Serial killer films – the monstrosity of the body and the slipping of the mask

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I think I’ve found another critic I like… Steffen Hantke addresses the ‘monstrous’ nature of serial killers, writing that:

Much of the recent discourse on monstrosity is more interested in the question what monsters mean than what they look like. […For example, Marie-Helene Huet declares that:] ”By presenting similarities to categories of beings to which they are not related, monsters blur the differences between genres and disrupt the strict order of Nature”” (p.34)

“In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the sight of the creature fills its creator with ”breathless horror and disgust”; Victor finds himself literally ”unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] had created” (57). Bram Stoker’s eponymous Dracula (from the 1897 novel), capable of moving about the crowded London streets without attracting attention, has none of these physical markers of otherness, and yet there are moments when his true nature becomes visible, his body becoming spectacular, ”panther-like in … movement,” his ”eye-teeth long and pointed,” and his general appearance transformed into something obviously ”unhuman” (266). Stevenson’s Edward Hyde (1886) already announces a shift from the surface of the body to its depths. Though Hyde’s appearance still elicits a shock of physical revulsion [-p.35] reminiscent of Shelley–the ”very essence of the creature” is ”something seizing, surprising and revolting” (39)–the physical markers of his otherness are already less distinct. Witnesses point to ”something displeasing, something downright detestable” (7), something ”abnormal and misbegotten” (39), about him, though no one can ”specify the point” (7). This difficulty in locating the exact location or nature of Hyde’s ”deformity,” however, does not detract from the witnesses’ certainty that it is indeed Hyde’s body which bears ”Satan’s signature” (12). Seeing this body commit a monstrous act is not required to understand its true nature. His is the transitional body in the history of the Gothic, one which gives ”an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation” (11-12). These examples illustrate that monstrosity never really leaves the body as its preferred site of manifestation, though it may become detached from any particular bodily characteristic.” (pp.34-35)

Monstrosity can be forced to manifest itself against the will and efforts of the monster, or it can manifest itself as a kind of Freudian lapse during a moment of inattention.” (p.35)

“This slipping of the mask is only one of the many thematic connections between these nineteenth century monsters and their pre-eminent late twentieth century descendent, the serial killer. The modern serial killer, as we find him in popular film and fiction, has a hybrid ontology. He is, to quote Philip Simpson, ”a fantastic confabulation of Gothic/romantic villain, literary vampire and werewolf, … film noir outsider, frontier outlaw, folkloric threatening figure, and [he embodies] nineteenth-century pseudo-sociological conceptions of criminal types given contemporary plausibility” (15). Despite this bewildering multiplicity of generic sources, Simpson(like many others) comes to the conclusion that fictionalized serial killers are the product of [-p.36] two major influences: the Gothic romance on the one hand, and detective fiction on the other. In the former, they occupy the position of monstrous other, from the dark and charismatic Byronic heroes of Walpole, Radcliffe, and Bronte to the monsters of Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker. In the latter, they appear as superhuman and fiendishly clever criminals plotted against such masterminds as Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes.” (pp.35-36)

Public display of the abject body has become a hallmark of the intersection of Gothic and detective fiction ever since. At first glance, the recent serial killer narrative subscribes to this generic convention as well. Often the killer’s body makes an early appearance–in most cases, before the first half of the novel or film is over. Unlike the ”whodunnit,” the serial killer genre typically shows us the killer’s face early on, and identifies him as the killer. Since he is not part of a familiar circle of suspects, it makes no difference whether or when we see his face. Nevertheless, when we do see it, especially the first time, the effect is usually something of an anticlimax. He is less than what we expected, especially in comparison with what the film has shown us of his residence, his victims’ bodies, and/or the effects that his actions have had on other characters and the community at large. Finally witnessing the killer’s body, we cannot help feeling cheated. It is the moment when the film uncovers its central mystery, yet what is uncovered appears flat, and far from enigmatic. Our appetite for illicit thrills is not satisfied, even though the preparatory stages leading up to this primal scene promise just that. And so what at first glance appears to be well within the rules of the genre instead turns out to be an inversion of one of its basic tenets. The body of the serial killer is not a site of abjection, despite what one might expect from the way its appearance is so often staged. Indeed, the vast majority of serial killers lack that one crucial feature which, according to numerous scholars and critics, effectively defines the monstrous: their evil is not written on their bodies.” (p.36)

“Mark Seltzer calls the serial killer ”the statistical person,”” (p.36)

“As closely related as the fictional serial killer narrative may be to that of the Gothic, or to the horror film generally, this is in fact one of its distinctive features: monstrosity is never revealed in that scene, so typical of the horror genre, in which the monster is glimpsed for the first time, his appearance inspiring a terrified shriek from a (typically female) character. In the traditional horror film, language breaks down when confronted with the monstrous. The scream of abject terror marks a descent into the pre- or non-lingual, and thus signifies the collapse of culture. Not so when the monstrous appears in the guise of the serial killer. Like characters in the narrative, we respond with bafflement rather than horror, with incomprehension rather than disgust, and with a need to reiterate the question–Could that really be him?–rather than with a terrified scream that rings through the horror genre’s familiar Gothic hallways.” (p.37)

“Monsters, according to yet another scholar, speak of the ”fears of contamination, impurity, and loss of identity,” carrying the outward manifestations of these fears on their bodies (Cohen14-15).” (p.38)

“Though audiences of serial killer narratives still derive their thrills from what Carrollcalls ”felt agitation,” its source cannot be the killer’s abject body, which is all solidity and bland surface. Hence, all attempts made by such narratives (especially in the medium of film) to visualize the serial killer’s inherent evil meet with a significant challenge, as monstrosity must somehow manifest itself visually. Efforts made at visualizing evil are often conceptualized as a sudden, unexpected, occasionally unobserved (other than by the audience) slippage during the killer’s otherwise seamless performance of normality; the same slippage mentioned above with respect to the Gothic monsters Dracula and Mr. Hyde. Every once in a while, the mask of normality slips, revealing the face of evil underneath.” (p.38)

Moreover, murder ”like any event, is a transitory thing,” even when it is repeated obsessively by the serial killer (Knox8). This goes some way towards explaining why films of this genre place so little emphasis on the visual representation of the murders themselves, and why they seem to share the killer’s treatment of the victims as two-dimensional and interchangeable. More importantly, [‘]The essence of the act can only ever be captured in its author. If the murderer is found to be irresponsibly insane, that vital element of authoring intent is lost and the status of the event is thrown into doubt. The insane murderous act becomes merely a kind of automatic writing, its origins obscure and unintelligible. Then, it is madness itself that becomes the subject of scrutiny, not murder.[‘] (Knox 57)” (p.44) … “While the serial killer embodies ”the mystery, the enigma of origins” (9), our focus is channeled away from the murders as a textual site where monstrosity can manifest itself.” (p.44) … “In this context, it is important to stress that the serial killer narrative, despite its rotten reputation, typically practices a degree of reluctance when it comes to showing explicit scenes of excessive violence. Conventionally, it removes itself visually from the immediate depiction of the violent act.” (p.44)

“…serial killer cinema deliberately rejects the visualizing strategies routinely availed of by other genres, with the result that the [-p.45] killer’s actions appear as a rather attenuated site for the display of spectacular monstrosity.” (pp.44-45)

“The fact that this representational option seems largely closed off returns us to the body as a site of monstrosity, and to the scenes of slippage discussed above. When the killer’s mask of normality falls for a moment, thereby enabling to see the turmoil and homicidal chaos underneath, this slippage is predicated on the assumption that because something is concealed it must be authentic. The chaos is his true identity, the calm normality a mask. But this assumption is not necessarily true.” (p.45)

As audiences repeatedly exposed to images of spectacular violence, we are taught to experience pleasure when controlled by a narrative that elicits from us unwilling manifestations of intense emotion. Held in breathless suspense, or jolted out of our seats by expertly timed shocks, we habitually flinch or groan in synch with the events on the screen (again it is Williams whose discussion of ”body genres” ties together hardcore porn and the horror film). But by reminding ourselves of our genre expertise we also experience pleasure in exercising control over these shocks and visual attacks. Horror films in particular can be said to elicit this type of pleasure in their audiences by foregrounding or thematizing genre conventions….” (p.48)

“Denied visual and narrative pleasure in all the familiar places, audiences of the serial killer film must look elsewhere. The films themselves oblige, mobilizing various maneuvers to distract from the void at their center. In one such maneuver, monstrosity ”slides off” the body of the serial killer and attaches itself to the space he inhabits. The process of zeroing in on this intimate space determines the narrative, driving it towards a climactic moment of penetration when the Gothic darkness is dispelled and the secrets of the killer brought to light (through images, writings, collections of trophies, clues to developmental regression or childhood trauma, etc.). Monstrosity also attaches itself to the bodies of the killer’s victims, which are almost always construed as objects of abjection.” (p.49)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Steffen Hantke (2002) ‘Monstrosity Without a Body: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film’ Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities. 22(2), pp.34-54

Abstract: “Hantke examines the portrayal of serial killers in various late 20th-century films and analyzes how the monstrosity of the serial killer character is represented. Unlike popular monstrous figures from literature and from early 20th-century horror cinema such as Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and Mr. Hyde, the dangerous and horrific qualities of serial killers are not manifest in their physical appearance; in fact, a defining characteristic of the serial killer film is the absolute ordinariness of the villain’s looks. Hantke extensively details the ways in which a serial killer’s deeds, rather than his physical body, become the locus of his monstrosity. Characters analyzed include: Norman Bates in “Psycho,” Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and the schizophrenic serial killer in “The Cell.”” (p.34)

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