Tuesday, January 22, 2013
In the new Fox horror series The Following, Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy, is both a serial killer and a novelist, two things that have been romanticized and mythologized all out of proportion. (A perfect example of the mythologized writer is Carroll’s idol, Edgar Allan Poe.) Carroll is the villain of the series, and the reason people will keep coming back. Kevin Bacon’s damaged FBI agent Ryan Hardy and all the other characters are really just window dressing. Let’s be honest — this might as well be called The Joe Carroll Show.
Carroll is a serial killer with groupies. Maybe it would be more accurate to call them disciples because they carry out his orders while he plots and schemes in prison. While the first episode of The Following was not ideal viewing for dog lovers (if you saw it, you know what I mean), it’s off to a good start. It’s well written, has a fine cast, and overall, it’s a beautiful production. It occurred to me while I watched the show, sitting stiffly on my couch during a tense moment, that serial killers are the new vampires.
Not too long ago, the vampire was a scary predator. That was before, as Craig Ferguson puts it, they got sensitive and started sparkling and expressing themselves through their rippling abs. The vampire is now Fabio — a figure of airbrushed romance and teen angst. He’s dark, but in much the same way those teenagers who hang out at Hot Topic are dark — and if you’re fond of the vampire of old, just as annoying. In fiction, it’s hard to successfully dress up the vampire as a scary predator anymore, and the same thing is rapidly happening to the werewolf. If you do, you’ll inevitably hear from some upset female readers who will proclaim, “Your vampires (or werewolves) are scary! I don’t like that!”
The position the vampire once held in the horror genre is now held by the serial killer. He is the new boogeyman in horror. But it’s the position that’s new, not the serial killer. He’s been around in horror movies and fiction for decades. Serial killer movies have been popular for a long time. One swept the Oscars more than twenty years ago. Now there are even serial killer comedies. But now he’s come into our homes. First there was Dexter, which has been running since 2006, now The Following, and coming soon are primetime series about Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates. When there are enough serial killer shows on TV for people to have a favorite TV serial killer, you know the serial killer has gone fully mainstream. I’m waiting for a serial killer sitcom. (In fact, I have a pretty good idea for one — if you have any pull in the TV biz, message me.) We Americans love our serial killers. And we should — we’ve produced some of the very best. Along with porn and guns, serial killers are one of the few things we still make, and make well.
The vampire of old could manipulate people with hypnosis and/or telepathy. He could turn into a bat, or a wolf, or a creeping mist, and he had superhuman strength. He was, of course, a dead man resurrected. Undead. He drank his victims’ blood to survive, it sustained him. Traditionally, his only weaknesses were sunlight, garlic, and the trappings of Christianity, but those came and went depending on the movie or novel. The vampire usually looked like a human being, but he was a monster with supernatural powers. There was an air of romance about him, but it was dwarfed by his menace.
But he is no more. Not really. He used to make women scream, but ever since Anne Rice started writing vampire novels, he’s had to turn swooning women away due to his own exhaustion and bloat, and because, even when you live forever, there just isn't enough time in a day. In other words, he has a new career, his dance card is full and he doesn't have time to be scary anymore.
The serial killer is a human being, a mortal who can be killed. He has no supernatural powers. But ... he might as well. Just as the vampire must drink blood, the mythological serial killer must kill. It is his outlet, his meditation, his happy place, and it sustains him. He is brilliant, a seductive genius whose razor-sharp powers of perception keep him one step ahead of everyone else. Chances are, if you analyze any fictional serial killer story, you’ll probably conclude that he does have supernatural powers, which would be a requirement to do the things most fictional serial killers do. But we don’t think about that much as viewers or readers because we’ve come to expect it. That’s what fictional serial killers are, that’s what they do.
Real serial killers are different animals altogether. They are deeply dysfunctional people who always have in their background some combination of abuse — physical, sexual, psychological, or all three — personality disorders, and mental illness, a deadly brew that leaves him with deadly, bloody desires and no conscience. The one who came closest to being a seductive genius was Ted Bundy, and he was just a bright, handsome guy who also happened to be a monster. He fooled a lot of people for a while, but he wasn’t manipulating them like chess pieces on a board. But that’s neither here nor there. We’re not talking about real serial killers. We’re talking about the boogeyman.
Some people don’t think serial killer stories qualify as horror because of the absence of the supernatural. I disagree for the reasons above. We have imbued the fictional serial killer with ersatz supernatural powers because the real serial killer scares the hot, steaming shit out of us precisely because he is not supernatural. He’s just one of us. It’s never possible to recognize him for what he is, we only learn about it later, after it’s too late for his victims. Sometimes he’s an odd, quiet loner and sometimes he’s active in local politics and entertains local children by playing a clown. And sometimes he’s a mass killer who walks into a mall or school and opens fire. He is impossible to spot or predict. Because he’s one of us.
The vampire grew out of ignorance and superstition. There was a time when people were sometimes buried a little too early, and if they managed to get out of the grave, they probably didn’t look so good. Imagine happening to see someone crawl out of a grave and stagger away looking dirty and sinister. It’s the kind of thing that would stick with you, the kind of thing you’d tell others. There was never a real vampire, of course, but there was a time when the fear of vampires was very real.
The fictional serial killer is scary, but he’s scary in the way a movie or novel or TV show is scary — he’s safe. We’ve made him that way. We’ve distanced him from ourselves, made him different. He’s a seductive genius who reads people like cereal boxes and basks in his own evil. We can enjoy the gruesome chills of a Hannibal Lecter movie because he is clearly what we want him to be — not us.
The real serial killer is not different from us. He is us. He is somebody’s son, somebody’s friend, maybe somebody’s brother, maybe even somebody’s spouse. Yes, he’s a monster, but he’s a monster who’s also one of us.
We had to turn the serial killer into a supernatural boogeyman. The reality is just too horrifying.