Contemplations on the Nature of Truth: True Crime and Dark Empathy
How well can one digest murdertainment's darkest elements?
Qu'est-ce que c'est”
-- Psycho Killer, Talking Heads (1977)
“Ada Street” is a hip foodie spot, a twice-named Michelin Bib Gourmand offering American-Mediterranean cuisine, incongruently located in an industrial strip in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood on a street that is its namesake. Surrounded by a sea of empty gravel lots, chain link fences, and factory-facades just a half-block south of a dive chic hipster bar with an equally apt name, “The Hideout”, is a green-painted wooden door flanked by two large candles, Kubrickian in their symmetry.
I'm here because Chef Zoë Schor recently stirred controversy with a menu of last meals.
Her culinary creations, modeled after final dishes from famously executed serial killers caught the attention of a victim’s advocacy group. Inspired by the last meals of John Wayne Gacy (fried chicken), Ted Bundy (steak and eggs), William George Bonin (pizza) and others. The dishes catch my attention, as well.
The cuisine forms a kind of paradox to the engine that fuels the American phenomenon of murdertainment. A multibillion dollar industry broadly encompassing any form of entertainment related to an actual murder -- sensationalist news coverage, crime scene photos, tabloids, serial killer produced art, macabre relics, court TV, murderabilia collectibles, kitschy gangster themed bus tours -- seems driven by a desire to distance oneself from the anxieties of victimhood. In an effort to create a psychological space between one’s self and the victim, objects and iconography of the killer often become fetishizied and the killer almost diefied.
Last meals, however, are inherently mortal, thus creating an immediate association with death.
In part one of this essay, “True Crime, 'True Detective', and 'Serial' Obsessions”, I looked for the motive in our cultural obsession with murder literature that spans the pulpy tabloid ends of the spectrum with real accounts (the Serial podcast) to the imagined narratives composed of fictional characters (True Detective). Walter Mosley, bestselling crime novelist, argues the popularity of this genre at both ends of the spectrum is at least partially due to the need to address our vulnerabilities around identifying with the victim.
Jesse Bering, author of Perv, writes (somewhat optimistically) in his essay “Hair of the Night Stalker” on Slate that enthusiasm for “murderabilia” with its special premium placed on crime scene materials, goes beyond making a gruesome claim on history or even glorifying the killer or crime. These objects are often seen as being imbued with power--talismans, of a sort--that can defend against the fate of the victim:
It’s conceivable that murderabilia collectors, both men and women, are actually more fearful of such sensationalized crimes than non-collectors. Perhaps they suffer the subconscious illusion that the moral monster would harm others while sparing them, on account of their unique connection through objects infused with the killer’s essence, a frightening, unpredictable force they are trying to better understand.
I’d become interested in murdertainment’s darkest elements while researching the American history of haunts. Initially, I was intrigued by how the seasonal staple of sheet clad backyard ghosties and Frankenstein monsters mutated into its contemporary incarnation of mega-Hollywood caliber productions with quality effects, set stages, and elaborate storylines. As I dug deeper, the merge of phantasmic and the authentic seemed to come together most dramatically around the serial killer and the slasher.
Steve Kopelman, the most prolific and perhaps highest profile haunt producer in the states surfaced regularly in my research. In 2012, Kopelman partnered with off-Broadway theater producer Timothy Haskell to create, Nightmare New York, a serial killer centric haunt. Foregoing the usual horror movie slasher staples -- Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Michael Myers -- the team opted for real serial killers Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy.
Enhancing the hyperreality of the experience, they transformed the waiting area into a kind of museum with displays of serial killer drawings and assorted artifacts. Each room throughout the haunt was dedicated to a real serial killer; the historical mixed with the modern and the authentic merged with urban folklore. Each room painstakingly crafted from crime scene photos to capture its genuine essence.
In the 12-year history of Nightmares New York, thanks to the popularity of the Killers theme, it was the only one to be run consecutively two years in a row, as well as, be replicated in other cities. In addition, Kopelman has incorporated the concept, including a John Wayne Gacy room, into some of his other haunts throughout the country.
Back at “Ada Street”, a hostess leads me through a zigzag of claustrophobically labyrinthian hallways, almost reminiscent maze haunts, a faux Tangiers of Moorish arches and architecture. Curtains partition a dining area. Tables line a slender pass. Orange-amber lights flicker from sconces. I am seated at a special counter open into the kitchen area. Chef Schor calls out orders. Cooks hop to prepping buttermilk biscuits, strawberry jam, potato puree and fried chicken inspired by John Wayne Gacy’s last meal.
This performance, while perhaps motivated with much the same provocateur spirit, becomes wholly different from Kopelman and Haskell's operation which, in a sense, is an almost inadvertently humanist act, as it cuts against the underlying ideology of the murdertainment industry, not necessarily by design or intent, but by its nature. Haskell at one point responded to the controversy contending, “These guys are mythological at this point.” As if their iconic images transcend their crimes and their mortality. Their brutal acts, beyond comprehensible motive, forgo their humanity making them a monster of myth.
Schor in turn, makes the meal an act of empathy, prompting diners to reflect on what they would eat as their last meal. In short, capturing the essence of a last meal has the reverse effect, a sort of double humanizing, as food is universalizing and a last meal is by its nature evokes mortality.
There's a second, deeper layer to Mosely’s argument on the motives for our obsession with murder that frames this empathy in a different light. He contends that the whodunnit performs a deeper drama of American identity. “We have lots of suspicions in our hearts why things go wrong, because partially, we’re involved in what’s wrong in the world. And we know that,” Mosely said in an interview with NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”, “We know what America’s based on”, Mosely explained, a history of slavery, genocide, and imperialism.
Consider Mosely’s argument with the spate of serial killer focused television shows that have flooded cable and network television alike in the past decade. Not only the glut of Law & Orders and CSIs, but an influx of shows that feature the killer as a main character, in their conventional role of antagonist (The Following, The Fall), as well as those featuring the killer as a central figure. Dexter, Hannibal and Bates Motel most notably make their anti-hero lead an empathetic protagonist that connects to their audience.
While the narrative arc unfolds differently in each -- Dexter a play on the moral duality of humankind, Hannibal an extended cat and mouse between FBI agent Will Graham and psychiatrist/ serial killer Hannibal Lecter, Bates Motel a Twin Peaks-esque soap operatic drama -- the standard genre trope is twisted to identify with the serial killer. In the case of the latter two, this act involves reclaiming mega-pop cult icons from their usual position in our collective unconscious -- Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates -- occupying definitive roles as antagonist to the point of evil incarnate.
David Schmid in his 2005 book, Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, explains that serial killer stories "are nearly always premised on a person's ability to identify with the serial killer in the sense of learning to think like him, coming to see the world through his eyes. This type of identification is often presented in these films as dangerous, because it can lead to the violent cancellation of one's own identity; but only in this way, these films suggest, can the serial killer be apprehended." (Think: Will Graham in Red Dragon and Hannibal; Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs and the Hannibal film).
To achieve such identification with Dexter, Lecter, and Bates in these narratives then requires that they are set against “worse” villains, even more brutal serial killers. Speaking on the moral and psychological complexities of that sibling genre the spy thriller Slavoj Zizek writes:
"...spy thrillers with artistic pretensions display all the “realistic psychological complexity” of the characters from “our” side. Far from signaling a balanced view, however, this ‘honest’ acknowledgement of our ‘dark side’ stands for its very opposite, for hidden assertion of our supremacy: we are ‘psychologically complex,’ full of doubts, while the opponents are one-dimensional fanatical killing machines."
The same can be said of this emerging subgenre of the serial killer-centered thriller right down to the artistic pretensions. The central tension of the conventional serial killer motif then is the viewer accompanying the protagonist at the edge of madness; dark impulses are embraced, but not indulged with resolution found in capturing the killer. Here, those dark impulses are not just embraced and indulged, but accepted.
Dexter, first published in 2004 and airing on Showtime in 2006, offers a unique “cop and killer as two sides of the same coin” conceptual framework that situates this drama in the same mind. While Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi thriller A Scanner Darkly (1977) and Lars von Trier’s The Element of Crime (1984) played with the concept in a twist of the cat and mouse formula (lampooned in the 2002 Charlie Kaufman film Adaptation), Dexter knows exactly what he is from the beginning. His homicidal tendencies are given vigilante purpose early on by his foster father, who helps him to channel these impulses toward those who deserve it.
Just as with the genre mechanics Zizek exposes in the psychologically sophisticated spy thriller, Dexter is differentiated from his prey by the insights that the audience is granted to his inner thought processes. In some sense, Hannibal and Bates Motel represent an even more significant feat of moral complexity.
Norman Bates is archetypally the founding father of slasher genre. Alfred Hitchcock gambled his fortune and personal reputation, departing from his elegant suspense thrillers -- North by Northwest having just proved a critical and box office success, when the director came across Robert Bloch’s Psycho - -to create a cinematic masterpiece. Inspired by the crimes of middle-American serial killer Ed Gein (who would also be the template for Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs), Hitchcock would invent midnight movie marketing, the subgenre of the slasher, and create a new thriller identified with the villain by killing off its leading lady in the first act.
In Bates Motel on A&E, Norman is given new life in a modern setting as a socially awkward teenager. The series basks in the weirdness of a Twin Peaks-esque setting with the rebooted young Bates as an easy-to-identify-with centerpiece. While viewers know the trajectory toward the familiar character that he becomes, part of the perversion in viewing is hoping somehow the inevitable outcome will be different.
Similarly, Hannibal Lecter has served as a placeholder for evil personified since the 1991 release of Silence of the Lambs, but the show reinvents him by returning viewers to a place that is familiar, advising FBI agent Will Graham, yet somewhat untapped. The true menace of Hannibal Lecter is that he simultaneously embodies the finest points of humanity -- a true appreciation of all forms of high culture: illustrating from memory, revering classical music, a culinary master (the TV series has food preparation and meal sequences that rival anything on the Food Network) -- with our darkest impulses.
This trend of serial killer as protagonist -- establishing an empathetic connection to Dexter, Norman Bates, and Hannibal Lecter on prime time network television no less -- combined with Mosely’s insights is an acclimating to an attitude of American exceptionalism. It is an acceptance not only of “what’s wrong in the world” but an embrace of our involvement in it.