Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction

Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction

Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction

Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction


Philip L. Simpson provides an original and broad overview of the evolving serial killer genre in the two media most responsible for its popularity: literature and cinema of the 1980s and 1990s.

The fictional serial killer, with a motiveless, highly individualized modus operandi, is the latest manifestation of the multiple murderers and homicidal maniacs that haunt American literature and, particularly, visual media such as cinema and television. Simpson theorizes that the serial killer genre results from a combination of earlier genre depictions of multiple murderers, inherited Gothic storytelling conventions, and threatening folkloric figures reworked over the years into a contemporary mythology of violence. Updated and repackaged for mass consumption, the Gothic villains, the monsters, the vampires, and the werewolves of the past have evolved into the fictional serial killer, who clearly reflects American cultural anxieties at the start of the twenty-first century.

Citing numerous sources, Simpson argues that serial killers' recent popularity as genre monsters owes much to their pliability to any number of authorial ideological agendas from both the left and the right ends of the political spectrum. Serial killers in fiction are a kind of debased and traumatized visionaries, whose murders privately and publicly reempower them with a pseudo-divine aura in the contemporary political moment. The current fascination with serial killer narratives can thus be explained as the latest manifestation of the ongoing human fascination with tales of gruesome murders and mythic villains finding a receptive audience in a nation galvanized by the increasingly apocalyptic tension between theextremist philosophies of both the New Right and the anti-New Right.

Faced with a blizzard of works of varying quality dealing with the serial killer, Simpson has ruled out the catalog approach in this study in favor of an in-d


My desire to understand the media popularity of serial murder resulted in this book—a general overview of some of the most recognizable American novels and film/television treatments of serial murder, the major literary themes and social context of these treatments, and the critical responses to them. Serial murder, even as overexposed as that term has become, serves as a broad metaphor for a plethora of concerns facing contemporary American society at the start of the twenty-first century. And while serial murder indeed remains a favorite staple of tabloid journalism and cheap fiction, it has also compelled a variety of serious contemporary American writers and film directors to grapple with its philosophical implications. In the pages ahead, I will track the serial killer through some of the most recognizable novels and films—the formative “classics” in the field, if you will—that accompanied the public explosion of interest in serial murder from the 1980s to the present. I will elaborate upon a brief history and key formulations of various structural components of the serial killer text for the express purpose of giving context to the discussion, referring the reader to other studies when appropriate. Then, I will illustrate how these influences work in representative novels and films about serial murder.

The study (as opposed to the tabloid merchandising) of serial murder is already well established in sociological and criminological circles by writers such as Jack Levin, James Fox, and Elliott Leyton, to name only a few. The analysis of the fictional narratives of serial murder, however, is still growing. Those who have accomplished this kind of specialized, in-depth study include Jane Caputi, Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Fraser, Philip Jenkins, Richard Tithecott, and Mark Seltzer. Each scholar has his or her own insights into the mass appeal of fictional accounts of serial murder. What follows is a brief summary of each of those insights, provided here so that one may better understand the context in which my own work exists.

One predominant school of thought, specific to the 1970s and 1980s, to explain the appeal of fictionalized serial murder has it that patriarchal . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.