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Serial Killers, the Media and America’s Fascination

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Serial Killers, The Media and America’s Fascination

Turn on the television in any given evening and you can catch an episode or 20 of any number of crime shows (and all of their spin-offs) that showcases an intricate plot and horrific crimes. It is not uncommon for the viewer to get “sucked” into the storyline and then become personally invested in the outcome of the story. I often wonder what it is about theses crime shows and psychological thriller series that keep the viewer’s tuning in. What’s s the draw? Not only do we become drawn in, but at some point we even become infatuated with the subject matter and long to see more. Have was as a society completely lost all sense of right and wrong or has the media desensitized us to the realities of serial murderers? Defining the Serial Killer. In order to pinpoint the progression of fascination with serial killers, it is important to first establish a working definition of the term. The FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit defines serial killings as “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate (Morton). Generally the classification of serial murder is accompanied by the length of time between kills, or the “cooling off period.” In addition, the killer is usually a stranger to the victim and the murders appear to be unconnected or random. The FBI is credited with establishing this term, and by doing so, achieved a position of unquestioned authority in defining serial murders. Serial Killers and Their Fame. Today’s iconic status of serial killers demonstrates the difference between fame and notoriety. Most authorities on the subject agree that the nature of fame has distinctly changed in the past two hundred years. Likewise, the claim to fame has been overwhelmingly determined more by visibility than based on merited behavior. “In 1896 celebrities were leaders,” Cathy Madison writes, “whose qualities we admired and aspired to; today celebrity means only someone whose name and face we know” (Madison 724,7). An individual today can now obtain fame not through recognition of achievement, but by being seen. Once merit-based fame ceased to have any meaning in society, it was no longer necessary to distinguish between good and bad forms of fame. One can see this trend in contemporary times; obsessed fans attack public figures and become famous themselves. Therefore one can easily see how the media plays an essential role in defining fame today. Murder cases that are covered extensively by the media have been known to make the killer famous. What is it about our society that makes us want to know not just the murder but also the person behind these murders? Change in Media Reporting. Around 1985 there was a notable change in the way the news media represented crime. During the late 1980s, newspapers and television news shows lowered their editorial standards in order to compete with tabloid media such as The Examiner and the National Enquirer (Kraijeck 30). This “tabloidization” of the mainstream media has had a particularly damaging impact on the reporting of crime. Instead of an unbiased account, the American public received sensationalized stories about “the crimes of the century” and the criminals that commit them. Any type of celebrities who have committed crimes are usually at the forefront of the media frenzy; a good example of the “media circus” can be found by looking at the news coverage surrounding the O.J. Simpson incident. Has the Media Created a Market for Death? In today’s day of journalism, newspapers, news broadcasts, and other media sources are constantly publicizing violent crimes, keeping the general public informed, and to some extent afraid of the world outside their homes. The convening of the public around violent scenes has come to make up what Mark Seltzer calls a “wound culture,” which he defines as “the public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound” (Seltzer 2). Given the sheer volume of crime stories in the media and on television for pleasure viewing, it is safe to say that the public is fascinated. It was sometime during the twentieth century that the superstar of our “wound culture” emerged; the serial killer. The media coverage surrounding serial killers and their crimes has become overwhelming. Initial news stories of the killer are typically supplemented by biographies and other published accounts depicting the killer’s crimes. As a result, the serial killer becomes immortalized and then established as a household name. With the help of the media, serial killing has become more than a series of murders, it has also become a fast track for fame. Killer Memorabilia = “Murderabilia”. Given the media’s ability to intrigue the public through its coverage of violent crimes, the media in essence, has created a market for death. It helped manufacture a serial killer persona, while the trade in “murderbilia” (the business of selling serial killer’ artifacts) alludes to a general fan desire to invest in, know more about, and get closer to the famous killer. Serial killer stories are a dime a dozen in any bookstore, and numerous documentaries and films portraying the individual are also readily available. In this market for death, the serial killer is able to achieve something highly acclaimed in contemporary American society; the coveted celebrity status. The sale of “murderabilia” is just a small part of the serial killer phenomenon that has become a prominent feature in American popular culture since the 1970s. A constant stream of movies, action figures, T-shirts, trading cards, videos, DVDs, books, web sites, and television shows have given the figure of the serial murderer an unparalleled degree of visibility in the contemporary American realm. In a culture defined by celebrity, serial killers like Bundy, Dahmer, and Gacy are among the biggest stars of all, recognized by the vast majority of Americans. It is no secret that online shopping has become a staple in American households. Supernaught.com, for instance, offers customers a brick from Jeffrey Dahmer’s building for three hundred dollars. A lock of Charles Manson’s hair goes for $995, and action figures of well-known serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy are also available. Similar to any fan base, this merchandise allows people obsessed with these violent criminals to own a piece of their history. America’s Fascination. The fascination with the celebrity serial killer haunts the American imagination. Our society has produced a celebrity culture in which individuals are recognized for their bad acts, and in the public’s condemnation of them, a reverence for them emerges. The media, law enforcement, psychologists, and other authorities on serial killers create an environment in which these murderers can operate in the popular way. These above mentioned authoritative groups essentially provide the serial killer with the opportunity to escalate his criminal activities to a profession status. The cases of Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Rader, and David Berkowitz demonstrate the pivotal role of media sensationalism in the arresting and prosecuting of each killer, as well as how the killers were portrayed after their convictions. In each of these cases, the various media outlets played a huge role in how the killer and the case were presented to the public. These individuals became icons through newspaper articles, television reports, and published interviews depicting them as modern-day monsters. However, while condemning them publicly, the media actually glorifies the murderers by giving them what they crave most which is recognition. America’s Further Fascination. Hollywood has produced a slew of movies and television programs featuring serial killings. As previously discussed, the serial killer has found notoriety through mass media attention and extensive coverage of their crimes and subsequent capture. The serial killer figure has also achieved fame in the fictional realm. Classic serial killer fiction and films offer their audiences many sources of viewing interest. Serial killers have definitely emerged in fiction and found a prominent place among popular culture in the United States. In my opinion, the serial killer’s presence in fiction presents a problem because it glorifies these individuals. This presence adds to the notion that America produces a “serial killer culture,” where violence is not only expected, but welcomed. Looking at films such as The Silence of the Lambs, and Natural Born Killers, we can see that the serial killer actually becomes a hero in the eyes of the audience. The Silence of the Lambs, arguably the most famous serial killer film of the twentieth century, was based on the book series featuring “Hannibal the Cannibal,” written by Thomas Harris. Jonathan Demme’s film version Silence of the Lambs took the nation by storm in 1991 and in fact, The 1998 Film Institute named it one of the 100 Greatest American Movies. In addition to Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins receiving much acclaim for their performances, the movie’s fame does not end with actors. According to an Internet poll, we have become so fascinated with and admiring of Hannibal Lecter that he recently was voted the top movie villain of all time in an internet poll. Whereas Silence of the Lambs invites viewers into the mind of the serial killer as read by FBI agents, Natural Born Killers enables viewers to witness America’s reaction to a killing spree. In 1994, controversy swirled around this Oliver Stone film which some argued was too graphically violent for general release and others argued glamorized serial killing for young viewers. It is important to note however that Natural Born Killers itself does not glamorize violence; rather, the film centers on how violence is already glamorized in our society. Stone uses Natural Born Killers to “attack what he sees as the root of the evil that is serial killer fame: the media” (Schmidt 122). Stone forces us to really see our own obsession with criminal “celebrities” when he displays a story of the media’s pursuit of fictional serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox. Throughout the movie, both the media and the public stalk Mickey and Mallory like serial killers stalk their victims.
CONCLUSION
It would appear that as a society we have become obsessed with violence. The evening news we tune into at the end of the day, the movies we watch, the television shows we follow, the video games we play are all provide us with graphic levels of violence unthinkable even a few generations ago. I believe given all that has been discussed, the media has undeniably played an integral role in promoting the serial killer “celebrity” and the American public’s fascination with the serial killer.

Works Cited
Krajicek, David J. Scooped! Media Miss Real Story on Crime While Chasing Sex, Sleaze, and Celebrities. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. Print.
Madison, Cathy. A New Type of Celebrity. 2nd ed. Vol. 12. Utne Reader, 2000. 724,7. Print.
Morton, Robert. "Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspective for Investigators." Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Schmid, David. Natural Born Celebrities Serial Killers in American Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2005. Print.
Seltzer, Mark. Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.

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