1: Copycat’s Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) is first presented as an impressive figure of female authority, though immediately following this opening scene, she becomes the film’s first victim, viciously attacked by one of the serial killers she helped imprison.

Sexually deviant serial killers

 2: Mark (Carl Boehm) as Peeping Tom’s serial killer cameraman in a film that metacinematically explores the voyeurism and sadism inherent in the cinematic gaze.

3. Psycho’s Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) dressed as his castrating mother, establishing the motif of the gender-confused serial killer that soon became a staple of the genre.

4: Copycat’s serial killer, Peter Foley (Michael McNamara), is awkward and childlike before his wife in the domesticated space of the home.

5: Helen’s mocking and hysterical laughter function as defence against Copycat’s sexually inadequate serial killer.

6: Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) sewing together a body suit made up of the skin of his female victims in The Silence of the Lambs.

7: Buffalo Bill performs his identification with femininity and his chosen symbol of transformation – the death-head moth – before his own video camera, which mediates our access to this narcissistic display.

8: Anthony Hopkins’ renowned performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs: the tightly framed, extreme close-up renders him a fascinating but demonic figure of identification.

9: Lecter standing in an eerily restrained pose. His cell is decorated with his artwork, signifiers of his bourgeois class status.

10: Artful cinematography in The Silence of the Lambs suggests that Lecter has literally got inside Clarice’s (Jodie Foster’s) head.

11: A close-up shot of Lecter caressing Clarice’s fingers is charged with erotic tension. 

12: A prisoner throws semen into Clarice's face – a scene that epitomises the sexual threat that she faces from most of the men in the film.

13: Lecter rapturously listens to Bach after performing gruesome acts of murder.


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,[1][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[2] 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,[3] 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,[4] 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).[5] 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).

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