The Evolution of the Serial Killer

America has always been crazy about serial killers.

They’re our homegrown werewolves. They click with the fast-food car culture that roars in the country’s busy, busy heart. They fit neatly with our cult-of-celebrity-style national mythology.

These beasts that seem like men, mowing through victims like McDonald’s cheeseburgers, speeding for the televised takedown by John Q. Law – how can the USA not be wild for them?

That love-hate crush has been around since the days of Dr. Henry Holmes’ murder hotel was cutting down the attendance at the Chicago Worlds’ Fair. But the nature of it has changed along with our politics and hemlines.

The mythical figure of the serial killer in our culture has gone through the wringer of our changing standard of living. From the time of the penny dreadfuls and pulps, all the way to mainstream torture porn, serial killers in crime fiction transformed.

They’ve gone from Maniacs, to Monsters, to Mysteries.

1900-1960, Maniacs

America used horse-borne troops all the way up to the eve of World War II, but it took longer to shake the Wild West from our national experience. We all know the legendary examples of early 20th century lawlessness: How kids gnawed toys with lead paint, people smoked on airplanes, and firearms were legal fashion accessories across the nation.

The laws of film and literary genre were just as loose. Without video stores and deep marketing research driving creative works into categories like rivets on America’s economic engine, art was free to be what it was.

In that disorganized time, the organized killer didn’t show up in books and flicks with the “serial killer” label stuck to him.

Most fictional murderers with multiple notches on their belt were just plain, old killers. They were button men working for the mob or common criminals without conscience. The exception was a real rarity – not the rule in thriller fiction. And they were best known for their irrational motives, rather than the homicidal results.

They were “maniacs.” Axe-wielding maniacs, as in the case of the Axeman of New Orleans, a real murderer who the crazy brew of New Orleans culture made into a mythical figure. Knife-wielding maniacs in the pages of EC Comics. Or the real sickos – the killers like M – who struck down children from the shadows.

But whoever they were, art didn’t fixate on their fatalities – it was the irrationality of their actions that set them apart. Film and books didn’t delve into the maniacs’ motives. They didn’t care to. They were dismissed and made distinct from other criminals by the same quality: They were crazy.

In the opening half of the 20th century, the serial killer was a sidebar to other crime stories: Cops and robbers were the main course. Maniacs appeared as an occasional crazy who entertained our terror but didn’t fascinate our interest.

They were short-lived, lurid nuts. Their motiveless crimes took a back seat to murders of passion and money.

Then a lonely little motel in Fairvale came along and changed all that.

1960-1990, Monster

Norman Bates was never good with the ladies. He had no offspring. But he did spawn the serial killer archetype that dominated mainstream film and fiction for the latter 20th century.

See, Norman was different. Not just because he dressed in women’s clothing, kept his mummified mother around for conversation and slaughtered broads on his off-time. Norman was different because, more than most serial killers before him, we got a real close look at him – right inside his head.

Before Bloch wrote Psycho and Hitchcock put it on the big screen, our maniacs were seldom front-and-center in the spotlight. But Psycho gave us a complete portrait of Norman’s whack-out inner workings: His motives and their origins.

Sure, attempts at this had been made before. The best model that comes to my mind is Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Thompson bravely set a sociopathic sadist, Lou Ford, as his protagonist. The first-person perspective Lou provides give us a stark vision of a lust-killer’s intellect. But Lou was more mean and ruthless than he was monstrous and bizarre.

It wasn’t until we checked into the Bates Motel that the American mainstream got a dose of the toxic thoughts of a serial killer. We’d found a fresh breed of Monster.

From then on, the Land of the Free was hooked: A cavalcade of serial killer flicks followed. They differed from the old portrayal of the Maniac by sticking to a Monster movie plot.

Just like the wolfmen, vampires and alien invaders, serial killers got origin stories. They got to stalk, victim by victim, through the cast until the heroes brought them down. Most of all, they were popular.

We all know the genre-changing titles: Maniac. Halloween. Silence of the Lambs. These names are familiar because the films were popular – not subtitled fringe hits like M. We all know the genre that each of them changed – the Horror genre – because America had found a narrative mold it could mass-produce successful serial killer stories with.

The rules were simple: The story’s suspense would be driven by the question “who will get killed next, and how?” The serial killer would remain mysterious, almost superhuman at killing, until a trail of clues would lead us to his identity or his inner workings. The tone had to be scary, the point of the plot had to be survival and the material had to be bloody.

So long as these core points were hit, the movie or book would be a hit. The serial killer was the late-20th century’s wolf man – a shape shifter with a human face and an animal ferocity.

Then the ’90s hit, and the mask was peeled back even further.

1991-2012, Mystery

For an era of American Empire, milk and honey flowing freely, the ’90s were an anxious time. Grunge, Punk, and freak shows were ever more in vogue. The serial killer in fiction couldn’t help but change too.

Maybe it was because folks had enough cultural security to crack open the cellar of the human condition and take their deepest look yet. Maybe it was because we knew, as a people, that we were on top, and so the only way to go from there was down.

Whatever the reason, the ’90s saw the rise of two works that did more than just give us a peek at a truly twisted serial killer. They lashed us to their subconscious and dragged us along for the ride.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, was made in ’86 but not released until 1990. It cracked the serial killer archetype in film by making the killer into the “hero.” Whether its efforts to make the audience connect – if just a little – with Henry worked or not, it gave us no alternative protagonist. We followed the serial murderer along an unvarnished trail of atrocity, with no white knight around for us to invest emotional security in.

Henry was hardly a hit. It’s done better as a cult film than in the box office. But it serves as the first moderately successful model of a new convention in serial killer fiction. It changed the rules in two main ways:

It made the serial killer the sole protagonist and mired us in his twisted mind. And, perhaps more importantly, it followed a plot structure of drama rather than of horror.

We didn’t focus on “who would die next,” because we weren’t emotionally linked to the victims. We linked to Henry, and so the plot’s core question became, “who is this person?”

The Monster had become a Mystery. Now serial killer fiction and film could be made that was all about unraveling the workings of the demented, murderous mind.

American Psycho, the second work to change the mold, made its story all about that broken mental machinery.

Those of you who’ve seen the film, set your experience aside. As much as Bale’s marvelous portrayal of Bateman captured the audience’s attention and anchored it to his personal drama, the book does this even more so. Without Hollywood slicing away Bateman’s personality for the sake of a lean plot, American Psycho, the book, is entirely about human drama – not human carnage.

Over the course of its 399 pages, American Psycho deals primarily with social climbing, staying fashionable, and discovering identity. The actual butchering of human beings gets as upsetting a close-up as any could stomach, but it’s as important to the main character as his dry cleaning, VHS rentals and hipster dinner reservations. For every chapter about torturing a women to death, there are three about jockeying for social position or exploring the deeper themes of pop music.

At the same time as American Psycho, another work made a sound strike at the same theme: The Minus Man, by Lew McCreary, came out that year. It too was about a serial killer who was, foremost, a complicated person trying to fit in with society. Dead bodies took a back seat in the plot compared to real relationships.

Bateman and The Minus Man changed the serial killer archetype. They didn’t change the course of the mainstream. Airplane books and Alex Cross-style movies still dominate American culture with looming Monsters. These digital-age wolfmen use FBI agents as their puppets, employ special forces training in their crimes and connive their way into the good graces of the heroes hunting them – just so the story can end with a rousing surprise showdown.

But tributaries away from the mainstream have been carved. The “who done it” plot of the past gives way to the “why do they do it” drama. We see it in works like Zero Day, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Green River Killer: A True Detective Story.

Now, crime fiction doesn’t just jump at the monsters and maniacs in the shadows. It’s brave enough to look deep inside.