- True Crime: Observations on Violence and Modernity, and: Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture
Violent criminality, now more than ever, occupies a weirdly central and centralizing place in American cultural life. Blockbuster media—from cable news reports on school shootings, serial slaughters, and husbands-gone-wild, to the endlessly proliferating crime narratives that appear now on everything from Spike TV to the National Geographic Network to the Women’s Entertainment channel—bring mass audiences together in consideration of trauma and outrage. World War II press reports apparently coined the term “blockbuster bomb” for a device explosive enough to destroy whole neighbourhoods. Contemporary blockbusters, some of which you may take home from your local Blockbuster, offer a related sort of communal participation in annihilation and suffering, however vicarious.
It is the public and public-making aspects of criminality, the criminal’s fame and the crime’s socializing function, that concern David Schmid in Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture and Mark Seltzer in True Crime: Observations on Violence and Modernity. The authors join here a lively conversation about the cultural significance of violent transgression, drawing on and augmenting such important works as Joel Black’s Aesthetics of Murder: A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture (1991), Philip Jenkins’s Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide (1994), Karen Haltunnen’s Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (1998), Seltzer’s own Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (1998), and Philip L. Simpson’s Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction (2000). [End Page 279]
For several decades now, the figure of the serial killer has been exceptionally prominent in American culture, with real and fictional examples—Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Hannibal Lecter, Aileen Wuornos, BTK, et al.—achieving a level of name recognition and “brand” prominence to be envied by any Hollywood actor. As David Schmid contends in his excellent study, a pop-cultural environment largely indifferent to moral value as a condition of fame has transformed the serial killer into both the “ultimate deviant” (25), the worst sort of human one can imagine, and also the “exemplary modern celebrity” (4), an individual revered for being so horrible.
The how and why of the serial killer’s amoral ascendance is explored thoroughly and convincingly by Schmid. His opening section deals, first, with the suggestively proleptic celebrity of two nineteenth-century serial killers, Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes, who prompted powerful public revulsion and fascination, thus “inaugurat[ing] the ongoing debate about whether famous serial killers are the consummate insiders or outsiders of American culture” (33) (the Ripper’s putative “Americanness,” see below, is discussed in detail). He then moves on to examine the history of the FBI’s relationship to serial killing, revealing how this organization “claim[ed] exclusive ownership of serial murder” and “[used] popular culture to both publicize and reinforce its reputation as the unquestioned source of expertise on serial crime” (67). From here, Schmid proceeds to his second section, investigating serial killers in Hollywood films, television crime dramas, and true-crime narratives. An epilogue considers the status of the serial killer after 9/11, with Schmid tracking its overlap with concerns about terrorism and concluding that the serial-killer figure has endured because of its oddly reassuring familiarity and usefulness in framing a more recent and still poorly understood menace.
One of Schmid’s central arguments—cogently defended over the course of the book—is that the serial killer’s ascendance has been made possible by the myriad ways in which this particular sort of criminal can be exploited by diverse ideological agendas and commercial interests. Among the parties who have found serial killers expedient during the last three decades are the FBI (which needed to posit a threat large enough to justify its own expansion), tabloid news (which sought lurid content in order to compete for the attention of an increasingly fragmented...