Fictional Serial Killers: Doing it Wrong

Yes, Halloween is over, but I failed to make sufficient Spooky Posts due to moving. Plus, I think we all know I can be creepy any time I want. So, inspired by my last post: fictional serial killer tropes that do not actually happen in real life, two just kinda doofy and one actually harmful.

ETA CW: Discussions of transphobia, mentions of violence and sexual assault

Fiendishly Clever Riddles for the Police/Deathtraps That Can Be Solved does not happen–primarily because most serial killers are not in fact fiendishly clever. I talked about this a little re: Bundy, but it’s worth noting that a lot of the fuckos benefit from shitty police coordination (or, y’know, police being shitty in general), operating before people recognized some of the basic tricks, preying on vulnerable people, and exploiting the fact that it’s hard to solve murders where the perpetrator and the victim have no known connections. Sadly, killing a bunch of people has at no point in human history required genius-level intelligence.

Like, Rader totally believed the police when they told him there was no way they could find his data from a floppy disk. Berkowitz couldn’t even spell “woman” right and also decided to park at a hydrant before shooting people.  Sometimes you get a high-IQ murderer like Kemper, but that’s rare–and even he didn’t go the Jigsaw/CSI/Law & Order route. 

Kemper is also one of the very few serial killers who turned himself in. He doesn’t get points for that–he still murdered a whole bunch of people who weren’t his emotionally abusive mom–but it goes to another reason why these tropes do not happen: serial killers, by and large, want to keep killing people. There may be part of them that wants to stop–although that’s now a debated theory, and depends on the killer in question–but it’s often subconscious and almost never actually wins. 

So they’re not going to go to all the effort of capturing someone and then giving them a chance to get away and maybe tell the police. Hansen comes the closest, and that’s still a stretch, considering he was “hunting” naked women, in the Alaskan wilderness, who’d just been raped…and he did his hunting with a rifle. Notably, he’s also the only serial killer on record to even approach the deathtrap trope, and the victim who did escape and warn the police did it before he got her onto the plane. And I’m willing to bet he wasn’t in it for the challenge–serial killers, by and large, are not.

See also: writing clueful messages for the police. No, Zodiac didn’t. He said he would, the actual cryptogram contained basically “lolz fuck you” rather than his identity, and the messages maaaaybe are different if you remove the letters in a suspect’s name. Police are skeptical at best–the word “bullshit” was used–and even if it turns out to be true, that’s less revealing your identity and more the sort of thing where a director cameos in his movie. You have to know who you’re looking for already or he’s just some pudgy dude with big eyebrows.

Serial killers communicate with the police, victims’ families, etc. all the time, yes. Some of these communications have inadvertent clues in them, some obvious and some not, but again: taunting people generally comes second to killing people (and not getting killed or imprisoned themselves) for these assholes, so even the ones that reach out aren’t going to knowingly offer any information that might tip people off.  Again: just not how it works.

Also Not How It Works, for similar reasons? Killings that intentionally form pentagrams, or smiley faces, or names. (If you’re writing “From Hell” or similar and your killer is in fact actually a time-travelling Freemason instantiating patriarchal control of the 20th century, you obviously get a pass on this one.) Having to kill someone or dump a body in a specific location is a point of vulnerability that even a Berkowitz-level dumbass is going to recognize; having to do so while selecting specific victim types, which most killers do, is just a lot of fucking work even for a psychopath; and it’s for delayed gratification at best. I guess if it gives you private satisfaction to know that your murders have formed a giant bunny rabbit, it doesn’t matter if nobody else notices, but otherwise you’re waiting to complete the pattern and for some guy with a corkboard and string to figure it out, and…good luck with that. 

I don’t claim completely accurate knowledge of serial killer psychology, thank God, but I think I’m right here insofar as nobody has ever done the pattern-killing thing. There was a serial bomber trying to make a happy face, but since that was in 2002 and the guy never managed to kill anyone, I’m going to put that down to “twerp tries to do a thing he’s seen in TV shows.” (He was also in a failed Nirvana cover band, which I find inexplicably hilarious.)

So: those are the harmless but dumb tropes.

Now the toxic one: the equation of serial killers with trans women.

More reputable sources than I have discussed how this is a shitty, harmful trope. Defenders of the media in question come back with “but it’s baaaaaaased on…” and: no, it isn’t. People like Gross Wizard Lady are not only awful excuses for human beings but also factually wrong.

A quick bit of research reveals that there have been, in fact, all of three trans serial killers–one in Germany, one in Spokane, and one in Australia. (This is neither surprising or “evidence” of anything except that trans people are people and sometimes people are evil.) All of them transitioned after the killings in question, two while in prison and one ten years after the killings but before being arrested. None of them are the big names that people cite as inspirations for fiction. 

The ones who are? Either their parents forced them to wear clothes associated with a wrong gender as a form of abuse (which is…not being transgender, and is also pretty strong evidence that misgendering your kids is not good for them) or they themselves had fetishes for women’s clothing.

Being into women’s clothes, especially the underwear, is not exactly unusual in cis guys, even cis guys who don’t kill anyone, in case you were raised in a box. Plenty of people enjoy the clothing of people they fucked or want to fuck. Clothes marketed to women, especially underwear, tend to be soft and colorful and generally pleasing in a sensual way; even formal shoes have a certain smooth and shiny or silky texture. Lots of cis guys find the combination hot. (Cis straight women do this too, but it’s much less sexualized and involves things like “boyfriend sweaters” because we’re expected to be romantic and cis men aren’t expected to wear sensually pleasing clothes and that’s another kettle of very barfy fish.) 

Let me put it another way, and stop reading here if you’re related to me: I personally know of at least two or three cis (at least when I knew them) guys who held onto a pair of my underwear for a while. 

I wouldn’t think this required explanation, but Rowling claimed to have based her transphobic stereotype murderer person on Jerry Brudos, who…had a thing for women’s shoes. That (I mean, that and being a murderous asshole) was his whole deal. I can only imagine Rowling is being a disingenous shitbrick, because otherwise the only way you confuse a spectacularly common kink with being trans is if you just fell off a truck. A truck that came directly from a convent. A convent in fuckng space.

So that’s two of the three bullshit “but in real life” justifications disproven.   

Now we come to Ed Gein, who is the main “ooh but he wanted to be a woman” serial killer invoked in these discussions, and also the inspiration for a lot of the fictional versions by way of Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (He’s also among the least violent, which is not to say that either murder or graverobbing is great, obviously. But he barely made it to serial killer–most of the standards involve three or more murders, Gein only killed two people–and there was no sadism or overkill involved, which is unusual.)

I am not trans, and I am not a medical professional, and I definitely can’t say for sure what gender someone who died two years after I was born was. I will say that, a) he demonstrated (as far as I can find out) no interest in transitioning during 20-some years under close observation, although admittedly the time and place could have influenced that, b) while an “anonymous source” told a paper that Gein had talked during the interrogation about considering transitioning and then deciding against it, that was never confirmed by other interrogators, plus Gein was extremely suggestable, c) his reported interest in Christine Jorgensen’s case is both sketchy (an article saying that “police found her books on Gein’s shelves” when the books in question didn’t come out until nine years after the case) and sketchily related, since he started digging up graves four years before Jorgensen’s transition, and d) said interest was apparently minor compared to his interest in stories about Nazis and cannibals and general death. 

That’s really the thing: whatever gender stuff Gein might have had going on was vastly overshadowed by…everything else he had going on, which was the definition of A Lot. (Even aside from the murder, the graverobbing, the chairs made of human fat…the dude saved used gum in a coffee can and you’re focusing on whether or not he might have been questioning his manhood? God, we’re fucked up here.) He was one of the vanishingly few serial killers who actually got the insanity defense, he was diagnosed schizophrenic (and while I am dubious of 1950s psychiatry, Gein reported constantly smelling flesh and seeing faces in leaf piles ) and the bricked-off pristine shrineness of his mom’s room (in addition to, you know, his entire mom) honestly suggests that his let’s-say-outfits were less about gender and more about a quasi-religious invocation of the dead via imagery. Interesting from an occult perspective on many levels, but basically: the guy could not have a functional life, even by his extremely warped standards, without his mother being around in some form. If he had to embody her to do that, then he was going to give it the old college try.

(Robert E. Howard shot himself when his mom died. Gein, either more survival-oriented or less in touch with reality or both, chose a different path. There’s another paper to be done on early 20th-century masculinity here, somewhere.)

Again, from a cis perspective, Bloch and Hitchcock…got that, or got it as much as was possible for a couple cisgender guys in 1960, but the vast majority of their imitators (ugh, “Sleepaway Camp”) only saw “guy in a dress=psychokiller” and ran with that until they reached the fucking ocean. Harris and Demme made some gestures toward getting it, but really didn’t, or chose not to in the interest of tapping into the tropes Psycho imitations had established. The diminished presence of Gumb’s mother, the sexualization of the new identity, and the choice to make Gumb gay all really fed into a bad place. 

Leatherface, oddly, may be the most accurate portrayal of Gein out there. The family dynamic is changed (though Hooper keeps the control aspect, which is a nice touch) and holy shit is the violence different, but the core concept isn’t sexual or gender-related at all (at least not in the original movie, fuck the sequels): he’s a very disturbed, very isolated guy who uses masks to help express or invoke archetypes like “helpful cook” or “perfect hostess,” two of which happen to be female because of the culture at the time. 

Which is not to say that Leatherface didn’t contribute–if there’s one thing I’ve learned from coming of age in the era of Fight Club, it’s that most audiences, especially audiences of my fellow cis white folks, will cheerfully go with the most basic interpretation that lets them feel good about their bullshit. I don’t know what artists should do about this, but it’s worth bearing in mind the sheer number of people who think Starship Troopers is awesome military fun, Tyler Durden is a Hero for Our Time, and Norman Bates and Leatherface are murderous Because Gender. 

If nothing else, contemplating that should keep Jack Daniels solvent for another year.

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I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam, written as Isabel Kunkle Raising the Stakes, a novella that was originally part of the Gambled Away collection Romance novels from Sourcebooks: No Proper Lady Lessons After Dark Legend of the Highland Dragon The Highland Dragon's Lady Night of the Highland Dragon Highland Dragon Warrior Highland Dragon Rebel Highland Dragon Master The Storm Bringer The Nightborn Blood and Ember I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.

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