Kevin Williamson’s hit TV show The Following, starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, told the story of an FBI agent’s attempt to hunt a charismatic serial killer who had managed to create and manipulate a cult of obsessed fans to do his bidding.
SciFiNow talked to serial killer expert Professor David Wilson about Hollywood’s portrayals of serial murderers, why we’re obsessed with them, and just how accurate The Following is.
Do you think it’s fair to say that serial killers have become our modern mythology?
I think it’s fair to say that the public seem to be fascinated by serial killers. But they’re fascinated not so much by the reality of serial murder but almost by the mediated image of the serial killer. So often what they’re attracted to are those parts of movies or books that present the serial killer in particular ways which makes the serial killer sound interesting. Often they are very attractive personalities within the books, and even the flawed serial killers on TV shows like Dexter, because they are flawed and because they’re in the first person, Dexter’s in the first person, seem to attract people into their world as opposed to the reality of serial murder, which of course is disgusting.
There does seem to have been a shift from the early 1990s and The Silence Of The Lambs to what we have now, with serial killer protagonists.
Well I think the first thing is you’re right picking up on The Silence Of The Lambs. When The Silence Of The Lambs started we wanted to know the story through Clarice Starling or Will Graham, and then by the time we have Hannibal then we have become totally engrained in the world of Hannibal Lecter himself.
He is a psychiatrist, he talks about fine wines, foods, he’s an aesthete, he talks about Italian architecture, he’s a Renaissance man. And therefore in one sense the use of those kinds of devices make him appear interesting to the viewing or the reading public. And I think that the change of The Silence Of The Lambs from when it was first released, when of course the heroes were the FBI, to what the genre became thereafter is an interesting arc in relation to the viewer or the reader’s attraction to these stories.
What I think has happened though is really just the sense of this protective, there’s a protective veil, is there not, when we read these books and consume these products because we know we’re not dealing with a real serial killer. And a real serial killer is going to be frightening whereas a celluloid or a fictional serial killer, there’s a protective veil whereby we know that we are not dealing with reality and I think that protective veil allows us to be able to consume these stories in ways that we wouldn’t be able to consume the reality of serial murder.
Do you think it’s problematic that these stories might portray them in a more sympathetic light?
Well I don’t necessarily think we see them in a more sympathetic light, we do root for Dexter, I would accept that, but many of the serial murderers that have appeared on television recently, for example The Fall; I didn’t see that person at all sympathetically nor do I think the public did. So I think there are ways of presenting serial murderers fictionally which gets to some of the reality of how horrible the phenomenon of serial murder is.
But what is interesting, of course, is this idea that when the public talk to me about serial murder, I’ve sat next to and worked with eight British serial killers, I try to point out that the media image of these men is very different to the reality of serial murder. Because often the serial murderer in the community is banal, is ordinary, is weedy, is needy, is totally ingrained in the community. Our most prolific serial killer was a respected local GP, for example. So they’re very much part of the community, whereas often these fictional characters seem pathological, do they not? There’s something which is quite clearly different to you and I.
There’s a tendency to think of serial killers, or at least obsession with serial killers, as an American phenomenon. Do you think that’s accurate?
No, in fact I think most criminologists would see the beginning of the phenomenon of serial murder as with Jack the Ripper in 1888. I think, though, that what gave the interest in serial killing a bigger push was the FBI’s Behavioural Unit which was what The Silence Of The Lambs was modelled on, Red Dragon first and then The Silence Of The Lambs.
Thomas Harris worked directly with the FBI and the FBI was looking for more funding. And actually they used the idea of there being many more serial killers than ever before as a way of pushing forward their demands for greater amounts of resources. So the phenomenon is a worldwide phenomenon and we can actually date the interest in that phenomenon from Jack the Ripper.
I mean, frankly, in 1888 they were bringing out special editions, evening editions of daily newspapers so they could report upon the latest developments in the policing case against the so-called Jack the Ripper. So we date the phenomenon from a British murderer who of course has never been caught, and who was real, but the thing that gives us push and momentum is, I think, the stories of Thomas Harris based on the profiling done by the FBI.
In The Following the serial killer character is able to manipulate his followers using the media. Is that a real danger, that contact?
Whether we’re dealing with The Following or with reality, I think there are some serial killers, both in the United Kingdom and the USA, who are very aware of their brands. And they try to maintain that brand. I was recently followed on Twitter, for example, by someone calling himself Dennis Nilsen, who on Twitter was trying to publish extracts of his autobiography which got banned in 2000. So serial killers like Ian Brady, Dennis Nilsen, are very conscious of their brands. They want to stay in the public eye because they are incredibly narcissistic beings.
Therefore The Following I felt actually dealt with something which was real, which was that serial killers to some people are “attractive.” That people want to identify with them. And of course we have this incredible phenomenon called “murderabilia” where members of the public will buy the paintings of John Wayne Gacy or the nooses that were used by some serial killers when they killed and that trying to make money out of the artefacts of murder, serial murder, seems to me to be something which is disgusting, but is something which is characteristic of our culture.
Finally, is there a film or TV series that you feel portrayed serial killers or the hunt for serial killers perfectly?
No, but there’s a song. There’s a song that I thought of recently by Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan Stevens in his album Illinois has a song about John Wayne Gacy and I thought that song perfectly captured the tragedy of the serial killer and what he does to his victims. And that would be the one media artefact about serial murder that I thought was actually very good indeed.
David Wilson is professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University and author. You can visit his website here.
The Following: The Complete First Season is out now on Blu-ray and DVD for £25 and £19.25 at Amazon.co.uk.