Saturday, April 26, 2014

Serial Killers and other scary things

Man, there sure are a lot of serial killers on TV these days.  

True Detective blew me away and I'm finally getting into Hannibal after people talking it up for a long time. True Detective was an fantastic fusion of strong performances, serial killer madness, rural decay, nihilistic philosophy, and Lovecraftian undertones, while Hannibal has fantastic characterization, morbidly beautiful imagery, and an elegantly European predator straight out of Dracula. While I've enjoyed both shows tremendously, they got me going down a couple of rabbit holes.

First off, it seems like the ACTUAL golden age of the serial killer is over. Most of the big names we associate with serial killing, the Dahmers and the Gacys and the Berkowitzes, all happened in the 1970s or the 1980s. It seems like it's just too hard to make people disappear and that law enforcement has gotten too good at catching these guys at one or two murders. Even the phrasing of those last few sentences makes it sound like I want more of these guys out there, because serial killers make the best lurid true crime stories. While reading about serial killer cases, I read something written by a crime journalist who chose to put the emphasis of his stories on the victims. When asked about it, he said that fixating too deeply on the killer makes them heroic and makes the people they hurt footnotes in the killer's story. Read enough about the lives of serial killers and they actually seem kind of pathetic. They look like demons from a distance, but up close they look like sad, sick little men. Once again quoting Lazenby, most things that seem satanic or malevolent are really just wretchedness and frailty that’ve been allowed to put on muscle.

Yet serial killers have become heroes these days. They've become POV characters. Unlike real-world serial killers, who often come off as grubby little obsessives and bitter misogynists, Hollywood serial killers are as sleek and dangerous as a hungry shark. Both Dexter and Mads Mikkelsen's take on Hannibal Lecter have become objects of lust among people with bad-boy fixations, as delightfully illustrated by something that stumbled across my Tumblr recently:


Second only to the sexy murderer is the sexy tormented investigator. They've got wounded hearts and poet's eyes, their intuitions and insights into evil are at once a blessing and a curse. Drowned in liquor and regret, they're the eternal Doomed Knight, going deeper into darkness because their personal conviction compels them to. It's all very manly and tragic and heartbreaking.

I think most serial killer shows are ultimately puzzle shows. They've really replaced the cozy mystery, where the murder is usually discretely off-camera and the motive was more profit-oriented. The clues are now as much about piecing together psychopathology as putting together a crime timeline and eliminating a list of suspects.

There have been a lot of fantastic serial killer stories out there, I think I'm suffering burnout. I'm tired of dour wounded-heart investigators with scruffy faces and lots of imagination. I'm tired of artfully staged body dump sites that would require a crane, a crew of teamsters, and a thorough understanding of theatrical set design to stage. I'm tired of clever, evil men staring across interrogation tables and through clear-walled holding cells. While the extraordinary stuff still stands out (True Detective, Hannibal) I'm tired of how just gosh darn super serious everything is in such a formulaic way.

And I'm tired about how serial killer lexicon has slipped out into the public discourse. At this point in my life, I've had conversations with four different friends describing their partners as psychopaths because they read some Slate or HuffPo article about the Dr. Hare's psychopath checklist. I wanted to say, "no, they're just jerks and you like it that way because you like drama" (they all stayed with the guys in question) but it's clear that the concept of psychopathy is the new pop psychology buzzword and it's probably directly due to all these stories of serial killers. I've seen and read books and articles about how psychopaths are the ultimate sexy bad boy, how they're heavily represented among the highest echelons of society, how emulating their callous disregard for other people is a recipe for success, how psychopathy is actually a spectrum and that Dr. Hare is far too quick to label people as psychopaths. It's all very intense and serious and tiresome.

Marlo Stanfield and his lieutenants scared me far worse than all the corny serial killers out there.

Unlike the Barksdale gang, who were torn apart by conflicting ambition, the Stansfield organization worked with a terrible sense of purpose that turned the final season of The Wire into a horror show. The group took advantage of blocks of unoccupied buildings and used them as dumping grounds for their murder victims. With no bodies for the police to investigate, Marlo Stansfield had free reign to achieve what he really wanted as a drug lord: absolute power and terror.

The most revealing character moment for Marlo Stansfield is this one:

After being humiliated in a card game by men who refuse to take Marlo seriously due to his age, Marlo goes and humiliates a security guard at a store. The guard tries to confront Marlo respectfully but Marlo decides that's enough of an insult to order the man's death. Cut to the end of the episode, with Chris Partlow and Snoop nailing another door back on to an abandoned house.

The scariest thing about Marlo, beyond his flat affect and dead eyes, is how casually he fills those tenement houses. He kills civilians, he kills allies, he kills the employees who fail him, and he kills the men who disappoint him, and he even kills people who have the slightest potential of being a police witness. He responds to every problem like some dark ages voivode, which makes him look awkward during moments where he's forced to cooperate or negotiate with the drug lord organization New Deal Co-op. Even then, he quickly dictates terms and brutalizes the others the second he gets the upper hand.

It would possibly be better if the people carrying out the assassinations were some dumb brutes, but Marlo's lead assassin Chris Partlow is eerily gentle. He calms people down and speaks to them in a reassuring voice just before he puts a bullet in them. There's a disconnect between his actions and his behavior that makes Chris Partlow absolutely terrifying. I've seen that same disconnect used as a personality quirk in serial killer movies, mostly before something sends them into a frothing rage, but you see the weight of history behind Chris Partlow's behavior. A long life of doing evil formed his methodology and the only time he breaks character is when the murder becomes personal.      

The scariest kinds of horror stories are the ones that feel closest to reality. The Wire was always praised for the veracity of its storytelling, which makes the murders feel plausible. Marlo and his crew aren't motivated by whatever hackneyed, theatrical backstories that motivate most serial killers. They kill to protect their organization and to flex their power. They're not scary because they're using people to enact their psychodramas. They're scary because they just don't care about the people they hurt. It's so much more cold and banal of a reason to kill people, and that indifference scares the crap out of me.

It strikes me as kind of funny that The Wire gets metafictional for a moment to comment on the whole serial killer thing. In the fifth season, Detective McNulty fabricates a serial killer in order to convince the city to free up more funds for him to appropriate to work the Marlo Stansfield case. At one point, they take a trip to the FBI office to work up a psychological profile on McNulty's fraud killer. As they're preparing the material and McNulty is smirking at his own cleverness, a Jack Crawford-style behavior science analyst comes in. He's clearly puffed up on his own cleverness and discusses how he worked up an accurate psychological profile on the Unibomber, to which McNulty replies, "wasn't he turned in by his own brother?"