu Reeves, whose wooden acting style has led to him being described “as a kind of pure, blank surface, lacking all depth” (Rutsky 187), rendering him the apotheosis of the vacuous, two-dimensional serial killer profile (still 28). Indeed, Griffin’s only passion is his relationship with the film’s profiler, Joel Campbell (James Spader). In the film’s narrative past, Griffin had kidnapped Campbell’s girlfriend in order to keep Campbell and him “together forever,” describing this event as “our finest moment.”
While Campbell manages to track Griffin down before his girlfriend is killed, his decision to leave her tied to a chair while going in pursuit of Griffin proves disastrous when the house catches fire and she is subjected to an agonizing death. Racked by guilt, Campbell is reduced to an insomniac, tranquilizer-dependent wreck who retires from the force and moves to Chicago in order to be near his girlfriend’s grave (still 29). Griffin, however, soon locates him, shadowing his every move, and forces him out of retirement by sending him pictures of his future victims. When Campbell’s female therapist suggests that Griffin re-instated their relationship because he missed Campbell, her question, “Did you miss him?” angers Campbell but nonetheless remains unanswered. Griffin, though, much like Lecter with Will in Red Dragon, delights in drawing attention to their mutually informing relationship:
“We need each other. We define each other. We’re yin and yang.” (still 30)
Blood Work rehearses a similar narrative. The serial killer also leaves profiler Terry McCaleb (Clint Eastwood) “love letters,” that is, a numerical code as clue, after every killing in order to entice him into the chase (still 31). When McCaleb suffers a massive coronary on the job, the serial killer, who turns out to be McCaleb’s irritating neighbour, James Noone (Jeff Daniels), murders organ donors who share McCaleb’s unusual blood type in order to supply McCaleb with the new heart he needs, and thus keep their relationship alive. Noone tells McCaleb that their relationship is “meant to be,” while McCaleb had earlier confided that his pursuit of the killer makes him feel more “connected” with the world around him.
The detective and killer in The Watcher and Blood Work, then, become locked in a relationship of mutual dependence, one which screens the precarious nature of white male self-definition, with the investigator being “in danger of losing his identity” because of his “obsessive pursuit” of the killer (Tasker, Working Girls 105). Moreover, the detective is also made an unwilling accomplice in the serial killer’s crimes, although the detective achieves redemption and transcendence in narrative closure when he violently kills his adversary. At the same time, both films also knowingly screen the homoerotic desire that threatens to erupt in all scenarios of homosocial bonding, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has notably observed, thus airing anxieties about the instabilities of (male) heterosexual identifications. Indeed, Noone’s self-chosen nickname “Buddy” is no coincidence in a film that reworks the homoerotic dimensions of the buddy movie (still 32).
The fact that “a lack of distance between hunter and hunted” foregrounds “questions of desires and sexuality” (Tasker, Working Girls 105) becomes more evident in those few films with female serial killers and white male investigators in the hybrid genre of the erotic thriller. The prime example, of course, is Basic Instinct (1992), which reverses the conventions of the profiler movie, since the evil serial killer, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), seems to have intimate knowledge of the detective, Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), which “serves to reinforce the suggestion of similarity between them” (105).
This similarity is highlighted throughout the film. Both have killed (Nick killed some tourists while high on cocaine), both have passed a polygraph test that acquitted them, and, as Catherine herself delights in pointing out, both revel in taking risks, professionally and sexually. As his professional identity slowly slips away from him due to his erotic involvement with Catherine — a collapsing of the private/public distinction which is common to the genre — Nick is eventually questioned by Internal Affairs in a scene that self-consciously deploys almost identical mise-en-scène, cameraworkand dialogue to Catherine’s earlier interrogation scene (stills 33 and 34). Indeed, on being asked to extinguish his cigarette, Nick echoes Catherine’s exact same line:
“What are you going to do? Charge me with smoking?”
Thus the film not only posits him as an equally monstrous figure as the killer he pursues in the manner of more conventional serial killer films, but it also articulates traditional noir instability over male identity caused by the aggressive sexuality of the femme fatale. While the film certainly plays into backlash fantasies by screening the monstrous threat posed by sexually active and professionally successful women in rather the worn narrative of white male victimhood, it also screens concerns that Nick seems to lack an identity, forced to borrow words and phrases from the woman who manipulates him at will.
These concerns, I would argue, are inextricable from the difficulties that U.S., white, heterosexual masculinity currently faces in accessing a positive, specific identity in the age of identity critiques. The structural logic of identity politics is such that it requires a dominant identity — white, heterosexual masculinity — with access to the privileges to which minority groups aspire. In the process, white, heterosexual masculinity is emptied out of positive content even as its gendered, raced and sexual privileges — that is, its particularities — are unveiled. The important political successes of identity politics have thus left the middle-class, white, heterosexual male with no distinct identity to lay claim to but that of the oppressor.
Consequently, while white, heterosexual masculinity’s universal positioning has undeniably been a position of great ideological strength, it also incorporates the anxiety that, as the dominant norm, its very ordinariness renders it a rather sterile, empty identity. Thomas DiPiero, for instance, in his analysis of Grand Canyon (1991) and White Men Can’t Jump (1992), has argued that the white male protagonists of these films are dependent on women and people of color to define their identity, leading him to suggest that white masculinity “is not represented so much as an identity” in U.S. culture as “a hysterical response to a perceived lack of identity” (117).
One response in popular cinema to this anxiety has been the much-documented emergence of “the white male as victim” figure in films such as Rambo: First Blood Part II(1985), Falling Down (1993) and Fight Club (1999). Many critics have suggested that this trend allows a recentring of the dominant identity in the very act of decentring it, as well as working on the common correlation of victimhood and innocence (Pfeil; Robinson; Savran). This certainly applies to the serial killer films I discuss above. In these the white male detectives are posited as victims as well as heroes, a recuperative strategy which reveals how (white) male power can actually reconsolidate itself “through cycles of crisis and resolution” (Modleksi 7). Nevertheless, the difficulties these white male profilers have in distancing themselves from the serial killer expresses anxieties about the dominant identity’s relation to power and violence, as well as its gnawing sense of its inability to lay claim to a specific, positive identity.
This becomes all the more apparent in films where the detective is embodied by a woman (normally white) or person of colour (normally African American male) — generic shifts which themselves testify to the (limited) successes of identity politics, with Hollywood ever keen to co-opt the discourses of politicized identity in order to capture wider audiences for its product (Davies and Smith 3). These non-white male investigators are able to access specific, minoritized identities which are unavailable to white male detectives, installing a distance between themselves and the white male serial killers they pursue.
The female detective, as Carol Clover has noted, has her roots in the slasher genre, in which increasingly the male rescuer/survivor function has been rendered “marginal or dispensed with altogether,” resulting in a female victim-hero figure that Clover dubs “the final girl” (60). Complicating Laura Mulvey’s binary schema, Clover argues that horror films tend to install a sadomasochistic visual economy, engineered through point of view shots that oscillate between the killer (sadistic identification) and victim (masochistic identification).
According to Clover, the “final girl” — who is invariably boyish, “not fully masculine” and “not fully feminine” and “sexually reluctant” to boot — acts as a stand-in with which the predominately young male audience can identify in order to experience but disavow the pleasures of masochism (40, 18). With “abject terror” still “gendered feminine” (60), therefore, Clover does not applaud the prevalence of the “final girl” as a feminist development, but rather regards her as “an agreed-upon fiction” that the male viewer can use “as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies in an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty” (53).
Personally, I would credit the “final girl” with more subversive potential than Clover, particularly as regards female viewing pleasure, which remains rather secondary in Clover’s account. But it is also important to remember that Clover’s primary focus is the slasher film, out of which the contemporary, sleek serial killer movie emerged, and in which the boyish, desexualized “final girl” has transmuted into an attractive, professional woman, often obliged to field sexual advances that threaten her profession identity. While it is important to stress that the white, female heroines of these films are not necessarily masculinized, an argument that would result in a rather circular logic (they are “figurative males” because of their narrative positioning and function), it is still the case that they are placed in positions of traditional patriarchal authority, as we see in such films as The Silence of the Lambs, Blue Steel (1990), Copycat, The Bone Collector (1999) and Taking Lives (2004) (stills 35, 36 37).
While the problematic positioning of female heroines as representatives of the law limits these films’ ability to engage in any comprehensive critique of patriarchy and its institutions, they are nonetheless able to tap into popular feminist discourses. Those discourses render the films' female detectives less troubled by their proximity to the violence of the serial killer or by the anxieties of self-distinction that plague their white male counterparts.
The Silence of the Lambs offers a particularly interesting example of the female detective. As Yvonne Tasker has noted, in accordance with generic conventions, Clarice is doubled with Buffalo Bill, since Clarice is also seeking self-transformation, though in terms of class (she wishes to transcend her working-class roots) rather than gender (Tasker, Working Girls 106). In her role as profiler, she also has to enter the psychic processes of the serial killer in order to comprehend his pathology, much as Will does in Red Dragon. However, as the generally positive feminist response to the film indicates, Clarice’s very femaleness also allows her to access the positive identity of a feminist heroine who is protecting fellow women from the insanity of male violence against women (still 38).
At the same time, as I noted above, white, heterosexual male authority figures in the film are coded as at best ineffectual and at worst abusive, largely through the process of doubling. The repellent Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) and FBI chief Agent Crawford (Scott Glenn) are both likened to Lecter due to their obvious erotic interest in Clarice, which threatens her professional identity. Moreover, Chilton betrays Clarice for spurning his unsolicited advances, which Elizabeth Young regards as an implicit “literalization” of Miggs’ “disgusting act,” differing “in degree but not in kind” (10-11) (still 39). Crawford, despite functioning as a substitute paternal figure, also uses Clarice as bait to capture Buffalo Bill, rendering her the sacrificial lamb of the title (still 40).Thus, the film “dramatiz[es] the violent symmetry of gender relations” (11), so that although Clarice finally kills Buffalo Bill to protect both herself and his latest female victim, women are represented as victims of gender violence, not its agents.
Similar strategies are at work in Copycat, where Helen, who publishes and lectures on the topic of serial killing, is at one point accused of being complicit in glorifying serial violence. As with profilers, she also has the uncanny ability to comprehend the killer’s motives and modus operandi. However, Helen is attacked by both of the film’s killers in erotically charged scenes which deploy slasher-style camerawork, orchestrating masochistic identification with the victim function in the manner that Clover suggests (still 41). In other words, the victim and aggressor roles are distinctly gendered in the film. Helen also joins forces with Monahan, whose white male partner is killed off remarkably perfunctorily in an unrelated case, forging a female alliance against (white) male violence (still 42).
African American male detectives also occupy positions of symbolic and moral authority in serial killer films such as Seven (1995) and The Bone Collector. Seven’s world-weary, resigned, African American detective, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), is doubled with serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey), as conventions dictate. Somerset shares Doe’s disgust at the immoral and degenerative world that surrounds him. He also shares Doe’s literary knowledge and erudition, which enable him to comprehend Doe’s elaborate plans to re-enact the Seven Deadly Sins (Dyer, Seven 11) (still 43). Unlike Doe, though, Somerset is also characterized by the surplus of signification that attends black bodies.
Most obviously, his role is inextricable from the stereotype of the supremely wise African American (evident in films such as The Matrix), the antithesis of the hypercriminalized black male that occupies the other pole of racial stereotyping. Somerset refuses to be dragged into Doe’s sick games, unlike his new, unstable, explosive, white male partner, Mills (Brad Pitt), who shoots Doe in cold-blood in revenge for his wife’s murder, thus fulfilling Doe’s spectacular plans to stage the final deadly sin, “wrath.” (still 44). The final scene has Mills carted away by police, now occupying the wrong side of the law, complicit in the white male violence he was supposed to prevent.
The Bone Collector screens both a bi-racial and bi-gendered alliance between an African American forensic expert, Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington), and a white female cop, Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) (still 45). While Rhyme’s blackness attracts little comment throughout the film, it still visually endows him with a specific identity unavailable to the serial killer, who, in accordance with generic conventions, is represented as a hypernormative, middle-class, white male. Rhyme is further minoritized by being severely paralysed, conducing his investigation from his bed. Deploying the mode of melodrama, therefore, the film exteriorizes Rhyme’s moral virtue and innocence through “the literal suffering of an agonized body” (Williams 29).
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), 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.
1. As Christopher Sharrett points out, “While Bush [Senior] pummelled Iraq with a devastating air Armada, the talk shows were filled with hand-wringing about the popularity of serial killer movies” (13).
2. By “normative” I do not mean “normal,” a term which is often used to oppress those people who do not conform to social norms, but rather what dominant ideology constructs as “normal,” often to the detriment of many minoritized subjects.
3. Jean Baudrillard, theorist of the hyperreal, has argued that the order of the hyperreal substitutes the signs of the real (i.e. representations and simulations of reality) for the real itself (2). In our media-saturated, image-dominated, cyber-immersed culture, Baudrillard pessimistically declares the impossibility of recovering the real, a vacuum that is being filled by simulacra (copies without originals) (19).
4. For a summary of reviewers’ discussions of the oppositions installed between Lecter and Buffalo Bill, see Staiger (145).
5. Lesbian and gay activists also picketed cinemas showing Basic Instinct for its association of transgressive sexuality with serial killing.
6. For a reading of the monster in horror films as a projection of repressed fears and desires, see Wood, ch. 5.
7. Richard Dyer has made a similar point about whiteness generally, arguing that its very ordinariness means that it cannot escape implications of non-existence, meaninglessness and sterility (White 212).
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