Serial killers serve X purpose in society...solve for X.
March 24, 2008 12:58 PM   Subscribe

I am 96% sure that I have read/heard from a reputable source that murderers, especially serial killers, are an inherent reflection of Western society, and that both actual murderers and fictional portrayals are important significant elements. Part A: Is this just a half-remembered bit of dialogue from some prime-time criminal procedural, and Part B: if not, where is it from?

In undergrad I took a lot of survey Psychology, Philosophy, and History of Western Thought courses, and suddenly I realize that I don't remember who said what.

The basic idea I have is that exposure to criminals (real and fictional)do by proxy what law abiding people wish they could but don't allows us to surpress those urges. Places I have looked but not exhausted yet:
- Foucault (power)
- Durkheim (deviance)
- Aristotle (catharsis)
- Freud (id/ego/superego)

Are any of those right, and if so, which of their works should I be looking at closely?

And if I'm totally off track, who should I be looking at?
posted by sarahkeebs to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know what source you are referring to, but serial killing is not a Western phenomenon, nor is it recent. See also, this book, pg 286-287.

Experts believe that waht is needed is a large enough society that would isolate individuals such that people (the potential killer) would not have an emotional attachment to those around him or his community at large. It would also have to be large enough for the crime to go unnoticed (or for his role to go unnoticed).
posted by Pastabagel at 1:09 PM on March 24, 2008

any source that attributes some negative phenomenon of human behavior exclusively to "western society" is pretty much by definition not reputable.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:16 PM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Not exactly what you're looking for, but "Does Movie Violence Increase Violent Crime?" (pdf). A paper examining... what the title says. It finds that violent crime decreases during days when violent movies are big in the box office. This is attributable to the fact that if you're at the movies, you're not out committing crimes. It further finds that catharsis does not fully explain decreases in violent crime after viewing violent movies, as non-violent ones have the same effect. I haven't read the whole thing. Mostly just paraphrased the abstract. Anyway, so it at least makes reference to the idea you heard. Might check out the references too.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 1:28 PM on March 24, 2008

any source that attributes some negative phenomenon of human behavior exclusively to "western society" is pretty much by definition not reputable.

That's a straw man argument. The argument that OP refers to doesn't imply that Western Civ. is sufficient to create a serial killer, just that it's necessary. There are plenty of examples of negative human behavior that seem to be mostly unique to western society or influence, anorexia nervosa being the most famous example that comes to mind. So that's not a reason to dismiss the notion that the idea comes from a reputable source.
posted by 1 at 1:34 PM on March 24, 2008

Well, Foucault did write (or publish, anyways) I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century, so he was interesed in this area.
posted by goethean at 1:54 PM on March 24, 2008

Western society is also wealthier and reached 1stworld/developed/etc stage ealier than the rest of the world. That means more resources towards policing and a social structure that puts emphasis on defending property (humans can be seen a property). So everytime I hear the hackneyed 'only white people are serial murderers' I roll my eyes because there are lots of serial murderers, its just they get caught more often in the West.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:08 PM on March 24, 2008

Peter Levenda (he of Sinister Forces and Unholy Alliance) makes an interesting, if WACKY, case that serial killers are people who would, in other societies, become shamans - people who willfully drive themselves insane in order to fulfill a role for everyone else - but there is no outlet for them in this society, as we pretend to not believe in the occult and our movies feature lavish, lurid portrayals of these individuals - the image of, say, Hannibal Lecter occupies our "need" for a shaman figure.

Read the Sinister Forces books if you'd like to explore this idea some more, although it's not until the third and final volume that he really gets around to elucidating this point.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:55 PM on March 24, 2008

Well, it's also kind of difficult to be a serial killer when you are struggling for survival and require other people to help you live at all and you live in a small group of several hundred people at most. But the quote sounds like complete nonsense.

Urban centers may be needed to have a serial killer, sheerly to provide anonymity and numbers of victims-- but I see no evidence that they have to be Western cities.

In fact, murder rates have declined dramatically over time: the U.S. murder rate is abnormally high because of easy gun access and a violent culture, but murder rates in Europe are at all-time low levels. Steven Pinker is currently writing a book on the decline of murder over the course of history, I believe.

I don't think anorexia is unique to the West either-- there are ascetic traditions around the world that may well produce the same effect. And it's certainly not unique to modernity-- there are accounts of it going way back.
posted by Maias at 3:00 PM on March 24, 2008

I've got nothing specific, but it's such a common trope that I'm not even sure you'll find an original, much less authoritative, source. Check out the reactions to the Leopold and Loeb murder (there's a bunch of books on the Wikipedia page about the murder).

Off-topic reply to Maias regarding the murder rate: Serial killings, and indeed, "planned" killings of strangers in general are VERY prominent on TV, in films, and in literature. But most killings are amongst people who know each other. Cheating husbands, business dealings gone awry, "buisness" (illegal business) dealings gone awry. That's the vast majority of murders.
posted by zpousman at 4:01 PM on March 24, 2008

Well, firstly, I disagree with some posters that the phrasing of your question implies that serial killing is a Western phenomenon, but instead I'd like to think that Western serial killings can best be explained within a Western cultural framework.

There's a significant current in the practice of microhistory (using the very tiny to explain the very big), especially in North America, of using murders or trials to explore society as a whole.

The premiere work of microhistory didn't deal with a murder case, but it did address (somewhat derisively) the Pierre Riviere case goethean mentions. That work is The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg. I suggest you try to find it in the library and read at least the introduction(s) and foreword(s).

I hate to re-link something I FPP'd, but it's the best online demonstration of what microhistory is about I can find... So just to see if what I'm talking about is what you're talking about, I find Canadian Mysteries are a good example of this 'using murders to explain culture' thing. Most of the 'cases' there are deaths/murders (Klatsassin, the Black Donnellys, William Robinson, Peter Verigin, Angelique, Aurore Gagnon). These were relatively miniscule events that can be used to explain race/culture/class. Another example (less academic, but hey) was recommended to me by AskMefi: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Basically all these books use, to some extent, the framework established by Ginzburg. But as other posters have said, this isn't new in and of itself.

I think that Ginzburg's introduction, which explores the theory of microhistory in depth, will at least point you in the right direction, if not help you along. goethean definitely cited a good text on the subject.

Well, this is all a very long-winded way of saying 'read Ginzburg' and 'just because we claim it reflects Western society does not mean we claim it is caused uniquely by Western society.'
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:39 PM on March 24, 2008

posted by apetpsychic at 5:24 PM on April 7, 2008

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