Tag Archives: Jeffrey Dahmer

Know Your Monsters

at-stakeEdward J. Ingebretsen is one of the most intelligent analysts of monsters about. That may seem like a small order, but it’s not—many people write about monsters, and Ingebretsen is one to whom attention is owed. At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Popular Culture is not an easy book to read. Narratively sophisticated, it takes on some issues we’d rather not have addressed. One of the great myths about monsters is that they’re all for fun. The current understanding of monsters gives the lie to that worn adage. Monsters tell us something extremely troubling about ourselves and we don’t like to have someone pointing it out. When hearing that some of the monsters considered are Jeffrey Dahmer and Susan Smith, the prospective reader might wrongly assume why. The monster may not be whom one expects. Indeed, Bill Clinton makes his way into the discussion, as do Andrew Cunanan, O. J. Simpson, and Matthew Shepard. Be not quick to judge, however; you must pay attention.

As most writers on monsters recognize, religion often fuels them. Without belief monsters have no power to scare. We’ve probably all seen horror films that underscore this point. If a creature is unbelievable it loses its ability to be frightening. The movie invariably ends up in the B category and is appropriated for laughs or for an example of how not to make a film. Ingebretsen knows that to understand monsters we must understand ourselves. We too often allow unspoken prejudices (which are sometimes nevertheless shouted aloud) to inform our opinions of what is deviant or evil. Just look to Washington and see if you can disagree. The more we tease these monsters apart, the less they conform to expectations.

As implicated by his title, a great deal is at stake in coming to grips with monsters. They aren’t just for childhood Saturday afternoons anymore. It may be that they are one of the healthiest means for dealing with the steady stream of fear flowing from the District of Columbia. Without our metaphors, we are lost. Those set on destroying monsters have no concept of just how terribly helpful they are. You can’t be sure who the beast is, they are so very protean. They will, however, get you through some dark nights. Not without scars, but wiser, if a touch more melancholy, in dawn’s cold light. Take monsters seriously. It’s the only way to survive them.

Silence Fright

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One of my first publications was a letter to the editor. The newspaper was The Scotsman, Edinburgh’s daily. We’d been hearing on the BBC that a new movie, The Silence of the Lambs, had inspired Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in his gruesome habit of cannibalism. For whatever reason, the Dahmer case had a real fascination for the British. My letter, a rather young attempt to promote an important cause, suggested that such movies could be very dangerous. In the many years since then I’ve read quite a bit about horror films and their effects on people and have come to the conclusion that they don’t cause the crimes. The reasons are much more complex than simply watching a movie since most people who see them don’t “go and do likewise.” When I told friends in Edinburgh that I’d found a teaching job in Wisconsin they said “hopefully not near where that cannibal lived.” Of course Nashotah House is not far from Milwaukee.

My personal embargo of The Silence of the Lambs ran up against my current research project, which involves horror movies. Thinking it over in what I hope is a rational way, I decided that I needed to see my bête noire. Besides, while living in Wisconsin I had learned about Ed Gein, the local serial killer who’d inspired Psycho, a movie I had seen with no ill effects while in college. Movies are as much a part of life as cars and taxes and all kinds of things that impact our ways of thinking. I was surprised at how well done Silence is and the number of references it had spawned that I had missed for the past couple of decades. It won’t be my favorite film, but I’m not afraid of it any more.

The concept of relying on a criminal to catch a criminal is a classic theme, of course. And since the release of this movie some which are much worse have come across the silver screen. We play our anxieties out for all to see. Hannibal Lecter, the cultured killer, is an ambivalent character—a savior criminal. There’s a strange comfort in knowing he has the knowledge to save lives as much as he has the desire to take them. In fact, there’s an element of the divine in that. The capricious nature of a power that has the ability to give and to take is one with which religions constantly deal. Yes, The Silence of the Lambs is a scary movie. The reasons, however, lie more with implications than with imitations.