Serial Killers Play a Role on the Public Stage
They clarify the boundary between man and monster.
Posted February 24, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
According to the functionalist theoretical perspective of sociology introduced by Emile Durkheim in the nineteenth century, society is held together by social consensus, or cohesion, in which members of society agree upon—and work together to achieve—what is best for all of society.
This perspective states that everyone in society has a role and a purpose. From a functionalist point of view, all types of behavior, whether good or bad, are to be expected. That includes serial murder. Emile Durkheim believed that crime and deviance are inevitable in any society and, in limited amounts, are actually functional and necessary.
He claimed that some crime is necessary because it promotes clarification of the moral boundaries that define a society and establish its social order. According to Durkheim, the bonds that unite a society are strengthened when moral boundaries are clarified and reinforced.
The social construction of the serial killer identity
Typically, language is insufficient to frame the problematic behavior of those who are considered to be deviant, so society by way of its policing agents constructs symbols and images to demonstrate the dangers allegedly posed by the “other” to the community.
From a functionalist perspective, the social construction of the serial killer identity is symbolic and it helps to clarify the moral boundary that separates good and evil in society. It defines the actions of the serial killer as inhuman and beyond reason. By accepting the framing of serial killers as evil, the public is given moral clarity.
Such clarity can be both reassuring and comforting. By framing the serial killer as evil, the public has an explanation for the actions of the criminal and it also has a reason to feel better about itself. Why? The serial killer identity provides the public with a reference point for judging the acceptability of its own behavior. The actions of the serial killer clearly set the bar for acceptable behavior very low, so it is easy for the public to minimize its own moral failings by comparison.
For example, a person might think, “I may not be a saint but at least I don’t kill or eat people!” In addition to providing moral clarity, the framing of serial killers as evil is functional because it provides the public with a point of reference and a way to put its own negative behavior in perspective. It suggests that despite all of our faults, compared to serial killers, the rest of us are not so bad.
Serial killers do horrible things to innocent people. Ted Bundy and Ed Kemper, for example, raped, tortured, and killed their victims, and then engaged in necrophilia and dismembered the corpses. I would argue that such actions do establish the outer limits of human depravity. Is there anything worse one person can do to another than what Bundy, Kemper, Ramirez, and their ilk do to their victims?
When the crimes of serial killers are reported by the news media, they are typically framed as the inhuman acts of vampires or monsters. The killers are almost always depicted as being pure evil in order to distinguish them from decent people. From a functionalist perspective, such media framing suggests that if you want to know what evil is and what evil does, then you need to look no further than Ted Bundy and other serial killers.
In the social construction of serial killers, law enforcement authorities and the news media generally compare the actions of the perpetrator to the average person in society. Because the so-called normal person is the point of reference in the social construction process, the serial killer identity can be seen as a reflection of the public. The serial killer identity is like a mirror that permits society to consider how the perpetrator is both different from and similar to itself.
The mirror reveals that the serial killer is different from the public in many ways, but it also reveals that the serial killer is very much like the public in certain ways. The serial killer identity contains many human characteristics that are valued such as drive, fortitude, persistence, and reliability. As a result, I believe that the serial killer identity blurs the boundary between good and evil. Moreover, it sends a subliminal message that the public may not be that different from the serial killer after all.
Society’s attempt to understand and explain what created the serial killer leads to the possibility that something within the human condition—that is, something from within the world we do understand—created the serial killer.
If evil comes from within the human world and not outside it, then the boundary between normal and abnormal is far more ambiguous than suggested by the stark black-and-white images presented in the news and entertainment media. If evil is created from something within the human condition, then even so-called normal people in society—those considered good—are not entirely immune to its influence.
If the serial killer was not born that way, then the distance between the killer and the normal person is much shorter than we thought. To the extent that evil emerges from within society, we are all closer to the serial killer than we might imagine and more capable of abnormality than we would like to think. From a functionalist perspective, therefore, the horrors perpetrated by the serial killer enable society to consider both the source and limitations of its own violent tendencies.
I believe that the serial killer identity represents a collapse of the boundary between human and monster. As a social construction, the serial killer identity involves a merging or integration of man and monster. This serves an unexpected purpose. Most everyone in society has dangerous urges and thoughts lurking in their minds and the person who behaves like a monster helps the public to exercise them vicariously.
The late Gary Gilmore, who was executed for committing multiple murders once said, “The mind needs monsters. Monsters embody all that is dangerous and horrible in the human imagination.” The late Richard Ramirez famously told a reporter that “we are all evil” when asked if he was evil. David Berkowitz said that inside everyone lies the “desire to take out one’s anger and frustration upon someone else… Man can become violent in a moment’s time… Everyone has the potential to do terrible things.”
Arguably, society needs serial killers because they are like emotional lightning rods that protect people from their own violent tendencies. The socially constructed serial killer identity gives society an outlet to experience the darker side of the human condition that otherwise it cannot or will not consider. The actions of the serial killer offer society a taste of madness and blood in a controlled environment and, most importantly, they provide a catharsis for the public’s primal urges.
Moreover, the serial killer allows society to act out its darkest fantasies. In a sense, the serial killer allows people to go safely insane. How does this serve society? It provides an escape valve for the public’s pent-up anger and frustration as people observe the carnage perpetrated by the serial killer and participate vicariously in his crimes. From a functionalist perspective, the moral boundaries of society are clarified and reinforced when the serial killer acts on his monstrous impulses while the rest of society sits back and observes the spectacle.
The appeal and functionality of serial killers
Strangely enough, part of the appeal and functionality of serial killers has to do with empathy. I believe that people are driven by an innate and spontaneous tendency to empathize with everything around them. My research in this area suggests that not only do people blur the line between real and fictional serial killers, they genuinely identify with both serial killers and monsters in Hollywood depictions of them (1).
The public secretly pulls for the misunderstood monster in the 1931 classic horror film Frankenstein, as well as the cunningly brilliant Hannibal Lecter in the more modern classic The Silence of the Lambs. Another classic example is the fictional movie monster King Kong, the giant gorilla, who struggled valiantly to locate and protect his lost love after he was captured and taken to New York City. King Kong has become a frightening but lovable anti-hero in popular culture.
From a functionalist perspective, the ability to empathize with a monster or serial killer makes it more predictable and less scary. The public needs to understand things that are baffling and scary in order to make them less frightening. I believe that people do this to make sense out of everything foreign they encounter and, thereby, reduce their fear. Simply stated, empathetic understanding reduces fear of the unknown.
Therefore, the more one can relate to, or humanize a monster or serial killer, the less scary it becomes. Although empathizing with a monster helps us to identify with its purpose, it also exposes one of our most primal fears—that is, the fear that we could become monsters ourselves.
Humanization and dehumanization
Applying this logic to the social construction of the serial killer identity, a dual process of humanization and dehumanization seems to be in effect. That is, we try to humanize the serial killer in order to make him less scary but we also try to dehumanize and separate him from the rest of us in order to create a moral boundary between good and evil.
Thus, there are contradictory processes of humanization and dehumanization occurring simultaneously in the social construction of serial killers. I believe that this results in further ambiguity regarding these predators in the minds of many people.
1) Bonn, Scott (2014). “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.” New York: Skyhorse Press.