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Serial killer

Related: lust murder - murder - psychopath

Serial killers: Elizabeth Bathory - Ed Gein - Gilles de Rais - Jack the Ripper

Serial killers in film: Man Bites Dog (1992) - In the Cut (2003)

Serial killers in fiction: La Bęte Humaine (1890) - Dirty Weekend (1991) - American Psycho (1991)

13th February 1891: Frances Coles is found dead under the railway arch, Swallow Gardens, Whitechapel.
image sourced here.

The Honeymoon Killers (1969) [Amazon.com]


Serial killers are individuals who have a history of multiple slayings of individuals usually unknown to them beforehand. A phenomenon which seemed to gain some prominence in the second half of the twentieth century, record of the practice can be found at least as far back as London's Jack the Ripper (1888) or Hanover's Fritz Haarmann (1924).

Although the terms "serial killer" and "mass murderer" are often used synonymously, criminologists distinguish the two. The following distinctions are commonly made:

The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines a serial killing as: "[involving] the killing of several victims in three or more separate events." This definition is especially close to that of a spree killer, and perhaps the primary difference between the two is that a serial killer tends to "lure" victims to their death, whereas a spree killer tends to go "hunting."

Serial killers are often acting on extreme sadistic urges and are often classified as sociopathic, lacking any ability to empathize with the suffering of others. In many cases, a serial killer will plead not guilty by reason of insanity. This defense is almost universally unsuccessful.

The public's fascination with serial killers led to some successful crime novels and films about fictional serial killers, including Helen Zahavi's novel Dirty Weekend, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, and the Academy Award-winning movie Silence of the Lambs. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_killer [Jul 2004]

The element of fantasy in serial killer's development

The element of fantasy in serial killer's development cannot be overemphasized. They often begin fantasizing about murder during—or even before—adolescence. Their fantasy lives are very rich and they daydream compulsively about dominating and killing people, usually with very specific elements to the murderous fantasy that will eventually be apparent in their real crimes. Some killers are influenced by reading about the Holocaust and fantasize about being in charge of concentration camps. In such cases, however, it is generally not the political ideology of Nazism that they enjoy or are inspired by, but simply an attraction to the brutality and sadism of its application. Others enjoy reading the works of Marquis de Sade, who lends his name to the word "sadism" due to his stories, which were packed with rape, torture and murder. Many use pornography, frequently the violent type involving bondage, although they may also read "detective magazines" that feature stories of real-life homicide cases. Others may even be fascinated and aroused by less obviously disagreeable material. Dahmer, for example, was fascinated by the character of Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, and even bought yellow contact lenses to make himself resemble the evil character, while several killers say their fantasies have been influenced by the Bible, in particular the Book of Revelation. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_killer#Psychology_and_development [Oct 2005]


Stranger-killing, the killing which has no motive, is something which we associate to "pure evil", and that we fear more than anything else in the world. There are several excellent examples of this morbid fascination, especially in the world of cinema: some of the most "relevant" contemporary blockbusters deal with the theme of serial killing (Ridley Scott's "Hannibal" and "The Silence of the Lambs", David Fincher's "Seven", Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho", Mary Harron's "American Psycho"). -- Albert Hofer, http://www.pileup.com/babyart/thesinisterinnocence.htm

Sadism as clinical term

The purpose of this paper is to review and discuss the application of the term sadistic to descriptions of offender crime scene behavior within the existing psychiatric and criminological literature. In doing this, the authors will discuss established terms, definitions and standards of evidence related to the concept of sadism, the confusion between behavioral prediction and analysis as evidenced in the literature, and attempt to expel myths regarding behaviors that have been erroneously assumed to be sadistic in nature. These issues will be elucidated by examples from that literature of offenders whose behavior has been labeled sadistic, in terms of whether or not they meet a proposed behavioral standard. This proposed standard was inferred by the authors from historical accounts regarding the behavior and writing of the Marquis de Sade, from the descriptions provided by the Psychopathia Sexualis, and from the criteria provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Ed. (1994).

[...] [...] in reference to those offenses described as sadistic or "lustmurder," the authors noted frequent and liberal use of relative moral descriptors. In fact, some authors have devoted sections of their professional work to discussing the moral disposition of particular offender types, and, as evidenced by excerpts in this paper, frequently use such subjective and relative terms as:

These subjective terms and moral positions form the basis for emotional arguments, as opposed to logical ones. Their meaning is furthermore culturally subjective. Therefore, while they do give readers insight into the personal belief system of the authors who use them, they arguably act as a very tangible barrier between researchers and their understanding of individual offender motivations. The use of such terms does not advance the cause of objective research. --Baeza, J. & Turvey, B., "Sadistic Behavior: A Literature Review," Knowledge Solutions Library, Electronic Publication, URL: http://www.corpus-delicti.com/sadistic_behavior.html, May, 1999

Serial killers in the cinema

  1. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) - John McNaughton [Amazon US]
    Most horror films exist in a fantasy movie-world safely removed from our existence, populated by zombie-like killers and psychopathic madmen. The power of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is its chilling placement in the mundane existence of everyday life. Michael Rooker plays Henry not as a raving psychopath but as the frumpy guy next door, a drifter who takes out his frustrations on random victims and escalates his body count after teaming up with the violent ex-con Otis (Tom Towles). Though not exceedingly gory in light of the excesses of such fantasy horrors as the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series, director John McNaughton's straightforward presentation and documentary-like style creates a chilling realism that many viewers will find hard to watch. McNaughton neither comments on nor flinches at the brutal violence, which reaches its apex in a disturbing camcorder-eye view of a particularly sadistic murder of a middle-class couple, with Henry and Otis smiling through the deed as they record it for their continued pleasure. Henry straddles the line between True Crime (though fictional, the story was inspired by the confessions of real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas) and horror, a bleak, brutal kind of terror for a generation deadened by the escalating outrageousness of movie murders and nightly news crime scene clips. --Sean Axmaker for amazon.com

  2. Natural Born Killers (1994) - Oliver Stone [Amazon US]
    Oliver Stone would like to have the last word on America's media culture of voyeurism and violence, but whatever he's trying to say in this grisly, unconventional movie comes across terribly garbled. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis play traveling serial killers who become television celebrities when a Geraldo-like personality (Robert Downey Jr.) turns their madness into the biggest story in the country. Stone extensively rewrote an original script by Quentin Tarantino, and he employs a mosaic of different film stocks, video, and pop pastiches to create a sense of blurred lines between visual phenomena. (The background on Lewis's character's life as an abused child, for instance, is presented as a sitcom starring Rodney Dangerfield.) But the result of these experiments is a pompous, even amateurish effort at grasping the reins of a real-life national debate. One almost wants to tell Stone to sit down and raise his hand next time if he thinks he has something to say. The controversial director would like Natural Born Killers to be nothing less than a monumental achievement, but it's one of the emptier entries in his filmography. --Tom Keogh

  3. Badlands (1973) - Terrence Malick [Amazon US]
    Still one of American cinema's most powerful, daring filmmaking debuts, Terrence Malick's Badlands is a quirky, visionary psychological and social enigma masquerading as a simple lovers-on-the-lam flick. Inspired by the 1958 murders in the cold, stark badlands of South Dakota by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, the film's plot, on the surface, is similar to that of other killing-couple films, like Bonnie and Clyde and Gun Crazy. Martin Sheen, in an understated, sophisticated performance, plays the strange James Dean-like social outcast who falls in love with the naďve Sissy Spacek--and then kills her father when he comes between them. The two flee like animals to the wilderness, until the police arrive and the killing spree begins. What sets the film apart from others of its genre is Malick's complicated approach. Gorgeous, impenetrable images contrast sharply with Spacek's nostalgically artless narration, serving as ironic counterpoints, blurring concrete meaning, and stressing that nothing this horrific is simple. Malick observes, rather than analyzes, the couple in a manner as detached and apathetic as the couple's shocking actions. No judgment or definitive motivations are offered, though Malick's empathy often leans toward his senseless protagonists, rather than the star-struck society that makes killers famous. Compared with the interchangeable uniform cops who hunt them and the film's other nameless characters stuck in suburban banality, the couple are presented like tarnished, warped and frustrated results of squelched individuality.

    Badlands, on one level, views America's suffocating homogeneity and, conversely, its continued obsession with celebrities (individuals considered different but adored) as hypocritical. Ambiguous and bold, the movie hints that society may be as guilty as the killers. --Dave McCoy for amazon.com

  4. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) - Jonathan Demme [Amazon US]
    Based on Thomas Harris's novel, this terrifying film by Jonathan Demme really only contains a couple of genuinely shocking moments (one involving an autopsy, the other a prison break). The rest of the film is a splatter-free visual and psychological descent into the hell of madness, redeemed astonishingly by an unlikely connection between a monster and a haunted young woman. Anthony Hopkins is extraordinary as the cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, virtually entombed in a subterranean prison for the criminally insane. At the behest of the FBI, agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) approaches Lecter, requesting his insights into the identity and methods of a serial killer named Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). In exchange, Lecter demands the right to penetrate Starling's most painful memories, creating a bizarre but palpable intimacy that liberates them both under separate but equally horrific circumstances. Demme, a filmmaker with a uniquely populist vision (Melvin and Howard, Something Wild), also spent his early years making pulp for Roger Corman (Caged Heat), and he hasn't forgotten the significance of tone, atmosphere, and the unsettling nature of a crudely effective close-up. Much of the film, in fact, consists of actors staring straight into the camera (usually from Clarice's point of view), making every bridge between one set of eyes to another seem terribly dangerous. --Tom Keogh for Amazon.com

  5. The Honeymoon Killers (1969) [Amazon.com]
    Martha Beck is an obese nurse. Through a Lonely Hearts club, she meets and falls in love with Raymond Fernandez. But Raymond is not the nice guy he pretends to be : he uses to use those clubs to meet lonely women and steal their savings. From now on, Martha and Raymond will choose together their victims. They will also start to kill them... Martha and Ray really existed : they have been put to death in 1951. --yepok for imdb.com

    There's Bonnie and Clyde--then there's Martha and Ray. One-shot writer-director Leonard Kastle set out to make a film about lover-murderers that was everything Arthur Penn's movie was not. He succeeded. Consequently, The Honeymoon Killers, based on the Lonely Hearts Killers case of 1949, may be too lurid for some. But there's a heart beating inside its (tawdry) chest and Kastle clearly cared about these two crazy, mixed-up kids who should never have met. But met Martha (Shirley Stoler) and Ray (Tony LoBianco) did and proceeded to fleece several widows before doing them in. The film isn't graphic in its violence, but each murder is increasingly disturbing. Dramatic lighting and dark passages from Mahler keep the mood close and clammy throughout. Keep an eye out for Everybody Loves Raymond's Doris Roberts in a sharp cameo--and for shots directed by original helmer Martin Scorsese (fired for working too slowly). --Kathleen C. Fennessy for amazon.com

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