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Crime on a desert island (part two): The serial killer

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Blog post by Professor John Scott

The serial killer is a modern invention and an integral part of crime and popular culture. The rise of the serial killer shadows that of the detective and the serial killer shares many traits with the classic detectives, such as mystical or almost supernatural abilities. Indeed, superheroes such as Batman may represent an amalgam of both.

The daddy (few pop cultural serial killers have been women) of al serial killers is Jack the Ripper, the epithet given to a perpetrator (or perpetrators) who committed at least five brutal murders of women in London in the year 1888 (over 125 years ago). Of course, what we all know about Jack the Ripper has nothing to do with the actual crimes themselves, or the lives of the victims, or of the men who investigated them (detectives were always men back then). Our knowledge comes from stories we have read, television shows we have viewed, narratives both specific to the case and narratives, which have somehow been influenced by it. The Jack the Ripper case has become so infamous and has been so long pondered over as to have led to the coining of the term “ripperology” – the study of the Jack the Ripper crimes.

The serial killer is a relatively rare beast in society and it goes without saying (the statistics have proven this over and over again) that we are far more likely to experience violence at the hands of someone known to us in our home environment than from a sadistic psychopath who targets strangers. Yet our overarching fear of the random killer persists. Part of this fear is a distrust of modernity and all that it promised in terms of the ability to at once explain and control crime. The serial killer captures the unpredictability of crime, its randomness and the inability of scientific methods to predict and control crime. And while we may deplore their crimes, there is no doubt that we attracted to their presence on the screen.

  1. Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) and featuring Anthony Perkins (1932-1992) as killer Norman Bates.
  2. Silence of the Lambs (1991). Directed by Jonathan Demme (1944-) and featuring Anthony Hopkins (1937-) as killer Hannibal Lecter.
  3. Jack the Ripper (1988). Mini-series featuring Michael Caine (1933+) as historical figure Chief Inspector Frank Abberline of Scotland Yard.
  4. Zodiac (2007). Directed by David Fincher (1962-) and based on Zodiac murders in the san Francisco bay area of 1960s-1970s.
  5. M (1931). Early German film directed by Fritz Lang (1890-1076) and starring Peter Lorre (1904-1964) in a career defining role as a deranged child murderer.
  6. Se7en (1995). Directed by David Fincher (1962-) and featuring Brad Pitt (1963-) as a police officer tracking a serial killer.
  7. 10 Rillington Place (1971). Based on true events and directed by David Fleischer (1916-2006) with Richard Attenborough (1923-2014) as real-life serial killer John Christie.
  8. The Boston Strangler (1968).  Based on true events and directed by David Fleischer (1916-2006) with Tony Curtis (1925-2010) as real-life serial killer Albert DeSalvo.
  9. Badlands (1973).  Directed by Terrance Malick (1943) and based on events which occurred in South Dakota in 1958.  Starring Sissy Spaceck (1949-) and Martin Sheen (1940-).
  10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Directed by Tobe Hooper (1943-), this is the mother of all ‘slasher’ films

Next week: Court Room Drama

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