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Serial Killers and the Ethics of Representation

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Transgressive Imaginations

Part of the book series: Critical Criminological Perspectives ((CCRP))

Abstract

In the late twentieth century, the figure of the serial killer became culturally ubiquitous and ‘a flashpoint in contemporary society’ (Seltzer, 1998, p. 2). He (serial killers are usually male) was depicted across a profusion of films, television programmes and novels (Jarvis, 2007) and narratives based on serial killing developed into a genre of their own (Simpson, 2000). The news media enthusiastically seized on such cases, through which they articulated stories of good battling evil and cautionary tales about the nature of modern society (Fleming, 2007). Serial killers became celebrities at the centre of an industry, exemplified by the market for ‘murderabilia’ — artefacts that belonged to famous serial killers, such as bricks from Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment and locks of Charles Manson’s hair (Schmid, 2005; Haggerty, 2009). According to Seltzer (1998), this fascination is indicative of changing relations between self and society in the mid to late twentieth century. He argues ‘[t]he spectacular public representation of violated bodies, across a burgeoning range of official, academic, and media accounts, in fiction and in film, has come to function as a way of imagining the relations of private bodies and private persons to public spaces’ (Seltzer, 1998, p. 21). This chapter examines the development of the serial killer as a ‘cultural flashpoint’ and the blurring of fact and fiction that this has entailed. It identifies four main interpretations of the serial killer’s cultural importance and then analyses three recent portrayals in film and television that attempt to subvert dominant representations. Finally, the chapter assesses how far these recent portrayals offer new ways of representing serial killing.

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© 2012 Maggie O’Neill and Lizzie Seal

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O’Neill, M., Seal, L. (2012). Serial Killers and the Ethics of Representation. In: Transgressive Imaginations. Critical Criminological Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230369061_6

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