I’m no expert on serial killers – not the real kind anyway. Pop culture serial killers – that’s different. I’ve been catching up on the current season of Hannibal, and it got me thinking about one of the first serial killers I ever encountered, almost 25 years ago: Patrick Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. I was eighteen when I bought the book, and I confess I was mostly driven by prurient interests. It’s hard to convey now just how controversial the novel was at the time. Women’s groups across the country, but particularly in the northeast, where I was a freshman college student, were furious at the central character’s cavalier attitude – not towards the act of murder per se, but towards the murder of women in particular. Bateman kills women in some of the most disturbingly imaginable ways, and I remember at least one group had set up an answering machine where you could call up and hear someone read one of these passages. Simon and Schuster, Ellis’s original publisher backed out at the last minute (Vintage Books eventually bought the rights). Germany, Australia, New Zealand all still maintain strict restrictions on access to the novel.
The book is violent in the extreme – at least at some moments. But it was a revelation to me, and played a role in my decision to study English as an undergraduate. So enormous was the hype, I’m not sure anyone has yet noticed how devilishly Ellis put it together. It has its admirers and detractors. Its admirers generally talk about how perfectly it manages to capture its own time period – the 1980s, and particularly the Wall Street zeitgeist of the late 80s. Bateman is a sort of exaggeration of Gordon Gecko (if such a thing is even possible), a product of a world that seemed to care only for greed and material accumulation. Thatcher and Reagan said capitalism was the key to happiness for everyone, and Bateman represents that philosophy gone amok, the logical psychotic conclusion to total solipsism. So too it worked as the kind of high point for the anxiety driven psychosis of the 80s, the Talking Heads’s “Psycho Killer” in novelistic form (Ellis, in fact, uses a quote from the Heads’s “(Nothing But) Flowers” as one of the three headnotes to the story).
The detractors…well, beyond the outrage over the violence, a number of critics felt that the novel was simply boring – New York Times critic, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, noted, “The trouble with American Psycho is, of course, that you can’t create a meaningless world out of meaninglessness.” No critic, however, recognized the book’s structural brilliance. In some ways, the first quarter of the book is almost boring. “Almost,” because it manages to keep the reader interested by masquerading as a guidebook to living the 80s materialistic lifestyle. These days we tend to frown on this sort of materialism – or at least the grossest, most obvious versions of it – yet there’s something that draws you in to Bateman’s lifestyle, a lifestyle built on the very best stereo systems, the very best home decor, the very best gym workouts. He offers instructions on the proper way to shave, on the right kind of suit: “The favored version has extended natural shoulders, a full chest, and a bladed back.” He engages in a jealous battle over the quality of his business card that goes on for several pages. And while that sounds tedious, it reads as gripping. I want that life, you think through all of this – I should buy that stereo system. I should have my business cards printed in bone white with a Silian Rail font. As a reader you are being groomed. And this grooming isn’t merely about crassly accumulating possessions. No, Bateman has serious taste – artistic taste. Being in his head, you learn.
But that’s the trick. You spend over a hundred pages sucking up his tips on style and taste, with no hint of his unbalanced mind. You become him, you want to be him. Ok, so he’s a bit shallow, but what a life! And then in a single moment he commits an act of utter savagery, so matter-of-factly that it is both utterly horrifying and utterly elegant at the same time. Ellis has managed to write you into the character’s mind, and you are powerless at this point to turn away. That’s not true – you do turn away, in disgust. But it is too late. It has already happened. And what you recognize in that one moment is that you are the American psycho, that the Reagan/ Thatcher, new wave 80s have left all of us deeply and permanently psychologically damaged.
Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, first introduced in Red Dragon (1981) capitalized on the same mood and in roughly the same ways. Lecter is suave and sophisticated, and through the characters like Clarice Starling, we see just how seductive that combination can be.
Post-9/11 critics like to talk about our new attraction to the anti-hero – not the tortured bad boy we’ve known for at least as long as Byron’s Childe Harold, but the character with no redeeming personal qualities whom we nevertheless admire for his skill. Gregory House offers one example. Heath Ledger’s Joker offers another. Homeland’s Carrie, 24’s Jack Bauer, Dexter all come close (though in these cases the producers ultimately blanch at the prospect of “utterly unlikeable personality,” offering each character an excuse of some sort for their behavior. House, too, ruined its final season by backtracking to give House buried emotions). This line of thinking makes sense. Caught in our own post-terrorism moral ambiguity, we prefer the vigilante Batman to the pure intentions of Superman. But maybe this anti-hero figure can be traced back further, to the 1980s, a time when we all moved so close to the psychotic we understood such figures in a deeper way, as parts of ourselves.
Which brings me back to Hannibal. The show takes this formula to new places. Certainly it relies on Hannibal’s seductive qualities – in place of Clarice Starling, we have Will Graham. But where Starling was merely charmed by Lecter, Graham has fallen so under his spell that he himself now occupies a place somewhere between FBI profiler and killer. And, like Bateman, we’re shown here all of Lecter’s extraordinary sense of taste, his flawless home, and this season his appreciation of Italy’s art and architecture. But more than anything else, we’re shown his abilities as a master chef, his knowledge of food and how to prepare it. Of course, this is where the crossover occurs in this case, where we follow the character’s skill with a knife, marvel at his ability to select the perfect wine, all while we recognize that the liver we’re watching him slice might or might not be human. At the same time, the show’s producers have turned the act of murder itself into something of an art piece, with rich, flowing blood, or blood spraying from an artery like a fountain, or bodies that – in Graham’s imagination – unfold themselves and menace him in some beautiful yet beautifully grotesque new form.
Perhaps 9/11 changed us in the sense that a show like this now occupies a spot on network television where twenty-five years ago a novel on the same subject generated widescale outrage. Even so, it seems to me that Hannibal, is, after all, a close cousin to Patrick Bateman, a symbol of all the artistry we have achieved as a species fused with all the dark psychosis we have discovered on the way to that achievement.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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