What makes people become murderers? If you are watching shows like Hannibal and Dexter, you'd think it had to do with their exceptionally refined moral sensibilities and sheer genius. This trope is getting tired. Have we forgotten about the horrifyingly commonplace nature of evil?
The Fascinating Murderer
All over television, detectives are wading deep into the minds of murderers. They're drawn into a moral limbo, where they question everything they ever knew about law and morality. They share mental space with serial killers, riding the line between good and evil. They sometimes doing things they could never have imagined themselves doing. They kill.
And why not? If you take a look at these shows, murder seems like the best possible use of one's time. Murderers are creative artists, well-read intellectuals, social successes, and political players - often all at the same time. You can't argue with results.
Murder isn't a debilitating drain on their energy and a danger to their lives. It's a way to express, and implement, their own personal philosophy. Hannibal Lecter weeds out the rude and stupid, while attempting to cherish the exceptional. The killer in the BBC's The Fall quotes Nietzsche - "You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star" - and frames his murders as an expression of the chaos and the indifference of the universe. Dexter Morgan, from Dexter, famously rhapsodized about his "dark passenger" driving him to kill and mused about all those baffling normal people around him. Watch enough of these and you get the idea that serial murder is something between a master's thesis and really aggressive social work.
Just in case we don't get exactly how blown away we should be by a debonair genius's internal workings, we get a law officer to point them out to us. We spend long scenes with them, looking at polaroids, or better yet, sketches of the killer's crime scenes. We watch them frown thoughtfully over the killer's artfully-worded letters. And, if need be, they lean back in their chairs and explain away any thoughts we might have about the killer being crass or trite.
The Necessary Ingredients for the Perfect Murderer
There are set guidelines that every show has to follow if they're to include an artistic-genius murderer. The guidelines involve both aesthetics and morals.
Always Show Beautiful Gore
True Detective's first murder is a work of art that becomes a literal work of art. Intense Texan detective Rust Cohle sketches the titian-haired victim with her crown of antlers and her spiral tattoo. The Fall's Paul Spector leaves his strangled victim naked, washed, and artfully posed on her bed so the light from her window can cause her unmarked skin to glow white. Hannibal's murder scenes are gruesome, but stylish and beautiful, like medieval paintings of saints being flayed alive. Even Dexter, whose murderer is on the low-achieving end of this list, has beautiful gore. The show gives us gore in seemingly innocent situations. The breathtaking opening credits suggest the gore of a murder as Dexter goes about an ordinary morning - pulling a shirt tight over his face as he dresses, pulping a blood orange for juice, and bloodily swatting a mosquito.
If we're to see murderers as artists, we have to see their work as art. These shows make sure we do.
Never Go Too Far Aesthetically or Morally
Audiences don't tune in to serial killer shows because we're shocked by the subject matter. We have morbid curiosity and we want to be thrilled. What we don't want to be is disgusted, grieved, or really offended. All of these shows make sure we never are. The Fall is a perfect example of this.
Paul Spector is a loving husband and father and a conscientious grief counselor, who stalks and kills young, attractive, dark-haired, professional women. He kills them by strangling them. Does he rape them? No, of course not. People may tolerate a sympathetic portrait of a man who kills women, but they won't stand for a serial rapist.
How about sex after they're dead? He clearly stalks them in a sexual way, taking out their underwear and snipping off the bows to take home. After he strangles the women, he bathes them, cuddling with them as he cuts their hair and paints their nails. But there's no sex. This is not just a moral principle but an aesthetic one. He's a tortured artist. No one's going to show him humping a corpse, not even if he leaves her pretty afterwards. When the police finally profile him, based on his crimes, what do they decide makes him kill? Misogyny? Rage? A desire to dominate? Well maybe, but the profilers end their session by saying, "It's about intimacy." He wants to be intimate with his victims. How human. How understandable. How interesting.
Ladle on the Philosophy
Some people will object to my inclusion of True Detective on this list. After all, the ultimate murderers aren't artistic geniuses. But, as most recaps and essays about the show stress, the murderers of Dora Lange aren't the point of the show. In part, this is because the detectives never completely uncover the web of conspiracy behind the Yellow King, Carcosa, or anything else surrounding the murder - including who set up the beautiful crime scene and why they did it.
But really the show is mostly concerned with the relationship between the two detectives as they ponder questions about life, death, and evil. This is why we get Rust Cohle. He technically is a murderer when he comes into the show. He's held out as the main suspect in multiple women's murders for a good part of it. And what does he do, as we wonder if he killed these women? He talks about how sentient life is a cosmic mistake and should be destroyed, how everything is meaningless, and how he meditates on "the idea of allowing your own crucifixion."
So do the rest of the genius killers. Whether the shows are dramas, mysteries, or black comedies, you always get a healthy dose of talk about the cruelty and indifference of nature, the meaninglessness of existence, and the howling emptiness that makes killing (or dying) the only intelligent choice.
There's Always Someone Worse
Dexter, the show about the serial killer who only kills other killers, is pretty much built on this idea. Dexter Morgan kills someone far worse than he is nearly every episode. But the show that most relies on this idea for its existence is Hannibal. Hannibal Lecter has done some godawful things, including kidnapping and removing the hand of an FBI trainee, cutting a twenty-year-old's throat, and letting his best friend in the world go nearly insane due to an untreated case of encephalitis. He's not the hero. He may not even be likable. But he's not the worst person on any season of the show.
In the last season, for example, we got Mason Verger, a homophobic incestuous rapist millionaire who collects tears from his victims to flavor his cocktails and has his own sister sterilized to secure his hold over the family fortune. When Verger's around, it's tough to hate anyone else. Pick any show, it's the same. From psychotic wife beaters who threaten children to senators who run murder cults, there's always someone worse than the artist-killer.
Making Evil Both Banal and Interesting
Individually, these shows are good. It's the aggregate, and the lack of alternatives, that's terrible. The idea of the genius-artist-philosopher-killer has become stagnant and dull. Everywhere you look, it's the same boring nihilism, the same boring excuses, and the same slightly-creepy glamour - which is growing boring.
The fact that there is such an extreme concentration of fictional serial killers in one area means there is plenty of room to explore. Any show in which an FBI agent doesn't puzzle over cryptic messages written under the wallpaper of an abandoned hotel room, and in which the killer doesn't feel the need to doesn't inform us of his feelings on Sartre, would be a good start.
How about this: according to one review of modern serial killers, thirty percent of serial killers are motivated by financial gain. Wouldn't that be interesting? A story about how a killer manages to get away with murder, again and again, as a way of making a comfortable living? The killer wouldn't have to be a genius, or a tortured artist. They'd just have to be lazy, uninteresting person who figured out a way to scam the system.
Maybe we can do away with the brilliant killer and his near-godlike powers. It's not a reflection of reality. It seems that organized serial killers - killers who meticulously plan their crimes and tend to have normal lives outside the scope of their crimes - have an average IQ of 98.5. That's below the population average. Disorganized killers - who live their lives as criminals and tend to act on impulse - have an average IQ of 92.6. Mixed serial killers, who display both organized and disorganized traits, tend to have an above-average IQ of 108.4, but they're not geniuses.
You may argue that some killers are incredibly clever, and the shows are right to focus on those. Here is a list of 21 killers with near-genius or genius level IQ scores. If you look through it, you'll notice something fairly common. Even the smart ones have arrest records. Jeffrey Dahmer, in the middle of his killing period, was arrested and convicted for molestation. He had an IQ of 145. Gary Heidnik, IQ of 130, was jailed several times for crimes like rape and false imprisonment before he started his serial killing. Laurence Bittaker, IQ 138, was jailed again and again for crimes that included burglary, theft, and even murder, before he became a serial killer of young women. Caroll Edward Cole, IQ 158, went to jail for arson and for attempting to strangle a child before he started successfully killing women. The most famous person on the list, Nathan Leopold, had an IQ of 210 and was a child prodigy. He graduated with honors from the University of Chicago. After he was released from prison, he became a mathematics professor at a school where, presumably, the administration was extremely liberal and the dorm rooms were extremely secure. He technically shouldn't be on the list. He killed only one person - an adolescent boy - in an attempt to commit the perfect murder. He was caught.
The point is, being very smart does not make anyone even passably good at crime. Criminals test the waters, they make mistakes, and they improve. And how much more chilling would it be to see an average killer get better than to see a cultured genius of a killer who is already perfect? What if, instead of being in suspense about what cryptic message the handsome, artistic killer will choose to tattoo on the instep of his next victim, we had to wonder if this young woman (or, great heavens, young man) we see on screen will actually be the first victim? Or this one? Or the one after that? What, in short, if a show about a killer was actually about killing, and not about two people discussing philosophy?