Monstrous humans: or, why serial killers are in style

This blog is mainly about monsters – and in its time, there has been the odd comment about the comparison  between humans and monsters. This, admittedly, has been primarily due to the fact that monsters are becoming increasingly humanised in order to appeal to a televisual and literary audience who want to experience and encounter emotions, situations and catastrophes they can identify with (which, in part, explains the over-saturation of the romantic monster – love – or rather, heartbreak – is the universal tragedy we will all encounter).

Regardless, a focus on the human hasn’t occurred here, simply because there has been little reason for it prior to now.

Angel of Death

Religious themes and a saviour complex

For those of you who are Dexter fans, you may have seen the show come to an end last year  (albeit, a disappointing one). Looked at logically, Dexter should be viewed as a monstrous figure. He drugs, ritualistically kills and butchers people, leaving behind no trace. Yet even the promotional materials place him as something like morally grey, as he is ‘avenging’ and targeting those who have done wrong. Does this make murder right? We are shown his neuroses, his need to kill (which, arguably, echoes that of the vampire) and his channeling of that need for ‘good’. David Schmid argues that “Dexter is the quintessential serial killer of the post-9/11 era in that he is provided with an abundance of characteristics that make him a sympathetic, even identificatory, figure to the audience.” This the case with the post-9/11 monster – embedded with sympathetic traits making them inherently watchable and identifiable.

But what now? With Dexter’s end, what happens? 2013/2014 has so far brought us a different class of serial killer. Firstly, the brilliant Hannibal. Despite the filmic and book versions being in circulation for decades, this TV series focuses instead on the character of Will Graham, the FBI agent who was formerly friends with Hannibal. It is deliciously twisted, and probes into the psyche of Will as he battles against the wits of Lecter. It also features the well-known cannibal preparing meal after meal of human flesh, and serving it to his unwitting guests.


Yet, Hannibal is not made out to be a sympathetic character. We are exposed to his manipulative behaviour, his murderous desires and his strangeness. He, like many monsters, ingests the human body – except it is far more disgusting and repellant to us. This could be because it is more visceral – monsters such as the vampire affix their mouths to a neck, a wrist, and drain blood. Hannibal butchers, prepares and even shows off his treatment of human organs before he eats them. It is a far grittier experience visually, more animalistic, and puts him in the category of monstrous.

The other notable show with a focus on a serial killer is the new HBO offering True Detective. Dark, brooding, and thoughtful, it mixes elements of Hannibal with the Southern-gothic feel of True Blood. Religious iconography in TD

The show marries the hunt for a serial killer with a religious fixation with a cynical commentary from its main protagonist, Rust. The first killing we are exposed to features ritualistic elements not unlike those featured in Hannibal where the victim is positioned, decorated and made the centre of a tableaux. In investigating, the detectives find the same outline of the victim on a church wall. The making of a human victim into an animal through horns also occurs in Hannibal and makes the killer seem even more monstrous by contrast. The stripping of humanity from a victim is the pinnacle of monstrosity.

But as to why these killers have moved from a sympathetic tone to a violent, visceral focus is something needing to be questioned. If Dexter was the quintessential post-9/11 killer, perhaps we have moved on to another epoch. With our monsters now sympathetic, perhaps the cycle has moved to the monstrous human once again being the target for our fear, terror and loathing. In the modern monster, we have seen our vices echoed and worked-through. The serial killer reflects elements we cannot, as a society, accept, and thus, they become scarier than the monsters that were once under the bed.


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