Psycho killer—qu’est que c’est?

by blankpagewhitenight

“…the underside of culture is blood,

torture, death, and terror.”    Fredric Jameson

Monstrosity appears in literature and film in many forms with aberrations such as the vampire, the zombie; the list is extensive. Critically these villains can be viewed as a manifestation of deeper human and social conditions, part of their genius is that they can still be considered fictional and swept safely back under the rug. Yet, not all monsters are so easily dismissed. The psychopathic murderer, or serial killer, although often considered a monster, is undeniably human. The successful terror involved in their narratives, unlike purely fictional monsters, is that the serial killer enjoys allusions to both real murder and the gothic sublime.

What is discovered in the methodology of the psycho or serial killer represented in film or literature, what are these killers able to reveal about their social context? The argument here is that serial murder, moreover its proliferation, is a product of these modern times, a reflection perhaps, of mass production and serial society.


The cultural logic of serial murder

Serial murder is nothing new, yet it seems to be accepted by law enforcement, the public, and the media alike, that in recent decades there has been an increase that suggests an epidemic is upon us, and perhaps moreover American society. And although there has been an obvious increase in representations of serial murder in film and literature, can this alone be considered the catalyst of gross exaggeration of the real phenomenon? In a Crime and Justice article, “Multiple Homicide: Patterns of Serial and Mass Murder” criminologists James Alan Fox and Jack Levin considered a range of different arguments and the data on serial murder. Their research found the number of cases reported was slowly increasing (roughly following population growth) from 1800 through to the 1960s, and since 1970 the number of cases reported surged, reflecting nearly a tenfold increase during this period. They contend that the information is somewhat vulnerable due to the vested interest of law enforcement to ‘exaggerate’ findings in an attempt to gain more federal funding. Their research also suggested that because new technologies have better equipped law enforcement to identify links between victims slain by the same killer, or killers, this details an increase whereas the actual crimes merely went undetected for a time.

Nevertheless, there is agreement among experts in law enforcement and academia that serial murder has grown, at least on the basis of a rise in homicides committed by strangers and for unknown motive. According to the Uniform Crime Reports, for example, the percentage of murder committed by strangers or unidentified perpetrators increased from about 20 percent in 1964 to over fifty percent in 1994 (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1965, 1995).

Fox and Levin also discussed research into apprehended serial murderers and found that these killers range from the least likely condition of psychosis, through to perpetrators who were considered either sociopaths, or suffering from a crisis of identity such as suffers of borderline personality disorder. The difference is a psychotic may be unaware of their crimes, whereas the last two are disorders of character, not the mind, and are therefore aware of what they do— conveniently void of remorse. Reasons for serial murder, apart from psychotic examples, are usually to gratify some sexual fantasy involving capture and control. Overwhelmingly, the research suggested that the ‘frenzy’ or ‘thrill’ involved in the killing is an issue of power: “For these killers, murder is a form of expressive, rather than instrumental, violence. Not only do they savour the act of murder itself, but they rejoice as their victims scream and beg for mercy. They tie their victims up in order to watch them squirm; they rape, mutilate, sodomize, and degrade their victims in order to feel superior.” Although Fox and Levin’s paper does explore an extensive range of motives for serial murder, it is this article’s better judgment to accept the generalized consensus of the killer’s vested interest in the frenzy of power, as it is usually this stereotypical motive of serial murder that appears in film.

Now it is necessary here to rather abruptly direct this inquiry toward the condition of postmodernism (of which the occurrence remarkably coincides with the rise of serial murder discussed above). Notions of the postmodern are vast and to maintain focus on the throes of serial murder, only some features are discussed here; with focus on the writings of Fredric Jameson, and some reference to the work of Jean Baudrillard in latter sections. Of Jameson’s work, it is his anthology Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that is of interest, namely his section on “Culture.”

To begin, it is the implications of technology, or what Jameson referred to as the “Third Machine Age.” Of this newer aspect of multinational capitalism, the technology Jameson writes of refers to a new international network of information. This new technology, he argues, is a figure for a whole new economic world system:

The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.

The global network Jameson writes of has a decentering effect on society because of the ‘shrinking’ of the world through vast information systems. Large amounts of information can now be exchanged with the furthest reaches of the globe, within smaller spaces of time. As mentioned earlier, in Fox and Levin’s article, recent information technologies have discovered whole new methods of detection and law enforcement (forensic cataloging, profiling, national and international databases) which have avowed new methodologies, not only in detection, but also in the actual crimes. The rise of serial murder cases can therefore be seen as a product of new techniques in detecting, and linking what were seemingly unrelated murders.

New forms of technology have also seen an increase in capitalist society of production and representation, to the point where modern society is seen to perpetuate more in terms of commodities, consumption and simulacrum than ever before. These issues of “depthlessness” assert value and direct attention towards surfaces. Jameson argues this shift in attention has had an effect on society, namely upon its further alienation of the individual (initially formulated by Marx in his critique of the capitalist system and its alienation of the worker). In the modern society of surfaces, Jameson observes, “How urban squalor can be a delight to the eyes when expressed in commodification, and how an unparalleled quantum leap in the alienation of daily life in the city can now be experienced in the form of strange new hallucinatory exhilaration.” The result of this can be characterized as “one in which the alienation of the subject is displaced by the latter’s fragmentation.” In a society of surface where interchangeable and referential signs determine an identity (a person is ‘punk’ because they buy ‘punk’ clothing labels—not ‘hip-hop’ labels, and listen to ‘punk’ music—not ‘classical’ music), that identity becomes vulnerable to a type of postmodern schizophrenia. It is not the intention of this essay to suggest that postmodernism is responsible for psychosis, but rather to draw attention to the idea of identity as something that is consumed; and the inherent vulnerability in that. We will return to Jameson and try to clarify these features somewhat in further sections, but first it is necessary to dwell on this notion of the alienated worker.

As stated above, a rise in serial murder can be seen to coincide with the conditions of late capitalism. Although it is suggested that new technology is partly responsible for revealing an increase, the notion of the capitalist system in regards to production and consumption has also arguably had an influence on serial murder. Annalee Newitz considers this proposition in her article, “Serial Killers, True Crime, and Economic Performance Anxiety.” She suggests that “the serial killer—in both allegory and reality—acts out the enraged confusion with which Americans have come to regard their postwar economic and social productivity.” By profiling the modus operandiof some ofAmerica’s most notorious serial killers, Newitz identifies strong correlations between serial murderers’ actual work and their method of murder. In the article she details how John Wayne Gacy, a contractor fromIllinois, was discovered to have murdered over thirty boys, and buried them in the crawl-space under his house. After his apprehension, Gacy drew a concise map of where the bodies had been laid out “with the precision of a contractor.” Many of the victims also turned out to be ex employees of the killer. “Gacy, one might say, did not always make a distinction between people and commodities. He used his skills as a contractor both to produce buildings and to dispose of dead bodies in a systematic way.” Ted Bundy was a law student who stalked and murdered girls from campus sororities (chosen for their apparent class backgrounds). When finally captured, Bundy made a nuisance of himself during his trial by representing himself, and repeatedly discrediting his own counsel.

Ted Bundy making a nuisance of himself in court

“Ultimately, Bundy’s crimes got him the best job of his law career: his own case.”  Jeffrey Dahmer was another serial killer who blurred the lines between work and murder. His job was located in a factory where he stirred liquid chocolate in large drums. His method of killing men was to dismember them, and dissolve their body parts in a fifty-gallon drum of acid he kept for that reason. He also occasionally ate parts of his victims’ bodies. Newitz also reveals how Dahmer once stated that part of what motivated his homicidal behaviour was a fear of abandonment. For Newitz this fear is symptomatic of the alienation mentioned earlier (where workers find themselves alienated from what they produce because they do not own the means of production, nor do they own the products of their labour). She argues that the serial killers mentioned sought to literalize Marx’s metaphor of ‘dead labour’ by killing people in such a fashion. “Murder is, for these men, a way of projecting onto others the destructive feelings inspired in the workplace.” Given this vantage point of these suggestions for the rise and motive of actual serial murder, it may be interesting to now see how this relates to serial murder depicted in film.

Extraordinarily Normal

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) opens over the cityscape and moves over the buildings to find one with a window slightly ajar. Inside Marion Crane and Sam Loomis are found dressing themselves after a lunchtime rendezvous. The casualness of the way they talk and get dressed suggest a normalcy in what we, the viewers, have found—as if we have been able to peer through an actual window to watch the young lovers interact. In a review of the film, Robin Wood comments that in this scene what “we witness between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis, while carefully and convincingly particularized in terms of character and situation, is ordinary enough for us to accept it as representative of ‘normal’ human behaviour.” We find out through the couple’s dialogue that issues of money threaten to hinder their relationship. The story then followsMarion to her work where she is entrusted with $40,000. At no certain point doesMarion appear to decide she should take the money; the envelope containing the money just seems to stay with her as she returns home because of her headache. The temptation of the money, and that it remains withMarion, allows a type of complicity on the part of the audience. It is never said that she should take the money; it is left to the viewers to think it for her. After her employer sees her out driving, and not at home with a headache, we find different moral or accusatorial voices are playing out scenarios inMarion’s thoughts. As she moves further away from these different voices of reason (and after she hurriedly swaps cars and brushes with the law) she drives deeper into bad weather and darkness, where she finally comes across Bates Motel. As she checks-in with Norman Bates we discover thatMarion has veered of course from the main highway to end up at this isolated motel.

The confrontation between Marion and Norman that occurs in his ‘parlour’ (one is reminded of the nursery rhyme: “Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly”) behind his office is where the film gets metaphorically wrung and normalcy and abnormality threaten each other.Norman, in all his efforts to convey an image of himself as normal (his name is just as ambitious) is ultimately contradicted by his stuffed dead birds, whose claws and beaks menace the edges of the room. In conversation between them,Marionrealizes the error of her decision to steal the money; acknowledging her behaviour is wrong she decides to return to her normal life. Woods writes of this scene: “In the ‘parlor’ behind his office, surrounded by Norman’s stuffed birds and paintings of classical rapes, they talk about ‘traps.’ Marion is brought face to face with the logical extension of her present condition.” Up to this point of the film, over a third of the way through, the audience has been encouraged to identify withMarion. Her murder that occurs abruptly after the parlour scene shifts the story from her point of view toNorman’s. This heightens the shock of the murder and asserts sympathy withinMarion’s dying gaze. “When it is over, and she is dead, we are left shocked, nothing to cling to, the apparent centre of the film entirely dissolved.” This is whereNormanappropriates the centre, and the film follows him as he desperately tries to cover up the murder his mother supposedly committed. He cleansMarion’s room, wipes away the blood, and buries any evidence of her, along with her car, in the swamp. The rest of the film is devoted to investigators probing for clues as toMarion’s whereabouts, withNormanfrantically trying to block their attempts and protect his murderous mother. In the end it is revealed that his mother, much like the stuffed birds in his parlour, is actually a preserved dead body, and it wasNorman’s psychosis dressed as his mother that is responsible for the crimes.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

In terms of Newitz’s argument of the blurred boundaries of work and murder for serial killers, in the parlour scene when Marioninquires about the birds around the room, Normanremarks, “It’s more than just a hobby—a hobby should pass the time, not fill it.” This macabre Hitchcockian pun alludes to the cruel way in which Normanhas in fact stuffed his own mother. Taxidermy, for Norman, is more than a hobby, as it has allowed him to avoid the guilt of his matricide. In order to capture birds for his hobby, Normanhas also had to bait them with poison. The psychiatrist at the end of the film reveals that Normanmurdered his mother with the same poison. For Norman, his work and hobby are hopelessly entangled with his methods of murder. The Bates Motel, in much the same fashion as his hobby, baits unsuspecting victims off the isolated back road. It is a faux pas on Marion’s behalf, at the end of the parlour scene, that she accidentally reveals her real name, Crane, which allows Norman to identify her as a liar, and also as a bird for his psychotic fetish. After Norman/mother has murderedMarion we also find thatNorman’s ability to cover up the murder is indebted to his talents of cleaning and turning over rooms after guests. In much the same way as Newitz argued serial murderers align their method of murder with their work, Hitchcock has ascribedNorman with the similar talents.

Alienation was another key factor in the process of a serial murderer’s mind, as Newitz argued, and again we find the case is similar with Norman Bates. It was fear of alienation and abandonment that drove Normanto dig up his mother’s corpse, in an attempt to preserve her body. Modern progress has also abandoned Norman, with the highway reportedly bypassing his motel into obscurity. The alienation Normansuffers because of this allows his psychosis to fester unnoticed. In terms of postmodernism, as Jameson remarked, the alienation of the subject is displaced by the latter’s fragmentation; whereas in Psycho, Norman’s identity has suffered a schizophrenic breakdown into apposing personalities of the mother and son (It is conceded again that in the case of postmodernism it is not a literal case of schizophrenia mentioned, moreover a symbolic kind). Although the film’s release was at the fringes of what is accepted as the postmodern era, we can see how the emergence of criminal psychology is able to explain Norman’s actions. As these new practices and technologies emerge to identify and ‘link’ serial murder, they also, in turn, become the maxim for explaining them. In the article “The Technology of Homicide: Constructions of Evidence and Truth in the American Murder Film”, author Ken Morrison comments, “In Psycho, the grid of criminal justice and psychiatry are put into play by the Hollywood system, and this grid is used both as a moral brace and as a technology for producing the truth of the official explanation.” After the psychiatrist’s explanation ofNorman’s psychosis, the next and final scene we see isMarion’s car being dredged out from the bottom of the swamp, a resolution that is suggestive of the explanation pulled from the depths ofNorman’s murky and fractured unconsciousness.

Machinegun Lovers

After Hitchcock forged the genre of slasher and serial murder film, the seventies and eighties enjoyed a barrage of movies depicting the grim violence of these disturbed killers. Just as Psycho was loosely based upon the crimes of actual killer Ed Gein, many other slasher films made since were also inspired by the same killer. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Manhunter (1986), and Silence of the Lambs (1991) have all disclosed their killers were inspired by Gein’s murders. It appears the culture of serial murder actually inspires serial film representations, and these films, in turn, inspire an entire onslaught of sequels. Barry Keith Grant writes in his article “American Psycho/sis: The Pure Products of America Go Crazy”, that the “structural repetitions inherent in the act of serial killing seem to echo the repetition compulsion in our own intensive consumption of narratives about it.” Morrison seems to concur with this argument; he writes that sensational crimes by men like Gein create an interest and demand for violent films, causing valorization of the violent acts: “Just as in the abstract world of the market where money creates value outside of itself, so violence creates value for itself once inserted into the film world.”

Serial killers, Bonnie and Clydehave also inspired serial film versions of their murders. Arthur Penn released his version of the depression era murders, Bonnie and Clyde, in 1967. Oliver Stone, in possession of a Quentin Tarantino script, released his contemporised version near the end of the millennium. Natural Born Killers (1994) is a film that attempted to address the issues of media technology’s proliferation of violence. Asserting apocalyptic overtones of biblical references, ultra-violence and Mickey Knox’s statement at the beginning of the film that, “the whole world’s coming to an end,” the film attempts to capture the paranoid millenarianism of its time. Stone also edited the film in a bizarre kaleidoscopic montage of violence spliced with different genres of film and television. The film was done this way to project the two killers’ hyperkinetic consciousness, severely fractured and fetishized by television, onto the screen. The effect is unsettling at best. The fin de siècleplot begins (after a violent prelude in a diner) with Mickey meeting Mallory at her house whilst delivering a package of meat. Both fall in love instantaneously and after Mickey serves a small stint in prison and manages to escape, they both murder Mallory’s abusive parents and escape together on the open road. The pair continue their murderous rampage along desert highway 666, killing indiscriminately, and always leaving a witness to propagate their legend. Their story gets proliferated further when tabloid reporter, Wayne Gale, follows their trail of carnage and exploits their sensational crimes. In the middle of the film, while on the run from the law and the media, Mickey and Mallory hide out at an Indian shaman’s hut. Overwhelmed by hallucinations of his abusive father, a distraught Mickey wakes from a nightmare and accidentally shoots the seer. In this scene we witness the only remorse either killer show for any murder they have committed. This confrontation ultimately leads to their capture and incarceration. Yet, even with both of them in prison, the media demand for their story leads to a controversial interview between Wayne Gale and Mickey on Super Bowl Sunday. Mickey’s philosophical musing on his murderous ways then lead to a prison riot, where Mickey and Mallory are able to escape and continue their killing spree.

Machinegun lovers Mickey and Mallory Knox

Stone’s use of a hyperkinetic montage throughout the film tries to illustrate the perverse effect of the media’s image saturation on society. Different genres and excerpts are flashed and cut at an incomprehensible rate, leaving viewers unable to process any significance in the images they are force fed. This method of decentering the narrative led one critic to argue that the “stylistic strategy has an overall destabilizing affect mimicking a schizoid hallucination experience that violates the filmic norms of how to view the world. No domain of imagery attains primacy—everything becomes suspect—as all plummet in missing-foundation freefall” (Chris Chang). The films breakdown of image and genre can be viewed as a remarkable aesthetic representation of Jameson’s critique of postmodern schizophrenia. Jameson wrote that with the schizoid experience:

[T]he breakdown of temporality suddenly releases this present of time from all the activities and internationalities that might focus it and make it a space of praxis; thereby isolated, that present suddenly engulfs the subject with undescribable vividness, a materiality of perception properly overwhelming.”

The ‘heightened intensity’ that Jameson describes here, that Mickey and Mallory suffer, is also the currency of modern hyped televised media (personified in the film as reporter Wayne Gale). In the prison interview near the end of the film, Mickey comments that he thinks the media is like weather, only it’s man-made. When Gale speaks (whose name is obviously an allusion to that comment), he often rolls and accentuates words like ‘blood’ and ‘carnage’ in a turbulent manner, while blood soaked headlines flash on screen—the common style of hyped news events.

Stone’s indictment of media’s responsibility for violence eventually fails the film, regardless of the intense schizoid projections. In the prison interview, Mickey professes a certain determinism inherent to his violent ways. During one of his televised rants he admits, “The wolf don’t know why it’s a wolf. The deer don’t know why it’s a deer… God just made it that way.” Even the title of the film suggests that they were destine for their evil ways; as they are, in fact, Natural Born Killers. In his article “The Politics of Apocalypse in the Cinema of Serial Murder”, Philip Simpson comments on the predetermined aspect in Mickey’s violence: “Narrative construction of the murderer as a ‘natural born killer,’ rather than a logical outgrowth of a culture’s flawed ideologies and practices, conforms to deeply conservative ‘bad seed’ theories of criminality extant in the culture at large.” These dulling influences of fate and mass-media ultimately leave the film confused as to what is morally to blame for the killers’ actions.

In terms of Newitz’s assertion, that employment is a formative influence in a serial killer’s method of murder, it is worth noting that Mickey is a butcher before he begins his murderous rampage. The correlations of his work and murder are obvious enough, yet Mallory’s are a little more elusive, as at the beginning of the film she is unemployed; though she is a television situation comedy—I Love Mallory—complete with a dubbed laugh track. In Mallory the determinism of evil is a little less pronounced, as she is considered more a victim of the media. During their hiatus in the Native American’s hut, the shaman tells his grandson that although Mickey is a demon, Mallory is moreover a product of too much television—her condition is projected over her torso as “lost in a world of ghosts.” This highlights the confusion in the script as to whether Mickey and Mallory’s killing is a product of fate or the media; both are insinuated and Stone ultimately leaves this question of accountability unanswered. Instead their murder remains an unexplainable monstrosity. The interesting difference the serial killer movie undergoes from the sixties through to the nineties, is that near the end of the century the killer’s actions are explained less in terms of psychiatry, and moreover for Stone, as a question of moral and political debate.

“I just want to fit in”


In Fox and Levin’s report on the patters of serial and mass murder, they state: “Despite [the] wide-ranging differences, there is one trait that appears to separate serial killers from the norm: many are exceptionally skillful in their presentation of self so that they are beyond suspicion and thus difficult to apprehend.” In the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, that was later adapted into the film, American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, much like his name-sake Norman Bates from Psycho, appears to be extraordinarily normal. Throughout the narrative his friends refer to him as “the boy next door,” and in one scene he emphasizes to his girlfriend that his meticulous attention to his appearance is because he just wants to fit in. The entire film is a development of this agenda, coupled with Bateman’s uncontrollable bloodlust. Most disconcerting is the relative ease in which Bateman can continue his gruesome acts of murder unnoticed by his yuppie colleagues of the eighties era; of which the film is set. The conservative politics of this era drastically shape the landscape and language of the film. Regan and his policies are heard in television speeches from the background of different clubs Bateman and his friends frequent, while they comment on ‘hard body’ girls they find attractive. Bateman also spends a discernable amount of his time at the gym ensuring his own physique is hard. Susan Jeffords has explored the values and ideals invested in bodies during the Regan era in her book Hard Bodies: Hollywood masculinity in the Reagan era. In it, she writes:

In the dialectic of reasoning that constituted the Regan movement, bodies were deployed in two fundamental categories: the errant body containing sexually transmitted disease, immorality, illegal chemicals, ‘laziness,’ and endangered fetuses, which we call the ‘soft body’; and the normative body that enveloped strength, labour, determination, loyalty, and courage—the ‘hard body’—the body that was to come to stand as the emblem of the Regan philosophies, politics, and economics.

Bateman’s dedication to these normative ideals of the time are obvious in his morning routines where large amounts of time are allotted for the conditioning of his body; using entire catalogues of body-care products. In many instances, it is on the ‘soft body’ (such as the homeless or young promiscuous females) which Bateman unleashes his gruesome lust for murder.

Bateman also epitomizes the superfluous 80’s era with his position on Wall Street, at the firm Pierce & Pierce (and yes, his M.O. in murder is often as such). His killings can be seen as an extension of his work, due to the notion that success on Wall Street is usually because of coercion and exploitation in the marketplace. In comment on the scourge of 80’s social excess, novelist Norman Mailer wrote:

When an entire new class thrives on the ability to make money out of the manipulation of money, and becomes altogether obsessed with the surface of things—that is, with luxury commodities, food, and appearance—then, in effect… we have entered a period of the absolute manipulation of humans by humans: the objective correlative of total manipulation is coldcock murder.

In many ways American Psycho is a yuppie horror. The appalling attitude of Bateman’s colleagues—tormenting the homeless, debasing young women, and their overall exertion of personal wealth—can be seen as the fuel and reason of Bateman’s murders. Phillip Simpson writes: “Bateman, more than the others, suffers from a crisis of not only identity but epistemology itself. So he literally strikes out in mechanical frustration against those disenfranchised people his peers victimize financially or sexually.” In this ruthless environment his murderous behaviour goes unnoticed, and any attempt of Bateman to confess is rejected as a joke, or that he was only misunderstood. In one scene a girl asks what he does for a job, and he replies, “ah, I’m into murders and executions mostly.” She unfortunately interprets him as saying, “mergers and acquisitions.” At one point he returns to a victim’s apartment, where he had left corpses everywhere and even a head on a plate in the refrigerator, and instead finds that all evidence of him being there has been cleaned up. When the real-estate agent realizes Bateman is not there to view the apartment, and that he maybe the person responsible for the mess, she only warns him to leave and not come back. Ensuring aManhattanapartment maintains a profitable return proves more important than allowing it to become a crime scene associated with lower rental rates. Over and over again, Bateman is allowed to walk away.

Ultimately the viewer is left wondering if Bateman’s murders have actually happened, or if they were only a fantasy. Towards the end it is clear there is no evidence that they have occurred. Bateman’s very last words in the narration suggest even he is at an impasse as to whether or not the crimes have actually happened: “I can gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.” This loss of credibility, as to what is real, is a symptom mentioned of the deathlessness of simulacra. Jean Baudrillard writes in his essay “Simulacra and Simulation” that in a society of surface “it is now impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real.” One of the more humorous features of the film is the inability of Bateman and his Wall Street colleagues to tell each other apart. Not only does this occur throughout the film, no one bothers to correct anyone of their fallacy. The way their identities are interchangeable is analogous to Baudrillard’s simulacra: “Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.” This rather confusing squall of replicas is perhaps best represented in the film when Bateman and his co-workers at Pierce & Pierce compare their business cards. To the viewer’s untrained eye the cards they compare are all identical, yet the nuances of type and shading they all emphatically pronounce lead Bateman to have a (status) anxiety attack. Throughout the film, for these men, nothing matters more than surface.

In the end, it seems that Bateman is nothing short of a product of his time. He murders people because no one misses, nor cares, that these people are gone. He rapes and abuses women like the glorified pornography he watches. He eats his victims because status in society is measured by what individuals consume. And he gets away with it because his surface appearance is immaculate. Jameson writes, of the schizoid and depthless postmodern condition, “As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling.” In Bateman, apart from worrying if he has a good seat in a restaurant, or if a colleagues’ business card is better than his, his emotions appear utterly vapid. In the narration we hear him internally confess: “There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow purposeful erasure.” It is perhaps the intension of American Psycho that Bateman be considered, not a monster, but an empty vessel, a simulacrum that invests himself with the values of his peers and strives only to fit in with the demands of success.

Judging by these examples of serial killers in film, it seems standard that these killers project the destructive feelings inspired by work on their victims. In Psycho, the killer Norman Bates was clarified in terms of psychiatry, and his reason for murder can be viewed as a psychotic’s answer to alienation. In latter representations of serial murderers, we find that the killer’s actions are used, in various ways, to comment and critique the modern condition. In Natural Born Killers media and consumerism were indicted, in American Psycho it was further consumerism and surface society. These films use the monstrosity of serial killers to highlight their madness as self-evident of the postmodern lived experience. And because their narratives are hopelessly tangled suggestions of real murderers and fictional horror, their intertexuality surpass the boundaries of fiction. Sadly, no matter how large the body count appears to be, their monstrosity still remains, ultimately, a human condition.

Advertisements