In the cult novel American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis describes, necessitating frequent book closing and book reopening for the faint of heart, the axe wielding, body dismembering, pre-mortem sex, post-mortem sex entailing serial sexual murders of its sociopathic protagonist, Patrick Bateman, with no lurid detail spared.
Enjoyment of satire and social comment aside, our disturbingly morbid compulsion for reading such books and watching (through the parted fingers of hands clamped fearfully over eyes) films of this genre arises partly from our fascination with the seemingly impossible and unfathomable. Sex and violence, even in this most gruesome of combinations, sells. Such acts, whether fictional, in literature and on the silver screen; or transposed, horrifically, into reality, on the front pages of the paper or the breaking news on TV, seem to exist in a malevolent fantasy world. They may be well within the realm of physical possibility, but the norm and value set up of society place them far from the boundaries of moral possibility.
As a result the prospect of developing and accepting a coherent theory of how a person can be driven to such a cold-blooded way of life is often an excessively daunting undertaking. Even accepting the idea that a human being could commit these crimes in the first place is too overwhelming for many. Faced with the task of comprehending the apparently incomprehensible, it is far easier to ignore the plethora of thorny questions they summon and simply dehumanise the criminals in question. Hence we read tabloid headlines screaming, ‘PURE EVIL’ or ‘MONSTER,’ when reporting such cases. Yet, however inhumane the acts they have perpetrated, ultimately we cannot deny the common humanity of these ‘pure evil monsters’. We eventually must ask and answer the question: how did this instance of humanity go so wrong?
The most convenient explanation for the phenomenon of the serial sexual killer is insanity. Again, the incomprehensibility factor and the fact that they unsettle the comforting notion of the world as a stable and predictable place inclines us to assuming the rule that perpetrators must necessarily be insane. It’s true that many cases of serial sexual murder do appear to lend themselves well to psychiatric analysis. This kind of criminal behaviour is often seen as a symptom of Psychopathic Personality Disorder.
Psychopaths dabble in only the most shallow of emotions. Empathy, guilt, and remorse are all lacking from their repertoire; they are easily bored; they are pathological liars; but they can also be disarmingly charming and very persuasive. The combination makes for a dangerous and, for Hollywood, rather seductive cocktail. But does the disorder go beyond illumimating the personality traits of the serial killer to answering the question of why these people do what they do?
The term ‘psychopath’ is flung about as an easily applied label for those individuals who we fail to understand. The term ‘psychopathic behaviour’ has become synonymous with ‘motiveless behaviour’. But while the motives of the serial sexual murderer may not be apparent to the casual observer – rarely are such crimes committed for externally evident grounds, such as jealousy, revenge or money – there is usually an underlying internal motive.
A common motivating factor is sexual gratification; many serial killers are paraphiliacs, indulging in necrophilia, compulsive masturbation, sadism, voyeurism, piquerism (sexual arousal resulting from stabbing), and coprophilia (use of faeces during sex). These paraphilias are often such a driving force in the mind of the serial sexual killer that murder becomes merely incidental to their criminal acts. The serial killer Peter Kurten indulged in piquerism, but only to the extent necessary to reach orgasm. Should sexual fulfilment be achieved after a non-fatal number of stabs the victim usually survived.
In some cases sexual dysfunction is to blame. The notorious American serial murderer Henry Lee Lucas engaged in necrophiliac acts because he was incapable of achieving erection with a living person. Murder became a necessary prerequisite for sexual gratification.
Psychopathy can then kick into the explanation of serial sexual murder as the mechanism which serves the murderer in justifying his crime, or even in voiding the need to justify his crime. Psychopathy explains the serial nature of the crimes – should the paraphiliac be engulfed by guilt following his first murder, he is unlikely to repeat the act.
We are now tempted into a regression of reasoning: how does one become a psychopath or develop warped sexual fantasies in the first place? Biology may have its part to play but so do developmental factors: a combination of nature and (a very unnurturing) nurture.
This is Jung’s conception of the tortured becoming torturers. To begin to empathise we must allow our imagination to transform criminal into victim, child or woman abuser into child abused. Physical and sexual abuse can act to increase the proneness to violent and sexually deviant behaviour. A disproportionately large number of serial sexual killers experienced physical, emotional, and sexual abuse during childhood. Lucas’ mother beat him, curled his hair into ringlets and dressed him like a girl to go to school, and forced him to watch her have sex with strangers. Obviously, these kind of upbringings are not conducive to the adoption of social norms against violent behaviour and disregard for the feelings and welfare of others.
Additionally sexual abuse often provokes victims to attempt to remove themselves from their miserable reality and retreat into a fantasy life. In an endeavour for emotional wellbeing, victims imagine the abuse is happening to somebody else. The fantasies often entail elements of power and dominance, elements severely deficient in the abused child’s life. The creation of this parallel fantasy world sets the stage for the gruesome fantasies the child may later act out.
In the preface to American Psycho, Ellis quotes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground: “Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, given the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed.” The reference could just as well fit the history of the modern Western world as the superficial, self-centred, hyper-consumerist, greed fuelled eighties which Patrick Bateman inhabits.
All too often socio-cultural theories of serial sexual killers are dismissed for the sake of preserving peace of mind, submerging the idea that the same society in which we are active partakers could have itself created something so terrible. But it seems that explaining the occurrence of serial sexual murder necessitates the employment, at least in part, of these society based models, for there are no records of serial sexual killers prior to 1888. This is a uniquely modern, Western male phenomenon.
Sexual violence was initially a way to exert control over women, to restrict them to an inferior place in society, and to vent frustrations encountered in the social sphere. More recently sexual violence has been eroticised. In the West violence has become a means of sexual gratification. A few examples of sexual murder have been recorded recently in other areas of the world, such as India and Japan – there this has been blamed upon Westernisation, here psychological deviance is held accountable.
Why should serial murder be peculiar to Western society? One school of thought links it to the Enlightenment and the predicament it threw up: man is simultaneously an object of science as well as being master of the universe, man is considered “free” at the same time as being the product of social forces and conditioning. Murder, the ultimate taboo, is therefore the very definition of acting freely.
Part of the story may lie in the culturally constructed idea of masculinity, which is closely tied to physical prowess. Violence is the epitome of this. The feminist political agenda analysis has reframed the problem of violence against women as one of misuse of power by men who have been socialised into believing that they have a right to control the women in their lives. Clearly, serial murder itself is not itself socialised behaviour. However, one might argue that relevant precursors, for example propensity for violence and male sense of entitlement to sexual relations are. So serial murder may not be alien to mainstream culture but, worryingly, may actually be expressive of it.
Alternatively, rather than the existence of immoral norms, amorality may be the issue. Durkheim related crime and deviance to the disintegration of social consensus on values. It’s possible that the phenomenon of serial killing was borne out of the anomie, or lack of norms in modern societies.
In all likelihood explaining what makes serial killers tick will entail weaving the stands of biology, psychology, upbringing and society into a macabre tapestry. So if we are willing to delve deep in attempting to understand their impetus we are liable to discover as many alarming truths about ourselves and the society we live in as we are the serial killers who inhabit it.ARCHIVE: 0th week MT 2005