Have serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer replaced Clint Eastwood and John Wayne as American icons?
The question may oversimplify things, but it nonetheless goes to the heart of some complex cultural issues, argues Cornell English Professor Mark Seltzer in his new book, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture (Routledge), published this month.
"Serial murder and its representation have by now largely replaced the Western as the most popular genre-fiction of the body and of bodily violence in our culture," Seltzer writes. "And recent 'splatterpunk' Westerns, such as Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian or films like Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven make the case that the Western was really about serial killing all along."
So if real serial killers Bundy and Dahmer appear on the covers of national magazines, they may merely be replacing pretend heroes and pretend serial killers, Eastwood and Wayne.
This is one of the questions which arises when marginal sociopaths become central players in what Seltzer calls "America's wound culture."
America, Seltzer contends, is fascinated not only by torn and open bodies, but by the spectacle of torn and open psyches. From the traumas displayed by talk show guests and political candidates, to the violent entertainment of Crash or The Alienist, to the latest terrible report of mass murder, we are surrounded by the accidents from which we cannot avert our eyes.
Seltzer became interested in the subject when he was working on an earlier book, Bodies and Machines (Routledge 1992). "Again and again," he said, "I kept coming across strange and intricate and underexplained ways in which the experience of machine culture -- what I call the body-machine complex -- gravitated toward scenarios of sexualized violence, scenes of addiction, torn and opened bodies, torn and opened persons."
Seltzer quotes the serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who said, "I was always killing myself, but it was always the bystander who died." This blurring between the real and the imagined, between fact and fiction, act and fantasy, is where part of Seltzer's interest lies.
"There's a deepening intimacy between people and machines," Seltzer said, "and one thing that makes us human is that we're tool users. But the very thing that makes us human is experienced in reverse: as threat, as something that annihilates us. The serial bomber called Unabomber is only the most recent, if most extreme, version of experiencing our modern intimacy with machines. There has always been compulsive violence, of course, in all ages. but the forms and representations of that violence, in modern society and in novels, films and television, is quite different.
"When people rubberneck," he continued, "we're not only rubbernecking out of prurient interest, but we're coming together as a people. You hear phrases like, 'A nation mourns,' or people ask where you were when JFK was shot. In some sense this is how we understand and identify ourselves: as a nation, we gather round violence, trauma and the wound -- the world as ER. "
In examining the confessions of serial killers themselves, Seltzer writes, "one discovers a sort of bottoming-out of 'explanation.' The killer's self-representations seem merely to reflect back cultural commonplaces: it is as if they have become merely the occasion of social construction reflecting back on itself. "
Mark Seltzer graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973 and earned a PhD in English from Berkeley in 1982. He has been teaching at Cornell since 1981 and is an Americanist whose interests have ranged from the work of Henry James, Stephen Crane and Jack London to cultural, social and technological history.
"I'm not a true-crime junkie," Seltzer said. "And one difficulty in Serial Killers was to avoid the sort of lurid redescription that governs most work on the topic. I've risked a more detouring approach to these persons and scenes and tried to look again, too, at the simple social construction explanations that have become fashionable."
Everything is touched by the violence in our lives. Even the 1996 presidential election, Seltzer observes, was "a contest about trauma and wounds: the shattered and already posthumous war veteran -- dead man talking -- and the make-love-not-war-warrior whose tag-line is, 'I feel your pain.'"
Seltzer does not flinch or look away from the darkness at our culture's heart. What emerges is a disturbing picture of how contemporary culture is haunted by technology and the instability of identity.