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Culture & society

A conversation in regards to the artists exploration of serial killer: In the style of the opening to a thriller

Written by Andrew Power

INT. Chevrolet – Night (Driving)

Two teenagers are driving down a dark desolate country lane. A strong rain pours down onto the cars windshield as the radio flickers on and off.

Newsreader:

“Officials are saying to be calm and stay in doors…

(The radio crackles and changes station to a song)

Over the moor, take me to the moor

Dig a shallow grave

And I’ll lay me down”

The teenagers start converting.

Teen 1:

Did you know this song is about the Moors Murders? What a strange thing to write a song about.

Teen 2:

I wonder why people write about serial killers anyway.

Teen 1:

I remember reading an interesting article about that the other day.

The car starts to make a weird noise and the teenager pulls into a lay-by on the side of the road.

Teen 1:

I think the car may have overheated, i’ll get out and check it when the rain calms down.

The modern mass social appeal towards binge watching true crime documentary series and fictionalised accounts of serial killers, mass murders and a range of various inconceivable criminal activities has become a pop cultural phenomenon deriving from a consistent output by a range of streaming services, wide accessibility to word of mouth marketing on prosumer social platforms and a general curiosity of the unbelievable reality of a pre-global extensively connected and surveillanced society. Each series presents itself in a synonymously similar format, showcasing these “based on truth” stories as if they were designed by the same board of Netflix producers. The creation of low budget, long form series containing easily accessible information has become viral marketing, offering exclusive content in exchange for paid subscription of a video streaming platform built upon maximum user viewing time. Interestingly this docu-drama foundation these companies have built themselves upon appears to have disregarded an artistic or even moral value.However, an aspect of humanity’s obsession with true crime – specifically the sociology of serial killers – often unquestioned is the artists fixation of mass murderers and why these narratives are produced as a form of auteur texts and not financial endeavours.

Due to the rarity that is serial killer activity, less than 1% of all murders in the US are committed by one, society appears to have an affixation with the idea of a human committing a series of murders as what Harold Schester describes as ‘a kind of cultural hysteria.’ This cultural hysteria has transitioned into different mediums of texts, including music, literature and film. This interest is both fuelled and derived from a cyclical cycle created by these unimaginative docudramas, as well as the mainstream appearance of the serial killer narrative in many forms of popular culture. It’s fascinating that the song ‘Psycho Killer’ remains one of the most notable singles from the vast library of the band Talking Heads, the song delves into the perception of the titular character upon a funky new wave baseline and guitar track. Although on a much simpler level, ‘Psycho Killer’ explores the psyche of the uncanny that supposedly as dominant in the brains of our fellow human. This aspect of the line between man and monster becomes an archetypal aspect focused on by many artists delving into the narrative of the serial killer, with films like ‘Psycho’ (1960, Hitchcock) and ‘Peeping Tom’ (1960, Powell) becoming some of the first well executed texts to view the killer as a functioning member of society – although this narrative has been extensively explored since the beginning of written narrative in literature such as, ‘Dracula’ (Stoker, 1897) and ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (Stevenson, 1886). An interesting text which embodies this style is the 2003 biopic ‘Monster’(Jenkins) detailing the story of Aileen Wuornos, a lower class sex worker who killed six men across Florida in the late eighties. Patty Jenkins appears to explore the killers psyche within the film, similar to many filmmakers who attempt to display the human condition on celluloid, however, the feminine perspective of the films direction and narrative develops further than the standard biopic of a white male killer. Instead, ‘Monster’ appears to sympathise with the struggles of working class women – in particular sex workers, reinforced by the depiction of a horrific victimised sexual assault against the titular character within the films first act. Due to the atypical character study, the film inadvertently becomes an analysis of the role of women in contemporary society. Expressing this narrative through the form of a serial killer biopic adds transgression to the context of the film and creates an interest in the cultural hysteria ingrained into society. However. Jenkins use of non diegetic music in the final scene, overshadowing Aileens last words, “thank you judge, may you rot in hell sending a raped woman to death” appears to neglect the emphasis bestowed towards the female voice across the text, although this directorial choice may reinforce the lack of power behind Aileen’s perspective. ‘Monster’ becoming an integrally and interesting use of a serial killer narrative in recent modern cinema.

“Due to the rarity that is serial killer activity, less than 1% of all murders in the US are committed by one, society appears to have an affixation with the idea of a human committing a series of murders as what Harold Schester describes as ‘a kind of cultural hysteria.”

Int- Chevrolet (Night)

Headlights pierce through the back window of the teenagers car, slowing down as the source of these lights, a large brown van, pass by. The van continues to drive down the lane making a turn at the bottom and pulling up hundred yards ahead, facing the teenagers car.

Teen 2:

Hey, there’s a weird van over there

Teen 1:

Oh it may be the breakdown company I called, if not I’m sure they can help start the engine’

Teen 2:

Hmm, okay but please be careful

“Other than the biopic, horror appears to be the most prevalent film genre to focus upon the idea of the serial killer, a perfect background to feature mass murders who strike a self inflicted fear upon the viewer”

Other than the biopic, horror appears to be the most prevalent film genre to focus upon the idea of the serial killer, a perfect background to feature mass murders who strike a self inflicted fear upon the viewer. However, many of these films function as transgressive and edgy texts, appealing to a specific demographic which disregards any moral or ethical approach to the subject. Similar functionality can be attributed to a majority of music which approaches the subject, mainly featured in the genre of metal with its loud, brash and satanic aesthetic, paralleling the visuals of horror. Nevertheless, when other genres of music approach this topic, the texts often appear to use the serial killer narrative as an extension of a thematic ideals over transgression, reinforcing Jonathan McAloon statement, ‘At times, musicians have written about crime to shock. Equally, they’re trying to make sense of the human condition, to memorialise the dead, or to protest what they perceive as miscarriages of justice.’ Often the reference to true crime in an alternative genre of music enlightens a deeper reflectiveness of the song, creating an initial shock and eventual sorrow to similar content often disregarded or perceived as perverted in metal music.  For example, the track ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr’ by indie folk artist Sufjan Stevens, recounts a detailed account of the horrific life of eponymous serial killer and part time clown. The track features an isolated acoustic guitar melody paired only with Sufjan’s incredibly melancholic vocals, creating a totally disturbing yet deeply emotive song. However, the interest of the song belongs in its last lines,

“And in my best behavior

I am really just like him

Look beneath the floorboards

For the secrets I have hid”

“At times, musicians have written about crime to shock. Equally, they're trying to make sense of the human condition, to memorialise the dead, or to protest what they perceive as miscarriages of justice.”

Jonathan McAloon

Sufjan’s approach to displaying the crimes of the Illinois based killer becomes a metaphor for his own agenda. The secrets Sufjan mentions may regard to his own hidden sexuality, scattered across his body of work, this time encapsulated within the vessel of a serial killer synonymous with crimes derivative of homosexuality. Similar themes can be heard within The Smiths depiction of the infamous Moors Murders in the track ‘Suffer Little Children’. The initial guitar melody and soft drumming present the typical indie tone of The Smiths, however, the haunting vocals accounting the heinous crimes function as a regional memorial of Manchester’s history, an outcry towards the problems of the contemporary city, as well as acting as the final statement of the hometown band, ending their debut album with Morrissey singing, “Oh Manchester so much to an answer for”. The unconventional serial killer narrative in music is often paired as a familiarity  for the artist and listener to explore a series of alternative themes and zeitgeist. Music, unlike popular cultural cinema, often contain an idiosyncratic narrative with certain lyrics, embodying a liberty in which musicians can explore accounts and references to serial killer narratives, themes of death and the human condition in their songwrit….

*Knock Knock Knock*

A bright light shines through the car window held by a middle aged man with dark hair. His smile devilishly grins at the teen.

Man:

Hey kid, your friend is waiting upfront in my truck.  I’m gonna give you a lift back into town.

The teen looks in front at the truck with its lights beaming into his face, blinding any sign of his friend. He turns back to the man.

Man:

You coming?

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