Consuming Cannibals: Psychopathic Killers as Archetypes and Cultural Icons

By Grixti, Joseph | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Consuming Cannibals: Psychopathic Killers as Archetypes and Cultural Icons


Grixti, Joseph, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Early in 1992, a series of newspaper articles announced that Jeffrey Dahmer had been made the "main hero" of a comic book biography. A Milwaukee court of law had recently found Dahmer guilty of a string of violent murders involving rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism. One article (headlined "Dahmer now a comic book hero") reported that the book contained "pictures of Dahmer slicing the throats of his victims and having sex with the corpses," that it had sold out immediately in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and neighbouring states of the American Midwest, and that a sequel was being planned (Trofimou 13). Another article reported that, in his response to protests from the relatives of Dahmer's victims, the book's publisher had insisted that he had only made $200 from the first comic book, and that the relatives would be better off "directing their wrath at those who are writing books and making movies about the killer because they will be making thousands of dollars" ("Dahmer Sequel" 16). In implying that levels of moral responsibility should be judged according to the amount of financial profit generated by representations of disturbing atrocities, the publisher provides a forceful reminder of the extent to which our perceptions of and reactions to mass murder and serial killing have become inseparable from the orientations of consumerism.(1)

Criminals and Psychopaths as Cultural Icons

Jeffrey Dahmer's elevation to the rank of ambiguous monster-hero in the iconography of contemporary consumer culture forms part of a noteworthy tradition. Interest in mass murderers and serial killers is not restricted to readers of popular "true crime" paperbacks and comics, of course. Accounts involving such figures are very frequent and prominent in the mass media--in news and current affairs programmes, as well as in a range of popular entertainments. As Jane Caputi puts it, serial killers of the late-20th century tend to "generate legends and attract cult-like behavior" in that they are "celebrated (sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly) along a cultural gamut including made-for TV movies, rock 'n' roll songs, horror fanzines, jokes, pornographic magazines such as Hustler, and extreme sadist publications" (1). In a sense, such celebrations usher figures like Dahmer into a hall of fame where historical murderers acquire mythical proportions (frequently reinforced by the ascription of evocative names like Jack the Ripper, the Hillside Strangler, the Vampire of Dusseldorf, or the Night Stalker). There they rub shoulders with a long line of fictional figures created over the centuries in variously loaded attempts to come to cognitive terms with evil by visualizing and personifying its threats and horrors in reassuringly recognizable forms. Within the popular cultural domains that underlie the construction of this chamber of horrors, boundaries between fact and fiction often tend to become blurred.

Criminals, psychopaths, and murderers have consistently attracted the attention of writers and readers of all levels of fiction, but it is in popular literature that bloodthirsty murders have been most frequently contemplated Murderers have here tended to be depicted in terms that frighten and disturb, and they have frequently (consciously or unconsciously) been made to serve ideologically weighted functions. Such functions include providing challenging reminders about the need for constant vigilance, or offering reassurance about the ultimate rightness of law-enforcement structures as guardians and embodiments of the social and moral order. As a number of commentators have pointed out, Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most influentially mythologized murderer of recent history, and fictional recreations of his crimes have dressed him up in guises ranging from that of street-cleaning avenger of decadence to bloodcurdling challenger of any smug belief in the prevalence of sanity or security in advanced urban societies. Other historical mass murderers and serial killers whose exploits have been reimagined and variously reinterpreted in fiction include Vlad the Impaler (mythologized as Dracula), Gilles de Rais (accused of sadistically torturing and murdering between 140 and 800 children as well as murdering six of his seven wives, and around whose life grew the legend of "Bluebeard"), and Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian Countess (fictionalized as "Countess Dracula" in a 1960s Hammer horror film) who in 1611 was convicted of killing up to 650 girls and bathing in their blood in order to halt the aging process. …

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