Deglamourising the serial killer – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’s guilty audience
From the gothic myths of vampires and werewolves to the legend of H. H. Holmes – a handsome doctor who lived in his ‘Murder Castle’ in the late 1800s (Spikol 2003) – stories and representations of serial murder have fascinated audiences for centuries. However, it is only recently that
the phenomenon of serial killing, which involves a number of seemingly unmotivated murders committed by one or more individuals over an extended period of time, has received an increasing amount of attention over the past three decades in the United States (Simpson 2000: 1).
The first part of this paper will look at how this phenomenon made celebrities out of murderers and quickly found a place in Hollywood cinema. In the 1980s, a time when the slasher film dominated horror movies, a disturbing film called Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (Henry) (John McNaughton, USA 1986) subverted the whole idea of horror and serial killer representation, presenting them as humans rather than monsters. However, as we will see, after the numerous serial killer films of the 1990s, spectators became used to seeing serial killers as people: they were now smart and charming characters played by beautiful Hollywood celebrities. Yet, in 2000, Henry was re-released in an un-cut, deluxe DVD version, showing that the film can still get a response from audiences. A case study of Henry in the second part of this essay will explore how its disturbing effect has evolved, subverting serial killer films in a whole new way: after rejecting monstrous serial killers, it now acts to deglamourise them. To explore this hypothesis, textual analysis of the film will be combined with a focus group study to observe a modern audience’s response.
Section 1: From monstrous to glamorous serial killer
Long before the term ‘serial murder’ was coined in the late 1980s (Hunter 1996: 115) the infamous names of Jack the Ripper and H. H. Holmes were already part of popular culture. After Ed Gein in the 1950s, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and others were added to the list of famous serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s. Surprisingly, during this serial killer boom that swept the United States of America, the media gave them the attention usually reserved to film or rock stars, and hordes of ‘killer groupies’ (Fimrite et al 2005) did anything to meet or contact them. An aura of fascination surrounded these violent murderers who received hundreds of wedding proposals; had songs dedicated to them by radio DJs, and objects belonging to them sold at auction on the ‘murderabilia’ market. David Schmid describes the latter as ‘just a small part of the huge serial killer industry that has become a defining feature of American popular culture since the 1970s’ (2005: 1). This fascination of the general public for such violence has actually led to serial killers actively seeking this attention and fame as Schmid exemplifies:
Perhaps the most thought-provoking example of a serial killer’s awareness of and desire for fame came in the midst of a series of murders committed in and around Wichita, Kansas, in the mid-1970s, when the killer, who called himself the “BTK Strangler,” wrote to a local newspaper complaining about the lack of attention his exploits had received: “How many times do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national attention?” (2005: 17).
Extensive academic research has attempted to explain this fascination of the media for serial murder. Focusing on films and the novels from which they are often adapted, certain audience demands have been identified. For example, Philip L. Simpson describes the people’s need for a threatening ‘bogeyman’ (2000: 8): a reason for parents to remind their hippie daughters to be responsible. We will see that this has been extensively represented in the slasher genre in the 1970s and 1980s. He also describes the serial killers as appealing to the American audience because they represent unrestrained expressions of free will:
Contemporary serial killers in fiction resonate deeply with the American public because they so literally express what many people feel – an extreme frustration with not only the dehumanizing complexities of mass democracy but the representational ambiguities of the postmodern world (Simpson 2000: 17).
This phenomenon is central to the theme of American Psycho (Mary Harron, USA 2000), a film portraying Patrick Bateman, a yuppie having an identity crisis in 1980s America and finding salvation in serial killing. By repeatedly quoting famous serial killers, Bateman also represents the American who admires these people. This last point reflects David Schmid’s argument that:
The serial killer both outrages and thrills us by his seemingly ability to stand outside the law, to make his own law, in a gesture whose ambivalent destructiveness and creativity mirror our ambivalent response to the killer, composed of both fear and attraction. These are uncomfortable feelings to acknowledge, to be sure, but what could be more quintessentially American than a complex and ambivalent reaction to a violent crime? (2005: 24).
This ‘ambivalent’ fascination creates a dilemma for the entertainment industry. Indeed, there is a strong demand for serial killer representation but people do not want books or films to remind them that they too could be a target. A disavowal contract between screen and spectator (Aaron, 2007: 92) becomes necessary: the spectator needs a distance between the horror of the film and reality. An ‘Other’ (a monster or a recognisably insane person) can entertain their desire for horror while reminding them that they are safe. Therefore, as real serial killers tend to be disappointingly human and ordinary, authors and filmmakers need to alter reality. By digging in celebrity killers’ childhoods, ordinary or unfortunate events are turned into premonitions for monstrosity and thereby create a distance to reassure audiences. Patrice Fleck argues that these explanations
come at the expense of any social critique of crime on a larger scale. The staple representations of family dysfunction in a causal relationship to crime usually passes the buck to an easy “origin” or scapegoat (1997).
For example, Ted Bundy believing his mother was his sister, and Dahmer and Gacy’s repressed homosexuality served to distance the readers or viewers: if they had a “normal” childhood, they are unlikely to relate in any way to the serial killer. David Schmid adds that these assumptions also worked to reinforce an ideology of heteronormativity in the 1980s by associating violent behaviour with homosexuality (2005: 178).
Two major categories of movies rely on this celebrity culture. One is the slasher film, a genre that developed in the late 1970s and peaked in the 1980s – a time when the most popular serial killers were still active. Prime examples of the genre are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, USA 1974) and franchises like Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978) and Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, USA 1980). They portray an undeniably monstrous serial killer: disfigured or hidden behind a mask, they are incapable of expressing themselves and usually deviate from the heterosexual norm: Leatherface is asexual, Freddy Krueger is a paedophile and Buffalo Bill is transsexual. Serial murder is their sole purpose and the spectator has no means of identifying with them – although Carol Clover points out the occasional point-of-view shot of the killer as a means of identification; she adds that it can just as well be used as a means to ‘destabilize’ identification (1992: 45). Moreover, they are usually super-human: these monsters are almost impossible to kill and even if they die in the end, someone else may wear their mask in the sequel – making them virtually unstoppable. As mentioned previously, the slasher killer can be assimilated to the bogeyman of myths, punishing teenagers who do not behave. Indeed, their victims will always be rebellious, sexually promiscuous or drug using youngsters. These films can be interpreted as reflecting the hitchhiking hippies of the 1970s who would trustingly get into Ted Bundy’s car. However, by the 1990s, there was need for change in the horror genre:
By the end of the 1980s, these films had become so formulaic as to be of interest only to the youngest of audiences; older audiences could find little to identify with in the increasingly graphic and ridiculous plots of 1980s horror films (Phillips 2005: 147).
The second movie category was made popular in the 1990s by The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, USA 1991), a film that can be seen as a transition between the slasher and the serial killer film: Buffalo Bill being a typical slasher monster while Hannibal Lecter represents the killer as a terrifying yet charismatic individual who spectators can identify with and learn to admire. This reflects Ian Hunter’s observation that:
The focus has shifted away from faceless psychopaths and towards character studies of the serial killer himself. These filmsacknowledge the celebrity of the newly defined category of serial killers and incorporate dominant psychological explanations of their violence (1996: 117).
Serial killer films tend to feature detectives or the killers themselves as protagonists. The killers will be recognisably human and have specific motives and patterns for their murders. They can be portrayed as artists expressing their creativity and free will. They are often charismatic if not extremely handsome, and heterosexual. Examples of these films would be the likes of Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, USA 1994), Seven (David Fincher, USA 1995) or American Psycho. The identification with these killers is usually heightened by the casting of film stars. Indeed, the spectators already identify with the actors’ intertextual personas: they have grown to know them through their appearances in other films and in gossip magazines. The dangers of these identifications have been debated at length in relation, for example, to copycat crime. The killers portrayed in these films usually win: by getting away (Natural Born Killers, Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho) or completing their mission (Seven). These films are usually a greater critique of our society and our admiration for serial killers. As David Schmid points out:
Although they seem to acknowledge their, and their audience’s, implication in the popular culture that has made serial killers famous, these films never explore that implication to a degree that would make the audience feel uncomfortable. By either killing the serial murderer or suggesting that the true source of villainy lies elsewhere, these films let their audience off the hook, letting them enjoy the fame of serial killers within a moralistic framework that relieves them of pursuing the implications of that enjoyment (2005: 114).
An example of true villainy lying elsewhere would be the end of Natural Born Killers. The killers do not die, what is punished in the end is the evil that has created them: the media. In American Psycho, the spectator’s salvation is the uncertainty: one can identify with Patrick Bateman if all he has are murder fantasies. However, by letting their audiences ‘off the hook’, these serial killer films only participate in making serial killers more glamorous and lovable. They fail in making their audiences realise that serial killers should probably not be admired. A reason for this could be that mainstream films exist to please spectators. They are not produced as an assault on them. They want people to go home relaxed and entertained. Only a few films succeeded in making audiences really think about the horror they were encouraging. One of them is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Section 2: Deglamourising the serial killer
After four years of debate amongst censors, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was released in 1990. Although it did not portray much violence, it was considered deeply disturbing. In a time where popular horror films followed the precise slasher conventions, Henry followed an average man who happens to be a killer with no judgement. It portrayed no moral character that spectators could relate to. Describing his intentions in an interview on the DVD’s special features, John McNaughton said they went for the cinéma vérité style to give the film a strong sense of realism while depicting a very real type of monster:
[Hannibal Lecter] is a creature of fantasy, and when you walk out of that theatre you know that he’s not there waiting for you. When you walk out of the theatre having seen Henry, he may… he may indeed be lurking.
Here, the horror is not in the film, it follows people outside the cinema. Henry makes its spectators face the fact that the serial killers are not recognisable, often remain uncaptured and anyone can be a target. Henry – a shy, polite man who does not kill everyone he meets like a slasher monster – could be anyone. Every focus group participant (see Appendix 3) agreed that apart from the ageing special effects, the film was very realistic and made them reflect on their own safety:
It certainly made me more aware that this could happen to anyone. When they are driving to find someone to kill and we see the road for a very long time. Then they stop and wait for someone to come help them. Makes me want to never help anyone again (Participant 1).
The use of unknown actors only enhanced the fact that anyone could be a monster: “He looks like everyone else. He has no distinguishing facial features” (Participant 3). However, the film may not solely attempt to make the audience realise that serial killers are not monsters – which made the film quite disturbing in the early 1990. It could be advanced that its relevance to modern audiences – who are now used to seeing human serial killers in films – lies in Henry’s ability to make them feel guilty of their own lust for violence; of their need for serial killers to entertain them, and therefore of their own implication in serial killer celebrity. This is exemplified in the film’s portrayal of violence. Henry opens with what the director calls a ‘tableau’ sequence (DVD interview): a series of dead bodies that represent Henry’s oeuvre. He is an artist and shows creativity in his crimes. But an ambiguous response of the spectator is sought as the sounds of the murder cover the image. The spectator is denied the action – and therefore the context of the crimes – but has to face the result. This sequence is not unlike the long take after the gang rape scene of Man Bites Dog (André Bonzel, Rémi Belvaux, Benoît Poelvoorde, Belgium 1992) or Georgie’s murder scene in Funny Games (Michael Haneke, Germany 1997) which, as Catherine Wheatley writes, troubles the spectators’ ‘illusion of control’ and forces them:
to do that which they do when confronted with a painting in a museum or a gallery: they must scrutinise the image, deconstruct it, consider the margins of the frame, and ‘contemplate’ the structure of representational strategies that informed the creation of this image (Wheatley 2009: 93).
In Henry, the spectator is forced to dwell on the horror of each of those murders and listen to them with no hope of control over the fate of the victim. The next violent event of the film, offers the audience all the action they came for. They are also welcome to identify with Henry as he murders a rude and repulsive salesman like most action heroes would: the man deserved it and was punished for his actions. As focus group Participant 6 said when discussing the film’s violence: “I liked the fat man’s murder scene”. However, soon after this, the viewer has to face the gruesome murder of an innocent family while progressively finding out that they are watching it on Henry and his murdering partner Otis’ television. The killers find it pleasurable and entertaining. Does the viewer? Do most horror films not base their events on actual murders? Did he or she not go to the cinema to enjoy violent murders as entertainment? Here, by sharing a sofa with them, the audience is suddenly placed at the same level as the killers: by pursuing such entertainment, they are complicit in their crimes. Here, the focus group participants agreed that the scene was not enjoyable:
“The rape violence bothered me. Not the rest. The family murder scene was really disturbing” (Participant 1) … “Otis is happy choosing the highlights and re-watching them in slow motion” (Participant 6) … “By enjoying watching this, he turns it into something fun, but it should be awful” (Participant 2).
It came to counter the enjoyment they had felt during the “fat man’s murder scene”. Another scene that bothered the audience was the ending sequence: Becky’s murder. As Participant 6 put it:
There’s no motivation. Seems like an easy way out to shock people… Becky was the only person in the film who he had a real relationship with. I don’t see why he had to kill her.
This is another example of the ways Henry played with audience expectations: by the end of the film, Henry has saved Becky from her brother and they are running away together. The audience now sees Henry as the hero and identifies with him as he starts a loving relationship. This final frustrating event is necessary to remind the viewer that this man should not be identified with or admired in any way. Women should not want to marry serial killers because as charismatic as they may seem, they will never hesitate to murder the people they appear to care about. The whole film, with its grainy image, industrial soundtrack, slow pace and unlovable characters does all it can to make its spectator experience what Catherine Wheatley calls ‘unpleasure’ (2009: 85). It never aims to gratify, pay off or entertain its audience. The film’s lack of judgement while following Henry everywhere keeps the audience from disavowal: they are his accomplices throughout the film whether they want it or not. Therefore, the viewer can see firsthand that there is no glamour to murder: it is simple, repulsive, often motiveless, and should not provide any pleasure.
Interestingly, some people refused to come to the film screening and focus group, demonstrating that the film contains ‘thresholds’ that they feel the need to ‘self-censor’ (Annette Hill 1997: 51): Henry was a film they did not want to see. A man justified his absence as follows: “I’ll never be able to walk home at night if I see this. Can’t you screen another film instead?” This is a reminder that audiences expect films to be entertaining. As soon as the violence becomes too realistic, they know they will no longer find the film enjoyable. The reputation of this film precedes it: Henry makes people reflect too much on what they consider to be entertaining and reminds them of a phenomenon that is rare, but very real. Some people refuse to watch films that they believe will force them to confront unpleasurable feelings.
This focus group helped determine that while Henry has aged a little – mainly through its use of music and prosthetics – it still has an effect on modern audiences. Indeed, the disturbing mood of Henry lies not in its portrayal of graphic violence, but in its general austere atmosphere, use of unknown actors and manipulation of its audience position. Similarly to European films like Funny Games and Man Bites Dog, it provides a strong criticism of Hollywood’s glamorisation of violence and serial killers, reminding us that they are not to be admired: they are not anarchist heroes, rebellious artists or charismatic stars. Alternatively, they are not disfigured monsters. They are average people who have no sense of values, are incapable of empathy, and as Henry shows us by killing the woman he protected and probably loved, they can never be trusted.
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American Psycho (Mary Harron, USA 2000).
Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, USA 1980).
Funny Games (Michael Haneke, Germany 1997).
Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978).
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, USA 1986).
John McNaughton altered Scenes Discussion with Nigel Floyd (UK Fully Uncut Edition DVD).
Man Bites Dog (C’est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous) (André Bonzel, Rémi Belvaux, Benoît Poelvoorde, Belgium 1992).
Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, USA 1994).
Seven (David Fincher, USA 1995).
The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, USA 1991).
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, USA 1974).