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Serial killers, sadists, and our hearts of darkness

Published January 26. 2013 09:02AM


Fox's new television show "The Following" premiered this week. The drama is about a serial killer, recently escaped from prison, who amasses a cult following of fellow serial killers to carry out his every command. I missed the premier, but I have been a fan of Showtime's series "Dexter" for years, and it got me thinking: why do we want to love serial killers so much?

Because there's no denying the facts: viewers and directors alike love their serial killers. The entire premise of "Dexter," for example, is that he is a likeable serial killer. The show rides on that one thing: that you, and millions of other viewers, will like Dexter enough to continue rooting him, season after season, killing after killing. After all, he's a nice guy. He buys everyone at work donuts and he clearly loves his sister, Deb. Furthermore, he only kills fellow serial killers - who are undeniably "bad guys" despite the paradox of Dexter being, ostensibly, a "good guy" while carrying out the same despicable acts. Last season's finale episode was the network's most-watched original series episode ever.

Even when the killer isn't likeable, per se, he's still, somehow, respectable. In "Silence of the Lambs," Hannibal Lecter is not only brilliant; he also appreciates the finer things in life, like classical music and a good bottle of wine. Real life serial killers are rarely - if ever - so clever. Hannibal helps FBI Agent-in-Training Clarice catch a "real" bad guy, a dolt named Buffalo Bill who speaks with a hick accent and whose only hobby is sewing together swatches of human skin. We may not want to admit it, but by the end of the movie, we're rooting for Hannibal, just as loudly as for Clarice.

Although I haven't seen "The Following" yet, I'm assuming the show takes a similar tack. The killer may not be a loveable galumph, but I'm guessing he's smart enough to outwit the police at most every turn. He probably has some truly fascinating hobbies, too, such as reading Proust or translating poetry from an obscure language that only three people in the world speak. I'm just guessing. Finally, looking at his picture, I find he is, not at all surprisingly, quite handsome.

Not that I'm complaining. I love my erudite serial killers as much as the next person. "Dexter" is approaching its final season, so you can bet I'll be checking out "The Following" as soon as possible.


In "The Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad explored the degeneration of Kurtz, a civilized European trader sent to gather ivory in the depths of the Congo jungles. Francis Ford Coppola recast Kurtz as a rogue Special Forces officer during the Vietnam War. Both versions of the famous tale suggest that the "heart of darkness" is both the wilderness without and the demon within us.

Few men become serial killers. However, most violent crime is committed by males between 15 and 35 years old. Many of us guys, I suspect, harbor violent fantasies. Why do I say that? Consider the popularity of violent video games, such as "Grand Theft Auto." Consider the proliferation of pornography on the Internet, much of it focused on the degradation and humiliation of women, and not a little of it just plain sadistic. Try Googling "BDSM," if you don't believe me.

Do some of us envy and admire Dexter and Hannibal?

The great American journalist of a century ago, H. L. Mencken, once wrote, "Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats." A century earlier, Henry David Thoreau opined "most men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Maybe Mencken and Thoreau were onto something, just like Conrad. If that's true, then the wonder may be not that there is so much violence committed by men, but that there isn't a whole lot more.

The ancient Greeks believed that violent plays, such as "Oedipus Rex," - in which the 'hero' murders his dad, sleeps with his mom, and eventually gouges out his own eyeballs - caused a catharsis. All that staged violence exorcised the primal urges from our hearts of darkness. Perhaps "Dexter" and "Silence of the Lambs," and, yes, even sadistic porn, serve the same purpose in 21st century America.

If I'm right, that explains why guys like this stuff. As for the girls, well, maybe it's just that Dexter's so darn cute. Or is it that there's a little of the masochist in every chick? Many a man might like to think so.

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