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


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)


The meaning behind serial killers


The serial killer is the (post-)modern monster. Transgressing, subverting, finally rendering meaningless the socially constructed divide between Reality and Fiction, he (it is usually a ‘he’) is both inscrutable and overdetermined. Simultaneously fascinating and repulsive (in private life and in the public sphere), he taps into personal fears and violates cultural taboos, ultimately inviting each of us to discover our own meanings in his madness. Haunting our dreams as well as our waking lives in the news, on television, in novels, and especially (most powerfully) at the movies, the serial killer seduces us in the manner of the traditional Gothic villain while horrifying us with the threat of pure evil.

Uncanny by nature, the serial killer in film represents both rejected/projected Other and possible/potential double for each and every one of us.” (p.3)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Steven Jay Schneider (2002) ‘Introduction, Pt. II: Serial Killer Film and Television’ Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities 22(2), pp.3-6

Abstract: “In the introduction to ‘Post Script’s’ second special issue devoted to realist horror cinema, Schneider discusses the representation of the serial killer in motion pictures, viewing the figure as a vehicle for audiences to project their personal fears and their fascination with cultural taboos onto. He comments on films that portray the serial killer as a ‘supernatural being,’ such as ;Halloween,’ ‘Child’s Play,’ and ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars.’ Schneider also previews essays collected in the issue, which analyze particular movies, themes, conventions, and generic traits from a variety of theoretical perspectives.” (p.3)

The narrative uses of violence


Here’s another one of those articles I really liked: Steffen Hantke‘s (2001) ‘Violence incorporated: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative’.

In it, Hantke uses the film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, to consider the uses of gratuitous violence in popular narrative. He considers the function(s) of violence in narrative and the way in which such functions engage and reassure the audience… really interesting!

Hantke begins: “The current public discussion of media violence is shaped by two fundamental assumptions. One supposes that representations of violence reflect the steadily rising level of violence in society, while the other assumes that representations either cause or at least significantly contribute to the increase of violence.” (p.29)

“What I aim to do,” he explains, “…is to intervene on the microscopic level, tracing the rules of discourse regarding the representation of physical violence in a specific text and then drawing conclusions from this example regarding the larger cultural discourses surrounding it.” He does this by analysing a text that ‘breaks the rules’, as it were, around representations of violence: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Hantke argues “that all consumers, regardless of their demographic niche, want, or are willing to tolerate, a certain degree of violence, if portrayed in a certain manner, justified by certain moral imperatives, and legitimized by certain narrative structures – violence, in other words, that has been socially and culturally sanctioned by the proper forms of aesthetic coding.” (p.32) “The absence of these ‘proper’ forms of aestheticization,” he declares, “is exactly what makes McNaughton’s film Henry such an unsettling experience for the audience.” (p.32) It is a film that deploys violence “without the expected legitimation [of that violence]. Violence, in other words, exploited rather than employed. Gratuitous violence.” (p.34)

“The absence of a pragmatic legitimation registers as something intolerable, to some extent via categories established by social consensus, such as taste or tact – categories which themselves are tied into notions of proportionality and functionality. The absence of a proper narrative rationale has alarming consequences for the viewers and their sense of participation in the narrative process; if violence is an end in itself, then I, the viewer, must be watching, and enjoying, it for exactly what it is, and not for something else it stands for. Violence as a signifier points to nothing but itself as a signified is a thought that is all the more unsettling because my enjoyment somehow appears to erase the aesthetic distance between myself and the spectacle. My collaboration is suddently exposed as complicity, just as the violence depicted suddenly ceases to take place at a safe aesthetic distance.
Hence, violence needs to be functionally useful as an aesthetic, dramatic, narrative, affective, thematic, or contextual device. Violence must be made to mean something, to point to something beyond itself. Once the narrative engages it in a functional context, it becomes invisible as such to the extent that it is made to work for an end beyond itself.” (p.37) … “The distinction between, for example, a violent act and a loving act of compassion is elided in exactly the sense in which both equally accelerate, obstruct, or complicate the narrative.” (p.37)

What is curiously absent from the story, which is after all the story of a murderer, is a detective figure, a character who embodies, in Jenkins’ words, ‘the discourse of rationality on which the fiction depends, and through which order is imposed upon an otherwise inexplicable world’ (109). If there was such a force or figure, its effects would not only be felt in the moral nature of the narrative universe, as Jenkins suggests, but perhaps even more so in its narrative cohesion. The world of Henry is an ‘inexplicable world,’ not only because it does not meet the requirements of rationality, but also because it cannot be properly narrated.
Since there is no concrete detective figure opposing the killer, there is no dramatic tension about who is going to prevail in the end. Since there is no dramatic tension, there is no chance for proper narrative closure. The killer will, by his nature, continue to kill, as long as there is no counterforce stopping him. …The impression of many viewers that the film’s ‘tone’ is laconic, deadpan, or emotionally detached, is less due to its visual style than to its narrative organization, which refuses to prioritize, weigh, or compare in order to create a sense of proper plot.” (p.40)

Noting that there is no ‘end’ to Henry’s violence in this film (it is happening before the ‘beginning’ and will continue after the ‘end’), Hantke writes: “Violence, once it is incorporated in this ‘serial narrative,’ becomes conspicuous, because, if the narrative does not go or is not headed anywhere, what function can violence possibly have in it? It cannot cause, hinder, or accelerate events. Hence, its demonstrable lack of purpose makes it appear excessive. Its lack of a proportionate functional frame makes it appear gratuitous.” (p.41)

“In uncoupling representations of violence from their instrumental purpose, that is, by making them appear gratuitous, the moral narrative which we conventionally and tacitly superimpose upon the events suddenly appears no longer as an inevitable way of seeing the world. Instead of being written into the very fabric of narrative, it appears freestanding, a cultural construct whose integrity and credibility rests on nothing more than social convention. The ‘social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine’ (14), as White puts it, becomes caught up in the sense of arbitrariness that permeates Henry.” (p.42)

“…narratives can raise the question of what violence ultimately means; what effects it has on those who perpetrate, suffer, or witness it; how we are to assess its effects from an empirical, social, or moral point of view; or how it helps to constitute the environment we life in.” (p.35)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Steffen Hantke (2001) Violence incorporated: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative College Literature; Spring 28(2); pp.29-47

Reference is to: White, Hayden (1990) The Context of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jenkins, Philip (1994) Using Murder: The Social construction of Serial Homicide. New York: DeGruyter

Other interesting references include:Fraser, John (1974) Violence in the Arts. New York: Cambridge University Press

Grixti, Joseph (1989) Terrors of Uncertainty: The Cultural contexts of Horror Fiction. New York: Routledge

Seltzer, Mark (1998) Serial Killers: Death and life in America’s wound Culture. New York: Routledge

fighting evil, being good? – the Slayer


“Like evil, the vampire is a force that must be struggled with and overcome, and he thus represents [-p.3] only a single pole in a moral dyad. Whether or not we choose to label the vampire’s antagonist ‘good,’ there is not much of a story if the violence and destruction wrought by the vampire goes unchecked. While it is rare that a vampire tale or a treatment of the vampire legend does not include an episode in which the vampire is destroyed or banished by some agency, little attention has been paid to the history and character of the vampire’s personal nemesis, now popularly known as the vampire slayer.

In the elaborate heroic tales found in epics, the central theme is ordinarily the hero’s transformation in the struggle against evil (in the form, say, of a dragon) or oppression. In most vampire motifs, however, the ostensible forces of good who would identify, oppose, and destroy vampires tend to be nameless and often incidental to the narrative. In fact, it is only fairly recently that the vampire slayer has had anything like a leading role: Abraham van Helsing, in Dracula (1897), is arguably the first significant self-professed vampire slayer in a tradition that culminates in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).” (pp.2-3)

“The heroic nature of the vampire slayer is predicated on his ability to identify the force that saps the energy from the life of the community. Something unnatural, unholy, invades and disturbs the natural order of things, and through this puncture in the tissue of everyday existence, something – is it a certain trust in the impermeability of that which separates us from the dead? – drains out. Yet because this intruder is invisible or, at the very least, unnoticeable – he is one of us, after all – only those with a special understanding of his nature are able to intervene and stop the hemorrhage. Like the vampire, the slayer must be marked – externally, by some sign of birth or accident; internally, by his symbolic connection to the world of the dead.

The nature of this bipolar relationship between the vampire and his adversary, the hunter or slayer, and the ways in which this connection becomes manifest and changes over several hundred years have not been adequately investigated. An examination of early Balkan folklore reveals that the vampire slayer, whose perceptive powers transcend those permitted ordinary Christian villagers, is the vampire’s true mirror image. The slayer is the heroic and opposing reflection that is curiously, but necessarily, generated by the presence of evil, and he is as closely bound to evil as a reflection is to its original. If the vampire is a dangerous and antihuman replica of the human, the seer or slayer is the rejector or suppressor of the replica, who restores order by allowing the community to differentiate the authentic from the false. This critical difficulty in distinguishing the true from the false, the beneficent from the treacherous, is, as we shall see, also the basis of the conflict between early Christianity and paganism and heresy. Historically, it was out of that conflict as it was played out in the Balkans that the folkloric meaning of the vampire arose.

Contemporary culture-based interpretations of the vampire ‘myth’ have great value in explaining our apparent need to continually retell the vampire story, with all its attendant variations.” (p.7)

“The linkage between the literary vampire and the folkloric one is a topic beginning to receive a great deal of attention. However, most scholars in this area take the modern vampire, especially as it has been configured since Dracula and its immediate precursors, as their starting point. They then go back into the folklore only as far as the literature itself allows, glossing over the significance of the enormous lacunae in the knowledge of vampire folklore drawn on by those earliest investigators into the subject.” (p.9)

“While folklore about vampires seems to be dying out in the Balkans as a result of the inexorable processes of westernization and urbanization, it is not clear whether the literary and cinematic vampire theme is likewise cooling down. More precisely, it is not yet clear, as of this writing, whether we are witnessing a return of the hero within the popular vampire narrative. Certainly, the success of Buffy, which makes of the slayer a complicated superhero in a fantastic suburban universe, would seem to indicate that we are becoming more interested in making the heroic primary and the vampiric evil secondary. (In Buffy, for example, almost all of the vampires and demons that are killed are more or less nameless and unsympathetic). But the low U.S. attendance figures for universal’s high-budget Van Helsing (Universal Pictures, 2004) suggest that stories of monolithic, violent vanquishers of one-dimensional monsters cannot sustain interest and in fact miss the central point of the dual nature of the vampire-slayer pair. These days, the evil that walks among us unrecognized is more often played by the sociopathic serial or mass killer, while the hero who is intuitively connected to that disturbed orientation takes the form of a forensic psychologist, or profiler. It may be that solving the problem of real evil with real (human) agents in today’s world has surpassed any need to dally with the purely imaginary.” (p.14)

Ref: (italics in original) Bruce A. McClelland (2006) Slayers and Their Vampires : A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press

“serial killers and vampires are our two primary monstrous figures”


Just a couple more points from DJ Williams, which I thought really quite interesting: “The scholarly study of deviance traditionally has relied on positivistic, structural, and functional approaches. Such approaches provide useful but always incomplete information, and they privilege broad generalizations with little acknowledgment of details. However, Williams (2004) views deviance as being fundamentally artistic, creative, and expressive. While various forms of deviance are connected to specific symbolisms and resistances, deviance still reflects a fundamental aspect of being human. According to Williams (2004), “deviance should be understood as embodying creative, expressive, emotive, symbolic, and communicative elements that were and are central to expressionist and post-expressionist understandings of art” (p. 235).” (p.520)

“…viewing deviance as fundamentally artistic is an approach that may be useful in understanding commonalities, thus illustrating complexities and blurring rigid boundaries of difference.” (p.521)

Ref: DJ Williams (2008): Contemporary vampires and (blood‐‐red) leisure: Should we be afraid of the dark?, Leisure/Loisir, 32:2, 513-539

Reference is to: Williams, C.R. (2004). Reclaiming the expressive subject: Deviance and the art of non-normativity. Deviant Behavior, 25, 233-254.

contemporary human vampires


I haven’t yet properly read this one either, but again, it looks interesting:

“Abstract. Although stories of mythological vampires in the media (i.e., books, movies, television) have captivated audiences for years, there exist a large number of contemporary human vampires within an active underground subculture sometimes referred to as the Sanguinarium. This paper describes vastly different types of human vampires and includes an autoethnographic approach to help understand complexities of this form of deviance. Although vampirism generally is considered deviant and may be roughly divided into different types, such deviance calls into question what typically is considered “normal” in many ways. Real vampires are often perceived as psychopathological and perhaps criminal compared to normal members of society. Such perceptions and descriptions are not necessarily valid, but remain social constructions that are situated within broader cultural discourses and interpretations. Upon closer examination, many self-identified vampires and their rituals and practices can be understood as artistic, expressive, and rather normal and healthy.” (p.513)

Certainly, Williams begins with a nice, clear summary of ‘vampires’:

“For many, the word “vampire” evokes strong images and emotions. Vampire myths have been present for thousands of years in numerous cultures and geographic locations. For example, the ancient Sumerians and Assyrians believed in ekimmu and utukku vampire beings, and various vampire monsters were present in cultures throughout Europe, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Iceland, Malaysia, Scandinavia, South Africa, and the Philippines (Curran, 2005; Melton, 1999). Vampire lore was present in Ireland when Bram Stoker wrote the classic Dracula (1897) a novel that blended existing folklore with historical reports of Vlad Tepes—a particularly vicious Romanian ruler during the 1400s who tortured and impaled his enemies. Vampires have been both fascinating and frightening for a long portion of our history.

The intrigue of the vampire continues its hold on contemporary culture. Vampire movies, such as the Blade series (Amen Ra Films, 1998, 2002, 2004), The Lost Boys (Warner Bros., 1987) and Underworld (Sony Pictures, 2003, 2006) continue to thrill audiences, along with books, such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (1976-2003) and television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Warner Bros., 1997-99). A recent study of favourite movie monsters and their psychological appeal found that the vampire easily outdistanced its competitors in popularity (Fischoff, Dimopoulos, Nguyen, & Gordon, 2002/2003). According to this study, across demographics the vampire remains king of monsters. The vampire is intelligent, strong, assertive, mysterious, and seductive; yet it is also abhorrent, frightening, and repellent. It is precisely this curious mix of attributes that is responsible for its appeal. We value the positive traits of the vampire and much energy is spent in an effort to cultivate them. Yet simultaneously, beneath a well-polished socialized exterior, being human includes having various imperfections and character flaws, along with the possibility of committing atrocities under certain circumstances. Indeed, there are those who recognize and embrace this complex interplay of “the bad with the good,” that is inherent to the human condition.” (p.514)

“For some,” Williams continues, “the intrigue of the vampire moves beyond consumption of popular culture and folklore and into the realm of lifestyle, religion and subculture. There exists an active subculture of human vampires sometimes referred to as the Sanguinarium. Human vampires do not believe they are versions of undead monsters that rise from coffins after death and are repelled by crosses and garlic. Rather, they are simply human beings who strongly identify with certain characteristics of vampires; some may have religious beliefs based on interpretations about specific forms of vampires or vampirism. Over the past few decades a significant contemporary vampire subculture has developed, which can be understood as a diverse, socio-religious movement with its own distinct collective community and network of participants who share a similar belief system and lifestyle that reflect their particular conceptualization of the vampire (Keyworth, 2002). The vampire subculture may be referred to as a single entity, but there remains considerable heterogeneity therein, based on how the word vampire is perceived and applied by members. The term vampire (or vampirism) also has been used as a descriptor applied to specific individuals manifesting unusual pathology in psychiatric and criminal contexts. These externally applied designations are very different from self-identified vampires that make up the vampire subculture.” (p.515)

Picart and Greek (2003) observed that within contemporary popular culture, serial killers and vampires are our two primary monstrous figures. These constructed figures blend into each other and reflect our deepest fears and taboos, but also our most repressed fantasies and desires. Picart and Greek (2003) carefully illustrate how vampire fiction and myth have shaped our scholarly understanding of serial killing and vice versa. They wrote: [-p.520]
“The line between fact and fiction is not static or fixed—which does not mean there is no such thing as “fact,” but that “facts” are always complexly imbricated with “fiction,” just as “fiction” in order to appear authentic and narratively compelling, must possess verisimilitude, (p. 62)” (pp.519-520) “Similar to relationships of how mythology may influence understanding of psychiatric disorders,” Williams goes on, “it appears that popular leisure via consumption of cultural myths and stories greatly influence scholarly and scientific understandings of extremely violent crime, such as serial murder.” (p.520)

Williams concludes: “Mythological vampires have been significant players in the long multicultural history of human beings. Vampire monsters are able to transcend death, and are powerful, dark, intelligent, and mysterious. It may be said that human beings are also intelligent creatures, have a dark side (e.g., the shadow self), and seek power and attention. Indeed, myth and reality remain intertwined. Furthermore, consciously and subconsciously, we fear death and often struggle with thoughts of the potential finality of [-p.533] this inevitable personal event. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the mythological vampire is both human and superhuman, a villain and, simultaneously, a hero. Curiously and inconspicuously, the vampire is attractive and repulsive. It represents constructions of both “normal” and “deviant.” The vampire will always be an important part of popular culture and will continue to exert its influence on human experience.” (pp.532-533)

“Vampires remind us of the richness and diversity of human beliefs, experiences, and practices—and our common needs and fears.” (p.535)

Ref: DJ Williams (2008): Contemporary vampires and (blood‐‐red) leisure: Should we be afraid of the dark?, Leisure/Loisir, 32:2, 513-539

Reference is to: Picart, C.J., & Greek, C. (2003). The compulsion of real/reel serial killers and vampires: Toward a gothic criminology. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 10, 39-68.

emotions, knowledge and serial killers


I read this article on emotions by Jennifer Harding & E. Deidre Pribram the same day as I read some of the literature on Dexter. This following statement stuck out for me as a result…:

Because emotions have been perceived as occurring predominantly at the level of individual experience, they have been dismissed as a disturbance: irrational and, consequently, unreliable and insignificant. However, this obscures the point that they also operate socioculturally; they act simultaneously as structures of meaning and structures of power. After all, discourses of the body also function largely experientially and at the level of the individual. However, as much recent theory has shown, discourses of the body are intimately connected to larger social operations. Indeed, they are the means by which social and cultural discursive formations are embodied . We are arguing a similar set of conditions for the emotions / they are the means by which social and cultural formations affect us, that is, render us as feeling beings in a series of complex, specific ways. Simply because emotions principally are enacted (‘experienced’) at the level of the individual does not exclude them from being simultaneously implicated in larger cultural processes and structures nor, for that matter, does it make them immune to theorization.” (p.871)

I couldn’t help thinking of Dexter and his inability/desire to feel emotions like ‘normal’ people – and his development as a father and family man…

Further on in this same article (discussing Larry Grossberg’s work on affect), Jennifer Harding & E. Deidre Pribram also explain that:

“Grossberg’s point is that affect needs to be taken into account as a constitutive aspect of popular culture. It is insufficient to heed popular culture only when it is transformed, through interpretation, into either ‘art’ or, as in some avenues of cultural studies, ideology/hegemony, that is to say, when it takes on meaning.

“A potential problem with a position that argues the prevalence of an affective dimension in popular culture is that its application may lead to too dramatic a bifurcation of popular culture from elite culture, or of feeling from thinking. This may suggest an antithetical relationship between high art and pop culture, as well as between meaning and affect, as if high culture audiences do not feel and popular culture audiences do not think. But, significantly, Grossberg observes that popular culture’s dominantly affective dimension is not inherent but historically constituted and that ‘a large part of the struggle over popular culture concerns the ability of certain practices to have such effects’ (1992, p. 79). That is, popular culture practices have fought to represent and retain their association with affective experience.

The ‘interpretive task’ facing cultural studies and left-wing politics alike is to identify the strategies and sites where affective empowerment might be possible, beginning with popular culture forms that resonate affectively for consumers (1988, p. 290): ‘Those differences which do matter [affectively] can become the site of ideological struggle’ (1992, p. 105). Things that matter affectively can be taken up as sites of ideological assertion or contestation. Political positions can be claimed through and shaped by modes or instances of felt popular culture.

Arguably, this is what many contemporary cultural theorists have attempted to do in the move towards the analysis of popular culture. Specific subjects from pop culture are chosen for study, not because they are a priori ‘artistically’ significant to a trained critical eye or carry some other elite cultural value but, precisely the opposite, because they have mass emotional appeal. To continue with the example of popular music, in the case of ‘Madonna studies’ critical effort has been directed towards recapturing, for historical record, the basis of her wide appeal. Theoretical activity is taken up after popular fact, in an attempt to account for the widespread emotional affiliation of fans and to pinpoint that which is so resistant, in Williams’ terms, to historical investigation and documentation. What are the sources and effects of extensive popularity? Can they be turned into political statements or acts? Can such affective investments and energies be used to identify emergent subcultural identities?” (p.874)

I found this article really quite fascinating… how do laughter, fear, feelings of neglect, abandonment and I don’t know what appear in popular fiction… to what effect? What of feelings in Adolescent Fiction? Is there anything special about feelings in this ‘genre’? It’s interesting to consider! A couple more quotes are relevant here:

“Following Jaggar’s arguments, […] emotions are pivotal in identity formations, in the recognition of alienation from or connection to. She discusses how unexplained or uncoded feelings may cause one to feel isolated or ‘abnormal’, while recognition of others with similar feelings can serve as the ground for the formation of subcultural groups (1989).” (p.875)

We are arguing that, among other forces, emotion makes possible the exertion and reception of the effects of power relations, thereby constructing the subject and, more specifically, the emotional subject. In other words, the subject who feels is critical to the circulation of power, the establishment of social relations, and the construction of discursive and institutional formations.
Emotions are forces of energy creating ongoing movement that propels social relations. The circulation of emotion produces in and between people connections, ruptures, dependencies, responsibilities, accountabilities, and so on. In other words, people care / they are invested. If people care, certain effects are produced: they feel and act in certain ways. Individuals have emotional relations, a significant form of social relations. It is through these relations that subjects are ‘affected’, that they are constituted into specifically contoured kinds of feeling beings. Following Grossberg, the task facing cultural studies is to identify the strategies and sites where emotional authority might be possible, in addition to pinpointing the locations and terms within which emotions subordinate.” (p.879)

[Do we invest conceptions of ‘work’, ‘financial security’, ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘marriage’, etc. with emotional authority?]

In contemporary Western cultures, a prevailing assumption exists that men suppress emotion more frequently and more extensively than women - to varyingly positive or negative effects -/ while women display and release emotions more readily. Women tend to be seen as more emotionally ‘skilled’ and ‘fluent’, which confers a positive meaning. However, in contrast, being ‘more emotional’ is most often equated with being less in control of feelings in a pejorative or problematic way and has served as justification for women’s exclusion from any number of corridors of power.
Further, the gendered expression of emotion is dependent upon the emotion being considered. Men are regarded as better able to express certain emotions / anger, frustration, impatience. It then becomes possible to analyse emotions, such as anger or non-anger, as gendered structures of feeling. Such views need not be construed as essentializing. Rather, gendered subjects can be seen as constructed in/through specific discursive events such as the expression or ‘repression’ of emotion. In this case, individual subjects must live and feel the specificities of such constructions, and they must constantly re-enact / relive, refeel / those specificities in order to sustain their identities.” (p.881)

An analytics of emotion must examine specific occurrences and concrete examples. It must thoroughly examine: how emotions might be constituted and experienced; how they are used, that is, what their effects might be; how they might function with/in structures of power, towards both dominant and resistant ends; and what role they play in the formation of subjectivity and identity in the everyday lives and practices of individuals.
In other words, in order to further develop an analysis of emotion and relations between emotion and power, subjectivity and culture, we think that ‘power and emotion’ need to be discussed in detail and in relation to concrete examples.” (p.882)

Ref: Jennifer Harding & E. Deidre Pribram (2004): Losing our cool? Following Williams and Grossberg on emotions  Cultural Studies, 18:6, 863-883