Serial Killers on the Big Screen

Queen's Film Theatre profiles the silver screen's finest Natural Born Killers

From 1931’s M to the current hit show Dexter, serial killers have been thrilling cinema and now television audiences for nearly 80 years. This month, Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast hosts a season of movies about mad mass murderers, including the horror classics Psycho, Halloween and The Silence of the Lambs. There is also a special Dexter event, including a talk by creator Jeff Lindsay and a screening of the season four premiere episode.

The QFT season pays tribute to a genre that, despite being grim, often gory and sometimes in poor taste, remains popular with audiences and critics alike. Halloween was, until recently, the most profitable movie ever made, reaping $70million from a budget of just $325,000, while The Silence of the Lambs is one of only three films to win the five major Academy Awards – best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay. The genre, which arguably peaked in the mid 1990s with Lambs-influenced thrillers such as Seven and Copycat, is today represented by more outlandish fare like the Saw franchise.

Criminologist and author Shadd Maruna, a professor at Belfast’s Queen’s University, believes the serial killer movie occupies a unique niche in crime cinema. ‘It’s a different genre from gangster films and so forth,’ he says. ‘The serial killer films pick up more on the traditional monster genre than what we would think of as crime films. The monster film, which has been almost entirely replaced by the serial killer film, plays on a scapegoat function. The movie-going public have got all these concerns about society – be it the economy collapsing, the BP oil spill or global warming – and we are projecting these anxieties on to the face of a single person, an alien kind of life form, this unfeeling serial killer. There is a cathartic function of watching these films, of having all of our anxieties focused in one single face, one single being – and hopefully that being eventually gets his comeuppance at the end of the film in ritualistic fashion.’

As well as movies and TV series, there are numerous books, websites and fan clubs devoted to some of the more notorious real-life serial killers, such as Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. A few years ago, there was even a controversial – indeed, ultimately banned – range of action figures based on infamous murderers. The serial killer art industry, meanwhile – where collectors pay serious amounts of money for often crude paintings by jailed psychopaths such as John Wayne Gacy and Henry Lee Lucas – has attracted several high-profile enthusiasts, including cult director John Waters and GG Allin’s bassist brother Merle.

Though he has dedicated his career to the study of crime, Maruna is wary about society’s increasing fascination with serial killers. ‘I certainly don’t think it’s very healthy,’ he says. ‘We’ve seen some quite famous celebrities who’ve been exposed to have these kinds of fascinations about serial killers. Usually, it’s an adolescent or young adult thing, where there is this sense that the serial killer is completely unrestrained by all the social mores that the rest of us are restrained by. He blows people away, he does what he wants, he doesn’t have a conscience or any sense of shame or guilt. That, for some people, is exciting.’

The so-called 'Crossbow Cannibal' – alleged triple murderer Stephen Griffiths – made headlines recently as one of the first 'fans' of serial killers to have become one. ‘He is certainly the first who fancies himself as an expert and was loosely academic in various ways,’ comments Maruna, ‘but one gets the sense that a number of these guys are imitating and copying the styles of their predecessors in some ways. I don’t think it’s a good thing to raise these people to celebrity status. If anything, that’s likely to encourage future copycat behaviour.’

There is seemingly no shortage of people with an almost obsessive passion for the subject, as Maruna confirms. ‘There are always a few on the margins of forensics classes who just seem to be way too interested in psychopaths or serial killers,’ he says. ’In criminal psychology, we make the joke that people who go into the field of studying these folks must have some sort of unhealthy interest in these cases, otherwise why would they? “Be careful ye who fight monsters, lest ye become one yourself!”’

Fictional maniacs like Norman Bates, Michael Myers and Hannibal Lecter are powerful cinematic creations, yet Maruna insists their similarity to actual serial killers is limited in most cases. ‘I wouldn’t be a scholar in all of the actual films,’ he says, ‘but the people who study killers have said that Norman Bates is a good portrayal – not a great portrayal, but a good portrayal – of a certain typology, and many see Psycho as the founding film.’ Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller is the forerunner of the modern 'slasher' or 'body count' movie, with Anthony Perkins chilling as the schizophrenic Norman Bates. ‘Psycho has become the film that all subsequent films copy in lots of senses,’ says Maruna. ‘In general, filmmakers are copying other filmmakers rather than studying the literature, most likely.’

Those movies that are based on actual serial killer cases, such as Dahmer, Ed Gein and 10 Rillington Place – about English murderer John Christie – have been less well received. ‘The films that have been based on true-life events and those that have tried to stay closest to the actual individuals haven’t done terribly well at the box office,’ says Maruna. ‘They’re not tapping into the right formula. You’ve got the narrative that works on a psychological level, and then the reality which is something very different.’

Besides, Maruna feels there are other supposed evildoers more deserving of big-screen treatment. ‘I’m going to be cheeky here,’ smiles the professor, ‘and say I think we need more films about serial killers like BP and other corporations that are more likely to kill in vast numbers than any individual.’

Natural Born Killers – Serial Killers on the Big Screen runs at QFT, Belfast, from July 16 to 22. Screenings are M (July 16), Psycho (17), 10 Rillington Place (18), Halloween (19), The Silence of the Lambs (20), Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (21), American Psycho (22) and Dexter with Jeff Lindsay in conversation (22). 

Andrew Johnston