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A psychological examination of serial killer cinema: The case of copycat.

Cinema's manifest function, of course, is entertainment--to amuse, inspire, sadden, frighten movie audiences--in order to gain profits for filmmakers. In carrying out its ostensible aim over the last century, however, a number of subsidiary utilities have become part and parcel of cinematic entertainment. Here we focus on one of these latent functions: the educative aim of the "big screen" in regard to serious social problems.


Cinema was born during one of the most important revolutions in human history. As an ongoing witness, films have been mirrors of the impact of industrialization on the human psyche (Griffith & Mayer 1957). Accompanying significant social, political, and economic changes in American society during this period have been shifts in the nature of crime. Serial murder was a rare occurrence prior to the industrial revolution (Wilson 1984). Previously, the majority of crimes, particularly the most vicious ones, occurred between people who were known to each other (Douglas 1985). According to recent FBI statistics, an average of fifteen people a day of both sexes and all ages are struck down by assailants who stalk and kill strangers for the sheer "thrill" that is derived from the intoxicating sense of power and control over the victims (Norris 1988). The subject of this paper is the depiction of these killers in contemporary cinema.

Prior to the past century, people depended upon books and personal correspondence for information about how others lived their lives. Written words, however, no matter how articulate, rarely convey comprehensive emotional representations of other people; the same is true of their spoken words. Cinema, on the other hand, provides in-depth, multi-dimensional case studies. This provides a vital educative experience for many-that is to say, the visual presentation of another's life in a film enables people with limited opportunity for intimate relating to observe en vivo the emotional lives of strangers.


Given the allure of its captivating entertainment, cinema for most Americans has become the major vehicle to purview other peoples' inner lives. The advantage of cinema for insight into the human psyche over written and spoken reports is available only to the extent, of course, that the films are able to mirror reality. Consequently, we strongly believe that the accessibility to the inner lives of others by cinema is accompanied by an implicit responsibility: in regard to its treatment of important social problems, cinema has a moral function. (1) The moral aim of cinema is derived from its psychological capacity to enable the observer to view emotionally disturbing images and to explore them in a way he or she would be too threatened to do in real life. Cinema when skillfully employed as psychological art impels the observer to experience more fully what in previous encounters with the film's emotional subject was conceptually vague, emotionally unavailable, and/ or linguistically unarticulated within the ob server's psyche. Cinema's responsibility is derived from its capacity to kaleidescope a series of emotional options through the association of the conflict presented on the screen with states of emotion formerly surpressed--or at least unarticulated--by the observer. What we mean by this is that the conflict on the screen acquires its emotional sanguinity from its capacity to condense "longed for" expressions of "unfinished" moral dilemmas of the observer (Goldberg 1987). We refer to these dilemmas as "unfinished" in the sense that no emotional solution or harmony has been previously achieved by the observer.

We further contend that for cinema to fulfill its moral function in regard to the dark side of human nature:

1. The audience must be able to identify with the characters presented on the screen. To fulfill this mandate, it is not enough for a film to invoke an emotional reaction. It must enable the members of the audience to consciously purview an array of other behavioral options to that of the enacted heinous behaviors of the film's villain. A film can only do this to the extent that the villain's motivation is clearly understandable and plausible. That is to say, in regard to accounts of serial killers, the film needs to show clearly the way that the perpetrator understands himself and how he explains and justifies his behavior. Secondly, the film must show how this "understanding" addresses or fails to take account of the humanity of his victims. In short, the observer's affective responses must not remain merely a matter of fear-of being frightened by a human monster (a character who poses physical danger on the screen)--it needs also to stimulate and involve the observer's moral sensibilities. (2)

2. Cinema, like all other art forms, cannot avoid taking a particular point of view about the human situation. Nevertheless, the serial killer, as a human monster--unlike science fiction monsters--must be presented in an honest way: his behavior as enacted in the film must accurately correspond to the actual behaviors of serial killers. (3) In other words, it is readily apparent to any non-psychotic adult of at least average intelligence that the science fiction monsters presented on the screen do not actually exist. However, the same assurance does not hold for human monsters similarly depicted. Consequently, if cinema is to be able to serve its educative and psychological functions, the observer's experience needs to be more than a diverting pastime; the images viewed must be an encounter with a reliable fascimile of reality.


Prior to writing this paper, we watched about a dozen films depicting serial killers. (4) As a result, we are concerned about the bogus portrait of serial killers these films present. Typical of this genre is the film Copycat (1995), in which the antagonist's idea of amusement is to imitate in precise detail the crimes of previous famous serial killers.

The following is an examination of the film Copycat's psychological impact on its audience. There are many disturbing elements to this film, including graphically violent murders and sadistic torture of women. But more insidious is the dishonesty the movie perpetrates. The plot revolves around the character of a forensic psychologist (Sigourney Weaver), who is presented as a world-renowned expert on psychopathic serial killers. The audience (few having expertise in forensic psychology) probably assumes that the opinions and theories the psychologist provides qualify as state-of-the-art forensic knowledge. But in fact, her data and theories, like those of the film's script writer, are grossly inaccurate. For example, in this movie the killer is presented as diabolically clever-- with a genius I.Q., and advanced university training--who relentlessly stalks physically fit, armed police officers. He is a shocking and frightening villain. But this is not an accurate psychological profile of a serial killer. Every modern serial killer I have studied (Goldberg 1997; 2000) was a moral and physical coward; he chose the most vulnerable victims--those least able to protect themselves. And although many of these serial killers have high I.Q.s, none are extraordinarily bright, and few have had the frustration tolerance to withstand the demands of advanced scientific education and training. Moreover, the obsessive stalking of a specific powerful person(s) is more characteristic of a paranoid schizophrenic than that of a psychopathic serial killer. My clinical work with seriously destructive people (Goldberg 1997; 2000) has shown me that the rapist's behavior is intrapsychically reversible for the perpetrator; that is to say, in the rapist's psyche he is both victim and perpetrator. The rapist's behavior, from this perspective, is an identification denial of his unacknowledged shared weaknesses with those of the victim. He is, consequently, drawn to the most vulnerable people he can find to try (unsuccessfully) to rid himself o f his shameful weaknesses.

In short, while horror movies in the past presented the story in such a way that the audience knew that the story was fictional (indeed, the voice-over announcer would explicitly state this caution), in trying to increase the shock effect of their movies, filmmakers are presenting distorted and invalid psychological data. As a result, typical of this film genre, Copycat Lacks the authority of reality. Thus, while serial killers do exist and present a dangerous threat to some people, because they are depicted so dishonestly in most of the cinema that presents them, the public is misinformed and unprepared to deal with them, as well as society's more pressing problems (an issue that we will discuss below). Sadly, the most significant thing about the film in question is the ironic possibility that the copycat theme may have an effect on real crime. We have abundant data to convincingly demonstrate that today's films have a strong adverse influence on people who cannot easily differentiate between appearance and reality (Berkowitz 1984). We also live in an age that could be readily characterized as engendering little thoughtful imagination--the plot of Copycat, for example, would have been more clever if the film itself had not copiously imitated several previously made melodramatic thrillers, e.g., Manhunter.

It should not be surprising, then, that the way many people today respond to crisis in their lives is modeled from scenes they have witnessed in the popular media. For too many, this includes violence. In other words, the only accurate element in Copycat is the fact that disturbed moviegoers frequently try to imitate the violent scenes and crimes they witness on the screen in the real world. Indeed, not long after this film was released two armed men with a bottle of flammable liquid and a match set fire to a token booth clerk in a Brooklyn subway station, critically injuring him. This attack seems to have been patterned on a then-current film, Money Train (1995), in which a similar violent incident is depicted.

Why would the filmmakers of such movies as Copycat mislead the audience by offering a more frightening picture of serial killers than is accurate? Movies, in becoming increasingly graphic in their depiction of violence, are watched by an audience largely esthetized to violent scenes on the screen from films of earlier eras. (5) Traditional horror movies, which originated in the 1960s, no longer frighten audiences as they once did (Schneider 1997). By the 1990s, Seltzer (1998) claims, American society had become a "wound culture": fascinated with shock, trauma, and torn-open bodies. As a result, increasingly revolting scenes are required to bring audiences to a particular violent movie rather than one of its numerous competitors.

Richard Corliss, in his Time Magazine review of the film, indicated that,

[a] sick mind is a terrible thing to waste [financially]. The quest for excellence our society demands has been transformed for the most part in our popular media to a different kind of quest... of horror, shock, indifference, insincerity. Rather than expending their creative energies in honestly examining the problems of violence in today's society, movies like Copycat expend their energies in cleverly arranged scenes that depict violence in an even more shocking way than in past films.

What might have been a significant issue to examine in an honest way in a film like Copycat? At the end of the movie, as the police officer is repeatedly firing shots into the villain's body, we and, perhaps, other viewers, felt a heavy ambivalence about what was taking place in the scene: on the one hand, the killer is a vicious, sadistic torturer--our need to vent feelings of revenge cried out for his last mortal sentience to be as painful as those he delivered to his victims. (Actually, these films because of the way the camera is used permit two different types of psychological "pleasure": (i) the camera early on is presented as the feverish eyes and destructive hands of the perpetrator. The observer who doesn't pause and inquire of him/herself--"Do I want to so readily identify with such a person?"-- will experience to some extent what the perpetrator on the screen experiences: the "forbidden" feelings of stalking, catching, torturing, and killing the vulnerable victim; and (ii) towards the end of these films, the camera becomes the austere eyes and avenging hands of the societal authority agent. The observer who doesn't question his! her identification with the elimination methods of the societal agent "enjoys" the satisfaction of his "virtuous" self joining in to remove human "garbage" from society.) Yet our moral sensibility, on the other hand, demands the recognition that he was probably a person emotionally warped by abusive and hurtful treatment by his caretakers. But, unfortunately, the observer need not ponder this important dilemma. We are given no information about the killer's background to enable us to understand what he had experienced that might have impelled his intense hatred toward the world to be expressed in such heinous ways.

In fact, few films about serial killers concern themselves with the underlying motivation of the killers. Now there may be a good reason for this. At least since Psycho (1960), with its overblown, hyper-Freudian "explanation" (presented by an arrogant, case-assigned psychiatrist at film's end) for Norman/Mother (Anthony Perkin)'s murderous behavior, there has been a lot of skepticism in the cinema regarding the efficacy, not to mention truth value, of psychoanalytic or psychosexual accounts of serial killer behavior. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) makes this skepticism manifest, as the eponymous murderer offers a number of contradictory accounts of his traumatic home life culminating in the slaying of his own mother. But none of this, of course, is to say that more nuanced and responsible discussions of serial killer motivation aren't worth exploring or dealing with in these pictures. (6)

Many filmmakers for their own profit motive and / or incompetent dramatic skills use the horror of serial killers to present them in unrealistic ways. We collude with these filmmakers by allowing them to assuage our fears about violence through their invention of a simplistic etiology to explan serial killers, and an equally simplistic solution to rid society of them. This rationale enables us to believe both that we understand serial killers and to vicariously join in the fantasized destruction of our fearsome enemy.


All of the cinema accounts of serial killers we have watched have focused exclusively on their brutal strangeness- the bizarre ways in which they are different from ordinary, decent people (see, for example, White of the Eye, Seven, Kiss the Girls). By making these people grossly hideous, inhuman, or even vastly more brilliant than ordinary people-such as Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs- they present these people as incomprehensible monsters. One doesn't defend or apologize for their heinous behavior by indicating that their behavior is readily understandable in terms of how they were mistreated by their caretakers and the ways they chose to respond to this behavior. In contrast, one does excuse the actions of serial killers by explaining their behavior as serial killer films tend to, as due to an "irresistible urge" brought on by their brutalization as children. Indeed, only by understanding the actual mechanisms of choice and responsibility in their actions are we able to comprehen d the behavior of serial killers.

The concept of irresistible urge was taken by psychologists from biology. As a biological concept it does make sense; for example, beyond our conscious control are our attempts to breathe when suffocating and to regurgitate when digestively irritated. But as a psychological explanation, the notion of irresistible urge is highly suspect. The serial killer, in fact, is not without choice. Any law enforcement officer who has investigated the criminal activity of such a person can verify this. The officer can testify to situations in which a serial killing stalker was at some point in his ritualistic behavior apprehensive about a potential danger to himself (e.g., the unexpected arrival of other people or a forceful fight put up by the victim).

If the serial killer's urge to commit his deadly behavior was truly irresistible, then he would be compelled to continue stalking his potential victims despite any danger to himself. But that is not what typically happens. In the usual scenario, if the stalker is seriously threatened, he halts, retreats, and comes back to pursue and kill another day (Goldberg 2000). Not surprisingly, a passage from one of the favorite books of Michael J. Swango--a doctor who admitted to intentionally killing a score of his patients--states, "When I kill someone, it's because I want to. It's the only way I have of reminding himself that I'm still alive" (LeDuff 2000). In short, although serial killers are usually presented in cinema as responding to an "irresistible urge" to stalk and kill, such a presentation is bogus.


A major function of any society is to enable its citizens to feel safe and secure. Although Americans contribute more of their resources to security than to any other need (Slater 1970), few of us feel safe from the dangers that lurk in our world. But for many, there is a difficulty in articulating precisely what it is that frightens them.

Once evil was a very real, very tangible presence. People could easily identify an evil menace in their daily lives. Evil people included those who sinned against God's commandments, foreigners who invaded one's lands, those who stole one's livestock, kidnapped one's children, and those who took office by intimidation and murder.

In postmodern society evil is less clear and identifiable. Yet it lies at the heart of our social ills. Most of the evil that afflict our daily lives can be described as faceless "institutional evils." The free enterprise system that governs American society has produced unfortunate outcomes (Tiger 1987): a growing gap between the affluent and the poor and the predominance of federal and state legislation designed to meet the demands of special interest lobbies rather than the needs of the general populace. These two factors have spawned poverty, homelessness, separate health care and criminal justice systems for the affluent and for the disenfranchised, as well as college-bound private schools for the former and low-pay employment-preparation public schools for the latter.

Institutional evil is usually subtle and well-camaflouged. Their instigators are often well-respected members of society-- some may even be our heroes. We cannot reconcile these benevolent-appearing leaders with the instigation of evil. It is quite disconcerting for most of us to try to understand our serious social problems. To overcome our demoralization about these seemingly insoluble problems, we seek to give our fears about the menace to a safe and harmonious society a human face. We select a troubling set of events instigated by people who fulfill traditional definitions of tangible evil. The FBI describes serial killers as the most cunning and sinister of all violent people (Norris 1988).

Unwitting psychological mechanisms are at work. Aside from their actual menace, we regard serial killers as the most fearsome of our serious social problems because of their close resemblance to the monsters and bogeymen of our childhood nightmares. In so doing, we miss the recognition that the actual causes of our social problems are also rooted in our childhood: selfishness, jealousy, self-hatred, and mistrust of ourselves and others. It is, of course, these dark, unexamined emotions that have influenced and maintained the institutional evils that plague our society.

Given our need to obviate the root causes of our continual fears, and our daily exposure to violence from sensational media news, docudramas, and fictionalized drama shown on television (7) and cinema, it is not difficult to allow ourselves to believe that evil killers are our most pressing social problem. Movies about serial killers--perpetrating this myth--are now reaching epidemic proportions, far exceeding their number in the forensic psychology literature.


Every vicious crime since the beginnings of human history has evoked a fundamental concern: what kind of person committed such a terrible deed, and for what reasons?

Arguably, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is the most profound attempt in creative literature to address crime's psychological base. The novel is the study of a single character, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, an impoverished university student in mid-18th century Russia, who conceives of a superman theory to justify his destructive behavior toward people he regards as intellectually and morally inferior to himself. (8)

Highly attuned to shame, Raskolnikov is unable to forgive himself for his inability to earn enough money to support his widowed mother and younger sister. His accentuated self-awareness experiences devastating humiliation when his sister enters into a loveless marriage so that he can continue his university studies. Soon thereafter, he rationalizes his murder of two old miserly sisters for their money; he claims that they are of little value to anyone, whereas he has a keen intellect that requires its upkeep.

Dostoevsky shows us through Raskolnikov's inner dialogues that the progression of rationalizations for contemptuous thoughts and acts begins with statements of radical egotism, (9) for example, Raskolnikov tells himself, "[L]life is only given to me once and I shall not have it again... I want to live myself, or else better not live at all." These rationalizations, because they are shown in the novel to be increasingly less subject to moral scrutiny, result in the protagonist's addiction to contemptuous thoughts and feelings toward people whom he judges inferior to him and/or who have humiliated him in the past.

We purview the complexity of the protagonist's personality from the dialectic of his inner struggles. Dostoevsky vividly shows us in Raskolnikov's dream of a brutally and mercilessly whipped, and finally beaten to death, little mare by drunken peasants that nothing is more distasteful to him than indecently treating another living being. Yet, at the same time, his inner dialogue suggests that there is another part of Raskolnikov's personality that mocks his sensitive soul. In the background of Raskolnikov's consciousness lies an ever-vigilant, rarely silent critic, who examines and comments on his every thought, feeling, and action. Leaping upon a bare minimum of information in every situation, the critic decisively forms a condemning opinion of Raskolnikov's compassionate feelings, labeling them as weaknesses. Extraordinary people like Raskolnikov, the critical voice instructs him, must act with complete self-will and power, in order to rid themselves of the self-submission and meekness that underlies compas sion for others.

Karen Homey (1950), a psychoanalyst, contends that an individual impedes the development of a constructive personal identity to the extent that he feels impelled to follow the "should-dictates" of his critical self. In regard to Raskolnikov, she points out, in order to prove to himself that he is a special person, he is impelled to convince himself that he should be able to murder a human being. Consequently, the very essence of Raskolnikov's murder of the sisters is that it is a fulfillment of a principle--Rational Egotism--rather than securing the sisters' hoarded three thousand rubles. As Nikolai Strakhov (1867) points out in a review of the novel, "As strange as it may be to say so, it is true that if [Raskolnikov] could have obtained that sum by stealing, cheating at cards, or by some other pretty fraud, he hardly would have decided to do it. He was attracted by the killing of a principle, by permitting himself that which is most forbidden." It is the sense of veracity of Raskolnikov's inner dialectic pr ocess that makes Crime and Punishment a valuable guide to understanding why some people kill. As such, novels like Crime and Punishment stand out in moral sensibility, while films like those of serial killers do not.


Great literature and art, by the acuity of its perceptions and the dexterity of its conceptualizations, liberates for inspection the ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions of our various views of virtue and wickedness. Great literature and art rework these dissonant threads of popular thought, turning topsy turvy conventional ideas about what is moral and desirable. Their product offers us inspiration and moral guidance. Superficial and/or dishonest literature and art, in contrast, presents conventional, tired, and deficient ideas: neither inspiring nor psychologically instructive.


(1.) Many artists have denied this contention. Oscar Wilde, a proponent of valueless aesthetics, says in the Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well-written, or badly written. That is all.... The moral life of man forms no part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.... All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their own peril.... It is the spectator, and not life that are actually mirrors.... All art is quite useless" (1982). But if the function of art is as Aristotle described it-the purgation of untoward emotion-it seems evident that purgation leads psychologically to the encouragement of action. It would be foolish, then, to argue that all art is useless and amoral.

(2.) The notion of "identification" in use here is to be considered neutral vis-a-vis the theoretical debates, currently ongoing, concerning its utility/applicability as applied to the cinema. See, e.g., Carroll 1990, and Gaut 1999.

(3.) According to Seltzer 1998, Robert Ressler, co-founder of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit, coined the phrase "serial killer" in the mid-1970s.

(4.) These films included White of the Eye (1986), Manhunter (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Kalifornia (1993), Se7en (1995), Copycat (1995), and Kiss the Girls (1997).

(5.) "Motion pictures are a kinetic art form; you're dealing with motion and sometimes that can be violent motion. There are very few art forms that let you deal with things in motion (De Palma, quoted in Pally 1984).

(6.) Thanks to Steven Schneider for his assistance with this paragraph.

(7.) Now with cable programs on Court Television scheduled to present the confessions of convicted defendants en vivo, the case is cinched for the myth that evil perpetrators are our most menacing social problem.

(8.) Though less profound (to be sure), Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), adapted from a popular stage play by Patrick Hamilton, is nevertheless worthy of comparison with Crime and Punishment. The film stars John Dall and Farley Granger as a pair of young men who strangle an associate to death, then hide the victim's body in a dresser while hosting a dinner party that same evening. Among the guests is a former teacher (played by Jimmy Stewart) who slowly pieces together what happened, finally eliciting from the killers an admission of guilt. Insofar as Brandon (Dall) and Philip (Granger) commit their crime solely for the sake of putting into practice the quasi-, or rather pop-, Nietzschean thesis that "murder is an art and as such should remain the privilege of superior beings," they bear close psychological resemblance to Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov.

(9.) Rational Egotism is a philosophy that claims that human nature is fundamentally self-centered; consequently, people should act in whatever way they believe is to their personal advantage. Self-sacrifice, in contrast, is a self-deluding attempt to try to convince oneself and others of one's virtue. It is only by the use of reason that men learn that their greatest asset consists in specifying their personal wants and aggressively seeking to secure them.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Aristotle. New York: Odyssey Press, 1951.

Berkowitz, L. "Some Effects of Thought on Anti- and Pre-Social Influences of Media Events." Psychological Bulletin 95(1984): 410-27.

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990

Douglas, John, Mindhunter. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment, George Gibian (ed.). New York: Norton, 1989.

Gaut, Berys. "Identification and Emotion in Narrative Film." In Carl Plantinga & Greg M. Smith (eds.), Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1999:200-216.

Goldberg, Carl. S peaking with the Devil: Exploring Senseless Acts of Evil. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Goldberg, Carl. The Evil We Do: The Psychoanalysis of Destructive People. Amherst: Prometheus, 2000.

Griffith, Richard and Arthur Mayer. The Movies. New York: Bonanza, 1957.

Horney, Karen. Neurosis and Human Growth. New York: Norton, 1950.

Norris, Joel. Serial Killers: The Growing Menace. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Pally, Marcia. "'Double' Trouble." Film Comment 20 (September-October 1984): 14.

Seltzer, Mark. Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Schneider, Steven. "Uncanny Realism and the Decline of the Modern Horror Film." Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.34(1997): 417-28.

Slater, Philip. The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Boston: Beacon, 1970.

Strakhov, Nikolai. Reprinted in Crime and Punishment, ed. George Gibian. New York: Norton, 1867.485-87.

Tiger, Lionel. The Manufacture of Evil. New York: Marion Boyars, 1987.

Wilde, Oscar. The Portable Oscar Wilde. New York: Viking, 1982.

Wilson, Colin. A Criminal History of Mankind. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1984.
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Author:Goldberg, Carl; Crespo, Virginia
Publication:Post Script
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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