The Aesthetics of Serial Killing: Working against Ethics in the Silence of the Lambs 1988) and American Psycho (1991) (1)

By Baelo Allue, Sonia | Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Aesthetics of Serial Killing: Working against Ethics in the Silence of the Lambs 1988) and American Psycho (1991) (1)


Baelo Allue, Sonia, Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos


Classical serial killer fiction and films offer their readers or viewers many sources of pleasure: the control over disorder, the pleasure of pattern-discovering, the identification with a strong representative of the law, and of course the enjoyment, from the reader's secure position, of the murders as art or simply as an intellectual game. These narratives have the power of making us forget about ethics and the serious implications of murder, turning serial killing into a kind of aesthetic game that can be enjoyed as simple entertainment. However, what happens when ethics dominates over aesthetics in serial killer fiction? This question will find an answer through the analysis of Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991), both dealing with serial killers although in entirely different ways.

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In this paper I want to deal with the phenomenon of the serial killer, which is a cultural manifestation prone to be considered under different disciplines. It is a subject treated in sociology, the arts (cinema, literature, photography), the media or psychoanalysis to mention just a few. It belongs to the realms of both reality and fiction and as a consequence of this cultural criss-crossing, on some occasions reality and fiction become mixed and influence each other. Nowadays we witness how, on the one hand, real-life serial killers are "narrativised" by the media by turning their killings into coherent patterns, (2) or how they copy the murders of fictional serial killers; (3) on the other hand, we see how "serious" literature writers of great prestige write true-crime literature, (4) or how fictional serial killers copy the deeds of real killers or try to resemble them. (5) The interactions are never- ending and there is no doubt that, as Joyce Carol Oates puts it, the serial killer has become an icon of pop culture (1999a: 233), or rather, of US popular culture. Since there are so many ramifications of the same phenomenon I want to limit the scope of this paper to the case of literature. I will deal mainly with two US books: Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991). The comparison between these books is especially interesting because from them two very different conceptions of the serial killer as a literary genre emerge.

Serial killer fiction is a genre that has close links with both the gothic and the detective genre. This fiction takes the chaotic world of gothic and adapts it to the contemporary world through the figure of the serial killer. This kind of criminal does not kill only once, as is usually the case in detective fiction. Serial killers kill over and over and, what is more important, they follows a pattern in the choice of their victims, a pattern that the detective must discover. Thus, in serial killer fiction the world of chaos is recuperated from gothic fiction, while underlining the figure of the detective, who competes with the serial killer for the main role in the genre. For Philip Simpson, Thomas Harris can be considered the creator of the serial killer formula (2000: 70) and, in that sense, The Silence of the Lambs serves as a perfect practical example of those conventions. The aesthetics of the novel is designed to offer its readers different sources of pleasure: the command of disorder, the enjoyment derived from discovering patterns, the pleasing feelings of anticipation and repetition provided by the serial murders, the identification with an intelligent detective, and of course the relish for transforming the murders into clues in an intellectual game. These kinds of narratives have the power of making us diminish the serious implications of murder, turning serial killing into an aesthetic game that can be enjoyed as simple entertainment. By contrast, American Psycho is an attempt to use the genre as an ethical denunciation, where the reader cannot but face the real horror behind the serial killer phenomenon. …

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