Hannibal Lecter, Jefferey Dahmner, Ted Bundy, Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers, Richard Ramirez — whether you are a fan of horror and true crime or not, odds are you’ve heard those names. Serial killers, both real and fictional, have permeated our culture. Over the years, the serial killer has become admired, worshipped, and a general public obsession. There are countless videos, TV shows, and movies dedicated to true crime and horror killers. Fans of the genre range from the casual viewer to collecting True Crime trading cards to sending Ted Bundy love letters in prison (or the modern day equivalent: editing flower crowns onto vicious murderers). In combination of our fascination and the fact that the US is home to 75% of the world’s serial killers, it is no surprise that, as serial killer experts Joyce Carol Oates and Mark Seltzer have said, the serial killer has become an American Icon.

In this article, I’ll be analyzing the portrayal of serial killers in horror films, starting with the slasher genre that coincides with the rise and fall of the serial killer decade, then moving into the late 80s and 90s as serial killer films start to become their own genre, and finally, examining modern horror and true crime films to determine how the serial killer became a national icon.

The Serial Killer Era

From 1970 to 1999, there was a large increase in serial killer activity. This period has been coined as the “golden age of serial murder” by Harold Schechter, as noted in a Rolling Stones article about the Serial Killer Era. At the start of this horrific chapter in American history, we are introduced to Ed Kemper (aka the “Co-ed Killer”), John Wayne Gacy, the Manson family, David Berkowitz “Son of Sam,” Herbert Mullin, the Atlanta Child Murderers, Joseph Kallinger, Ted Bundy, and many, many, more.

With the increase in violence, this also created an atmosphere of unease. In her essay, “I Had No Other Happiness,” Joyce Carol Oates describes her own personal experience with her local serial killer, “The Babysitter,” who still remains unknown. She says, “I remember the atmosphere of those days, and weeks: the talk, the emotion, the visceral dread; the horror and astonishment that such acts should happenthere… how typical the street of handsome, primarily colonial houses…If we are not safe here, then where?…To live in an area in which a serial killer is stalking his victims is to feel oneself trapped within another’s mad, malevolent dream…his madness yields a distinct pattern, yet is unpredictable, and seemingly unpreventable.” This fear of the unpredictable violence, the loss of safety, has taken over America at this time. 

The Rise of Slasher Films

In Robin Wood’s essay, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” he discusses horror films as capturing the “collective nightmare” of the decade. It seems that the atmosphere created by the serial killings paved the way for slashers. And it’s Tobe Hooper’sTexas Chainsaw Massacrethat kicks off the genre in 1974. The dread of the film perfectly captures Joyce Carol Oates’ experience. For example, the tension of the film starts when our protagonists invite the hitchhiker into the van. This is reflective of the decade as hitchhiking was common in the 70s and as a result, was how most serial killers chose their targets. Just like *spoiler alert* the hitchhiker in the film, who turned out to be the killer behind the gruesome displays of “art.” The overall atmosphere of the film feels as unpredictable and unpreventable as Oates described, from the teenagers wandering into “terrible place” and their inevitable deaths, to the failed escape when Sally tries to run to safety and discovers that the man at the gas station is another member of the Leatherface family. 

Other slashers of the decade that show this “collective nightmare” include Bob Clark’sBlack Christmas, which introduces a realistic serial killer that remains faceless and uncaptured and also introduces a killer’s POV that reappears again a few years later in John Carpenter’sHalloween. To name a few more,The Town that Dreaded Sunrise, The Hills Have Eyes,andWhen a Stranger Callswere also released in the 70s.

As the body count in America starts to rise, so does audience attendance for slasher films. According to a study at Radford University, in the 1980s there were at least 689 known active serial killers in the United States. During this time, the 80s also experienced an influx of slasher films as they gained popularity in the United States. Films likeSleepaway Camp, Prom Night, Friday the 13th, andNightmare on Elm Street were released in this decade, along with the continuing franchises and sequels.

All of the slashers mentioned are either based on real-life serial killers, create their own serial killers, or most commonly portray a combination of both.Texas Chainsaw Massacreis inspired by Ed Gein,Black Christmasby Wayne Clifford Boden,The Town that Dreaded Sunriseby the Texarkana killings, and many more. Wood mentions that, “the old tendency to dismiss the Hollywood cinema as escapist always defined escape merely negatively as escape from, but escape logically must also be escapeto.” The audience is drawn to these slasher films, because they achieve a sense of catharsis. They can empathize with the fear from a safe distance, and feel comforted when the threat is eliminated and the Final Girl escapes. 

The Decline of Slashers

By the late 80s to early 90s, the slasher genre and the serial killer era is on the decline. People have stopped hitchhiking and installed security cameras, which decreased the availability of victims for the killers. At the same time, slashers “eventually became laughable, predictable, and tiresome, marred by endless sequels, card board characters, and predictable scenarios” according to Adam Rockoff’s bookGoing to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. The end of the era is best shown in the 1996 filmScream,which parodies the tropes of 70s-80s slashers and shows that the audience can laugh in relief because the worst is now behind them.

Dissecting the Identity of the Serial Killer

With the fear of the serial killer era starting to wear off, a serial killer genre starts to emerge in films likeHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,Silence of the Lambs, andAmerican Psycho.They show a curiosity about why the era happened in the first place by dissecting the appeal, the mind, the public persona of serial killers, and the culture that created them. 

First released in 1986, then re-released in 1990,Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,is based on real-life killer Henry Lee Lucas, who was active from 1960 to 1983. This film sparked interest in learning why serial killers are the way they are. In Stephen Harris’s essay, “The Optimum Wound Profile,” he says, “Henry is a mimic, a man without a functional identity, and it is this lack of identity that makes him so volatile; he is not a person, he is a condition.” He goes on to explain why others are so threatening to Henry when he says, “the boundary separating his absent ‘self’ from ‘them’ is in danger of collapsing, and so he eliminates — erases — the threat through murder.”Henryproposes the serial killer as a man with no identity, someone who’s sense of self is broken down when confronted by others.

Continuing the exploration of the psychopathic psyche in 1991 isSilence of the Lambs.This film sets up the iconic character of the serial killer that we know today in comparison to the serial killers we’ve known in the past. In Sonia Allue’s essay “Aesthetics of Serial Killing,” she analyzes howSilence of the Lambsshows the fascination with serial killers because they represent a disruption of order, but by discerning their patterns and identifying with the law, we can enjoy the killing from a safe distance and be comforted when the threat is eliminated and control is regained. This idea is represented through Buffalo Bill. He is what Allue calls a “classical monster” perfectly representing Wood’s idea of the repressed “Other.” With his death, the audience is relieved because his death puts an end to “all deviance.” But in contrast to Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter is “not presented as a savage bloodthirsty man, but a selective high-class gourmet.” Hannibal is methodical, cunning, and well-mannered. He represents the type of serial killer that has been romanticized, and the character that has become the most recognizable representation of serial killers today.

Lastly, we haveAmerican Psychoin 2000, which explores how a lack of identity in a capitalistic society can be the perfect breeding ground for unchecked violence. Like Hannibal, Patrick Bateman is a well-mannered psychopath, able to charm as he pleases. But like Henry, Bateman also remains faceless as a symptom of society. In the essay “Getting Away With Murder,” Paul Coughlin elaborates that identity is a major tenant in America. He says that, “Bateman is meant to be a symbol of his times — times that valorise status, money and surface, each to the detriment of substance and individuality.” This is seen on his focus of the materiel, meticulously describing his designer suits, skin care routines, and music choices. The result of these fixations is shown in the business card scene. Coughlin writes, “The irony lies in the cards themselves: they all appear the same. And, like their business cards, these men are interchangeable: clothed in designer suits, adopting the same perfectly contrived hairstyles, their physical presentations are virtually identical.” 

By crafting and performing his own American identity, the irony is Patrick becomes a copy of everyone else, and whenever anyone threatens that identity, Coughlin explains how Bateman’s reaction mimics his Wall Street job: “Taking over other companies, stripping them bare and consuming them: put precisely, commercial cannibalism. Bateman's social life follows the same methodology: appropriating people and consuming them.”

The Modern Identity of the Serial Killer

After the exploration of serial killers in the late 80s and 90s, there seemed to be a renewed fascination with reviving old slasher villains and creating a backstory to explain their motives. Throughout the 2000s, we see remake after remake after remake of slashers. Each of these revivals include origin stories for these iconic slashers. There have also been an increase in films that show the lives of serial killers likeMonster,My Friend Dahmer, andExtremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Other modern films likeMa,Split(I do not endorse this movie, but it fits my analysis),We Summon the Darkness, andCabin in the Woodsreimagine the threat as something or someone that doesn’t fit a typical serial killer. In TV shows likeYOU,Dexter, Hannibal, all give their protagonist serial killers backstories and motives that make them seem human and even sympathetic at times. 

Due to the extended format of these shows, we occupy the mind of a killer for longer than a two hour movie. Prolonged watching seems to ask the audience, why are you still watching? What compels you towards these characters? Do you see them in yourselves? It seems that modern horror has continued not only to dive deeper into the psychology behind killers, but ourselves too and we revel in it. 

Final Thoughts 

To conclude, over the decades we’ve seen the serial killer be born as an enigmatic murder machine in the slasher genre. Then as their own genre is created, they evolve into a methodical, cunning, faceless symptom of society, resorting to violence as a way to establish their identity. Today in modern films, we see the serial killer become ourselves as the y represent a reflection of the most twisted side of humanity. This is how the serial killer is known to us today, but as we’ve seen, the serial killer is not a fixed character, and their representation will go on to change with our continued exploration into why they exist at all.


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