Serial Killer Fiction and Why We Watch It

            For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching crime shows—Law & Order with its spin-offs, CSI, Castle, Bones, NCIS, Criminal Minds, and all the rest. My dad studied criminal justice in college, which probably had something to do with the frequency with which these shorts of shows were playing in the background of my early life. On top of these, we watched a lot of true crime as well. Through it all, one type of criminal has always held my attention, inspiring a fascination that I find half as disturbing as the crimes themselves—serial killers.

            Serial killers are horrific. They are defined by the pleasure they take in the fear, pain, humiliation, and ultimately death of others. A person with that sort of psychology not only kills, but often kills in a way that is truly sick, truly cruel, truly awful to consider. However much the drama of television and restraints of polite society might tone down the evil to a level viewers can handle, it does not erase the terrible nature of what these people do.

            Over the years, I periodically come back to TV shows and movies centered around serial killers. Most recently, I found myself caught up in the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, which is still quite an active case with online amateurs, even if it has stagnated with the actual police.

            Every time I return to something like this, I ask myself why I find it so fascinating. Some critics write as if people find pleasure in the gore, the violence, the sheer disturbing nature of what is done. I can grasp on an intellectual level that this might be the case, but I don’t understand it on a gut level. I have never been able to derive pleasure from negative emotions or situations—I don’t even understand the thrill of a rollercoaster, much less how something that horrific could be pleasing to someone in their right mind.

            For years I thought maybe it was the desire to understand evil. I don’t believe in the naïve vision of the world that says people are basically good and want to do the right thing. A lot of people don’t. Rather than shield our eyes to this reality, it would be better for us to understand evil, so that we know how to stop it, to restrain it, even to prevent it—to whatever degree that’s possible.

            So I told myself that’s probably what it was. I was interested in how their minds worked, what drove them to become so disturbed, and to commit such depraved acts. More than that, what let them do it with so little apparent guilt, with so much composure afterwards? The cold-bloodedness with which some of these guys discuss their crimes in prison interviews is chilling.

            But you can only watch so many of these movies and TV shows, only imbibe so many true crime documentaries, only read so much on the internet before you begin to get a sense of what’s going on. It’s not terribly complex, once you figure it out. There’s a bitterness, a feeling of humiliation rooted in some childhood trauma. There’s an alienation from the world, a lack of empathy. They strike out to feel powerful, to feel in control, to feel like other people don’t matter. That, at any rate, is the basic story with most of them.

            Another explanation I’ve considered is that I like to see justice done. Human beings have a basic sense of right and wrong. Even the serial killers often know quite well that what they are doing is wrong. In part, that’s where the thrill comes from. At any rate, when we see injustice, when we see the world go off-kilter, we like to see it made right. We like to see the culprit caught and punished.

            I like this explanation. Seeing them be captured is what most movies with serial killers are about, more or less. But it also explains my response and the response of others to seeing a killer get away with it—solve the puzzle. There are people dedicated to figuring out who the Zodiac is because the Zodiac can’t be allowed to do what he does and get away with it. We need to prove that there is justice in the world by making it happen. That, and solving puzzles is fun. Which could be an explanation in itself.

            But that’s something you can get from any cop show, with any kind of crime. Why serial killers? Why people that hunt people? There are plenty of terrible crimes out there that take as many lives, that are just as calloused, that are just much of a menace to society. Really, things like organized crime are much worse in terms of the damage they do. An insightful point was made in the Zodiac movie that more people die every year driving in LA than the Zodiac killed across his entire known career. Serial killers are scarier than other things, and devastating to individuals and families, but they are still pretty small scale compared to other injustices in the world.

            And perhaps that’s the answer. Maybe serial killers are fascinating because they are so much more terrifying. For so long I bought the “I want to understand their minds” explanation that it never occurred to me that I might view them exactly as what they are often called—monsters. I wouldn’t use that language. To call them that would be to dehumanize them, to create distance, and so to erase the terrifying insight that people can be truly evil. It would be to hand-wave away the fact that injustice often comes from us, not from distant, abstract institutions or the nature of the universe, but from our own choices.

            But I think that’s a mistake, too. The serial killer movies often do dehumanize them, however interested in getting you inside their minds they pretend to be. They are not interested in letting you understand how they justify themselves, just in showing you how sick they really are.

            And really, the nature of these serial killers is that they are people who have dehumanized themselves. What that kind of pathology means is that you no longer feel what healthy people feel, and no longer act how healthy people act. The people around you are no longer human beings, but objects to be used and manipulated, and ultimately discarded. You have separated yourself from the human race.

            So a serial killer movie is, in a very real sense, a monster movie. A threat comes from outside, one that is entirely negative and more deadly than anything we face in daily life. The hero tracks it down and puts a stop to it, rescuing someone—perhaps a damsel in distress, or perhaps a city or a nation gripped by terror. It’s classic. Beowulf, St. George, Dracula, James Bond—it’s one of Christopher Booker’s “Seven Basic Plots.” Jordan Peterson could explain it easily—chaos invades the hero’s world, and he has to rise up and defeat it.

            In other contexts, I certainly enjoy these kinds of movies. I think they have a very basic, very broad appeal across time and across large sections of humanity. It even fits in a specific variation on that theme, one very popular in our culture—the sharp-minded detective who defeats the criminal by discovering a clue in his one mistake. Serial killer stories are Sherlock Holmes with a darker, grislier antagonist.

            Of course, there is another explanation, one final possibility among all the other attempts to explain an obsession. What a serial killer does is kill. These are stories filled with death, with lives cut short. In our plush and comfortable lives in modern America, it can be easy to ignore our limited time on this earth. It can be easy to think we have everything and always will, or at least enough that our biggest worry is that we want more, not that we will starve.

            In that world, a serial killer story is a memento mori. The killer is death, stalking us. We are reminded that everything passes, that everything dies, that everything fades from memory. It is inevitable. There’s a way of dwelling on this that’s morbid, but it’s also something that can focus your priorities, that can remind you to live in the moment in the best way possible. And it can drive you to look beyond death, to look beyond the veil of this world and ask what deeper reality lies behind it. A story like that can shake us out of our petty discontent and drive us to pursue what is good while we still have time.

            Each of these explanations is good in its own way. They all capture a facet of what might be attractive, what might be fascinating in such a gruesome sort of tale. But none of them quite explains everything. And that, I think, is significant.

            Sometimes people have a tendency to seek a single, simple explanation for things. We are trained to think logically, or at least to aspire to think logically. We want to see a chain of reasoning that is sound. But if the logic works, that implies an inevitability to the course of events. But perhaps the fact that we got here is not inevitable.

            I don’t want to dive into the deeper mysteries of predestination. I am speaking here purely from a human level, from a perspective trapped inside of time, inside of cause and effect. Perhaps sometimes we love a certain kind of story not for any particular reason, but simply because we do. Perhaps we love it because we were exposed to it, we spent time with it, and we learned to find that things in it that made spending that time worthwhile.

            Perhaps the activity came first, the habit of watching, then came the fascination, and something like a justification for it only came later.

            Stories are not something that exist suspended in thin air. We pick them up from being around people. We are told them, or we are shown them. Perhaps I am fascinated by these stories, and return to them again and again, for the simple reason that I was raised with them. That explanation can sound so shallow and simple, but perhaps it’s more insightful about the way people actually work than all the other explanations I can offer. Habit shapes heart, practice shapes theory, action shapes reason.

            And community introduces us to habits.

            A few months ago, my parents dug out a box of my grandmother’s old books. They were mostly Stephen King, including first editions of some of the novels that made him famous. As I began to read them, I felt an instant connection with the world he painted, despite never having set foot in them. The darkness was familiar, the kind of evil, and the way people responded. It was haunting.

            This was the woman that raised my father, and he became fascinated by a certain sort of confrontation between good and evil. Caught up in that, he watched a certain sort of show, one that my mother learned to enjoy as well. Raised in that home, I too became caught up in that drama.

            There are all sorts of good reasons to watch this kind of show, but the real reason may simply be that, for those of us who do, these stories are in our blood.

Advertisements

Responsibility and Gun Rights

I have quite a lot to say on the topic of gun rights, because there is quite a lot to be said. I may end up saying a great deal about it on here over the next little bit. But for now, I have one point to drill home.

When people talk about rights, it is often in the form of “I get to do this” or “You can’t make me do that.” That is not a bad way to talk about it, necessarily, but there is, perhaps a better way. The way I view it, men have rights because they have responsibilities. We are called to do certain things, and because we have those duties we are given the authority over things pertaining to those duties.

This is not a hard concept to grasp when it comes to government. Our governors are meant to punish the wicked with the power of the sword and to reward the righteous with praise. As a result, they are given the right to determine the finer points of what constitutes wickedness in the society they govern, and how the wicked are to be punished. The “necessary and proper” clause exists because we know the government must have certain powers in order to perform its functions.

But governors (federal, state, or local) are not the only people with duties to perform. The church government has duties, schools have duties, businesses have duties. As a result, elders have a certain amount of authority, as do teachers, principles, employers, and managers. Again, I think we all understand this.

But before all that, God made a man and a woman, and he bid them be fruitful and multiply. The family unit is natural to man, perhaps more natural than any other social unit. And (questions of gender roles aside) the head of a family has some very basic duties–to provide for and protect his family. If he must provide for his family, we must concede that he has the authority, and therefore the right, to do so. Furthermore, if he must protect his family, he has the right to do so.

The next step is not exactly a leap of logic, though I perhaps take it farther than some are willing to. A man must protect his family, including from other men. In defense of his family, a man must sometimes use lethal force. From the beginning, this has been true. If you read the Bible, and don’t skim, it’s obvious that God is far less squeamish about people using lethal force than we are.

So far, many conservatives are willing to go. Sure, they say, let’s allow men to have shotguns or rifles or pistols for home defense. If someone breaks into your home, you need to defend your family. That’s your duty, regardless of how you feel about it. And amen. But that’s not where it stops.

Not every enemy is just a burglar. Sometimes the enemy is as well-armed as you are, and better. Sometimes he has professional thugs and the power to attack you in broad daylight. Understand that America is pretty special, that we live in a land of peace in a time of peace, and that is unusual. Governments, local, national, and imperial, go bad. And your duty to protect your family does not stop because the threat is bigger. Neglecting your duty when the going gets tough is not reasonable, it’s cowardice. And mincing words about it is further cowardice.

I understand that saying this will earn me the “nutter” badge. Do I really think one lone guy can oppose a vast corrupt government? Maybe not, but I’m not talking about some lone guy gunning down corrupt officials. This isn’t Shooter, and it’s not the wild west. But I am talking about citizens resisting their government. That can work, that has worked. Even an army like America’s, the best funded in the world, can be resisted. You don’t think so? Look at what Afghans are doing with ancient weapons and no real artillery. Nobody is invincible.

It’s funny that we tell each other all these stories about the War for Independence and how brave those men were, but when it comes down to it, we freely call what they did “stupid.” If you really think a bunch of backwoodsmen opposing the greatest military of the day is ridiculous, either stop calling what your ancestors did honorable, or else admit that sometimes our duty is to do the improbable.

So do I think we have a right to own assault weapons? Yes. I believe we have the right to own them, because I believe we have the duty to own them. Not because the government is out to get us (it’s not) or because we’re under threat of invasion (we’re not). I believe we have that duty because those things are real possibilities, possibilities which prudence and responsibility dictate we be prepared for. We ought to be as well armed as is necessary to confront the greatest potential threat to our families and our neighbors. We are men with responsibilities, and we ought to fulfill them. Even if the government does not like it.

Homecoming

A place is more than a dot on a map. Any writer worth his salt, and some worth considerably less, can tell you that. A place is a setting, it can act like a character, and it shapes the story around itself. A place has a soul.

I hit the ground on Saturday night, and knew I was halfway there. Houston is not exactly East Texas, just the messy front lawn that leads up to it. It’s filled with people from a hundred backgrounds, doing a hundred things, packed into a hundred locations that sprawl out in a tangled web of concrete and asphalt. All the cars are big, and in the pick-up line at the airport, the drivers were all a bit jovial, with a comic edge. The workers directing traffic were laughing and calling across the lanes, smiling as they shouted at drivers and blew sharp whistle blasts. Up the sidewalk from me a couple of little girls ran squealing towards their pawpaw, and down from me a couple of fashionably dressed young women were doing the “hey girlfriend!” routine.

The road north of Houston stretches on for quite a ways. I spent those long miles and winding hours making conversation, slipping quickly and easily back into Henry family life. There’s lots of joking there, lots of poking fun, a little intellectual conversation, lots of eating, bluntness, laughing, and when we stop for dinner, distraction by means of football. By the time the night had faded and we entered the old Nacogdoches city limits, I already felt at home.

After three days without a full night’s sleep, exhaustion fell on me like a heavy blanket, and kept me down. The morning came quicker than I would have liked, but there was family there, an excited dog with self-esteem issues, and a whole green wooded hill that hadn’t gotten the memo about Fall. We hopped in the truck, which was parked by our own private jungle complete with vines and monkey grass and a creek, all beneath a canopy of Southern pine. Up we sped through nicer neighborhoods, onto the loop with the trees right up by the shoulder, over the creek and around town past gas stations and watermelon stands and well-kept businesses. Ahead rose a newly built wooden white church, the chapel my people have come to call home. The post-construction ground around it is still dusty and muddy, not yet covered in a carpet of green, but the building itself and its immediate surroundings are beautiful.

How do you capture holiness? Is it a well-told Sunday school lesson by a humble man with a thick accent? Is it the people that greet you with warm smiles and ask about your life whether you’ve been gone three weeks or six months? Maybe it’s a worship service with people who visit from sister churches just for fun. Maybe it’s Scripture spoken on all sides, or God’s sovereignty and mercy towards sinners poured out with eloquence. It could be a fellowship meal where families sit mixed together, blended into one household beneath the Messiah’s roof. Then again, it could be the kids that help clean up, unbidden. Whatever it is, you can find it in my church.

The sun-drenched skies of East Texas are beautiful, and ever acre of earth below is filled with activity. We visited a friend’s property in a nice subdivision. Here, as at the church, the ground around the slowly forming edifice was torn up and devoid of grass. But the house rising above the red dirt and white sand was worth it. The living room is brilliant, high-roofed and with an open kitchen separated only by a bar. Beyond a broad doorway there is a high-roofed porch bigger than some houses, looking down a hill into trees and another house. The homes of East Texas are all like this, sprawling things made at least partly of brick, always ranch style with some personal twist. And always with big trees and gardens so fruitful they require constant taming.

Later, when we managed to pull my brother away from the Cowboy’s game, we took Dad’s truck down to the theater. As we made it out of the neighborhood and a down a hill covered in old pasture land, Queen rocked on the radio. The song ended quickly, and by the time we turned onto University Drive, Stevie Ray Vaughan was cranking out “Pride and Joy.” Texas Blues right there, a soul in music.

It’s hard to capture the soul of a place. It’s got so many facets, so much shifting ground. To me, East Texas just seems alive. There are colleges, big and small. Restaurants spring up, get popular, and become chains. Neighborhoods are crowded with newcomers, and factories, small farms, and small businesses are always hiring. On every corner there’s a church, and though every one is different, despite the rough patches, we all get along surprisingly well. From the woods to the gardens, from the to kids to the towns, everything is growing. It’s a place of life, a place I’m proud to call home.

It’s good to be back.

The Grey

To begin with, don’t let your children near this movie. It’s got heavy swearing, talk about sex, Neeson-grade violence, a good deal of scary tension, and some seriously dark subject matter. That said, it was an interesting watch.

The Grey stars Liam Neeson as a man sent to the frontier of Alaska to kill wolves who threaten oilfield workers. He camps out in the snow and snipes them as they charge out from the brush. Sounds unlikely, but what do I know? At any rate, we find out early that he has some serious issues with depression, and has flashbacks to lying in bed with some woman, presumably his wife. He writes a letter to her, and keeps it with him. From here on out, be forewarned, there are spoilers.

Neeson and the workers board a plane heading to some place less insanely cold. While he rereads the letter, a very annoying individual interrupts him in a manner that makes you think he will be important. He will not. Almost immediately the plane crashes and we are confronted with an unbelievable amount of carnage. Neeson, being Neeson, gets up, stays calm, and saves as many as he can, which ends up being about a half dozen. One man in particular is dying, and our hero comforts him by telling him just to give in, to imagine some loved one is coming to take him away, and to let death slide over him. We are told it is warm, but something in Neeson’s face makes this look like a lie.

I won’t bother introducing you to any of the supporting characters. They are interesting, and contribute to the story and its themes in various ways, but you can get the point quite well without them.

Soon enough Liam Neeson and his band of misfits discover that they are being stalked by wolves. At first Neeson says they might be passing through. When the pack returns, he says they are probably in the wolves’ territory and should try to get out. The wolves get aggressive, people die, and the survivors make a run over the ice and snow towards a distant tree line. Before they do, our hero collects all the wallets of the crash victims to be returned to their families.

The rest of the movie involves a back and forth as the pack picks off the people, and the people hack away at the pack. It is slow going, difficult, and they are vastly outnumbered, outclassed, and outsmarted in the harsh environment. Whether from the weather, the wolves, or despair, everyone dies during the chase, until only Neeson is left. Anguished, he cries out to God, demanding a sign, demanding deliverance. God is silent, so Neeson says he will do it himself. He keeps going until he ends up in a clearing scattered with bones and ringed with wolves. Throughout the entire movie, they had been moving towards the den.

But Neeson, unlike most of the others, does not panic. Unlike some, he does not simply give in. He piles all the wallets and the letter (to his wife, who we now know was dying in those flashback scenes) into a little shrine, and prepares to fight. He duck tapes a knife to one hand and broken bottles from a minibar to the other fist. The alpha wolf comes towards him, growling, and Neeson meets him. Here, the movie ends.

Basically, the whole movie can be summed up as “Life sucks and everyone will died horribly, but why not take a few with you while you go?” The movie starts with our hunter nearly committing suicide, but staying alive when he hears the cry of the wolf. The movie ends with a suicidal battle against a wolf. In between, everyone who fights the wolves is proven too scared or too stupid or too weak to prevail. But they keep going.

During this time, Neeson leads the dwindling group of survivors, constantly telling them what they must do to keep themselves alive. But he offers them no real hope. Everything he tells them to do is a slim-chance, last-ditch effort to escape the wolves a little bit longer, which really doesn’t matter since no one is looking for them and the elements will kill them anyways. He is just comforting them, offering delusions so they don’t have to give up. And in the end, when they have all died, he discovers he has been leading them into the very heart of the territory they were trying to escape.

The world of The Grey is dark, bloody, and unforgiving. There is no hope, and very little reason to live. I say “very little,” because there is one scene where each of the men recounts stories of their families and loved ones. And, Neeson repeatedly tells us that we are to imagine that it is they who lead us away at death. Of course, the one time we see such a phantom do this, the illusion is shattered by the brutish reality of ripping, tearing wolf jaws. Even this bit of happiness is an ephemeral lie.

After the credits, for a brief moment, we see Neeson resting his head on the wolf, which is presumably breathing its last. Other internet denizens say they saw Neeson twitch. I’m not sure I did. But even such a “resurrection” is no Gospel theme. In this movie, the world is godless, and it hates us.

Graves

I’ve lived my life among the graves.

My first graves belonged to pets. Most of them I did not dig. The cats were all buried by my Dad, but I knew where they were. Then our Rottweiler, Bud, died. He was a big, gentle puppy, and though I didn’t cry, I was sad to see him go. He died in a pit he had dug himself, and Dad buried him there. A few years later, our wolfdog, Kuma, died. We watched him coughing and panting for breath. This time, when we buried him, I helped. I raised a cinderblock as his gravestone. The house passed to another family, and now even that is gone.

Later, family died. Grandparents, great grandparents. Human beings I knew and loved. And when the funerals came, there were other headstones around them. Headstones with our name. Generations were buried there, in red clay or black soil, with thick, clingy grass growing over their graves. All that was left was grey stone and words that faded with time.

What is death?

I’ve been in most caves between Nacogdoches and Carlsbad. They’re all dark, cool, and wet. It’s like walking down the throat of a monster, a monster that breathes and moans. Sometimes the tour guides would turn off the lights, and we would sit there in absolute blackness. And in that blackness, we were silent.

But there is another kind of grave.

I’ve been to a war memorial. The soldier’s statue stood tall, armed as he was in life, eternally facing the enemy. Written in the sandstone is the story of that unit, how they stood in the gap as the rest retreated. They fought, many died, but they were victorious. Those men died protecting their homeland from invaders. It was a death they chose for themselves. A death with a purpose.

Today is Good Friday.

The Saxons liked to speak of Christ as a bold warrior, marching towards Golgotha, mounting the cross, staring death in the eyes. There is a sense in which that is true, and today’s Church would do good to remember that. But in a very real sense, that is not what happened all those centuries ago. No, he struggled and wept and sweated blood in Gethsemane. Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani. He cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He was willing. He prayed in the garden knowing full well he would leave in enemy hands. He came to Jerusalem, knowing the Sanhedrin would see him die. He was born on this earth having ordained the rise of the Romans, having chosen the way in which they would crucify him. He was afraid, but he loved us more.

They beat him. They whipped him. The spit on him. They crowned him with thorns and robed him for a moment as they mocked him. Then they nailed him to rough wooden planks and hung him up, naked, for all to see. Finally, when he had died, they stabbed him in the side with a spear. Then, those who knew him removed him from the cross, wrapped him up in burial clothes, and placed him alone in a cave to rot.

I remember another death.

At Grace Bible Church, there was a playground covered in mulch, with rich soil beneath that. The trees there were oaks. Every now and then, acorns would fall everywhere. For a while we trampled on them, broke them open to see their innards, or threw them at each other. But every year there would come a time when the whole yard would sprout with little trees, barely as big as our child-sized hands. Teachers told us to pluck them up, but they had strong roots. Until my dying day, I will never forget all those acorns and how they sprouted into something so strong.

At the moment of Christ’s death, all turned dark, and the foundations of the earth shook. But something else happened. The curtain in the temple, a four-inch thick weight of deep, dark cloth, ripped in two. The way to the Holy of Holies, the throne room of God, was opened. Saints, they say, emerged from their graves. Acorns have a way of sprouting.