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.

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Astrology, the Flu, and Free Will

One highly influential form of divination in the ancient world, which also had a major impact on the casting of spells and creation of charms, was astrology. The ancients, whether Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman, all paid close attention to the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. They regarded this seven “wandering stars” in particular as divine entities whose movements had a powerful effect on earthly creatures. To a very great extent, Medieval European Christians inherited this perspective.

To many people today, especially those who have had enough of nonsensical Facebook posts about zodiac signs and personality types, the idea that the planets can affect our lives seems ridiculous. As Bailey points out, however, it is actually quite intuitive:

“That astral bodies imparted energies that could influence terrestrial ones was hardly an outlandish idea—one had only to note how the moon influenced tides or more basically how the rising sun warmed the air to be convinced of this fact. That the planet Mars could impart martial energies or that the power of Venus somehow facilitated amorous attraction or sexual fertility was widely accepted in the Middle Ages, and much more serious intellectual effort was spent working out exactly how these various forces operated. Although learned astrologers sometimes made predictions about the future, they would hardly have considered themselves diviners or magicians. Rather, they would have presented themselves as wise men and philosophers exploring the forces of nature.”[1]

In addition to tidal forces and solar heat, I would also add that skeptics should ask a nurse about working during a full moon.

As Medievals tangled with the precise workings of the influence of the stars on earthly life, they were quick to note that this influence was not direct. Lewis in The Discarded Image has an excellent passage on this:

“In accordance with the principle of devolution or mediation the influences do not work upon us directly, but by first modifying the air. As Donne says in The Exstasie, ‘On man heaven’s influence works not so But first it imprints the air.’ A pestilence is caused originally by malefical conjunctions of planets, as when

Kinde herde tho Conscience and cam out of the planetes And sente forth his forayers, fevers and fluxes.

(Piers Plowman, C. XXIII, 80.)

But the bad influence operates by being literally ‘in the air.’ Hence when a medieval doctor could give no more particular cause for the patient’s condition he attributed it to ‘this influence which is at present in the air.’ If he were an Italian doctor he would doubtless say questa influenza. The profession has retained this useful word ever since.”[2]

That’s right. When you say you have the flu, you’re actually taking part in an old tradition of ascribing airborne maladies to the influence of the planets. You astrologer, you.

Objections

So how did we get here? Clearly the Church no longer regards astrology as kosher. How did this happen?

The answer is partly that the Church always had certain objections to astrology, or at least to the abuse of it. Lewis outlines three of these objection:

“(1) Against the lucrative, and politically undesirable, practice of astrologically grounded predictions.

(2) Against astrological determinism…

(3) Against practices that might seem to imply or encourage the worship of planets—they had, after all, been the hardiest of all the Pagan gods.”[3]

Of these three objections, it was the second that caused the most debate among Medieval philosophers and theologians. Lewis devotes more room to this problem than either of the others, and Bailey concurs in regarding it as a highly problematic issue:

“The difficulty lay in rescuing some acceptable systems of astrology from the condemnations of earlier authorities, and from the dilemma that the determinative power of astrological forces seemed to conflict with the important Christian notion of human free will.”[4]

Christianity presents a notion of human responsibility, and an emphasis on moral decision-making, that seems reliant on some notion of free will. After all, if King David was compelled to sin with Bathsheba due to the lascivious influences of Venus, how can he be held accountable for his actions? How can Abraham be praised for his faithfulness when it was merely the stars that decreed his actions?

Here Christian theology and Medieval science appeared to be in conflict, and it took centuries to work out something like an acceptable solution. Bailey points to Albertus Magnus (c.1200-1280) as the first to propose this solution, but it was his pupil, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who explained it as part of his masterful theological system which determined the course of the rest of Medieval European thought.[5] It is to Aquinas we will turn in the next section, exploring the Medieval solution to this conundrum.

Free Will and the Stars

In order to understand Aquinas’s explanation, we have to place ourselves in the Medieval mindset. To begin with, the distinction between material bodies and immaterial “intellectual substances” is important. In his Compendium of Theology¸ Aquinas begins his explanation of the influence with the stars by acknowledging the way higher bodies impact lower bodies:

“Among intellectual substances, therefore, some are divinely governed by others, that is, the lower by the higher. Similarly lower bodies are controlled, in God’s plan, by higher bodies. Hence every movement of lower bodies is caused by the movements of heavenly bodies. Lower bodies acquire forms and species from the influence thus exercised by heavenly bodies, just as the intelligible exemplars of things descend to lower spirits through higher spirits.”[6]

The way intelligible exemplars descend through spirits is not important. What is significant here is the simple acknowledgment that all material objects “lower down,” that is, towards the earth, are moved and shaped by heavenly bodies. The stars, being physical, effect physical things on earth. This might present a problem if one particular thing were not kept in mind:

“Furthermore, impressions left in lower bodies from the impact of heavenly bodies are natural. Therefore, if the operations of the intellect and will resulted from the impression made by heavenly bodies, they would proceed from natural instinct. And so man would not differ in his activity from other animals, which are moved to their actions by natural instinct. And thus free will and deliberation and choice and all perfections of this sort, which distinguish man from other animals, would perish.”[7]

So Aquinas succinctly states the problem: if the stars, through their actions on the physical things of the earth, also control our will and intellect, then we have no free will, no powers of deliberation, and are not to be distinguished from the animals. This is a high-stakes issue. All Biblical anthropology hangs on it.

Before we can take the next step with Aquinas, we have to step deeper into Medieval natural philosophy. Modern Christians tend to have a pretty simplistic explanation of what the soul is and what it does. Medievals had a more complex understanding. After acknowledging that man is a “rational animal,” that is, a living and moving being with the capacity to reason, C. S. Lewis goes on to explain the complexities of the human soul:

“Rational Soul, which gives man his peculiar position, is not the only kind of soul. There are also Sensitive Soul and Vegetable Soul. The powers of Vegetable Soul are nutrition, growth, and propagation. It alone is present in plants. Sensitive Soul, which we find in animals, has these powers but has sentience in addition. It thus includes and goes beyond Vegetable Soul, so that a beast can be said to have two levels of soul, Sensitive and Vegetable, or a double soul, or even—though misleadingly—two souls. Rational Soul similarly includes Vegetable and Sensitive, and adds reason.”[8]

All three kind or levels of soul are immaterial, but each Rational Soul in particular is directly created by an act of God, whereas as lower level souls possessed by animals and plants arise due to the inner workings of natural—though spiritual—forces.[9]

Just as our bodies have particular “faculties,” or abilities, such as a hand being capable of grasping or of punching or of lightly touching, so our souls have different faculties. Lewis goes on to describe two faculties of the rational soul in particular—intellect (intellectus) and reasoning (ratio):

“We are enjoying intellectus when we ‘just see’ a self-evident truth; we are exercising ratio when we proceed step by step to prove a truth which is not self-evident. A cognitive life in which all truth can simply be ‘seen’ would be the life of an intelligentia, an angel. A life of unmitigated ratio where nothing was simply ‘seen’ and all had to be proved, would presumably be impossible; for nothing can be proved if nothing is self-evident. Man’s mental life is spent in laboriously connecting those frequent, but momentary, flashes of intelligentia which constitute intellectus.”[10]

This means that man has both a faculty which completely overleaps sensory input (intellectus), and a faculty which joins these truths together and pushes them in new directions. Both these faculties belong to an immaterial part of man, one directly created by God, and not arising by natural processes. This allows Aquinas to resolve the problem of the effect heavenly bodies have on earthly ones:

“Nevertheless, since the will is not subject to the passions in such a way as necessarily to follow their enticement, but on the contrary has it in its power to repress passions by the judgment of reason, the human will is not subject to impressions emanating from heavenly bodies. It retains free judgment either to follow or to resist their attractions, as may seem to it expedient.”[11]

Thus, while man’s powers of growth, nutrition, and propagation may be effected by the heavenly bodies, or even his ability to sense the world around him, his will remains free. There is a rational core within man capable of resisting and even contradicting the influence of the heavenly bodies. Of course, not everyone has the strength of character to pull this off:

“Only the wise act thus; the masses follow the lead of bodily passions and urgings. For they are wanting in wisdom and virtue.”[12]

This has two important implications. First, astrology will still by and large be effective in predicting the general behavior of masses of humanity, even if it is not always accurate in predicting the actions of individual humans. Second, it is necessary to cultivate both wisdom and virtue to obtain true freedom from the forces of the world around you. Education, in the deeper sense of the term, is important.

The Legacy of the Solution

Aquinas, following in his teacher’s footsteps, provided a very sensible solution to the theological problem presented by the notion of astrological determinism. But while it may seem sensible, it was by no means universally accepted:

“Yet for various reasons this solution was not entirely successful. Doubts remained about the exact nature and extent of astral influence, and some authorities denied such influence altogether. The very skeptical theologian and natural philosopher Nicholas Oresme (ca. 1325-1382), for example, maintained that the astral bodies projected no forces toward the earth aside from light and heat.”[13]

In the centuries that followed, the discussion faded into obscurity. One the one hand, the issue of determinism was being fought over by Reformed theologians and Remonstrants who were much more concerned with salvation than the stars. On the other, the Copernican revolution so thoroughly altered our understanding of the structure of the solar system that the old explanations for the stars influenced the earth no longer applied. Both the theological and the scientific halves of the conundrum drifted apart into new contexts.

This calls into question just why we still object to astrology. It seems that the most obvious answer is simply that we believe it is unsupported by science. Modern natural philosophers have called the notion superstitious, and Christians have agreed with them, lumping the once respectable discipline in with tarot cards and palmistry. This objection, while perhaps more definitive, is far less interesting.

The beautiful thing about the theological conundrum that astrology presented was that it forced Christians to show how theology and science were related. For Medievals, these were not hugely divided disciplines which would never ordinarily interact. The world the Bible described and the world natural philosophy described were one in the same, and so theological issues were in fact very likely to have an impact on scientific views, and vice versa.

That, I think, is a sense of unity worth recovering—the idea that the God who made the heavens is the same God who was incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and so the truths of His world and the truths of his Word are not separate from one another. Perhaps it is good that the problem of astrological determinism died, but it also exactly the sort of theological-scientific problem we should expect to see in God’s universe.

 


[1] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, pgs. 93-94.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image. (2009 printing from Cambridge University Press.) pg. 110.

[3] Lewis, pgs. 103-104.

[4] Bailey, pg. 98.

[5] Bailey, pg. 98.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, translated by Cyril Vollert, with New Introduction by Richard Munkelt. Angelico Press. Pg. 133/chapter 127.

[7] Aquinas, pg. 134/chapter 127.

[8] Lewis, pg. 153.

[9] Lewis, pg. 154.

[10] Lewis, pg. 157.

[11] Aquinas, pg. 135.

[12] Aquinas, pg. 135.

[13] Bailey, pg. 98.