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Monstrosity without a body: representational strategies in the popular serial killer film.

Much of the recent discourse on monstrosity is more interested in the question what monsters mean than what they look like. Susan Leigh Starr, for example, talks about "multiple marginality" as an essential property of monstrosity. Her own body and its allergy to onions provides Starr with an example of how multiple marginality is "a source not only of monstrosity and impurity, but of a power that at once resists violence and encompasses heterogeneity" (30). Marie-Helene Huet presents a similar idea of categoric or classificatory impurity in her discussion of monstrosity: "By presenting similarities to categories of beings to which they are not related, monsters blur the differences between genres and disrupt the strict order of Nature" (4). Jeffrey Cohen discovers in "that uncertain cultural body" of the monster the same "intriguing simultaneity or doubleness" discussed by Starr and Huet. The monster "introjects the disturbing, repressed, but formative traumas of 'pre-' into the sensory moment of 'post'," w rites Cohen, "binding the one irrevocably to the other. The monster commands, 'Remember me: restore my fragmented body, piece me back together, allow the past its eternal return ...'" (ix). Or, more succinctly, "The monstrous body is pure culture" (4).

Abstractions such as "multiple marginality," "intriguing simultaneity," or the blurring of "differences between genres" require a textual and physical site to manifest themselves. This site, as viewers of horror cinema well know, is the monster's body, not so much as "a glyph that seeks a hierophant" (Cohen 4), but as a signifier in which monstrosity appears directly, unmistakably, palpably, visibly, shockingly. This tradition of immediacy in bodily visibility can be traced back to the Gothic. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), the sight of the creature fills its creator with "breathless horror and disgust"; Victor finds himself literally "unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] had created" (57). Brain Stoker's eponymous Dracula (from the 1897 novel), capable of moving about the crowded London streets without attracting attention, has none of these physical markers of otherness, and yet there are moments when his true nature becomes visible, his body becoming spectacular. "panther-like in... moveme nt," his "eye-teeth long and pointed," and his general appearance transformed into something obviously "unhuman" (266). Stevenson's Edward Hyde (1886) already announces a shift from the surface of the body to its depths. Though Hyde's appearance still elicits a shock of physical revulsion reminiscent of Shelley--the "very essence of the creature" is "something seizing, surprising and revolting" (39)--the physical markers of his otherness are already less distinct. Witnesses point to "something displeasing, something downright detestable" (7), something "abnormal and misbegotten" (39), about him, though no one can "specify the point" (7). This difficulty in locating the exact location or nature of Hyde's "deformity," however, does not detract from the witnesses' certainty that it is indeed Hyde's body which bears "Satan's signature" (12). Seeing this body commit a monstrous act is not required to understand its true nature. His is the transitional body in the history of the Gothic, one which gives "an impressi on of deformity without any nameable malformation" (11-12).

These examples illustrate that monstrosity never really leaves the body as its preferred site of manifestation, though it may become detached from any particular bodily characteristic. Excessive body size, for example, is still a marker of monstrosity in Frankenstein's lumbering, looming creature, but no longer in Dracula; in Stevenson, the connotations have actually been reversed, and it is Mr. Hyde's short, agile figure that arouses vague disgust in others. Monstrosity moves throughout the body looking for a site to manifest itself. Especially in its movement back and forth between the exterior and the interior of the body, its surface and its depth, it seems intent on concealing itself in the hidden, impenetrable spaces beneath the surface. The Gothic tradition Gothic that Stoker and Stevension work in imagines monstrosity as a function of interiority, perhaps analogous to the nineteenth century shift from physiognomy to depth psychology-from Franz Josef Gall and Cesare Lombroso to Breuer, Ferenczi, Freud, and Jung.

Monstrosity can be forced to manifest itself against the will and efforts of the monster, or it can manifest itself as a kind of Freudian lapse during a moment of inattention. Coppola's film version of Dracula (1992) has the Count (Gary Qldman) slipping into animalistic lust at the sight of Jonathan Harker's blood, an instant of revelation that needs to be concealed from Harker at this early stage of Dracula's reverse colonial conquest. In the scene from Stoker's novel quoted above, Dracula reveals his true nature under pressure: cornered by the fearless vampire hunters, he is forced into mobilizing the superior strengths of his monstrous body. Lucy Westenra, his victim-turned-fellow-monster, undergoes a similar transformation when compelled by the elements of surprise and superior force. In a state of satiated torpor, and hence unable to conceal the signs of monstrosity, Lucy's "pointed teeth, the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth" make her observers "shudder" (190). Penetrated by the stake, her body manifests its monstrosity in full force; she becomes a "foul Thing," emitting a "blood-curdling screech" like a wild animal (192). Toward the end of Stevenson's novella, Dr. Jekyll wakes up from "a comfortable morning doze" to discover that his hand, which is usually "large, firm, white and comely," is now "lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor, and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair" (47)--a transformation that leaves him in a state of terror, especially since it has taken place against his will and without administration of the necessary drug.

This slipping of the mask is only one of the many thematic connections between these nineteenth century monsters and their pre-eminent late twentieth century descendent, the serial killer. The modern serial killer, as we find him in popular film and fiction, has a hybrid ontology. He is, to quote Philip Simpson, "a fantastic confabulation of Gothic/romantic villain, literary vampire and werewolf, film noir outsider, frontier outlaw, folkloric threatening figure, and (he embodies] nineteenth-century pseudo-sociological conceptions of criminal types given contemporary plausibility" (15). Despite this bewildering multiplicity of generic sources, Simpson (like many others) comes to the conclusion that fictionalized serial killers are the product of two major influences: the Gothic romance on the one hand, and detective fiction on the other. In the former, they occupy the position of monstrous other, from the dark and charismatic Byronic heroes of Walpole, Radcliffe, and Bronte to the monsters of Shelley, Stevenso n, and Stoker. In the latter, they appear as superhuman and fiendishly clever criminals plotted against such masterminds as Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes.

The prototypical figure standing at the intersection of these two popular genres is Oedipus. Playing the role of both detective and criminal, Oedipus' story provides the model for all detective fiction. It includes a crime that disturbs the equilibrium of the social, even the natural, universe; the questioning of witnesses; the gradual elimination of suspects; and that great moment when guilt is revealed to the eyes of the community. Not only the detective but also the murderer, Oedipus is not merely the prototypical criminal--he the prototypical monster, as well. His physical deformity gives him away. His body bears the plague that oppresses the city, and only its removal from the community can restore order. Branded with the physical mark of otherness--just like the villainous heroes that are to follow in Lord Byron's orthopedic shoes--Oedipus wears his guilt, and his position outside the community, as a sign on his body that is plain to see. The sight of Oedipus' body, doubly marked by his cloven foot and self-mutilation, inspires terror and repulsion in others.

Public display of the abject body has become a hallmark of the intersection of Gothic and detective fiction ever since. At first glance, the recent serial killer narrative subscribes to this generic convention as well. Often the killer's body makes an early appearance--in most cases, before the first half of the novel or film is over. Unlike the "whodunnit," the serial killer genre typically shows us the killer's face early on, and identifies him as the killer. Since he is not part of a familiar circle of suspects, it makes no difference whether or when we see his face. Nevertheless, when we do see it, especially the first time, the effect is usually something of an anticlimax. He is less than what we expected, especially in comparison with what the film has shown us of his residence, his victims' bodies, and / or the effects that his actions have had on other characters and the community at large. Finally witnessing the killer's body, we cannot help feeling cheated. It is the moment when the film uncovers it s central mystery, yet what is uncovered appears flat, and far from enigmatic. Our appetite for illicit thrills is not satisfied, even though the preparatory stages leading up to this primal scene promise just that.

And so what at first glance appears to be well within the rules of the genre instead turns out to be an inversion of one of its basic tenets. The body of the serial killer is not a site of abjection, despite what one might expect from the way its appearance is so often staged. Indeed, the vast majority of serial killers lack that one crucial feature which, according to numerous scholars and critics, effectively defines the monstrous: their evil is not written on their bodies. The display of the serial killer's body during the course of a typical narrative serves merely to allude to the conventional audience response elicited by the appearance of the traditional! supernatural monster; yet it is an allusion which does not elicit that conventional response in and of itself. And why should it? Mark Seltzer calls the serial killer "the statistical person," a construct put on display in Copycat (1995) when a psychologist lecturing to a college crowd instructs all the white males in a certain age group to stand up, and then turns the camera on them. The image of these students-projected as a "statistical person" onto a large screen and interspersed, for effect, with images of real-life serial killers-is one intended to amuse the film's audience, as it consists of bland, harmless, apparently nonthreatening men (the visual joke, however, is onus, because the camera glides over the face of the character who will turn out to be the film's serial killer). But still, whether it is Kevin Spacey's mild-mannered John Doe in Seven (1995), Ted Levine's slightly goofy Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), or Leland Orser's Richard Thompson in The Bone Collector (1999), the killer's body tends to be inconspicuous, average, and thus distinctly unspectacular. Mary Harron's American Psycho (2000) parodies this physical blandness by visually replicating the killer throughout his social class. Constantly mistaking one person for another, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) and his colleagues are so physically similar that they se em to share the same "statistical body." It is the epitome of "normal," a concept here problematized by its conflation with murderous violence and extreme psychopathology. In real life and, even more so, in fiction, the killer just isn't much to look at.

There are some minor exceptions to this apparent rule of bodily inconspicuousness. In his novels Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris endows the character of Hannibal Lecter with a sixth finger on each hand. This physical abnormality, which construes Lecter's body as monstrous in the strict sense, continues to mark him even after it gets surgically corrected; in Hannibal, Harris' most recent novel, Lecter's identity is revealed to one of the detectives on his trail by the surgical scars on his hands. Not insignificantly, the screenwriters and directors involved in adapting Harris' novels for the screen have all chosen to omit this crucial detail. In Michael Mann's Manhunter (1987), Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, and at least until the finale of Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001), Lecter's body is unmarked and inconspicuous. A tradition stronger than that of the bodily grotesque appears to be asserting it-. self in these three films, and in the majority of films devoted to the serial killer. (1)

As closely related as the fictional serial killer narrative may be to that of the Gothic, or to the horror film generally, this is in fact one of its distinctive features: monstrosity is never revealed in that scene, so typical of the horror genre, in which the monster is glimpsed for the first time, his appearance inspiring a terrified shriek from a (typically female) character. In the traditional horror film, language breaks down when confronted with the monstrous. The scream of abject terror marks a descent into the pre- or non-lingual, and thus signifies the collapse of culture. Not so when the monstrous appears in the guise of the serial killer. Like characters in the narrative, we respond with bafflement rather than horror, with incomprehension rather than disgust, and with a need to reiterate the question- Could that really be him?-rather than with a terrified scream that rings through the horror genre's familiar Gothic hallways.

Such discrepancy is significant, because in the characters' responses to the monstrous we recognize, as Noel Carroll has convincingly argued, how we ourselves as spectators are supposed to respond. Carroll suggests that "the emotional reactions of characters.., provide a set of instructions or, rather, examples, about the way in which the audience is to respond to the monsters in the fiction" (17). The implication here is that specific emotional response, even when it comes with the spontaneity of pure reflex (from the "gut level," so to speak) is culturally conditioned, and therefore needs to be demonstrated, imitated, rehearsed. What Carroll defines as "the theme of visceral revulsion" (19), "an evident aversion to making physical contact with the monster" (23), is as typical for the horror film-proper as it is conspicuously absent from the serial killer narrative. The "felt agitation" defined by Carroll as the intended viewer affect of horror, and which he etymologically traces back to the Latin root of th e word "horror"--"to bristle or to shudder" (24)--never surfaces in the latter, precisely because the killer's body is construed as unspectacular.

Bristling and shuddering are also the hallmarks of the monstrous as characterized by Barbara Creed, who, in referring back to Julia Kristeva's notion of "the abject," argues that definitions of the monstrous as constructed in the modern horror text are grounded in ancient religious and historical notions of abjection, particularly in relation to the following religious "abominations": sexual immorality and perversions; corporeal alteration, decay, and death; human sacrifice; murder; corpses; bodily wastes; the feminine body; and incest (37). (2) Monsters, according to yet another scholar, speak of the "fears of contamination, impurity, and loss of identity," carrying the outward manifestations of these fears on their bodies (Cohen 14-15).

Though audiences of serial killer narratives still derive their thrills from what Carroll calls "felt agitation," its source cannot be the killer's abject body, which is all solidity and bland surface. Hence, all attempts made by such narratives (especially in the medium of film) to visualize the serial killer's inherent evil meet with a significant challenge, as monstrosity must somehow manifest itself visually. Efforts made at visualizing evil are often conceptualized as a sudden, unexpected, occasionally unobserved (other than by the audience) slippage during the killer's otherwise seamless performance of normality; the same slippage mentioned above with respect to the Gothic monsters Dracula and Mr. Hyde. Every once in a while, the mask of normality slips, revealing the face of evil underneath.

Perhaps the most striking example of such a moment occurs in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). The camera slowly zooms in on Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who is leaning against a white wall in his cell at the county jail. Once Norman's face fills the screen, Hitchcock fades to the image of Marion Crane's car being dragged out of the swamp. At the exact moment of the fade, the skull of Norman's dead mother is superimposed over Norman's features. (3) The complexity of this scene, and of the brief moment when we see Norman for who! what he really is--"death incarnate" --makes it worth taking a closer look.

The scene begins with the cell door closing, which means that the camera's point of view is not attached to any specific character. If Norman suspects himself to be under observation, as his "mother's" words suggest in the voiceover, he is correct insofar as we (the audience) are watching him. The camera's intense scrutiny of Norman's body, its unwavering gaze and uninterrupted spatial approach, suggest that the secret of Norman's identity must be accessible to the eye. We are led to believe that monstrosity will reveal itself as a bodily manifestation--if only we could get close enough, we might detect the signs. But our expectations remain unfulfilled. The camera's approach to Norman's body comes to a halt at the close-up of his face. Hitchcock also interrupts the long sequence by suturing in a shot of Norman looking at the fly crawling over his hand; a cut that, at first glance, seems to undermine the emotional intensity of the scene by breaking its hypnotic stillness. When Hitchcock cuts back to Norman's face, the camera moves in for an extreme close-up. A second before the superimposition of the skull onto Norman's features, he raises his eyes and looks directly into the camera. Hidden in the fade and thus easy to miss, the superimposition is visible for only a split-second. In this brief interval, surface or normality becomes transparent, and the serial killer's true identity shines through.

This brief glimpse of the mask becoming transparent appears to be elicited by the camera's intrusion because it comes at the moment of greatest visual intimacy. Pressured by the aggressive gaze, Norman loses control and "gives himself away," not unlike the scenes from Stoker and Stevenson quoted above. Monstrosity hides; unless it is forced to appear, it can only be glimpsed at a moment when it deems itself unobserved. What Hitchcock allows us to see is all the more authentic because Norman no longer has control over it. Since the previous suture (Norman looking at the fly on his hand) suggests that all of the cuts in this sequence will follow Norman's gaze, and since the camera's point of view is exclusively that of the audience, we can infer that the subsequent fade constitutes another suture. This suture shows us what Norman sees when he returns our gaze, i.e., the car with Marion Crane's body in the trunk emerging from the swamp. Two essential truths emerge at this moment: all we see is "death incarnate" when we look at Norman, because all he sees when he looks at us are dead bodies. These truths have both been hidden: one under the surface of the swamp. the other under the surface of the body.

As effectively as this scene visualizes the slip of the mask, it poses a problem for the narrative consistency of the film as a whole. Throughout Psycho, Hitchcock steers clear of any suggestion that the universe in which Norman Bates operates includes the supernatural. In fact, many historians of the horror film would argue that it is precisely the absence of the supernatural that makes Psycho a landmark in the tradition of Gothic horror. Psycho brings horror into the mundane/modern world, into the core of the community, the family. Hence, it requires less of a suspension of disbelief than, for example, the bug-eyed monsters of horror films from the 1950s and early 60s. Realism is at the core of Psycho's emotional manipulation of its audience. Only when we see Mrs. Bates' skull superimposed upon Norman's face does this code begin to crumble.

At the moment of superimposition, one of three possible shifts occurs. It may, for instance, be an ontological shift, taking us from the natural to the supernatural. Since the camera is not attached to any specific character's p.o.v., the superimposition cannot represent a subjective gaze. The story itself provides no rationale for the existence of the supernatural, and no hint that Hitchcock is even considering this as a dramatic option. Read as a supernatural event, the appearance of the monstrous body would constitute a radical rupture of the film's ontological coherence, a rupture that could easily be taken as a failure on Hitchcock's part to maintain artistic control.

The second possible reading of this scene emphasizes its fantastic character by viewing the monstrous transformation of Norman's body as a literalization of metaphor, a strategy essential to the fantastic. (4) At the moment Norman's body manifests the signs of his monstrosity, he literally becomes "death incarnate." Understanding this image requires that the audience tacitly agree to dispense with a strictly realistic representational code. The image is here taken as something that cannot be visualized any other way but through metaphor suddenly appearing as material reality, on an ontological par with those ordinary objects of the ordinary world in which Psycho takes place. But this reading would make it necessary to cast the narrative of Psycho in allegorical terms, which is unlikely considering that nothing prior to this moment suggests a consistently maintained second layer of meaning.

Still another reading is open to us, however, one that requires close attention to the stylistic details of the scene. Very little seems to be happening here visually. Shot in front of a white wall, Norman's body appears immobilized by the camera's gaze. The long, uninterrupted zoom-in on his face, his return of the audience's gaze, and the careful parallel sutures of the cut (the fly on Norman's hand) and the fade (Marion's car emerging from the swamp)--all of these stylistic choices represent subtle departures from the classic Hollywood style. As such, they self-consciously call attention to the exchange of gazes, the movement of the camera, and the rhythms of editing. Subtly thematizing the cinematic apparatus, the scene takes on a meta-textual significance. If there is a shift going on here which follows Rabkin's demand for "structural ambiguity," it is a shift from the discourse of the text to the discourse on the text. (5)

However we read the superimposition of the skull onto Norman's face, Hitchcock demands from us at this moment a radical reassessment of the ground rules of the entire film: either the superimposition represents an ontological intrusion of the supernatural upon the ordinary world; or it represents a sudden glimpse of allegory, of metaphor made concrete; or it stands for a meta-textual elevation of the cinematic apparatus to the level of the narrative. In each case, the interpretive code required to accommodate it differs from the realist code in force until that point. No matter how we choose to understand this scene, its radical ambiguities suggest the emergence of a rupture, a crisis that comes about at the precise moment when the film attempts to visualize monstrosity.

Other serial killer films struggle with the same problem. Take, for instance, Tarsem Singh's The Cell (2000), which features a serial killer who endows himself with a grotesque body assembled from classic and popular mythology. This body appears as a material reality in the film whenever the killer retreats into the baroque universe he has created in his mind. A psychiatrist's forays into the killer's inner space allow for a visualization of bodily monstrosity by showing him the way he sees himself, in stark contrast to the decidedly inconspicuous figure he cuts out in the real world. And in Michael Apted's Blink (1994), we see the grotesque transformation of the serial killer's body through the eyes of a partially blind woman, her unique visual impairment refracting and floating the planes and angles of his face in a manner reminiscent of a Francis Bacon painting. This makes the killer appear inhuman and threatening, not unlike the demonic transformation of Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) in Oliver Stone's Nat ural Born Killers (1994).

These examples do not demonstrate the same rupture we saw above in Psycho. Rather, they signify an uneasy compromise, an attempt at accommodating a rogue generic element-the serial killer's body coded as inconspicuous- which in turn leads to inconsistencies that draw attention to themselves. In The Cell and Natural Born Killers there is a switch between two levels, both of which are accommodated by the ontological ground rules determining the respective film's narrative universe. In The Cell that universe comprises both the ordinary world and the killer's inner (mental) space, the latter accessible by means of technology, and thereby visualized through the eyes of the psychiatrist. While the killer's body in inner space is clearly marked as monstrous, his body in the ordinary world is as inconspicuous as the conventions of the genre demand. Similarly, the scenes in Natural Born Killers in which Mickey appears as a demon are bracketed as nightmares or prophetic visions, existing in an ontologically separate sphere from the ordinary world in which his body remains unmarked. In Blink, the killer's physical transformation exists only as a subjective experience of the witness; paradoxically, although she sees the killer more clearly for the monster he really is, her perspective remains subjugated to that of the ordinary world. (6) In each of these films, bodily inscription of monstrosity is relegated to a secondary ontological level, distinct from (yet dependent on) the primary level where serial killers are physically inconspicuous.

Like the more radical rupture in Psycho, the ontological shifts taking place in The Cell, Blink, and Natural Born Killers-shifts which are fully integrated into the narrative universe of each film-all constitute troubling "structural ambiguities." There is a straining of narrative and visual codes going on here, as each film must perform a specific maneuver in order to accommodate the figure of the serial killer. Sometimes, as in Psycho, what is supposed to be accommodated by such a maneuver appears too unruly to be fully contained. The regular occurrence of these maneuvers throughout the serial killer genre suggests that there is a point of friction between this genre's specific demands and the medium of film. (7)

Finally, I want to consider films in which the "slip of the mask" scene fails to satisfactorily visualize the manifestation of evil as bodily spectacle. (This is a more difficult case to argue because audience response varies; what works for one viewer does not necessarily work for another.) In Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990), deranged serial killer Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) is shown working out in the privacy of his apartment. Reminiscent of the scene in Psycho discussed above, the camera's p.o.v. is associated with the audience. Hunt is alone, unobserved, and therefore less constrained by the pressures of maintaining appearances than he would be if anyone else were present. His obsessively demanding workout, in which he pushes himself to the limits of physical endurance, is itself a marker of his otherness; a variation on the theme of the serial killer's misguided efforts at transcending the body and thus transforming the self. In the midst of his workout, Hunt begins conferring with the voices in his he ad, grimacing in agony as he tries in vain to fight off their intrusion. Control slips away as the killer is overwhelmed by the madness existing within himself. In her Washington Post review of Blue Steel, Rita Kempley complains that "Silver, rolling his eyes, yowling and slobbering down his chin, must have meant this performance as an hommage to Cujo. Down, Ron, down. As nuts go, he's been on the bottom of the bowl too long. And yet when he's not talking to himself, pulling bullets out of his biceps or smearing his nakedness in the blood of a murdered prostitute, he's got that certain Rasputinesque je ne sais quoi."

A similarly problematic "slip of the mask" scene takes place in The Silence of the Lambs when Buffalo Bill/Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), while instructing his next victim on how to prep herself for her impending slaughter, suddenly switches from a dead, emotionally dissociated demeanor to an animalistic, tortured groan. This sound cruelly imitates the intensity of fear experienced by his victim when she discovers grim physical traces of her predecessors' failed escape attempts. As in Blue Steel, we have here an attempt at visualizing both psychic interiority and the essentialized evil that is supposed to lie hidden within. However, as reviewer James Berardinelli notes, this is a difficult job to pull off: "Levine is adequate in the role, but there's not much to grab on to: a transvestite who is so fascinated with women that he is constructing an outfit out of their skin. What's disappointing about The Silence of the Lambs' presentation of Buffalo that it doesn't offer the same detailed look into his patho logy as it does that of Hannibal Lecter (or, for that matter, than Manhunter did of its antagonist, played by Tom Noonan). In terms of villains, Gumb almost looks like a clown next to Lecter, and this dilutes the climax's impact." Berardinelli's criticism of the film, which implies the failure of scenes like the one mentioned here, echoes Kempley's unease with Silver's performance in Blue Steel. Both films fall short of (re)viewer expectations when it comes to visualizing the evil that lurks in the hearts of their killers.

Individual actors and their range, skills, and persuasiveness notwithstanding, when audiences begin dissociating themselves from the illusion on the screen, this tends to happen when the film itself comes on strongest in an effort at keeping them riveted. It is precisely during those moments of greatest narrative significance and highest dramatic tension that the relative success or failure of the film at developing and sustaining emotional impact is revealed most clearly. In the Blue Steel and SOL examples above, audiences tend to respond with unease, or even with open de rision. They sense that what the image is trying to express remains beyond the reach of the actor, the director, the film, or perhaps even of the cinematic medium itself. Sensing limitations beyond the grasp of any individual picture and its creator, audiences may still recognize the compensatory maneuvers performed by films that are not outright failures (or failures at all), films such as Psycho, Natural Born Killers, The Cell, and Blink.

Given the insistence with which the scenes in question appear in serial killer films, I would suggest that they are of special significance, that they reveal the limitations of film as a medium and its capacity for visualizing evil. Psychological processes have no immediate physical base, and thus are only accessible to others by means of metaphor or figurative language. It seems as if serial killer films must look back to physiognomy in order to represent evil, a paradigm that most viewers reject (though perhaps not consciously) as outdated. Unexpectedly switching from a realist to a fantastic mode, or having a character rail against the voices in his head, may be necessary evils once monstrosity disappears from the surface of the body.

It is possible to explain these glitches in the generic code, when serial killer narratives seem to fall short again and again, in terms of genre development. The degree of abstraction necessary when working with a concept like "genre" often glosses over the fact that no single text actually represents the abstraction in its entirety or perfectly developed form. Genre is a dialogic concept, emerging from a series of textual configurations in a process of constant revision by practitioners and theorists alike. Every individual text is synchronically and diachronically fragmented, containing traces of other genres, as well as traces of both surpassed and emerging stages of its own historical development. With this concept in mind, it is possible to read a "generic misperformance"--like the scenes in serial killer films where the mask of normality momentarily slips away--as an incongruity between generic elements. These misperformances may represent instances in which the emerging genre has not yet developed its own solutions for the narrative and thematic problems it posits, and so must revert to earlier generic elements. An act of generic bricolage is required. Audiences recognize the resulting friction between old and new, or between elements borrowed from different generic codes yoked hastily together.

Even if some of the products of generic bricolage end up seeming contrived and strained, hybrid genres do have the advantage of possessing alternative solutions to every problem. The infusion of generic elements from science fiction cinema, for example, makes it possible for The Cell to visualize the serial killer's body as monstrous. An imaginary technology enables the psychiatrist to enter literally into the killer's mind, where metaphors of mental states (self-aggrandizement, distorted self-perception, transformation) appear as physical realities. And the serial killer film is not limited to visualizing evil as a function of bodily monstrosity, as in the Gothic tradition. The other half of this hybrid genre, the murder mystery, rarely features a villain who is physically marked, even if his actions are clearly characterized as excessive, brutal, and irredeemably evil. The murderer in the classic tale of the great detective is one among a group of suspects, indistinguishable from the others by any outward s igns until the detective singles him or her out. In short, the murderer is, much like the serial killer, defined as physically inconspicuous. What makes him or her monstrous is the murder itself, a single act which destabilizes the entire narrative universe. An act so heinous, enigmatic, and abject that it must be rectified, lest it should permanently jeopardize the internal order and harmony of the world.

The serial killer narrative does not have this option at its disposal because it posits not one murder, capable of taking on the metaphoric weight of cosmological disturbance, but a whole string of murders. The law of the series empties out the individual murder of its traditional connotations; each new one flattens the act, cheapens it in the reproduction, and erases its charisma. There is something about the mechanical, robotic repetition of the killings that links serial murder to alienated labor, or to viral infection. Serial murder is excessive normality rather than behavioral otherness, its monstrosity residing not in any specific act of murder, but in the series itself, which, by definition, is open-ended and always incomplete (i.e., we never see the killer's first murder, and he never gets to commit his last one). (8)

Moreover, murder "like any event, is a transitory thing," even when it is repeated obsessively by the serial killer (Knox 8). This goes some way towards explaining why films of this genre place so little emphasis on the visual representation of the murders themselves, and why they seem to share the killer's treatment of the victims as two-dimensional and interchangeable. More importantly,

The essence of the act can only ever be captured in its author. If the murderer is found to be irresponsibly insane, that vital element of authoring intent is lost and the status of the event is thrown into doubt. The insane murderous act becomes merely a kind of automatic writing, its origins obscure and unintelligible. Then, it is madness itself that becomes the subject of scrutiny, not murder. (Knox 57)

All of the attention which the act of murder cannot capture because of its transitory nature is thus redirected toward the murderer. As death itself "takes up residence" (18) in the murderer, we witness the "investment of the murderous impulses of humankind with a distinctly mysterious nature" (47). While the serial killer embodies "the mystery, the enigma of origins" (9), our focus is channeled away from the murders as a textual site where monstrosity can manifest itself. The ritualistic element of the individual murder may be of great importance to the killer himself, or perhaps indicate an early trauma being here reenacted. But since the origin of this trauma remains inaccessible to the audience, our impression of empty mechanical repetition outweighs the killer's attempt at investing the act with the deep significance of ritual.

In this context, it is important to stress that the serial killer narrative, despite its rotten reputation, typically practices a degree of reluctance when it comes to showing explicit scenes of excessive violence. Conventionally, it removes itself visually from the immediate depiction of the violent act. Films like Mary Harron's American Psycho, for example, cut to reaction shots or countershots, or else they place the camera at great distance from the violent event. Unlike the slasher films of the 1970s and 80s, and the subgenre of the splatter film, the image of the knife penetrating the body is relegated to the outside of the frame. The Silence of the Lambs never actually shows Buffalo Bill killing any of his victims, just as Lecter murdering and mutilating his guards during his escape from confinement is shot with extreme visual restraint: the camera pans away at the crucial moment, and all we see, just as in David Fincher's Seven, is the grisly aftermath of the murders. Examples such as these demonstrat e that serial killer cinema deliberately rejects the visualizing strategies routinely availed of by other genres, with the result that the killer's actions appear as a rather attenuated site for the display of spectacular monstrosity. (9)

The fact that this representational option seems largely closed off returns us to the body as a site of monstrosity, and to the scenes of slippage discussed above. When the killer's mask of normality falls for a moment, thereby enabling to see the turmoil and homicidal chaos underneath, this slippage is predicated on the assumption that because something is concealed it must be authentic. The chaos is his true identity, the calm normality a mask. But this assumption is not necessarily true. Harron's American Psycho, for example, goes to great lengths in order to suggest that there really is no difference between Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale)'s outside and inside. In a long sequence showing Bateman going through the rituals of exercise and body maintenance, the film explicitly invites the viewer to equate normality with a mask: we are, in effect, watching Bateman preparing and putting on his "normal" persona. Along with an image of him pulling off a transparent facial cleansing mask in front of the bathroom mirror, however, the voiceover assures us that there is no such person as Patrick Bateman. Conventional notions of identity must fail in his case: he is "simply not there."

Nevertheless, American Psycho, like almost every other entry in the genre, carefully stages its moments of slippage (e.g., Bateman's face in contortions as he kills a colleague with an axe). The complete absence of personal identity aside, Harron's film suggests that, at most, monstrosity becomes visible in the dramatic discrepancy between surface and depth that opens up when the killer's calm and ordinary demeanor is suddenly and violently disrupted. The void her film tries to create ("I am simply not there") is the space between these two conditions-- normality on the one hand, homicidal insanity on the other. That is to say, the physical inscription of monstrosity is located in the disruption itself, and not in the supposedly more authentic state of consciousness that the killer sometimes lapses into. It resides in the brief and fluid moment of transformation, not in either of the two stages--before or after--adjacent to it.

This space "in between" (a space that remains essentially anchored in the physical body) also applies to texts that do not feature a scene of transformation, a moment of slippage. In these cases, it is precisely the uniformity of behavior that appears monstrous. The space between the expectations of other characters who represent "normal" behavior and the actual behavior of the serial killer becomes the site of monstrosity, for example, in scenes where the killer displays "unnatural calmness." When we hear from Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) in The Silence of the Lambs that Lecter's heart rate never went up during his violent attack on a nurse, or when we see him serenely conducting the gruesome business of his prison escape, it is the stark contrast between outward events and emotional response that lets us know beyond a doubt that he is not like us. His identity emerges not from a fixed thematic or narrative point of reference; it resides in the void, in the empty space that opens up between these markers.

What the viewer eventually discerns from all of these problematic attempts at visualizing evil is that the serial killer narrative posits a problem the solution to which remains persistently elusive: what makes the killer tick, what is his motivation, what constitutes his otherness and thus his monstrosity? What makes him so different from the rest of us if he looks so much like the rest of us and so little like a recognizable monster? It is a problem, the narrative insists, that has no real solution. Characters in serial killer narratives themselves ponder it. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) explains to a terrified rookie cop that, for Lecter's specific form of otherness, no classificatory category exists as of yet; similarly, Lecter instructs us that Buffalo Bill's behavior does not fit any of the current textbook pathologies. In Eric Red's Body Parts (1991), we have a psychologist acknowledge his inability to capture the serial killer's essence in the following voiceover: "How and in what way the child's sense of his body is converted by acts of parental and other external violence into a kind of theater of fantastic horror, how, in a sense, demons are introduced into the self, still remains to be seen." This last promise, that an answer will eventually be found and the mystery solved, is undercut by Dr. Chrushank (Jeff Fahey) erasing the passage from his manuscript. Psycho ends, famously, with a drawn-out and detailed explanation of Norman Bates' pathology, delivered by a police-appointed psychologist who comes with all the trappings of professional authority. Nevertheless, Hitchcock undercuts the validity of these explanations by devoting the final scenes to Norman's immobilized body in the prison cell (and another ultimately unsatisfying moment of slippage, the superimposition of his mother's skull also representing a slippage of cinematic codes), and to a shot of the car with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)'s body in the trunk being pulled out of the swamp. In short, the film does n ot end with a professional or rhetorical containment of evil; it ends with more bodies that are simultaneously dead and alive.

In the vast majority of films in this genre, it is the serial killers who have the last laugh. Norman Bates remain impervious to the psychiatrist's jargon. Buffalo Bill may be neutralized by the end of The Silence of the Lambs, but Hannibal Lecter goes free. The eponymous Copycat Killer is killed, but his source of inspiration, another serial killer named Darrell Lee Cullum (Harry Connick, Jr.), is already plotting the "conversion" of his next disciple somewhere out there from his prison cell. None of the attempts at containing these killers--whether literally or figuratively--are unqualified successes. And this in turn means that none of the explanations for their behavior offered during the course of the narrative are true, or at least effective. Detectives who rely on their intuition tend to fare better than figures of authority using rigid explanatory and classificatory models.

Given the insistence with which the serial killer is construed as impenetrable, it is surprising that the question of his motivation, the source of the evil within him, is not dismissed altogether. Acknowledging its inability to account for the origins of evil does not prevent the narrative from asking for an explanation again and again. The question and its constant reiteration are so crucial to the genre that each film discussed herein features scenes in which experts on serial murder of one ilk or another expound theories about the killer's motivation, theories which are subsequently ignored, dismissed, or invalidated. Nevertheless, the narrative must continue in its efforts at penetrating and filling the killer's discursive space, producing even more answers that fall short of the mystery they are trying to solve. This dynamic, however, does not lead to the bankruptcy of the genre. Instead, it constitutes an "incitement to discourse" (to use a Foucauldian term): an epistemological and rhetorical maneuver designed to create and sustain narrative desire by frustrating each individual attempt at satisfying it while extending the perpetual promise of fulfillment.

Because of this peculiar construction of desire--to make something visible and thus to know and be able to control it--the inaccessible discursive space at the center of the serial killer narrative can be described effectively by teasing out its structural, and to some degree thematic, analogies with the visual politics of hardcore pornography.

Some critics have commented on the role of pornographic spectatorship with respect to narratives depicting murder; Karen Halttunen goes so far as to speak of "the pornographic nature of horror literature" (95). The structural similarities between hardcore and serial killer narratives can be accounted for, according to Halttunen, by both genres' "implicit acknowledgment that [they are] willfully exploring forbidden matters" (95). The impulse to transgress socially sanctioned boundaries of what can and cannot be (visually) represented--a project very much aware of the risks and dangers it poses to those pursuing it-must therefore seek strategies that afford the practitioner a certain degree of security or peace of mind. Jane Caputi's (1993) term, gorenography," also indicates the sense that there is a tight connection between depictions of explicit violence and depictions of explicit sexuality. Linda Williams has included both in her discussion of "body genres" because each operates below the threshold of socia l acceptability, and each aims at eliciting an immediate physical response from viewers--shudders of disgust and revulsion in the one case, signals of physical arousal in the other--without allowing for mediation, reflection, or critical distance. (10)

In her account of hardcore pornography, a genre that lends itself particularly well to the cinematic medium, Williams describes a dynamic that is highly reminiscent of my discussion about monstrosity in serial killer narratives.

The animating male fantasy of hardcore cinema might therefore be described as the (impossible) attempt to capture visually this frenzy of the visible in a female body whose orgasmic excitement can never be objectively measured. It is not surprising then that so much early hard-core fantasy revolves around situations in which the woman's sexual pleasure is elicited involuntarily, often against her will, in scenarios of rape of ravishment. In these scenarios the unwilling victim's eventual manifestations of pleasure are offered as the genre's proof of a sincerity that under other conditions might seem less sure (50).

As much as Williams' description is specifically tailored to suit the discourse of hardcore pornography, some of her observations ring true for the serial killer narrative as well. Because she defines pornographic film basically in terms of genre, her own discussion makes it possible to consider the serial killer narrative in nearly the same terms. "Genre films," writes Williams, "thrive, after all, on the very persistence of the problems that they set out to solve" (268).

First of all, there is an assumption that at the very heart of narratives about sexual pleasure and (I am claiming) about serial murder, audiences will discover something fundamentally unrepresentable. Pornography is perpetually making the efforting to get at something that becomes increasingly important every time it escapes representation. Similarly, the serial killer narrative revolves obsessively around something it defines as unattainable: the bodily manifestation of the killer's monstrosity. Since it treats the killer's blandness as a given, and since it operates within the confines of generic conventions, each new attempt is either doomed to fail (Blue Steel), or causes textual ruptures and ambiguities (Psycho), or requires a shift into a different narrative register (The Cell). Crucially, this repeated crisis of representation is not perceived as proof that the initial endeavor is futile or impossible. It does, however, generate an anxiety that manifests itself in a mobilizing of compensatory narrativ e strategies, of which repetition--to the point of obsessive compulsion--is the first and most obvious one.

Since representational failure in the serial killer narrative and in hardcore pornography is merely an inducement to try again, Williams concludes that the "history of hard-core film could thus be summarized in part as the history of the various strategies devised to overcome this problem of invisibility [i.e., of female sexual pleasure] within a regime that is, as Beverley Brown... has noted, an 'erotic organization of visibility'" (49). That is to say, the formation of certain genres and their internal consolidation through the repetition of certain key themes is the result of an anxiety that the limits are too narrow for the genre to achieve its representational goals. Genres like the serial killer film operate in a state of perpetual low-level crisis, due to a constant attempt at filling a void with "the frenzy of the visible."

This notion of genre anxiety, and of the obsessive-compulsive nature of genre, explains how the serial killer film emerges from pre-existent genres, and how it consolidates them. What still needs to be considered is how the "frenzy of the visible" manifests itself within the serial killer film; how it leaves a trace on the internal structure--narrative and thematic--that characterizes popular stories about serial murder.

In order to visualize an evil so abstract and essentialized as the fictional serial killer, some form of reification is required. Williams talks about the "visual hard-core knowledge-pleasure produced by the scientia sexualis" (36). Just as in hardcore porn, audiences of serial killer films are conditioned to perceive knowledge and power as connected by "technologies of the visible" (36). They are to think of violence or its psychological and social consequences not as something to be experienced; rather, they are to contemplate violence as an external object that requires mastery and control--rhetorical, conceptual, legal, and technological. Not only do serial killer films display mastery and control via the figure of the detective hot on the trail of the murderer, they also raise these issues by tying them into conventional aesthetic notions like catharsis (on an individual and a collective level). (11) As audiences repeatedly exposed to images of spectacular violence, we are taught to experience pleasure w hen controlled by a narrative that elicits from us unwilling manifestations of intense emotion. Held in breathless suspense, or jolted out of our seats by expertly timed shocks, we habitually flinch or groan in synch with the events on the screen (again it is Williams whose discussion of "body genres" ties together hardcore porn and the horror film). But by reminding ourselves of our genre expertise we also experience pleasure in exercising control over these shocks and visual attacks. Horror films in particular can be said to elicit this type of pleasure in their audiences by foregrounding or thematizing genre conventions (as, for example, in the "neostalker" cycle of the late 1990s). (12) Of course it makes sense that in a culture which defines "sex and violence" as a social and cultural problem, unthinkingly citing them in a single breath, the pleasures of the scientia sexualis and those of the scientia criminalis are intimately connected.

Denied visual and narrative pleasure in all the familiar places, audiences of the serial killer film must look elsewhere. The films themselves oblige, mobilizing various maneuvers to distract from the void at their center. In one such maneuver, monstrosity "slides off" the body of the serial killer and attaches itself to the space he inhabits. The process of zeroing in on this intimate space determines the narrative, driving it towards a climactic moment of penetration when the Gothic darkness is dispelled and the secrets of the killer brought to light (through images, writings, collections of trophies, clues to developmental regression or childhood trauma, etc.). Monstrosity also attaches itself to the bodies of the killer's victims, which are almost always construed as objects of abjection. The examination of the "floater" in Silence of the Lambs, for example, shows the victim's body in graphic detail, in a state of dismemberment and advanced decomposition. Other films, such as Seven, pay close visual atten tion to a second mutilation of the victim's body at the hands of a forensic pathologist. Not having witnessed the murder themselves, viewers still get to flinch, wince, or squirm when the victim is probed, dissected, and displayed at the morgue, often in a manner reminiscent of the killer's own grisly work. Monstrosity also reappears in the depiction of a narrative universe that is itself abject, populated with bodies made grotesque by conspicuous consumption, endemic social violence, and profound alienation. Again, Seven presents a gallery of these vices in the form of abject bodies on display. Viewed against such a backdrop, the serial killer's body is either as monstrous as anybody else's, thereby erasing the distinction between self and other altogether, or it is in fact less monstrous, thereby blending into a world in which distinctions between good and evil have become permanently blurred.

In many serial killer films, two or more of these strategies are employed simultaneously, generating visual pleasure from a number of textual sites. Overcompensating for their inability to represent what is so crucial, most serial killer films in the mainstream are, instead, visually stunning. Think of the lush colors, the vibrancy with which space is visualized, in The Cell; think of the beautifully-composed, minutely-detailed interiors bathed in smoky blue light in Seven; think of the Francis Bacon-like visual distortion in Blink. Or think of the editing and camera deployment in Psycho, its shower scene standing as perhaps the most frequently analyzed scene in all of film history. It is unlikely that creative strategies such as these are simply ways in which individual directors combat the viewer's aesthetic fatigue dealing with a genre that has already run its course. After all, visual pleasure of this type does not rank high only with serial killer films that can be seen as falling within the "baroque sta ge" of the genre's development. The Cell was released in 2000, while Manhunter is from 1986, and Psycho dates back to 1960. Each of these films is visually stunning. What the strategies in question signify is a textual unease, a sense that something continues to escape the grasp of the narrative or of the medium as a whole, and the resulting attempt to contain and pacify this anxiety. In short, the unique morphology of the serial killer film, as well as its consolidation as a genre, are the products of a specific version of genre anxiety, of the attempt to overcome the limitations of an adopted and largely accepted conceptual framework.

This has some far-reaching consequences for how we watch serial killer films. If the intensity and intricacy with which serial killer films mobilize compensatory strategies (as well as their sheer number) reflects the intensity of genre anxiety, then it follows that the entire genre operates under the spell of Williams' "frenzy of the visible." The trope of the "representational crisis" is itself an essential element of the serial killer genre. As I have demonstrated, the relative success or failure of these strategies in combating genre anxiety can be assessed on a sliding scale. In terms of their success, films employing forms of the fantastic (The Cell, Natural Born Killers) would be on the upper end of this scale, whereas films that cling to the conventions of realism (Psycho, Blue Steel) would be on the lower end. (13) All of them struggle with the challenge of inscribing monstrosity on the killer's body, but some of them employ more fully and elegantly integrated solutions than others.

The trope of the "representational crisis" itself requires some further thought. For it presupposes a dramatic narrative in which the figure of the serial killer has an existence prior to, and independent of, fiction. Crisis ensues when the figure of the serial killer is introduced into existing genre conventions. The unique properties of this figure constitute a challenge to these genre conventions; unable to accommodate the new element, the conventions are pushed to their limits, twisted out of shape, or exploded altogether. Unmoved by the desperate scrambling of the narrative and thematic framework around him, the serial killer himself (meanwhile) remains essentially stable, his unique characteristics unaffected. What remains largely unexplored in this model of genre development is the origin of the serial killer's "unique characteristics." Where and how is this figure generated before it enters into fiction?

This question, which is essentially one about causes and effects, is all the more important in the context of the serial killer narrative because many scholars have pointed out how fluid the boundaries between fact and fiction are in this particular case. (14) Serial killers, as the popular imagination has it, are driven by a lust for publicity, the desire to enter into a discourse that is reciprocated by the media. Immersed within a public conversation about serial murder that employs the same tropes whether in fiction, film, journalism, or scholarship, serial killers and their audiences are endlessly recycled through the same channels of fear and desire. Self-reflexivity and boundary transgressions abound.

It is unlikely that the ontological boundaries separating "before" and "after"--just as those separating cause and effect, and fact and fiction--are the only ones that remain unaffected. Post hoc, obviously, ain't always prompter hoc. This means that there is no "representational crisis," that the excessive mobilizing of narrative and thematic strategies is not a belated attempt at compensating for an inadequacy of genre conventions, but an active attempt at constructing a figure that functions as a void, an absent center, at the heart of the serial killer narrative. The subjective experience of "crisis" itself is a but an effect of this frenzied construction. It follows that the fictional serial killer is not the afterthought to a stable sociological or criminological truth, but part and parcel of it. Fiction participates in the construction of the serial killer as much as any other discourse. The alleged crisis of representation--just like the corresponding crises caused by his appearance in criminological, legal, or psychological discourse--simply grants legitimacy to certain internal calibrations within each discourse. Neither hardcore pornography nor violent "gorenography" has yet suffered an untimely demise because it fails in some essential fashion to address certain demands from its audience.

This open acknowledgement of complicity between the community and its Other brings us back to the figure of Oedipus, the prototype of the monstrous criminal. What his story has to offer, however, is not only an acknowledgement of complicity, but also a glimpse of redemption. Recognizing that he himself is the one whose presence is destroying the community, he does penance. His self-imposed mutilation and voluntary exile, performed and embraced out of a sense of personal responsibility, are presented as rituals that allow the community to heal itself and return to its former stability. He lives on, but his body is expelled from the community as an abject other. The murderous rage that leads Oedipus to his crime may not be any more intelligible for these acts of penance, and the recipe for communal healing may not be so simple for a post-industrial consumer culture. Perhaps Oedipus no longer offers a myth for our time; perhaps the serial killer does, with his logic of obsessive compulsive repetition and excess, Still, what the Oedipus myth offers is an alternative to the rhetoric of crisis we see in so much of contemporary political, legal, and criminological discourse--a rhetoric that aims to contain violence without considering all those who are affected by it because they are members of the same community as both perpetrator and victim. This rhetoric flourishes all the more once we accept the essential elusiveness of certain contemporary forms of monstrosity. The construction of the serial killer's body as unmarked by monstrosity, and the anxieties this construction causes, make this political leap of faith all that much easier. (15)


(1.) Physical markers of monstrosity may arise peripherally in texts which rely on the contextual knowledge of the audience in order to recognize these markers. In discussing Fritz Lang's M (1931), Marie Tatar detects, for example, physical markers of otherness in Peter Lorre's depiction of the serial killer Beckert--markers specifically encoded as Jewish (170-72). A similar argument may be made for the body of the killer in films which suggest a correlation, or worse, a causal relation between homosexuality and serial murder, such as Cruising (1980) or Basic Instinct (1992). The same may be true for the body as marked by social class: Patrick Bateman's yuppie body in American Psycho (1999), or Henry's lower-class body in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). Most of these markers are so closely connected to a specific stereotype that, as soon as this stereotype begins to transform itself, they become unrecognizable.

(2.) "[W]hat Kristeva terms 'abjection,' [is] that which does not 'respect borders, positions, rules,' that which 'disturbs identity, system, order"' (Creed 36).

(3.) Since the term "superimposition," as I am using it here, implies a certain sense of priority, distinguishing a pre-existent image from another one that is added, it is important to add that this order of priority is difficult to determine in the scene from Psycho. It seems equally possible to consider either image--whether Norman's face or Mrs. Bates' skull-as the image that is added, or that is added to. Given the theme of merging identities expounded by the psychiatrist in the scene immediately preceding this one, I would assume that this visual ambiguity is deliberate on Hitch-cock's part, underlining the thematic point being made in the dialogue.

(4.) Eric Rabkin points out that the fantastic often depends on what he calls "structural ambiguity"; that is, on the coexistence of two or more textual elements, each of which "can legitimately be taken as having either of two meanings, depending on the perspective with which one looks at that part" (218). It is "the consideration of fantastic reversals" (217) which characterizes the fantastic as a calculated aesthetic effect, and as a consistent and recognizable representational mode. Other definitions of the fantastic emphasize the unsettling moment when the fantastic erupts into the mundane. Tzvetan Todorov, in The Fantastic, quotes a number of critics who agree that the fantastic is based upon the fictional premise that two incompatible spheres--the predictable, mundane world of everyday life, and the non-rational world of the fantastic--exist separately from each other. With this ontological topography as a given, fantasy is generated whenever the line of separation is crossed in one direction or the ot her; Callois talks about "an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday reality"; Castex about a "brutal intrusion"; and Todorov himself about the fearful or awed "hesitation" of characters and readers at the moment they realize that the line has been crossed (26).

(5.) According to Rabkin's definition (less so in Todorov's), this shift would also constitute a variant of the fantastic.

(6.) We are to understand here that cognition corresponds to ideology--that the "correct" way of seeing is both a biological and a political function--when the witness is finally reintegrated into bourgeois normality, an act that requires her being restored to full and undistorted sight.

(7.) It is necessary to mention a scenario here that may look, at first glance, like an exception to the rule, but that does, in fact, support my argument. We need to distinguish between "slips of the mask" and a bodily manifestation of monstrosity that takes place fairly reguarly in serial killer films. Near the end of the film, there is often a moment when the serial killer's identity is not only established, but publicly revealed. This moment commonly coincides with a climactic scene of physical confrontation between the serial killer and his nemesis (the detective, forensic pathologist, etc.). During this physical confrontation, monstrosity is written on the killer's body, often excessively or spectacularly. In Copycat (1995), for example, the killer's body becomes a site of abject terror when he is shot in the head repeatedly, a spectacle displayed in slow motion, with overlapping cross-cuts, and with gruesomely realistic make-up and special effects. And in the final showdown of Dominic Sena's Kalifornia (1993), Brad Pitt's Early Grayce is beaten to a pulp in a fistfight that seems to go on forever. As these scenes illustrate, monstrosity is written on the serial killer's body after the fact precisely because it is essentially unmarked. The extremely high degree of violence accompanying these acts of bodily inscription suggests an aggression that is driven by frustration--a frustration on the part of the detective figure who has been struggling to capture an elusive, anonymous, faceless enemy.

(8.) For a discussion of the variety of metaphors used to describe serial murder, especially those of viral infection and epidemic spread, see Hantke 1996.

(9.) The reasons for this restraint, especially on the part of the mainstream Hollywood productions that provide the majority of examples in this essay, are complex and manifold. First and foremost is the desire to steer clear of the dreaded X-rating and appeal to a broader commercial audience, which makes a film like John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer a relevant complementary example. For a discussion of Henry, especially in regard to McNaughton's problems with the ratings board, see Hantke 2001.

(10.) Simpson elaborates upon the relevance of Williams' notion of "body genres" in regards to horror, reminding his readers that "the serial killer subgenre is part of a cultural return to the immediacy of a raw sensuality both absolute and dark" (13). For Simpson, body genres compensate for a loss of bodily immediacy in a postmodernity defined by simulation and technological mediation.

(11.) The censorship debate on the social effects of media violence is particularly illuminating in this regard.

(12.) For a detailed discussion of the neo-stalker cycle and its foregrounding of genre conventions, see Schneider 2000.

(13.) The critical consensus that Hitch-cock's Psycho constitutes an artistic success in every respect is, I believe, an effect of the film's vanguard position in regard to the serial killer genre. Critical assessment of this film may be based more on its ability to anticipate a generic development--to point ahead to films to come--than to its successful handling of narrative and thematic problems, problems that can only be perceived as matters of genre after other texts have been subsequently added to the field. In other words, read as a generic watershed or breakthrough text, Psycho is a remarkable success; read strictly against the conventions of the genre--a genre which, ironically, it helps to launch--it falls short of the mark that some of its successors have managed to hit.

(14.) The most detailed and insightful discussion of these fluid boundaries takes place in Seltzer 1998.

(15.) Some of the ideas in this essay were first presented in a guest lecture at the Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet in Mainz on February 14,2001. My sincere thanks for creating this opportunity, and for being a well-informed discussant over the years, go to my colleague Jurgen Felix.

Works Cited

Berardinelli, James. Rev. The Silence of the Lambs. The Reel Views Archives. Html ResAnchor Http://movie-reviews. (2000).

Caputi, Jane. "American Psychos: The Serial Killer in Contemporary Fiction." Journal of American Culture 16.4 (1993): 101-112.

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

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Preface and "Monster Culture: Seven Theses." In Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. vii-xii; 3-26.

Creed, Barbara. "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection." In The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 1996. 35-66.

Halttunen, Karen. "Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror." In The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993:. 67-101.

Hantke, Steffen. "Murder in the Age of Technical Reproduction: Serial Killer Narratives as 'Seminal Texts'" in theory@buffalo: an interdisciplinary journal, (Fall 1996): 89-107.

--- "Violence Incorporated: John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative." College Literature 28.27 (Spring 2001): 29-44.

Huet, Marie-Helene. Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Kempley, Rita. Review of Blue Steel. The Washington Post, March 16, 1990: http://www.washington

Knox, Sara. Murder: A Tale of Modern American Durham: Duke UP, 1998.

Rabkin, Eric. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.

Schneider, Steven Jay. "Kevin Williamson and the Rise of the Neo-Stalker." Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 19.2 (Winter/Spring 2000): 73-87.

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

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969.

Simpson, Phil. Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.

Starr, Susan Leigh. "Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being Allergic to Onions." In A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination, ed. John Law. New York: Routledge, 1991. 27-56.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and Other Stories. Chatham: Wordsworth Classics, 1993.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Norton, 1997.

Tatar, Maria. Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.

Williams, Linda. Handcore: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible". Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.
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Date:Jan 1, 2003
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