Crime Fiction | Television | Movies
Dashing, Demonic and Disturbed — The Real World of Fictional Serial Killers
I get freaked out if I watch too many true crime documentaries, but I love a good fictional psycho.
Serial Killers play a big role in our media and culture. Not only in the world of true crime, where the ghost of Jeffrey Dahmer and The Greenriver Killer lurk, but also in our much-loved world of fiction. It’s a trope as old as the folktale of Bluebeard, as unnerving as Norman Bates of old Hollywood’s Psycho, and as modern and sexy as the lovable rogue, Dexter Morgan.
They are a complex study. What drives people to kill usually depends on the individual. I’m not a criminal psychologist, I’m just the daughter of a true-crime nerd. From time to time, I have sat down to watch serial killer documentaries with my mother, and it’s not exactly breaking news to say that crime fiction takes inspiration from true crime. While the world of serial killers is a vast spectrum of depravity, there are some characteristics that seem to hold them together. These characteristics are often the foundation of fictional psychos.
Joe Goldberg from You — The Average Joe
“There are scary People in the world, Beck. That’s why it’s important to be safe.”
There’s a running gag in the world of serial killers. It’s always the unassuming charmer that committed the most heinous crimes…
Joe Goldberg is the protagonist of the book series turn Netflix show, You. He is a quiet, polite bookworm who develops intense obsessions with women. This leads him to stalk and manipulate his choice of lover, and murder anyone who gets in his way. I remember when that Netflix trailer first popped up, with that cute little face giving that creepy little monologue. I remember thinking, ‘oh, this looks messed up, I’m gonna love this.’
Penn Badgley, who plays Joe, said something quite interesting when talking about his character,
‘It says something about how much we are willing to be patient and forgive someone who inhabits a body that looks something like mine. The colour of my skin, my gender, these sorts of things, these sorts of privileges.’
This makes me think of Ted Bundy, who was also a polite, charming white guy who stalked and murdered women. Somehow, during his trial, Bundy developed a fanbase of women who found him very charming and attractive. Some even dyed their hair dark and wore it centre-parted, replicating the hairstyle of Bundy’s victims.
Joe both views himself and is viewed by the world around him as your run-of-the-mill, polite, nice guy who is looking for love. He also spends a lot of time trying to convince us, the audience, of his virtues. He has a steady job, a passion for literature, and takes the neighbourhood kids under his wing (and not in a creepy way). I know that he is manipulating the world around him and trying to manipulate me. But I can’t be the only one who caught myself smiling at the romantic scenes in You, only to think, ‘wait…what the fuck?’
Stuntman Mike from Death Proof — Time to Shine!
“This car is 100% death proof. Only to get the benefit of it, honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat.”
Serial killers love to have a time to shine. That’s why the clever ones like to taunt the police and media with cryptic messages. It’s also why the dumb ones don’t seem too bothered when they get caught. They finally get to be the star.
Stuntman Mike is a retired stunt-man who murders women by orchestrating fatal car crashes in his stunt car. He is in love with danger. While stalking his victims at a bar, he sits and reminisces about the good old days of Hollywood where all the stunt scenes were real, even the car wrecks. He boasts about working on movies like Vanishing Point and The Cannonball Run. All he’s got to show for it is a cool jacket, a cool car, and a cool scar.
There is a moment in the first half of the movie, just before Stuntman Mike reveals his true self. He watches the ladies drive off, gives the camera a devilish smile, then gets in his car.
Could this be Stuntman Mike finally getting to be the star of his own movie? It doesn’t quite explain why he likes to murder women in car crashes. All I can say is that this guy gets off on being the villain, as he finally has a starring role.
Arthur Mitchell from Dexter — Trauma Cycles
“You can’t control the demon inside of you any more than I can control mine.”
Trauma doesn’t only affect serial killers. It can affect how any person interacts with the world. Events can replay in a person’s mind over and over and inform how they react to certain situations. Some may develop toxic relationship styles; others fall prey to addiction.
Take a wild guess at how serial killers deal with trauma…
Arthur Mitchell is the antagonist of season four of Dexter. He has spent his entire adult life re-creating the deaths of his family and the death of his innocence all over the United States, using the guise of building homes for the homeless as a way of explaining the constant travel. His killing style is cruel and creative. Every cycle includes a young boy being buried alive, a young woman bleeding out in a bathtub, a mother of two jumping to her death, and a father of two being bludgeoned.
The idea of trauma fuelling a dark side is a recurrent theme in Dexter. Dexter himself is sure that his urge to kill stems from the murder of his mother. Arthur Mitchell seems to represent a much more whimsical darkness compared to Dexter’s pragmatic and secretive way of killing. Perhaps this show is suggesting the different ways people deal with their traumas. Some compartmentalise, and some take a more artistic approach.
The Grand High Witch from The Witches — Pure Evil
‘A stupid witch who answers back must BURN UNTIL HER BONES ARE BLACK! A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle in the fiery flame! An idiotic witch like you, must roast upon the barbecue! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!’
It seems that the most common prey for serial killers is young women, which, speaking as a young woman, is awful and terrifying. What’s more awful to think about is serial killers who prey on children…
Only Roald Dahl could get away with putting a serial killer in a children’s book.
The Grand High Witch is the main antagonist of Dahl’s novel The Witches. In this story, witches are vile demons who despise children. The Grand High Witch, disguised as a patron of ‘The Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children’, has killed thousands of children by turning them into rodents and letting them be exterminated by parents and pest control. She also has a habit of murdering witches who question her during annual coven meetings, just to make sure the other witches stay in line.
There aren’t really any moral complexities with The Grand High Witch. She is a symbol of the purest evil in the world, the evil that preys on the most innocent. It makes me think of the Moors Murderers, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, who would pretend to be a caring, kindly couple to lost children and teenagers, only to murder them out in the Yorkshire Moors.
The Grand High Witch is an out an out demon. She is a fraudulent, genocidal megalomaniac, and gets away with it by presenting as a pretty young lady.
Ramsay Bolton from A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones — Born Bad or Made Mad?
“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
I’m pretty sure that there are a dozen documentaries analysing whether it’s nature or nurture that turns kids into psychos. Most people who have dipped their toe into true crime know that there are tell-tale signs of a kid who will grow up to be a killer. Anti-social behaviour, arson, cruelty to animals, and a bad family life are usually the red flags…
The Song of Ice and Fire series is chock full of murderers, but Ramsay has a thing for pathological killing. He is a cruel psychopath who loves to torture. He is known for having a very twisted hobby of finding a girl, letting her out into the wilderness, and hunting her down like an animal. If they make the sport fun for him, and don’t beg and plead for mercy, he names his hunting dogs after them, kind of like a trophy.
We’re told that Ramsay was a wild and unruly child, but aren’t told what the specifics of what his wildness was like. He may have been lighting fires and torturing animals, or he may have just been picking fights with other kids.
It is very possible that Ramsay’s servant and companion, Reek, was a sick and twisted soul who nurtured Ramsay’s anti-social tendencies into outright serial murder. Perhaps without Reek, Ramsay would have grown up to be completely different. Probably still wild and murderous, but who isn’t wild and murderous in Westeros?
Micky and Mallory Knox from Natural Born Killers – Media Darlings
‘The media is like the weather, only it’s man-made weather’
Whenever there is a serial killer or mass murderer on the loose, there is always a media frenzy. Jack the Ripper, BTK, The Zodiac Killer; They were all media darlings…
Micky and Mallory Knox are a young, attractive, vengeful couple who become cult icons after going on a folkloric killing spree. They’re violent, unpredictable, passionate, and crazy in love. Micky and Mallory start to gain a cult following, with many viewing them as twisted heroes, reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. A manhunt soon gets underway, closely tailed by a media frenzy.
The climax of the film is a prison riot instigated by Micky Knox’s live TV interview, and the recording of Micky and Mallory’s bloody prison escape.
The film seems to be saying that the media likes to zoom in on the crazy and scary sides of humanity, mainly for profit. They capitalise on tragedy and violence. Micky and Mallory decide to take this into their own hands, by manipulating the media and turning themselves into anarchic folk heroes.
So, what does this say about us non-serial killers?
It’s interesting how we engage with these stereotypical aspects of serial killers. We get sucker-punched by the average Joe and fear the purest of evils hiding in plain sight. We are disillusioned by sensational media, and all want our own time to shine. Sometimes we also wonder if we would be the same person if we were born into different circumstances. Adding the compulsion for murder just gives it all an edgy, entertaining twist.