Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Catch Me before I Kill More: Seriality as Modern Monstrosity

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Catch Me before I Kill More: Seriality as Modern Monstrosity

Article excerpt

A colleague of mine, lamenting the disasters of her personal life, which included several broken engagements over the previous decade, said despairingly that she seemed destined to be nothing more than a "serial fiancee." This phrase evocatively suggests the power of the word "serial" in contemporary culture. Though "serial" can mean no more than simple repetition, it has in recent years come to carry a far richer significance, suggesting behavior that is pathological, compulsive, and irresistible. These rhetorical layers were implicit in the title of John Waters's 1994 film Serial Mom, a story which self-evidently dealt with topics far more threatening than just repeated parenthood. In speaking of herself as a "serial fiancee," my friend intended to convey all these senses, though in a self-mocking way. More commonly, discussion of "serial" activities carries not the slightest hint of humor or irony, and different types of serial crime (particularly murder) are generally regarded as the absolute worst forms of depravity that a society must confront.

My goal is to describe how and why the seemingly harmless mathematical term "serial" so vastly (and suddenly) expanded its rhetorical significance, to imply monstrous violence with a near-spiritual dimension. How, in short, did serial crime come to represent an ultimate evil? What is so dreadful about the mere act of repetition? I will place the development of the "serial" concept within a historical context, specifically during the period of intense ideological conflict and political redefinition that occurred in the United States during the 1980s. I stress this chronology since the whole idea of serial violence has now become so integral a part of social ideology that it seems unthinkable that it was ever absent. To the contrary, the idea is relatively new.

In elucidating the term itself, in explaining its raw power, I argue that "serial" murder enjoyed such an impact because of its mythological connotations. To over-simplify, it was rhetorically and politically necessary during the early 1980s to posit the existence of uniquely dangerous predatory villains, against whom no counter-measures were too extreme. By then our concepts of science and the supernatural no longer accommodated a literal belief in archaic beings like vampires and werewolves, however often the media metaphorically compared actual criminals to these traditional monsters. But the newly re-imagined serial killer could be cited quite freely, as an undoubtedly authentic being whose existence was vouchsafed by social and behavioral science, yet who fulfilled all the mythical roles of the supernatural night-prowlers of old. It was above all the fact of uncontrollable repetition, the absolute lack of self-control, that made serial killers less than human and denoted them as monsters.


The origins of "serial" terminology as applied to crime and violence are much debated, but the concept probably emerged in criminological writing during the 1960s. Whoever first coined the phrase, it was until the early 1980s largely confined to a handful of criminologists and psychologists who studied multiple homicide. As recently as 1982, a book on Jack the Ripper or Ted Bundy was advertised as a case study of "mass murder." Matters changed very rapidly over the next two years, as the concept of serial murder entered popular thought. One pivotal event was the hearings before a US Senate committee in the summer of 1983, "on patterns of murders committed by one person in large numbers with no apparent rhyme, reason or motivation" (US Senate 1984). Between 1983 and 1985, serial murder became one of the most intensely debated issues in the media, both in serious news outlets and popular culture, to the extent that the nation experienced what I have described elsewhere as a general panic (Jenkins 1994; US House of Representatives 1996).

A whole new taxonomy of violence now emerged. …

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