Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. By Richard Tithecott. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. Pp. xiii + 192, foreword by James Kincaid, bibliography, index)
Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture. By Mark Seltzer. (New York and London: Routledge, 1998. Pp. ix + 302, 16 figures/illustrations, notes, index)
The trope of the rapacious, murderous, cannibalistic ogre holds a long-standing place in both folklore and popular imagination. Its contemporary incarnation, the serial killer--the white, middle-class, sexual predator who roams at large and whose victims are young, white and female--can claim a lineage that includes Bluebeard, the vigilante gunslinger of the Western, and, more recently, the murderer of the "slasher" film and urban legends such as "The Hook" and "The Roommate's Death." With each instance of actual serial murder, heavily and disproportionately covered by the press, fiction and reality meet and blur, and the narratives build and constitute each other.
Today's stereotypical serial killer--the white everyman--has become fully integrated into popular culture. Daytime talk shows are devoted to such killers, as are comic books, trading cards, fan clubs, crime novels, news specials (often employing "dramatic re-enactments" in an obvious, yet confused, display of fact and fiction), and main-stream movies such as the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme). With the phenomenon of serial killers so heavily evoked in various forms of popular culture, it follows that research and analysis on the subject would most obviously be located in Cultural Studies, as indeed are the two books that are the subject of the present review.
The questions raised by the critical analyses of the nominal subjects of the books under review--serial killers and the serial killer/cannibal/necrophiliac par excellence--are reminiscent of those posed by William Arens in his controversial work The Man Eating Myth (1979, N.Y.: Oxford). That is, what are the interwoven discourses that connect anthropology and anthropophagy; cannibalism and colonialism? For folklorists, by extension, why is the subject of folklore so often the monstrous, and why is the object of folkloristics and folklorists so often the "Other," whose markedness as other is determined by our own notions of monstrosity? These books provide some possible answers, illustrating the fascinating relays between both folklore and popular culture, and folklore and forces in contemporary political and social life in the United States.
Tithecott's Of Men and Monsters, a social constructionist approach to the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, perhaps the most sensational and widely-covered serial killer of the 1990s, locates our social construction of the serial killer at the intersection of contemporary ideologies of gender, race, and class. The "celebrity" of contemporary serial killers, seen as motivated by both fear and fascination, is mapped by Tithecott along the dual axes of denial and desire in the two parts of his book--"Policing the Serial Killer," and "Dreaming the Serial Killer"--offering first a social constructionist, and then a psychoanalytical perspective on the Dahmer story.
Social constructionist analyses of moral panics illustrate not only how a symbolic reality that is increasingly mediated and standardized through news, infotainment, and popular culture tends to unite a very wide sector of the general population, but also how the fears generated by such a reality are almost completely based on events not witnessed or experienced but believed to be...