Academic journal article Post Script

A Psychological Examination of Serial Killer Cinema: The Case of Copycat

Academic journal article Post Script

A Psychological Examination of Serial Killer Cinema: The Case of Copycat

Article excerpt

Cinema's manifest function, of course, is entertainment--to amuse, inspire, sadden, frighten movie audiences--in order to gain profits for filmmakers. In carrying out its ostensible aim over the last century, however, a number of subsidiary utilities have become part and parcel of cinematic entertainment. Here we focus on one of these latent functions: the educative aim of the "big screen" in regard to serious social problems.


Cinema was born during one of the most important revolutions in human history. As an ongoing witness, films have been mirrors of the impact of industrialization on the human psyche (Griffith & Mayer 1957). Accompanying significant social, political, and economic changes in American society during this period have been shifts in the nature of crime. Serial murder was a rare occurrence prior to the industrial revolution (Wilson 1984). Previously, the majority of crimes, particularly the most vicious ones, occurred between people who were known to each other (Douglas 1985). According to recent FBI statistics, an average of fifteen people a day of both sexes and all ages are struck down by assailants who stalk and kill strangers for the sheer "thrill" that is derived from the intoxicating sense of power and control over the victims (Norris 1988). The subject of this paper is the depiction of these killers in contemporary cinema.

Prior to the past century, people depended upon books and personal correspondence for information about how others lived their lives. Written words, however, no matter how articulate, rarely convey comprehensive emotional representations of other people; the same is true of their spoken words. Cinema, on the other hand, provides in-depth, multi-dimensional case studies. This provides a vital educative experience for many-that is to say, the visual presentation of another's life in a film enables people with limited opportunity for intimate relating to observe en vivo the emotional lives of strangers.


Given the allure of its captivating entertainment, cinema for most Americans has become the major vehicle to purview other peoples' inner lives. The advantage of cinema for insight into the human psyche over written and spoken reports is available only to the extent, of course, that the films are able to mirror reality. Consequently, we strongly believe that the accessibility to the inner lives of others by cinema is accompanied by an implicit responsibility: in regard to its treatment of important social problems, cinema has a moral function. (1) The moral aim of cinema is derived from its psychological capacity to enable the observer to view emotionally disturbing images and to explore them in a way he or she would be too threatened to do in real life. Cinema when skillfully employed as psychological art impels the observer to experience more fully what in previous encounters with the film's emotional subject was conceptually vague, emotionally unavailable, and/ or linguistically unarticulated within the ob server's psyche. Cinema's responsibility is derived from its capacity to kaleidescope a series of emotional options through the association of the conflict presented on the screen with states of emotion formerly surpressed--or at least unarticulated--by the observer. What we mean by this is that the conflict on the screen acquires its emotional sanguinity from its capacity to condense "longed for" expressions of "unfinished" moral dilemmas of the observer (Goldberg 1987). We refer to these dilemmas as "unfinished" in the sense that no emotional solution or harmony has been previously achieved by the observer.

We further contend that for cinema to fulfill its moral function in regard to the dark side of human nature:

1. The audience must be able to identify with the characters presented on the screen. To fulfill this mandate, it is not enough for a film to invoke an emotional reaction. …

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