Human Monsters: Serial Killers

Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. – Nietszche

In talking about his new series “Homeland,” Mandy Patinkin recently said that he regrets his role in “Criminal Minds.” At first read, it sounds ungrateful, especially for fans of the show like me. But Matthew Gubler has explained before that Patinkin didn’t leave because of money, which was what most people were thinking at the time; instead, he left because he’s very much a method actor. He got deep into his character, and when you’re basically living the horrible things and you’re a sensitive person, it can tear you down, just as if you were a real agent having to confront these things. Patinkin couldn’t handle the emotional strain of it, so he moved on. In that sense, I can understand his regret.

Something that Patinkin addresses in his interview calls into question the purity of the audience’s motives if they’re watching it. Most of these kinds of shows (including Criminal Minds and L&O:SVU) make a little nod to that conflict with the audience: These are horrible, horrible things that you’re watching. It’s got to have an effect on your psyche, right? So why do audiences lap it up? Why are they fascinated by sex crimes and serial killers? You could kind of turn it around and ask the cast and crew why, if it’s so bad, they’re selling it. In “Criminal Minds,” the conflict is brought up primarily with S.S.A. Rossi, who made a fortune from writing books and doing book tours about his work with serial killers. He asks in one episode why everyone is so obsessed with the serial killers but doesn’t know the names of the victims.

There is no doubt that society’s obsession with sex crimes and serial killers can be troubling, and I’d venture to think not all of it is entirely pure or without repercussions, such as bolstering Rape Culture, presenting women as dead objects more than three-dimensional people, reinforcing victimization, celebritizing murderers and giving them the attention they want. But at the same time, especially as a fan of the horror genre, I’d like to offer a less dire alternative to the bleak, violent, animal nature of humanity.

To answer Rossi’s question, people remember serial killers and find them fascinating and don’t remember most victims for very good reason. Because we know the victims. For all intents and purposes, the victims are us. We understand the victims. We don’t understand the serial killers. We are obsessed by Charles Manson in the same way we’re obsessed with Freddy Krueger. We’re as obsessed with monsters who look human as much as we’re obsessed with humans who look like monsters (i.e. freak shows). We don’t understand them. The way their brains work seem so different from the way our brains work … and at the same time, sometimes the brains of serial killers are just close enough to our own that it punches you in the gut. Hopefully, it makes you question what makes a monster (the very subject of Frankenstein, for you fellow gothics), which only serves to make you more curious about the nature of other monsters. Call it a cautionary tale.

I’m pretty sure that the majority of people who read true crime and watch these kinds of shows aren’t sadists (maybe a little masochistic, since it can put you through an emotional wringer even without being an intense method actor). They’re compassionate to the victims, but they’re too familiar. They want the unfamiliar. They want the freak show, but I think it’s because they want to understand it. Better the human monsters than the “monster” humans, in my opinion, because the non-average-looking human has feelings. More importantly, they’re looking at human monsters from a safe distance, identifying with the victim but sure as hell happy they aren’t the victim themselves. It’s a way to deal with the fear and curiosity in a safe, secure way.

So the impulse to watch these kinds of shows and love them may not show off the best in human nature, but I guess the point of writing this is that it doesn’t show off the worst in human nature either.

We also like these kinds of shows because we like it when the knights slay the dragon. “Criminal Minds” has made that analogy before, through Dr. Reid’s mother, that the BAU team is basically the Knights of the Round Table. We like dissecting the dragons, but to be fair, we also love watching the knights in action. SVU and “Criminal Minds” have survived a long time after some other procedurals buckle in part because of their strong characters and team dynamics. And I loved Mandy Patinkin’s character. He brought his own sensitivity into the role, and the writers acknowledged his personal issues with the subject matter of the show with utmost respect through his character of Jason Gideon, who ultimately couldn’t take it anymore either.

Patinkin may regret his time on “Criminal Minds,” but I don’t. Still love you, dude.

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2 Responses to Human Monsters: Serial Killers

  1. Conmama says:

    “…just as if you were a real agent having to confront these things.” Are you serious?

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