The Monster in the Home: True Crime and the Traffic in Body Parts

By Ingebretsen, Edward J. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Monster in the Home: True Crime and the Traffic in Body Parts


Ingebretsen, Edward J., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


In the language of the man on the street, he was a monster. He would always be a monster.1

Here fiction and fact are both fantasy. Here the Police Gazette meets the National Enquirer and neither can any longer be trusted.2

The genre of "True Crime" is a mode of popular writing with roots in medieval exempla literature, puritan broadside, penny journalism, and the expose history of muck-raking and tabloid scandal. Serial killer narratives are a phenomenally popular variant of the genre. In general, these are narratives of social crisis enacted around domestic intimacies; but by being interpellated into a Gothic rhetoric of "the monster," the serial killer confirms a rubric of social fear which is politically very useful.

For example, a hermeneutic of the monstrous can frame Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy as the monster, but more importantly, at the same time it permits the construction of an opposing fantasy of innocence and vulnerability. I argue that the serial killer defines, by violating, a cynosure of originary innocence called domesticity. In other words, the domestic Gothic of the serial killer is as much political fantasy as fantasy politics-both of which are ideologically anchored in the mobilizing cry of "family values." "True Crime" narratives of the serial killer, then, prompt the questions, who is the monster, and how did it get into the home? 1.

In a great number of these texts, the serial killer is decried as an xeample-and confirmation-of modern American decadence. Nonetheless, patterened deaths are neither modern nor especially American To the contrary, the killer who murders repeatedly and in compulsively characteristic ways can be found in classics of high literature, rangimg from Homer to Beowulf, as well as in myth, folk-tale and legend. However, while the serial killer is not new, the threat he is seen to pose must always be new, must always be urgent. That is, while not a product of "cultural decadence" or corrupt societal conditions or collapsing morality, serial killers provide a flexible, demonizing frame through which each of these social crises can be defined and confirmed as worthy of public note.

Thus, rhetorics of fear-anxiety-laden words like "epidemic" and "roving"-typify even seemingly objective news or academic studies. Urgency is often explicit, as for example, in the sub-title of Joel Norris' Serial Killers: The Growing Menace-a phrase which had been used earlier in James Alan Fox's Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace.3 Yet for all their vaunted newness, serial killers are invariably read into a traditional grammar of the supernatural monstrous that functions in two distinct ways. As hermeneutic, the monstrous organizes a language of reference that is saturated with political implications. As a rubric, on the other hand, the monstrous directs otherwise unacceptable excesses of violence and passion toward sanctioned political ends. For example, Jeffrey Dahmer's death in prison at the hands of another prisoner was surely not civilly sanctioned; nonetheless, it was not much lamented, either. Care had been taken, after all, to define him as a monster and as such, beyond any need for human courtesy or decency.

The serial killer phenomenon seemed to arise from nowhere in the early '70's-as a consequence, it is repeatedly suggested, of collapsing civic and moral structures. For example, in I Have Lived in the Monster, Robert Ressler intones: "As a social phenomenon, serial murder is...part of a swelling tide of interpersonal violence that has been rising since the middle of the nineteenth century. It is connected to the increasing complexity of our society, to our interconnectedness via the media and to the alienation many of us feel."' Similarly, Gerold Frank's The Boston Strangler (1966) takes as its subject "what happens to a great city when it is besieged by terror-terror stemming from a horrifying explosion of the violence that seems more and more a part of contemporary life" (viii). …

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