If there is an archetype wholly original to the 20th and now 21st centuries (if anything can ever claim to be wholly original), it’s that of the sympathetic serial killer. The serial killer himself (and occasionally herself) has existed in the popular imagination since time immemorial in the supernatural forms of bloodthirsty spirits or monsters or witches, and in human form for the last several hundred years at least. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that serial killer chic truly clawed its way into the public consciousness. It hasn’t shown any signs of leaving since.
Serial killers are attractive, even if we claim their deeds are not (and in the cases of particularly compelling killers, even that moral caveat tends to grow thinner and thinner). With some comes the allure of the sensual—they’re suave, they’re beautiful, they’re cultured, as if nature has decided it must compensate for these outer dwellers’ deficiency of manners in that one vital area by granting them impeccable taste elsewhere. With others comes the allure of understanding—we are attracted to them because we think we know their plight and their emotions, because we view these killers themselves as victims of larger forces, the great black hand of Social Injustice or Abusive Parents or Past Trauma forcing them to walk a presdestinate path of mayhem.
And there’s a subtler, ultimately more primal and powerful force at work behind each of these variants on a theme, the same force that’s at work in any piece of art but especially the art of the fantastic and the horrific. We’re attracted to these killers because we are, in a sense, the killers. Each serial murderer represents at some level the anxieties of his (or her) age, the demons and discontents and deadly flaws made manifest in a wash of crimson fluid. The artistic serial killer is society writ large, the avatar of what we wish to do but cannot find the strength to carry out or of what we do not wish to do but are too weak to avoid. The metaphors of mutilated bodies and the perverse consumption of flesh are, for their sheer visceral power, perhaps the best way we have of expressing the effects of society upon our art and upon ourselves. Just ask Christ.
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It’s always a loser’s game to declare anything The Most or The Best and so on and so forth, but it’s undeniable that, of the multitude of murderers the past century’s art has given us, three of the most compelling and widely known are Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (and yes, I’m aware that the former has actually been around since the mid-19th century; I’m coming to that). The members of this triptych are fairly representative of the serial killer archetype’s numerous facets, each formed under wildly different sorts of pressures and operating for unique personal and societal reasons. And each of these facets is in turn made up of further facets, different portrayals and interpretations ranging, in at least one case, across the centuries.
- Sweeney Todd has been the antagonist and dubious protagonist of penny dreadful novels, black-and-white horror films, comics, and stage plays since 1846; the most famous of his selves, the face I’ll be devoting the most attention to over the course of this series, is the one forged by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in his 1979 magnum opus of musical theatre, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and its 2007 film adaptation by Tim Burton.
- Patrick Bateman has been the subject of a novel, a film, and a stage musical; these variants are closer together in spirit and theme than the veritable sea of demon barbers, but I’ll still be focusing largely on a single one of them, the original Bateman of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho.
- And the good Dr. Hannibal Lecter, himself a patron of the arts, has been featured in four novels, five films, a television series, and a fan parody musical. Of these, Anthony Hopkins’ take on the character in the film version of The Silence of the Lambs is the most immediately compelling and certainly the most famous, and has the distinction of having influenced most serial killers on the screen since its 1991 release date. However, it’s neither this famous depiction nor Thomas Harris’ literary creation that is the most fulfilling portrait of Lecter. Rather, it’s Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller-penned and Mads Mikkelsen-performed incarnation of the Doctor, in all his alien glory, that I’ll be examining throughout the course of this series.
Each of the killers is of a piece with his brothers in at least one notable way. Both Sweeney Todd and Patrick Bateman are themselves victims as much as their hapless targets. Bateman and Lecter are both responsible for increasingly intricate murder tableaux as a means of fulfillment. Both Lecter and Todd are obsessed at some level with the idea of a hungry deity. Lecter ultimately stands apart from his companions in depravity for a number of reasons which will be explored, but each of the three can be seen as a stage in a progression.
Todd represents the violence of justice run amok. Bateman represents violence as a means of escape. Lecter represents violence for its own sake, or for the sake of aesthetics—two alternatives which, as Oscar Wilde so memorably points out in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, are largely the same thing.
And each of the three can be seen as society’s diagnosing its own ills, whether the ill is classism, capitalism, or posthumanism.
If we can be so bold as to even slap such labels on the problem. It is perhaps the supreme horror of Hannibal Lecter that he maintains no such diagnosis will ever solve the ultimate problem.
Nothing happened to me.
(to be continued)