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The Watcher: Serial killers dominate TV
Hannibal Lecter is back, but even such a notorious villain is having a hard time getting noticed in the crowded world of serial killers on TV.
America's favorite cannibal must jostle for attention with Joe Carroll of "The Following," budding monster Norman Bates of "Bates Motel," Red John from "The Mentalist," the serial killer of the week on "Criminal Minds" and good-guy bad guy Dexter Morgan of "Dexter," among others.
It seems that today's TV landscape is littered with the artfully arranged bodies of ritual-killing victims. What does that obsession with such gruesomeness signify?
"The gore helps us cope with the actual horrors of everyday life, like war, poverty, terrorism and shooting rampages, by providing a cathartic release," said Kristine Weatherston, assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University in Philadelphia.
She also sees the extremism of serial-killer stories as an antidote to the domination of reality television.
"TV has reached a point where audiences are hungry for good stories and a little gore," Weatherston says.
In a deeper sense, such material "scratches an itch" for viewers, said Leonard Cassuto, professor of American literature at Fordham University in New York and an expert in crime fiction. "And in this case, the collective itch is almost certainly anxiety."
Specifically, Cassuto says we are anxious about our families, and the serial killer serves as an extreme metaphor for those worries – the serial killer of fiction, that is.
Real serial killers, he points out, typically prey on the underclass: prostitutes or the homeless. In fiction, the victims are almost always middle-class people with intact families.
And as rare as serial killers are, rarer still are killers like Ted Bundy, who can function well in society. Research shows that most serial killers have below-average IQs, yet the ones we see on TV tend to be doctors (Hannibal Lecter), professors (Joe Carroll) or criminologists (Dexter Morgan).
While serial killers have always been with us, the term and the fictional archetype are of recent coinage.
"Serial killer" was created in the 1960s or 1970s, and did not come into common use until the 1980s.
Around that time, the Vietnam War and Watergate had shaken Americans' faith in the institutions that traditionally protected them. And, Cassuto notes, changes in health-care policy put many mentally ill people out on the streets, where the average person was encountering them, probably for the first time.
These forces created an atmosphere where serial-killer fiction could thrive.
And it was in 1981 that Thomas Harris – "one of the most influential American writers ever," Cassuto said – published "Red Dragon," which not only introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter but to the modern serial-killer genre.
"(Harris) is the Henry Ford of the serial-killer story," Cassuto said. "He didn't invent it, but he created the method by which it is produced."
Harris, he said, took the skeleton of the classic police-procedural story and transferred it to the FBI. And he set his serial killer – the Tooth Fairy – out to murder middle-class families.
"('Red Dragon') is this very literal representation of family destruction," Cassuto said.
"The serial killer is the enemy of the family."
Of course, it was Harris' 1988 sequel to "Red Dragon," "The Silence of the Lambs," that became a huge hit and truly launched the genre.
As the genre evolves, some of the serial-killer shows are taking that family-destruction trope and turning it on its head.
"Dexter" and "Bates Motel" both put their serial killers in the role of protagonist, and in both cases the killers are struggling to keep their own families together.
And the villainous Joe Carroll of "The Following," which just finished a successful first season Monday, is trying to rebuild his own shattered family in a creepy and painful way.
And, of course, in extremely bloody fashion, too.
Gruesomeness is a key element in serial-killer stories, although, Cassuto notes, "The bloodiness is usually rendered post-mortem."
Their gruesome nature very likely will doom TV's serial-killer craze in the long run, said Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Indiana.
"Sure, there is a curiosity factor that might make viewers want to gawk at a serial killer, but that is likely a fleeting interest, in my opinion," McCall said.
He notes that the ratings for "Hannibal" already are declining.
"It seems to me that these kinds of creepy and graphic shows are of more interest to the creative community than to the general audience," McCall said. "In that sense, it is the television producers projecting an entertainment agenda on to the audience. That's not to say that these shows can't generate a bit of an audience and a bit of buzz for a while, but most TV viewers just won't want to watch such dark and bizarre shows on a weekly basis.
"Real life is confusing and bizarre enough without us viewers having to absorb creepiness in our 'entertainment.'"
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