Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Essays

Murder on the Installment Plan

Becca Rothfeld

Meurtre numéro 14 (detail), 1968/1992, by Jacques Monory (b. 1924); Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo.

In our popular depictions, the serial killer is reiterated, just as he reiterates.

Saint Augustine writes from his cope of dust that we are restless hearts, for earth is not our true home. Human unhappiness is evidence of our immortality. Intuition tells us we are meant for some other city. 

Elizabeth Taylor, quoted in a magazine of twenty years ago, spoke of cerulean Richard Burton days on her yacht, days that were nevertheless undermined by the elemental private reflection: This must end.
—Richard Rodriguez, “Late Victorians”

Begin, for once, with the ending: the arms at an awful angle, the face blue-lipped above a blot of blood. Only later do we glimpse the woman who corresponds to the corpse. She laughs in a flashback. Or she smiles in the photograph pinned to the board where the police map the murders with thumbtacks, charting tangled speculations with lines of yarn. In light of her death, she comes to life. This is the antiordering typical of the serial killer procedural, a narrative scramble that begins with the answer and ages back toward the question. In the television series Hannibal (NBC, 2013–15), a convicted murderer impales a nurse in prison. He snaps at the officers who come to question him, “I was caught red-handed. There’s no mystery as to who done it. I did it!” Still, the officers insist that they have something to ask.

We know who did it, but the mystery of motive remains. It recurs in the spate of serial killer dramas that have proliferated in recent years, multiplying as fast as the gruesome murders we watch so raptly each week. In Mindhunter (2017–), a Netflix series set in the mid-seventies, a professor of behavioral science at the FBI Academy observes that murder has become inscrutable. In the past, people killed each other for reasons: The culprit was always the jilted lover or the cheated business partner, the cuckolded husband or the scheming heir. To solve the puzzle, we only had to track the reasons back to their sources. But beginning in the seventies, when “Son of Sam” murderer David Berkowitz shot six people “because a dog told him to,” the killer became “a black hole.” “Where do we go,” the professor asks, “when motive becomes elusive?”

The protagonists of Mindhunter, who are loosely modeled on the founders of the FBI’s Criminal Profiling Program, go inward, conducting interviews with convicted serial killers in an effort to understand them. As the title of the series indicates, the team hunts not murderers, but motives. After all, there’s little physical hunting left for a mindhunter to do: The criminals have already been apprehended, the fingerprints taken, the clues decoded. By the time the profilers arrive with their questionnaires, the whodunit is done.

But true answers evade capture, and even the most gifted mindhunters sometimes succumb to incomprehension. The only way to grasp a radically foreign psyche is to inhabit it, as does Hannibal’s Will Graham, an FBI profiler blessed and burdened with acute empathy. Graham occupies the violence of the killers he traces so thoroughly that he fears he’ll become what he hunts. We have no access to what Graham does—the touch and texture of an alien life, the shuddery secret of what it’s like to kill and kill again—but we know something he doesn’t: His psychiatrist and colleague, icily civilized Hannibal Lecter, moonlights as the Chesapeake Ripper, a notoriously theatrical murderer who has terrorized the Washington area for years. Hannibal is an inveterate cannibal, long in the habit of serving his victims’ remains at ornate dinner parties. Somehow, the flat-footed solution—the fact that Hannibal did it—doesn’t diminish the riddle—the full-bodied wonder of why.

This is the pattern often repeated in the rash of recent shows: We learn who the killer is, but we keep watching, waiting for something more. We see the Belfast Strangler stalking and suffocating his victims while the police scratch their heads in The Fall (BBC Two/RTÉ One, 2013–16); we watch as magnetic killer and cult leader Joe Carroll baffles the FBI in the trashy, flashy The Following (Fox, 2013–15); even in the first season of True Detective (HBO, 2014), which refrains from revealing to its audience any more than the police can work out for themselves, we already know all we need to. The perpetrator of the ritualized murders that scandalize rural Louisiana is, inevitably, an anybody, an outwardly unremarkable person. What difference would it make for us to learn his name?

We know who to blame in True Detective precisely because the serial killer is always the same. In our popular depictions, he’s reiterated, just as he reiterates. Whatever his name or profession, he’s a white man, and his victims are usually women. (Hannibal, for what it’s worth, is an atypically equal-opportunity killer). His position of privilege makes his actions all the more opaque. His crimes are ceremonially sexual, enacted like rites. Each death duplicates the next. The serial killer’s career comprises a series without a sequence: He aspires not to succession but to stasis, so he settles for recurrence that mimics endurance. He selects women who look alike, creating the same tableau over and over, as if the experience never ceases and never started, but merely remains. His genre is pornography, which, as Susan Sontag once noted, is typically distinguished by its plotlessness. Porn “goes on and on and ends nowhere.”11xSusan Sontag, “The Pornographic Imagination,” in Styles of Radical Will (New York, NY: Picador, 1969), 39. It does again what it did before. It starts and ends with the body, which is how we began—and the body initiates the next beginning, the next brutalization.

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