Serial killing and the postmodern self



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The Serial Killer

As many social scientists have noted, the modern self emerged in parallel with the state. As the modern state monopolised violence and colonised lifeworlds, individuals simultaneously developed internal mechanisms of self-control and discipline which repressed those forms of practices which threatened the state and the normative order it enforced (Elias 1982; 1987; Foucault 1995,1990a; Weber 1958; Taylor 1989; Freud 1961; 1949; 2001; Thomas 1971; Theweleit 1987; 1989). Through its internationalisation of norms and routines which produced a stable ego and superego, the modern self was constituted as a unified, centred and rational entity. Sexuality, violence and other primordial drives were repressed and controlled. Elias traced the origin of this modern self back to the rise of the state at the end of the middle ages in the late fifteenth century. It is not certain that a fully developed modern self can be traced back this far but that the unified, internally disciplined modern self became prominent during the Enlightenment, crystallizing in the nineteenth century. The problem is that this self is now in crisis and, it is this crisis, according to Seltzer, which has promoted the serial killer as an important cultural symbol.



Drawing on Theweleit’s famous study of the Freikorps (Theweleit 1987, 1989), Seltzer notes how the soldier male – as the avatar of the modern self - was able to create an ektoskeleton for himself through institutionalised routine (Seltzer 1998: 51). This carapace protected him from the threat of self-dissolution. For the serial killer, routinised institutionalisation is a critical part of their character formation. It explains the frequent claim that serial killers are extraordinarily normal. Precisely because they have adopted certain routinised practices, they seem typical. However, this routinisation, which constitutes the selfhood of modern individuals like the soldier male, is precisely what threatens the serial killer. By following routinised practices, which are intended to create a centred self-identity through the formation of superego, institutionalisation threatens the very existence of the would-be serial killer. Serial killers have no personal identity precisely because they adhere to shared, institutionalised routines. Consequently, serial killers are constantly threatened by ‘the mass in the [their own] person’ (Seltzer 1998:281). The mass threatens to consume them, sweeping away their individuality as they become part of the anonymous, routinised crowd. The very processes which constituted the modern (soldier male) self, now threaten the serial killer. Consequently, the serial killer’s self is in crisis must be asserted through alternative practices.

Thus, instead of engaging in the routine, insitutionalised activities of a rationalised society, the killer murders. By eliminating others, serial killers eliminate the mass in their own person (Seltzer 1998: 281). They demonstrate their autonomy from routine, their difference from others and, in the moment of violence, realise themselves as autonomous agents. In the act of murder, the serial killer becomes a self. However, the act of murder takes on a very a distinctive and now highly recognisable form which is critical to the kind of selfhood which the serial killer signifies. Despite the extreme and often apparently deranged activities of serial killers, the category of serial killing itself does not refer to random and diverse violence. Contemporary representations of the serial killer are highly circumscribed, focusing on a limited number of defining practices. It is important to recognise this categorical specificity since it relates directly to the kind of self which the serial killer is imagined to represent. Theoretically, it would be possible for a large number of individuals to be counted as serial killers. Terrorists, assassins, mercy killers, soldiers, bomber pilots, ethnic cleansers and gangsters all kill often unknown victims sequentially. These agents all formally qualify as serial killers on the standard definition of serial killing as the sequential murder of (mostly) strangers. Yet, they are not understood as such in contemporary culture. On the contrary, only a limited repertoire of actions are categorised as serial killing in public consciousness; repeated killing alone is not enough. Confirming the point, it notable that certain individuals who are actually defined as serial killers do not actually conform to the ideal type and, although they inspire revulsion, they are unsatisfactory as sublime symbols of contemporary agency. The obvious example here is Harold Shipman, a doctor working in Greater Manchester, who is believed to have killed over 200 of his mainly elderly patients between the 1970s and his arrest in 1998. Although Shipman is undoubtedly Britain’s most prolific convicted serial murderer, he lacks certain important characteristics which have become emblematic of serial killing. By amending the wills of some of his victims, he gained some extrinsic material reward from his activities. More particularly, although Shipman seems to have gained some gratification from the power of life and death which he exercised over his victims, he engaged in no violence and there was never any sexual dimension to his activities. Shipman never engaged in the ecstatic penetration which has become a critical motif for serial killers. In this way, Shipman falls short of the serial killing ideal in stark contrast to other, far less numerically successful killers such as Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) or Denis Nilssen. In public consciousness, serial killing does not simply involve sequential murder but, paradigmatically, the violent, sexual mutilation of the victim’s body. Ecstatic interpenetration is the defining feature of serial killing.

It is interesting that the criminal investigation services have implicitly categorised serial killing in the same way. During his investigations, Robert Ressler, the head of the FBI’s ‘Behavioural Science Unit’ in the 1970s and 1980s, interviewed many of the most prominent American serial killers. In his discussions, Ressler explicitly prioritised the ‘sexual content’ as the sole ‘factual basis’ of serial killing (Ressler and Schachtman 1992: 81), rejecting all the other interpretations which his informant provided. Thus, David Berkowitz’s claims that he was ordered to murder by a dog (Ressler and Schachtman 1992: 81), Ted Bundy’s discussion of how he had entrapped his victims (Ressler and Shachtman 1992: 77-9), Mullin’s environmental concerns (Ressler and Schachtman 1992: 160) and Richard Speck’s instrumental rationale for killing eight nurses so that they would not testify against him (Ressler and Shachtman 1992: 76) were all dismissed. For Ressler, serial killing was defined solely as ecstatic interpenetration. The canon of serial killing is circumscribed. It does not include all multiple killers but actually prioritises a very specific type of violence; the murder, mutilation and sexual defilement of strangers. The serial killer ideally merges with others in an ecstatic moment of corporal interpenetration.3

Through the analysis of diverse examples, Seltzers illustrates precisely this motif of ecstatic mutilation and interpenetration as fundamental to the act of serial killing. Violent, corporal interpenetration is the defining practice of serial killers. It is the founding act of their selfhood. Thus, Seltzer cites Edward Kemper’s description of killing:

More or less making a doll out of a human being…and carrying out my fantasies with a doll, a living human doll…Whipping off heads, their body sitting there. That’d get me off… (Seltzer 1998: 141)


Significantly, Kemper penetrated his victims’ bodies sexually after he had de-capitated them. Other accounts of serial killing affirm Seltzer’s analyse. For instance, Henry Lee Lucas, the notorious American murderer, stated: ‘In most of my cases, I think you’ll find that I had sex with them after death, uh the other way I’m not satisfied’ (Egger 1992: 152). In each case, the act of violence is intimately connected to a moment of sexual interpenetration. Perhaps, the most explicit example of this practice is the case of Duane Samples. Samples confessed that his assault on his partner and her friend were inspired by a desire to kill and be killed in the sexual act so that ‘semen, blood and other bodily fluids would all intermingle in orgasm and death’ (Ressler and Shachtman 1992: 214-5).

In his work Seltzer mobilises both autobiographical (putatively factual) accounts of serial killing and fictional representations. His point, of course, is that the two are indivisible; ‘the serial killer internalizes popular and journalistic and expert (criminological and psychological) definitions of this kind of person’ (Seltzer 1998: 107). There is an accepted cultural conception of serial killing which informs both killers’ and the public’s understandings alike. It is noticeable that ecstatic interpenetration is similarly identifiable in many of the most important contemporary representations of the serial killer. Indeed, precisely because they are imaginary, these fictional accounts of serial killing are able to distil the practice of serial killing into its essential act. The self-constituting act of interpenetration is crystallised. Robert Harris’ novel, The Silence of the Lambs, has attained a position of prominence in this context (Fuss 1993; Stratton 1994). This work usefully condenses public understandings of serial killing into a single signifier: Hannibal Lecter, the serial killing psychoanalyst who constitutes the central character in this novel. Significantly, Lecter’s escape from incarceration (when he kills his two guards) constitutes the critical symbolic moment in the text (Fuss 1993: 195). In that moment, the defining characteristic of the contemporary serial killer become manifest as Harris’ description of the scene in his cell after Lecter’s escape reveals.

Boyle [one of Lecter’s guards], partly eviscerated, his face hacked to pieces, seemed to have exploded blood in the cell, the walls and the stripped cot covered with gouts and splashes. (Harris, 1997: 231)

The ‘stripped cot’ in this sentence refers to Lecter’s bed in the special holding cell from which Lecter has removed the sheets to cover and move one of the guard’s body. The stripped cot assists Lecter’s escape practically. However, the cot also signifies Lecter’s liberation symbolically. Although ‘cot’ refers at one level the collapsible bed on which Lecter slept, Harris use of the word is also allegorical. The word ‘cot’ has connotations of infancy and childhood when the deepest levels of identity are established. Since the ‘cot’ was the only minimally private space which Lecter was afforded during his incarceration, it stands as an objective correlative of his self-identity. Significantly, now laid bare, the cot is covered in ‘gouts and splashes’; it is intermingled with the viscera and blood of Lecter’s victims. Once liberated from institutional shackles, Lecter’s identity is realised in the violent interpenetration of bodies. Affirming the point, while Lecter eviscerates the first guard, he skins the face from the other, which he then places over his own, so that he is mistaken for the second, injured guard and transported from his incarceration by an ambulance. To liberate himself, Lecter has to immerse himself symbolically and physically in the corpses of his guards. Lecter’s true identity is realised in these moments of corporal interpenetration. Lecter’s self is not the product of a unifying superego and ego whereby the external controls of the state are internalised. On the contrary, Lecter struggles against the institutionalisation which threatens him with anonymity, with a mass in his own person. His self is formed through ecstatic moments of violence in which he penetrates the bodies of others. Only then is he able to assert his autonomous selfhood, constantly denied and repressed by the disciplinary institutions of the state. It is precisely in this moments of immersion, which corrode the modern self, that he is constituted.4


A similar representation of the self can be detected in Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious novel, American Psycho. American Psycho is intended as a critical commentary on multinational consumer capitalism through the autobiography of a ‘yuppie’ serial killer, Patrick Bateman. In the event, it is uncertain whether Easton Ellis’s satire of the commodified self is successful since the texts descends into misogynist and pornographic fantasies, but the extreme descriptions of sexual violence which punctuate the novel do highlight a distinctive self. This self is re-iterated in a series of unpleasant montages. For instance:

Elizabeth, naked, running from the bedroom, blood already on her, is moving with difficulty and she screams out something garbled. My orgasm has been prolonged and its release was intense and my knees are weak... She tries to run forward but I’ve cut her jugular and it’s spraying everywhere, blinding both of us momentarily. (Easton Ellis, 1991:289-90)


Elisabeth and Bateman lose control of their own bodies during the act of violent and ultimately murderous intercourse; both go lame. Finally, Elizabeth’s blood incapacities them both simultaneously; they are both blinded by it. Bateman’s explosion of desire leads to an ecstatic co-mingling of bodies. He immerses himself in the bodies and fluids of those whom he murders at which point he loses control of himself. He is no longer a centred person but has submitted himself to his drives which flood out to mix with others. Paradoxically, however, only in these moments of intense bodily interpenetration and personal dissolution, is he able to express his self-identity properly. It is notable that away from these moments of ecstasy, Easton Ellis stresses the stultification of Bateman’s shallow existence; in normal life, the mass threatens Bateman with boredom and anonymity.

As Seltzer recognises, the serial killing self is in stark contrast to the modern self centred through institutional routine. With the serial killer, the mass in the self is ironically extirpated only by interpenetration when the individual transcends institutional controls. The serial killer, unlike the modern self, can no longer be sustained by modern institutions and the super-ego. Unlike the soldier males, the serial killer’s self cannot be sustained by repressing their internal drives. On the contrary, institutional identification, psychic repression threaten the very individuality of the killer. The serial killer must perform seemingly gratuitous acts of violence by which they are able to demonstrate their individuality. Their acts of violence take an interesting form. The killer must penetrate the other, mingling with the blood and body parts of the other. Killers evacuate their unmediated drives as their body parts and fluids coagulate with others in a moment of ecstasy. Paradoxically, in this moment of ecstatic interpenetration when the boundaries of between the self and the other are blurred, when drives flood out, serial killers assert their autonomy. They become selves precisely insofar as they submit themselves to the drives which were dangerous for the modern self. The unity of the self is no longer threatened by the unmediated drives. On the contrary, in the release of the primordial drives which lead to interpenetration, this self momentarily constitutes itself.






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