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Brittany Cunnien Molly Daniel ENC1145 Constructing a Serial Killer The media construction of the modern day serial killer has become a widespread cultural phenomenon and a fast growing interest among people around the world. Though serial killings have been around since the days of Jack the Ripper’s 19th century murders, they have recently received increasing media attention and curiosity since the 1950’s. A serial killer is broadly defined as a person who murders three or more individuals over a relatively short period of time. Media in the modern age has become a sizeable influence in the way people view these serial killers with shows such as Law & Order, CSI, and Criminal Minds. These shows glamorize today’s serial killer and spark interest in the audience. According to Chuck Klosterman, serial killing has become such a modern act because it “validates the seemingly irrational fear that someone you’ve never met before will just decide to capriciously end your life” (Klosterman 190). With the glamorization of today’s serial killer becoming a hot topic, the media also plays into the gender roles of these killers. Over the years, gender in media has consistently been depicted as an inherent dichotomy: there is man and there is woman. While serial killers’ lives and the lives they choose to take are not the only things being broadcasted day to day, these killers, and their ‘inherent dichotomy’ of being either male or female, have gained an almost celebrity-like status from the media attention their cases get along with the television shows, documentaries, and countless articles written about them. In recent years, the general public has become fascinated with serial killers. Julie B. Weist states that “serial murder is a type of multiple murder and refers to murders that happen


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over weeks, months or years, often with an inactive period in between the killings”(Weist 1). This type of murderer kills at least three people over some period of time and may or may not have previously known their victim (Storrs 13). Serial killers are not to be confused with mass murderers, who kill multiple people in one event, or spree killers, who kill multiple people over a short amount of time and do not maintain a regular day-to-day life in between the times of their killings. Weist also introduces the concept that, through single murders, society prefers more toward sympathizing with the victim at hand and petitioning punishment for the offence, while in the case of serial murder, the attention is transferred from the victim toward the killers themselves (Weist 2). When serial killings are broadcasted in the media, society seems to be more interested in the killer and their motives. Their habitual and formulaic behavior intrigues us. In "Consuming Cannibals: Psychopathic Archetypes and Cultural Icons," Joseph Grixti states: Interest in mass murders and serial killers is not restricted to readers of popular “true crime” paperbacks and comics, of course. Accounts involving such figures are very frequent and prominent in the mass media in news and current affairs programmes, as well as in a range of popular entertainments. As Jane Caputi puts it, serial killers of the late 20th century tend to “generate legends and attract cultlike behavior” in that they are celebrated (sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly) along a cultural gamut. (Joseph Grixti, 87) Grixti draws attention to the degree in which serial killers are portrayed in mass media and how this results in the killer being celebrated with repeated exposure rather than becoming more feared, which one would have more so expected. The thing is, those who are in control in the mass media industry, understand our


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culture’s enthrallment with violence, and especially with murder. This fascination is exploited through the continuous coverage of serial murders and the people who commit such heinous crimes. According to Matias Viegener, “serial killers are spoken of as the ‘aristocrats’ of crime reporting, strangely admired both in the prisons and in the media” (Viegener 106). Serial killers not only gain their own type of fame, but to some people, they become equivalent to that of an idol or hero. Through this constant coverage, people think they know the killer, and that they understand them. With their stories being told time and again, these killers gain a celebrity-like status. Yesterday they were just any other person, but today, they’re ‘somebody’. This might also be one factor that drives a serial killer to in fact be just that. According to Weist, “many people even think that the extensive media coverage of a serial killer encourages him or her to continue killing. David Berkowitz is a prime example of a serial killer who was aware of the media coverage of his crimes and felt encouraged by it”(Weist 13). This constant coverage reinforces the killer’s actions. If he or she keeps doing what they are doing, their name will stay in circulation. They might finally be somebody worth talking about, in their own, twisted sense. Through the media, society tries to find a way of dealing with the uncertainty that comes along with the serial killer. According to Grixti, one way to do this is to “affirm that mass murderers and serial killers are neither civilized nor really human- i.e., to stress their monstrosity so as to perceive them as belonging to the realm of the other”(Grixti, 87). This sense of serial killers being an outsider to our innately human community, completely separate from our society, offers a feeling of disillusionment. The boundary between what makes someone human and decent and what constitutes someone as belonging to the other begins to corrode when we become aware of the violence that manifests in close proximity to us. It makes us come to terms


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with the fact that the violence we thought we had excluded from our community, by making it an issue of ‘the other’, can find it’s way into our comfort zone. One specific case that is particularly disorienting to the public is the case of Ted Bundy. One of the most perplexing aspects of this case is the fact that he was a seemingly decent, handsome, intelligent man. He essentially embodied the American notions of what a ‘wholesome’ person should be like (Grixti 90), although he actually confessed to killing 30 women in seven different states. With the growing fascination of serial killers on the rise, television shows like Law and Order, CSI, and Criminal Minds also work in the realm of mass media to strengthen the society’s captivation with these killers. These shows convey glamorization primarily on the process of hunting down someone that does these unthinkable crimes more so than the actual murderer. They attempt to use ordinary people to portray both the victims and the killers in order to get the audience to emotionally invest in them. This can transcend into one’s real life as well. Grixti addresses that “by dressing them [serial killers] up as circus or cinematic attractions… we are attempting to make them familiar and consumable” (Grixti 90). With that being said, serial killings have inadvertently become a consumer product. We are all consumers in this world and that does not stop with serial killers. Weist claims that there is a fascination with memorabilia besides books and T-shirts that feature serial killers, called murderabilia. The most extraordinary murderabilia seem to be serial killer trading cards, datebooks, action figures and comic books (Weist 8-9). With things like murderabilia and television shows embellishing serial killers, the public becomes desensitized to the violence that is serial murder and it has become subdued to just a form of entertainment rather than a real threat. It becomes apparent that “murder then becomes less real and more fictionalized because of the extensive media coverage” along with the consumer products available (Weist 13).


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In conjunction with the media romanticizing serial killers to gain and keep the public’s attention, it also plays a part in the gender roles, or lack there of, in serial killers. As mentioned before, gender roles have often been seen as a binary. Men are supposed to be masculine, strong, and protective, while women are assumed to be delicate, sensitive, and nurturing. There is no in between, there is no crossing the boundaries. Many people view men as very manly, masculine people who don’t show or even have emotion while women are supposed to be decent, feminine people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. In her article “What Went Wrong? Feminism and Freedom From the Prison of Gender Roles”, Rita M. Gross asserts that “what imprisons is the insistence that men must and should only be masculine while women must and should only be feminine, not the existence of gender symbolism” (Gross 10). This assertion is blurred when one takes into account the media’s portrayal of male and female serial killers. While it is true that both men and women have partaken in the act of serial killing, “the media stereotype of a serial killer is of a psychopathic sexual sadist”(Scott 2). Male serial killers are considered to be more physically mobile, with only 50% remaining in their local area to carry out the killings. They tend to show a larger inclination to incorporate torture or mutilation in their method, and they often report a sexual motivation. One of a male serial killer’s general demographic is the stranger, his victims being those he has never met before (Scott 2). Female serial killers are a more complicated type of killer in the sole fact that women are supposed to be gentle and caring. The female killer is more likely to perform her murders for personal gain. A similar notion is illustrated the article “Cliques, Rumors, and Gossip by the Water Cooler: Bullying in the Workplace”. Laura Crothers asserts that women are more prone to using relational aggression, whether overt or covert, in order to harm another by exploiting them in some way. She will probably do this to fulfill a personal motive (Crothers 99). Therefore, the


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lesser occurrence of sexual killings by women is harmonious with the perception that women locate their feelings of power and control through other techniques such as manipulation and bullying (Storrs 14-16). But, women can also be manipulated themselves when working with men. When a woman is implicated in a sadistic sexual murder, she was usually a coconspirator with her male counterpart. In two third of ‘team killings’, male and female serial killers working together, the male is usually the dominant partner. Unlike males though, women carry tend to carry out their murders in specific locations 60% of the time, and 60% of the time they choose to poison their victims in some way. More often than not, her victims tend to be her husband or some sort of relative (Scott 2). In the case of female serial killers such as Aileen Wournos, Myra Hindley, and Rosemary West, the media transforms the gender norm of a delicate woman into that of a monster and a scapegoat. According to Elisabeth Storrs: Murder is predominantly a male crime with women being seen as the exception rather than the rule. That women have long been, and continue to be, multiple murderers, profoundly challenges deeply held assumptions about women and their capacity to nurture others…Typically, women who kill are cast as 'black widows' (women who kill their husbands, children or other relatives), or as 'angels of death' or 'mercy' killers (women who kill patients in their care). (Storrs, 2004) Storrs focuses on the fact that when the killer is a female, it challenges the assumptions of what a killer should and shouldn’t be. She is then casted into a grouping based off of her crime rather than the sole fact that she is a serial killer. You don’t see this happening near as often with men


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as you do with women. As suggested in Storrs article, “the police photograph of Myra Hindley, taken in 1965 at the time of the Moors Murders, depicting her with bleach-blonde hair, hooded eyes and staring blankly from the page, has become synonymous with the idea of feminine evil” (Storrs 14). With this image of a woman out of her gender norm broadcasted all over the world, the media had turned her into a medium for communicating “the horror of femininity, distorted from its 'natural' course” (Storrs 14). Media’s differing depictions of male and female serial killers can be seen in this quote: In relationship to the stereotype of the victim, Myra Hindley became a scapegoat, because she was a woman. Ian Brady's relative obscurity, in comparison to Myra Hindley, means that she bears more than her share of public opprobrium for the crimes they committed together. In this context, Myra Hindley has been persecuted for her gender, thus highlighting differences in public and media attitudes towards men and women who murder children. (Storrs 21) By prosecuting Myra for her gender and the fact that by being a women involved in such a crime is vastly different than if she were a man, she becomes more to blame because as a woman she is now the exception, not the rule. This threat to femininity becomes much more newsworthy than the man involved because it blurs the preconceived gender role boundaries. Serial killers are not the only things in the news today, but the killers, as well as their not so normal gender dichotomy, have slowly grown to become a large part of modern day media. Maybe it’s because when a serial killer kills, meaning multiple victims, the story seems to never end. Or maybe it’s because the public just can’t get away from their fascination with these


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monsters and we continue to buy into their stories, whether through “murderabilia” or even through watching television shows. Whatever it may be, these killers have gained an almost celebrity-like status from the consistent media attention their crimes attract, and that does not seem to be changing any time soon. [Word Count: 2,310 words]


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Works Cited Crothers, Laura M., John Lipinski, and Marcel C. Minutolo. "Cliques, Rumors, and Gossip by the Water Cooler: Female Bullying in the Workplace." The Psychologist-Manager Journal 12 (2009): 97-110. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. Grixti, Joseph. "Consuming Cannibals: Psychopathic Killers as Archetypes and Cultural Icons." Journal of American Culture 18.1 (1995): 87-96. Web. Gross, Rita M. “What Went Wrong? Feminism and Freedom From the Prison of Gender Roles.” Cross Currents (2003): 8-20. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. Klosterman, Chuck. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print. Scott, Jan. “Serial Homicide: We Need To Explore Behind The Stereotypes And Ask Why.” British Medical Journal 312.7022 (1996): 2-3. Web. Storrs, Elisabeth. “‘Our Scapegoat’: An Exploration of Media Representations of Myra Hindley and Rosemary West.” Theology & Sexuality 11.1 (2004): 9-28. Web. Viegener, Matias. “Men Who Kill and the Boys Who Love Them.” Critical Quarterly 36.1 (2002): 105-114. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. Weist, Julie B. “Serial Killers as Heroes in the Media’s Storybook of Murder: A Textual Analysis of the New York Times Coverage of the “Son of Sam,” the “Boston Strangler,” and the “Night Stalker”. MA Thesis, University of Georgia, 2003. Web. 18 Mar. 2013

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