The menacing tune of Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams” cover sets the tone for The Following, a macabre story of murder, mystery, and vengeance. The much promoted premiere, airing 21 January, provides chills and thrills, but it is this series’ complexity, grounded in literary influences, that may lead to a long and exciting run.
As Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) makes his escape from prison, the eerie Manson song fades into the sweet voice of Patsy Cline singing “Sweet Dreams (Of You),” hinting at this serial killer’s two very different sides. As a former professor of literature possessed of charm, good looks, and intellect, Carroll is both alluring and disarming. But apparently his love for the romantic period, especially the works of Edgar Allan Poe, was at some point perverted into a desire to create his own art—by stabbing beautiful women and removing their eyes.
Some truly terrifying sequences reveal his past work. In a flashback triggered by Carroll’s last and only surviving victim seeing her many scars in the mirror, the obscured camera angles give the impression of a hidden stalker, highlighting the horror of Carroll’s stealthy invasion of her home. As other killers begin to emulate Carroll, it becomes clear that he has built up a “following,” a cult of people inclined to do anything for him, loyal students whose minds have been corrupted by his instruction.
In Purefoy’s cool performance, Carroll shows himself to be the one in control, the author of the story who is manipulating both his followers and his adversaries. And herein lies the most compelling aspect of The Following’s season premiere: Carroll sees his killings as his way of writing a story, the “sequel” to his previous murders, composing a work of art through death. Although the idea of a serial killer as a manipulator is nothing new, the series’ use of this literary framework offers a particular context. Not only does Carroll’s obsession with romantic literature offer a fertile field for allusions, it also structures the show itself, as each episode unfolds like a chapter in a novel.
The nature of this show’s appeal also alludes to distinctive sources, not only from literature but also from horror cinema, in that it relies on suspense and the audience’s anticipation of the ultimate unraveling of the cunning serial killer’s intricate plan. We are witness to a number of very Silence of the Lambs-type interactions between Carroll and Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the self-destructive, alcoholic ex-FBI agent who originally captured Carroll and who, in the wake of this killer’s recent escape, is called in to consult. Especially in the interrogations, where Hardy lets slips a matrix of his own failings, Carroll, like Dr. Lecter, plays with his adversary’s emotions while subtly hinting at the veiled elements of his scheme. The malicious look in his eyes is so Hannibal-esque that you might expect him to call Hardy “Clarice.”
These clichés—the damaged investigator and the serial killer who likes to play mind games—highlight the imitative tendency that pervades The Following. Carroll’s murders are tributes to great works of romantic literature, dedicated to the authors he so admires, so many of the clues in Hardy’s investigation are steeped in literary references. Carroll’s followers, too, are “copycat killers,” imitating his M.O. either in practice or in philosophy. One of them, with the words of Poe written all over her body, ritualistically sacrifices herself by repeating his last words, “Lord help my poor soul,” and then stabbing herself in the eye. Referencing literary works and imitating horror films may seem derivative, but by drawing from the familiar, The Following obviates the need for extensive exposition and jumps right into the action.
Just so, you won’t be surprised when Carroll asserts that “this is merely the prologue, this is just the beginning” of his creation. The horrors of The Following are part of Carroll’s plan, but my hope for this series is that it also has a plan. Carroll’s scheme, his novel, must be ingenious and intricate, but the series must also be complete, or at least clever. With superb acting, a sophisticated narrative, and smart intertextual references, The Following could be everything Carroll wants his story to be: “It’ll be a classic. It’ll be our masterpiece.”