Features News : Friday, October 31, 1997

Love those killers: Americans' fascination with the serial psychopath

by Melanie McFarland
Seattle Times staff reporter

The scariest characters prowling the street this Halloween are probably not wearing a costume. Like your neighbor, for instance, a pretty nice fellow who generally keeps to himself, keeps his yard looking shipshape and says hello whenever you happen upon him.

But for all you know, he might have recently dined on someone's liver with some fava beans and a glass of fine Chianti.

That's the horrible mystery surrounding serial killers: You could have Hannibal Lector living next door, but you wouldn't know it. And because the majority of serial killers are from the United States, falling victim to one is among the most terrifying possibilities Americans have to consider.

No wonder Hollywood keeps on making stars out of psychopaths.

Since "The Silence of the Lambs" swept the 1991 Academy Awards, production houses have ardently tried to find the next creepy villain to methodically slice and dice their way to high box-office returns.

Oliver Stone served up a serial mass-murdering, fun-loving couple in "Natural Born Killers" (1994.) Then Harry Connick Jr. put aside tinkling the ivories, picked up some wire and went a-strangling for 1995's "Copycat."

Kevin Spacey purged unfortunates of their sins in "Seven" and Kiefer Sutherland revamped the Big Bad Wolf as a killer for the '90s in "Freeway." On the good guys' side, Morgan Freeman is back investigating the murder-by-the-numbers game for "Kiss the Girls," which has grossed more than $46 million to date.

Now Dennis Quaid jumps in on the action as an FBI profiler on the trail of a railroad man (Danny Glover) and a mysterious drifter (Jared Leto) in "Switchback," opening today.

And that's just in the movie houses. In their pursuit of the paranormal, Mulder and Scully come across serial murderers just about every other episode of Fox's "The X-Files." On "Millennium," Frank Black's gift for seeing the last moments of a murder through a victim's eyes make him a perfect profiler - unless you consider the Sherlock Holmes-like deduction skills of Dr. Samantha Waters from NBC's psychopath series, "Profiler."

Not all of these movies and series are hits, but people are watching; both "Profiler" and "Millennium" are in their second seasons.

There's a growing interest in the real world, too. At a recent class on serial killers at Discover U, retired police Capt. T. Michael Nault, who led the investigations of the Green River and Eastside killers, shared information on serial killers not with police officers, as he usually does, but with private citizens. People come to the classes partly in response to what he calls a "vicarious interest" in serial killers, but mostly to gain information. The majority of students who attend, he says, are women. "Women want to know about the potential threat of serial murderers," he explained.

Our fascination with soulless, calculating psychopaths on the silver screen is far from surprising. Ever since Norman Bates ruined Janet Leigh's shower in "Psycho," audiences have equated thrillers with killers.

"What kind of suspense thrillers are not about murder? I don't know of one movie that's been labeled a suspense thriller where people don't get killed as a part of it," said Danny Glover during a recent Seattle visit to promote "Switchback."

"Perhaps, with serial killers, what's most disturbing is that the person doesn't have a specific title. His justification of his killing isn't that he's a CIA agent or he's some sort of agent provocateur. A serial killer is someone who negotiates someplace among us, with us, right next to us. And their identity is not apparent."

It's not who they are, it's what they do that has audiences hooked. Horror films overdose on gore, but most of the horror in serial-killer films is the corpse as an elaborate calling card, what's known among professionals as the "display." It's this tendency to focus on a killer's grisly art that disturbs professionals who have worked closely with real-life serial killers.

"I hated `Silence of the Lambs' because it made Dr. Lector seem to be a hero," said Ann Rule, author of the Ted Bundy biography "The Stranger Beside Me." "I could see unbalanced people leaving theaters all over the country thinking, `I could do that. I could fool the police.' "

The only film that comes close, Rule said, is "Natural Born Killers." She calls it a sophisticated satire, but "so sophisticated the masses probably didn't get it." For example, Rule explained, "there's a scene where they're driving away . . . and Woody Harrelson adjusts the rear-view mirror. And the eyes in the mirror were Ted Bundy's, not (Harrelson's) . . . I've seen those eyes so many times."

Rule said most films misrepresent serial killers and the people who track them, because most of the characters passed off as serial killers don't fit the real-life qualifications. According to Nault, these psychopaths all share a certain list of traits, including a lack of motive and a tendency to work alone.

That means NBC's "Profiler" is committing numerous blunders. Most of its so-called serial killers have a motive behind the madness. And the main villain, Jack Of All Trades, has taken on Traci Lords as an intern in murder. Highly unlikely.

In fact, "profiling," in which experts gather what little clues they have to paste together a profile of a killer, is a myth. "Any good cop is a profiler," said Jack Olsen, author of "The Charmer," an examination of the Eastside Killer. "Every single detective who examines the clues is a profiler. It doesn't do a cop any good to know that the killer is between 20 and 25 and that he didn't get along with his mommy. That stuff doesn't help."

These inaccuracies rarely matter to the audience, because most people are just looking for a freaky good time. And who better to give it to them than a murderous madman on the movie screen?

"Hannibal Lector doesn't exist," Olsen said. "He was described as a psychopath, but he wasn't. He was a lunatic. . . . But it's fun, isn't it? Fun to sit there and watch Hannibal Lector in his funny little mask, talking to the little FBI lady."

As long as the good doctor doesn't move in next door.

Copyright 1999 The Seattle Times Company