Serial Killers in American Culture

Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Aileen Wuornos, John Wayne "The Killer Clown" Gacy, David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, Vincent "The Brooklyn Strangler" Johnson, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman—these real and fictional serial killers have fueled the American imagination. From incarnations of Evil to avid supporters of the violent patriarchal system, scholars have interpreted them in numerous ways.

As the mixing of "real" killers (e.g. Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer) and fictional serial killers (e.g. Pat Bateman and Hannibal) in the previous paragraph implies, the lines between fictional and real serial killers have never been that clear-cut, for the murderous deeds of actual serial killers have fueled writers' and filmmakers' imaginations, while fictional representations of serial killers have even found their way into official FBI documents on serial killing. Thus, in this seminar, we will approach both fictional and real-world serial killers through fictions, focusing on rather realistic portrayals (sorry, no Leatherface, no Michael Myers, and no Jason Vorhees in this seminar). While exploring the grisly deeds of these (fictional and real) men and women, we will ponder the representational strategies employed to depict serial killers and how they could "become an American original, a romantic icon, like the cowboy" (Achenbach 1991).

Warning: This should be self-explanatory, but I'll make this point explicit nonetheless: Watching and reading about graphic murders is what you signed up for when registering for this course. As a result, you will be required to watch movies, read novels, and read comics that depict physical and/or psychological violence and may cause unwanted and/or unexpected reactions.


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"When [some fellow students and I] talked after the final session, we easily agreed on your class having been (a) exceptional and (b) how university should be but usually isn't."