"The Kingdom of the Unimaginable": The Construction of Social Space and the Fantasy of Privacy in Serial Killer Narratives

By Hantke, Steffen | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

"The Kingdom of the Unimaginable": The Construction of Social Space and the Fantasy of Privacy in Serial Killer Narratives


Hantke, Steffen, Literature/Film Quarterly


I. The Question of Genre

Even before the news media had revealed the full extent of Jeffrey Dahmer's crimes, the public was beginning to wonder what was going to happen to his apartment now that its former tenant was gone. Eventually it was going to go back onto the housing market. Someone else would move in, go about the daily business of life, sleep and eat, perhaps even raise a family. Was the landlord under any obligation to inform applicants about what had taken place here, in case they did not know already? Was the rent going to be lower, considering what had taken place in these rooms? Or were candidates lining up to move in, morbidly fascinated by the idea of living here of all possible places?

These questions were commonly asked with a half-serious, delicious shudder. That they were revealing something significant about ourselves became clear when the authorities were allowing the media their first glimpses of the apartment's interior. As the audience kept clamoring greedily to see it all, the camera eyes advanced with dramatic hesitation. The staged caution was to let us viewers know that this was dangerous ground. What we would see would leave an indelible mark-the risk would be to feel "trapped within another's mad malevolent dream," as Joyce Carol Oates noted. According to her, "to live in a narrowly bounded area in which a `serial killer' is operating, with seeming impunity" is "an experience virtually impossible to explain, or to forget" (52). The mise en scene of Dahmer's atrocities was obviously meant to let viewers feel the greatest degree of excitement without attempting to explain what Oates considers fundamentally inexplicable. We were seduced by being permitted to see, while we were assured of our safety by being kept from seeing it all.

Seeing the first outside shots of the apartment building and of Dahmer himself, viewers had already expressed a sense of disappointment about their blandness. Could this really be the man, could this be the place? That both would conform to the same unwritten rules of appearance was always a given, even in articles like the one by Oates which was written long after the fact. What she calls the "narrowly bounded area" is not literally a description of Dahmer's private space but a metaphor for his mind and imagination. Although criminologists, psychologists, and sociologists have learned to distinguish between, e.g., the "housebound killer" and "the killer on the road" (Caputi 101), the collective imagination makes no such subtle distinctions. Apparently, there is a pervasive, recognizable rhetoric of serial killer narratives at work, and this narrative ignores the knowledge that experts have accumulated in their search to explain the behavior patterns of serial killers. In light of this peculiar rhetorical and epistemological consistency, the question of why we are fascinated with the serial killer becomes synonymous with the question of why we are fascinated with the space where he operates "with seeming impunity."

Disappointment comes into play when our experiences fail to meet our expectations. Whenever we are dealing with experiences that come to us mediated and packaged, our sense of "knowing already" depends on cultural assumptions and preconceptions that determine our experience. Since most of us will never have any first-hand experience with serial killers and must therefore rely on stories to satisfy our curiosity, the assumptions we learn to make are based on the rules we have for storytelling, or, properly speaking, on genre conventions. A look at the epistemology of the serial killer narrative is therefore first and foremost a look at the rules and conventions of the genre it constitutes, or of the traditions from which it stems. What are then the constitutive elements of this genre and where do they come from? And does it, in fact, constitute a genre? The number of texts that suggest themselves for a closer look is overwhelming. …

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