The Cultures of Celebrity: MA2072 Candidate Number: 0804383
Analysing any serial killer film except Silence of the Lambs, consider how the spectator is encouraged by devices such as casting, narrative, cinematography, editing, etc to identify with the killer. According to the Oxford Dictionary, to identify is to foremost “establish identity of”. By identifying, one is required to understand, and closely associate with, another. In order to understand, one must distinguish, detect, diagnose and discover elements or characteristics that make a person recognizable. This is achieved by a need to “empathize with, feel for, relate to, sympathize with.”1 This process of identification is clearly applied within film. A spectator, when watching a film, undergoes a mode of identification with the characters on screen. This identification between the spectator and characters may be subconscious, however the spectator cannot escape his/her need to comprehend the characters in an effort to identify with them. A spectator wishes to ‘unveil’ a character, consequently appreciating the character’s motives, reasons and desires. Many different figurations of identification have been released, presenting a number of alternative views on how a spectator identifies with another. A spectator can identify through a number of different means, all of which depend chiefly on the genre of film one is viewing. Serial killer films present a number of key characters that the spectator can identify with. There is the protagonist, most normally the detective, the victim, and of course the antagonist, the killer. One would presume that the spectator would identify with either the protagonist or the victim, in an effort to be the hero and save everyone, or to feel the heightened emotions the victim would, and theorists such as Carol Clover and Steven Shaviro support this. However it is also widely thought to be true that the spectator identifies with the killer. Consider a film such as Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001). Arguably, a spectator cannot help but feel admiration for Hannibal’s character, because of his elegance, sophistication and charm. Therefore, the spectator, by admiring Hannibal, is identifying with the killer. By identifying with the killer, one does not have to desire to be similar in the sense of killing; instead one can desire to present comparable characteristics or attributes. Alike is Charlize Theron’s character Aileen, the killer in Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003). Throughout the film, a common emotion displayed by the spectator is sympathy for the killer. So the spectator is identifying with the killer by sympathising with her.
Serial killers have been appearing in film since 1926, when Hitchcock’s Jack the Ripper thriller, The Lodger, was released. Since then, numerous films conveying the gruesome murders of killers have been made, proving that there is a market for such films. The repetition of serial killer films throughout film history, just verifies the success of them, and shows that the young audiences attracted must enjoy watching the horrific killings of the fictional and sometimes authentic killers. The successes of these films show society’s interest in serial killers; otherwise no one would watch them. This interest shown, demonstrates the spectator’s want of understanding, and therefore a desire to identify with the killer. Arguably, the serial killer represents a figure that is the opposite of a celebrity. The serial killer seemingly holds no attributes that we would like to behold, such as extreme violence and cold calculation. Whereas the celebrity is everything we crave to be; beautiful, successful and talented. Yet when a spectator identifies with an on-screen villain, the spectator is wishing to contain attributes of the killer. A celebrity is identified with, due to our admiration and desire for them, and by identifying with a serial killer, we can also demonstrate our admiration for them and perhaps show an element of desire for them. This could be an admiration for their intellectual brilliance, or a desire for the killer’s courageousness and strength. Each serial killer presented in each individual film promotes a different type of identification for each spectator. Serial killer films are indicative of many defining conventions and themes. Film critic Amy Taubin has pointed out “Serial killing is a function not of character, but of the internal narrative structure and motifs.”2. Serial killer films use seriality as a theme that the killer conforms to. Taubin is stating that the seriality of the killing presents to the spectator a motif common to the narrative. However, in film, serial killers are presented as being literally addicted to killing, hence the seriality. The killers are so psychologically disturbed that they cannot stop themselves, and so kill again and again, creating the motif of seriality. But it can be argued that through the success of serial killer films, serial killers are being promoted and almost accepted. Serial killers are transformed into a type of celebrity, a recognisable figure that spectators identify with. Furthermore, through this creation of a killer celebrity, the serial killers can also gain fans, which promotes their recognisable image further. The serial killer is then almost glamorised into a star, similar to a celebrity. For this reason, the viewer can desire to be like the killer. Film theorist Edgar Morin argues that “the spectator psychically lives the exciting, intense, amorous, imaginary life of the movies heroes, i.e., identifies with them.” David Schmid argues that Morin’s statement could be applied to a spectator’s identification with the “intense life” of the film serial killer. 3
Thomas Harris’ film adaptation of his novel Red Dragon (2002, Brett Ratner) depicts a killer’s relationship with a cop. The killer in question is the familiar character Hannibal Lector, however the cop also forms a relationship with the secondary killer, in order to understand him and ultimately stop him. The secondary killer, the character Francis Dolarhyde, is an interesting character to analyse, as arguably he has many sides to him, which the spectator is allowed to see a little of each. Dolarhyde is known to the FBI as ‘the tooth fairy’, a name given due to his tendency to bite his victims bodies, the uncommon size of his teeth, and his oral fixations. The character is given an oral disfiguration, as he was born with a bilateral complete cleft lip and palate. It can be argued that there is a common stereotype present in the representation of a disability, that the physical difference is directly reflective of psychological or moral degeneracy. Through placing the killer with a facial disfiguration, the spectator is inclined to feel empathy for him, and therefore perhaps condone his actions more so than if there was no disfiguration. In this way, the spectator is identifying with the killer through this disability. Named ‘the tooth fairy’ also due to his trait of killing families in their sleep, the spectator is presented with victims who they can identify with, and therefore this affects the spectator’s treatment of the killer. Brett Ratner made the decision to include the representation of the victims very visually and for duration through the use of the home movies. By presenting the spectator with clear images of the victims, the spectator is forced into realising the true nature of the murders and seeing the horrific killer side of Dolarhyde.
Driven by the image of a painting, Red Dragon is given its title because of Dolarhyde’s fascination with the famous William Blake painting of the Red Dragon. The painting, depicting the power of religion, drives Dolarhyde’s obsession with becoming the Red Dragon and withholding the power it contains. With the inclusion of the image of a famous painting, the spectator can relate to recognizable image and associate it with the killer. Through this act of recognition, the spectator sees the killer as an ordinary man with a love for a particular art, however the length of Dolarhyde’s obsession with the painting, presents to the spectator a man who is psychologically disturbed with a desire to be strong and powerful. Ratner’s presentation of Dolarhyde is of a man with a dual personality. Firstly, and prominently, the spectator is presented with a killer who has killed heartlessly and more than once. Secondly, an emotionally distressed young man is presented. This young man has been through an abusive childhood, never knowing love or affection. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and as a consequence of this, a splitting of egos occurs. Because of this dual personality, the spectator finds it difficult to identify with Dolarhyde as a whole, and in order to escape this, the spectator can instead divide the two personalities. Consequently, the spectator is presented with two men; the first who can be readily disliked and condemned, and the second, a young man who is suffering and has never dealt with this suffering. However, as the film progresses, and the spectator views Dolarhyde become more aggressive and violent in all parts of his character, the spectator is forced to confront the man as a whole.
The casting of Red Dragon’s serial killer was highly important in showing how Brett Ratner wanted him to appear to the spectator. By choosing to cast the recognizable star Ralph Fiennes, the spectator is unable to escape the notion of the star. In cinema, “particular stars developed a coherent star image that allowed them to be typecast in particular roles.”4 Fiennes is an interesting and versatile actor, as he is not specifically typecast to one role. Being a British actor, Ralph Fiennes has starred in both British film and Hollywood. Therefore, being that Red Dragon is a product of Hollywood, Fiennes is also a recognizable figure in America, and because of this, globally. Arguably, before Red Dragon, Fiennes’ most noted role was his presentation of Amon Goeth in Spielberg’s 1993 Schindler’s List. Somewhat similar to the evil nature of his role in Red Dragon, Fiennes’ portrayed the actions and emotions of a Nazi. Spielberg commented on his choice of casting Fiennes, “I saw sexual evil. It is all about subtlety: there were moments of kindness that would move across his eyes and then instantly run cold.”5 Interestingly, this description also applies to Fiennes’ portrayal of Dolarhyde, and his representation of the dual personality. Aside from these two roles, Fiennes has also been cast as the antagonist in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005, Mike Newell), playing the role of the evil Lord Voldemort. Due to this collection of antagonists, which Fiennes has been cast, the spectator is, to some extent, at ease with Fiennes acting as the serial killer. This is because the spectator can almost expect Fiennes to be one of the villainous roles. However, with his parts as a romancer and lover in Maid in Manhattan (2002, Wayne Wang), The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella) and The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles), Fiennes is presenting himself as an entirely different genre actor. As a result of this, the versatility of Fiennes’ roles, presents him as being indefinable in the sense that the spectator cannot pin down what the real Ralph Fiennes is actually like, as is possible with typecast actors. Therefore, similar to his role as Francis Dolarhyde, it would seem that Ralph Fiennes also presents a number of different sides to him. Consequently, his roles aside from Red Dragon do not seem to taint or preordain the spectator’s view of his character Dolarhyde. It is quite possible to say that the spectator cannot identify as such with Ralph Fiennes, due to his wide range of roles, and so attempts to identify with Francis Dolarhyde.
However, by casting a star as the serial killer role, one could argue that the spectator perhaps identifies more with the star than with the character of the serial killer. David Schmid states that films following the actions of serial killers are more appealing to an audience as they “potentially offer the satisfaction of a dual and related curiosity on the part of the spectator about celebrities and killers, but this satisfaction can come about only if these films can discipline effectively the unstable structures of identification they generate.”6 Schmid is suggesting that the spectator is interested in the notion of viewing a celebrity act the role of a serial killer. Schmid continues to propose that the spectator is highly intrigued as to finding out “what makes a serial killer tick?”7, and in doing this, the “personality of the film star is overlaid”.8 Therefore, David Schmid’s view is that the spectator does have a desire to view a recognizable figure in a serial killer role, however the spectator’s desire focuses more upon trying to understand the serial killer. By forming this understanding, the spectator must therefore identify with the serial killer, and not the star.
Conversely, theorist Diana Fuss argues that through the process of identifying with a killer, one longs to take the place of the existing killer. Fuss suggests, “Identification is itself a form of serial killing.”9 Fuss believes that the spectator longs to hold the power, which the killer does, and that instead of identifying to understand and appreciate a character, the spectator as an alternative has the desire to “cannibalise the other who inhabits the place it longs to occupy”10 and that identification is merely “an endless process of killing off and consuming the rival in whom the subject sees itself reflected.”11 Therefore in the case of Red Dragon, the spectator would become so involved in the strength and power of Dolarhyde, that the spectator desires to take the place of Dolarhyde.
The star in cinema has a lack of completion. The spectator in the audience is not sitting with the star and therefore the spectator experiences the ‘photo effect’, which is a false feeling of ‘now’. The spectator feels as if the star is there with them, even if in all actuality, the star is not even alive anymore. John Ellis states “the star image is…. an incomplete image.”12 The spectator watches films with the same actor in, in order to understand the star further, hoping that “maybe in the next film I’ll have access to the star’s complete personality.”13 Through casting Ralph Fiennes, Ratner was creating his presentation of Francis Dolarhyde in specific ways. Ratner decided his Dolarhyde would be heterosexual, white, 30-40 year old and good looking. These key characteristics that Fiennes held, means that the serial killer also holds these attributes. These characteristics are also considered in society to be positive characteristics, and so perhaps by allowing the serial killer to be good looking and heterosexual, then the spectator can identify with these features. The spectator can identify with the killer in this way by admiring his physique, or the well-spoken accent that Fiennes has could appeal to spectators with similar accents. Had Fiennes been conventionally bad looking with extremely bad grammar, then due to societies expectations being failed, the spectator would be more inclined to dislike the killer immediately from first impressions.
A further device used in order for the spectator to identify with the killer, is through the use of narrative. Elements within the narrative, which evoke pathos from the spectator or contrive admiration, cause the spectator to recognize the reasons for the actions of the killer. Probably the most apparent element within the narrative is the story of the killer’s upbringing. The post-traumatic that the killer suffers is a result of the abusive childhood he had, at the hands of his Grandmother. Through a scene in which the camera slowly tracks through an old and remotely situated house, the spectator hears the ill treatment Dolarhyde received. This is achieved through the use of a soundtrack of a woman shouting at a child. The spectator hears the Grandmother’s violent language directed at the small child.
“Oh Francis, I’ve never seen a child as dirty or disgusting as you. Look at you! You’re soaking wet! Get out of my bed, go up to your room. Shut up you dirty little beast! I should have put you in an orphanage, grandson or not. Into the bathroom. Take off your nightshirt, and wipe yourself off. Hurry up! Now give me my scissors from the medicine chest. Take that filthy thing in your hand and stretch it out. Now, look down.. Do you want me to cut it off?! Do you?! I pledge you my word Francis: if you ever make you’re bed dirty again I’ll cut it off. Understand?!”
This scene evokes pathos from the reader towards the killer, as the spectator feels sympathy for the suffering he endured as a child. Furthermore, with the visual the spectator sees, whilst the soundtrack is playing, the spectator feels as if they are entering any person’s house. The house is domesticated and homely, and doesn’t evoke eeriness or uneasiness for the viewer.
Another element of the narrative that encourages the spectator to identify with the killer, is the key female character. The dual personality that the killer possesses is emphasised by the addition of the female love interest, Reba. The couple bond chiefly through their disabilities, as Reba has no sense of sight. The spectator’s first thought when observing the two bond, is pity for Reba as she does not know who Dolarhyde is, and the spectator’s pity is emphasised due to her physical disability. However the character of Reba is very useful in drawing out the good within Dolarhyde, and therefore the spectator is encouraged to identify with him because of this emergence of goodness. Each spectator craves their own fairytale romance, and whilst ‘fairytale’ may not precisely be the case with Dolarhyde and Reba’s romance, it nevertheless has a touching and mesmerising effect to it. This is due to the sadness that both have encountered in their lives, and that they make one another seem completely normal, with no disabilities. The spectator witnesses this, and this encourages the spectator to notice the sadness of Dolarhyde’s life, and the love he can produce. Furthermore, through watching the romance evolve, the spectator almost forgets that he is the killer. Therefore, arguably, the spectator is not identifying with the killer, but with another man. The killer’s romance with Reba conflicts greatly with his homicidal urges. Because of his love for her, Dolarhyde tries in vain to rid himself of his possession by the Red Dragon. Ultimately, Dolarhyde’s seemingly last act of suicide is to protect Reba from himself. Reba’s character has the effect of presenting the killer as being the protagonist, at certain points. For example, Dolarhyde protects Reba from another co-worker’s advances, and additionally he bestows acts of kindness on her, such as taking her to the zoo to touch a sedated tiger. These acts present Dolarhyde to be a human, a man that one might befriend, and this encourages the spectator to empathise with the killer, in noticing that he wants to be rid of his possession. However, if Reba’s character portrays Dolarhyde as being a protagonist, then perhaps the spectator is encouraged to identify with a violent protagonist.
The narrative is a way in which the spectator becomes involved within the life of the killer. Through the narrative, questions are raised which Diana Fuss argues the spectator aims to resolve. Fuss suggests that identification can be conceived to be a “plot device”14, signifying that the spectator merely identifies with the killer in order to learn about him and therefore resolve raised questions, and unclear situations. Fuss summarises that “identification both sets this drama of serial killing in motion and provides the ultimate resolution.”15 Fuss’ argument is visible through the FBI detective in Red Dragon, and his efforts to identify with the killer in an attempt to catch him. David Schmitz writes that this type of identification is dangerous, as one character identifying with another can lead to the “violent cancellation of one’s own identity” however Schmitz concludes that serial killer films suggest that “only in this way can the serial killer be apprehended.”16 The spectator witnesses this intensity between the detective and the serial killer, and by identifying with the killer, the spectator’s own emotions are intensified as they attempt to understand the killer before the detective.
Additionally, cinematography is a device used to encourage the spectator to identify with the killer. Throughout the duration of Red Dragon, the majority of shots of the killer used are point-of-view shots and close ups of his face. These two types of shots persuade the spectator to get closer to killer. The first scene in which the spectator encounters the killer, a number of specific camera shots are used in order for the spectator to identify with the killer. A significant point-of-view shot is used as the killer looks through his scrapbook. This has the effect of the spectator feeling as if he/she is turning the pages of the book, and admiring the killer’s conquests and work as the spectator’s own. This relates to, and supports, Fuss’ argument, that in order to identify, one must take the place of the killer. Through this point-of-view shot, the spectator is almost invited into the mind of the killer, as through the killer scribbling on the pages, and marking certain points, the spectator is given clues as to who the killer is interested in. A second scene which is key is the second scene in which the spectator sees Dolarhyde. In this scene, the killer is presented as a normal man, as he is at his place of work, in an everyday environment. The camera lingers on a wide shot of Dolarhyde’s place of work, as the spectator is encouraged to note that he does have a job and therefore is resembling of any working man. As Dolarhyde walks through the building, the camera stays very close behind him, filming his back as he walks. This shot is indicative of presenting how Dolarhyde feels uneasy and awkward at work, as the spectator, due to the close proximity of the shot, can clearly see Dolarhyde’s hunched shoulders and bowed head. He is symptomatic of a man who is depressed and unsure of himself and his surroundings, and again, this evokes pity from the spectator.
However, there is a shift in the style of camera shots used in the single scene in which the spectator witnesses the killer as a killer. During this scene, the majority of the shots focus upon the victim, rather than showing the killer. By showing only the victim, the spectator sees the facial expressions and emotions of the victim, whilst the killer stands in the shadows behind. This encourages the spectator to identify with the victim rather than the killer. Although, the victim is humiliated through the removal of his clothes and the fact that he is reduced to pleading and begging. This encourages the spectator to feel as the killer does towards the victim; which is disgusted at his lack of masculinity. The spectator also is encouraged to view the killer as the authoritative voice and powerful. This is achieved by the spectator hearing the voice of the killer, cold and clear, but not seeing his face. When the killer is viewed on camera, the killer’s dominance is accentuated by low angle shots that seem to enlarge him. Furthermore, the camera remains static as the killer walks past it, emphasising the power of the killer, as if even the camera is in the way of his work and mission.
A final device used to encourage the spectator to identify with the killer, is the editing. Editing in film is key in guiding the telling and pace of a story, as the final edit is what the filmmakers choose for the spectator to see. Similar to the cinematography, the editing also is used to two different effects. Long tracking shots, seconds long, are used in scenes which present the killer in his everyday life. By using lengthy shots, which linger on specific moments, the spectator is put at ease and not tense due to the fast paced editing. Instead, the slower pace of the cuts allows the spectator to follow the killer as if the spectator was actually there, and choosing to look for longer than a second. In contrast, as the film progresses, and more scenes of Dolarhyde killing or being violent occur, the editing is paced a lot faster. This increase in pace increases the adrenalin of the spectator and the momentum of the narrative, and allows the spectator to see many shots in a short length of time. This fast editing has the effect of detaching the spectator from the characters, and instead involving them completely within the narrative. Due to the quickness, the spectator does not have time to register every element of the killer’s body language and facial expressions. Therefore, arguably the spectator becomes slightly detached from the killer towards the end of the film as the editing does not allow the spectator to remain as close as the slower editing in the first half of the film. Throughout the film, straight cuts are used which makes the manipulation with editing invisible to the viewer. The use of straight cuts mean that the spectator is not distracted from the narrative, which is crucial in a serial killer film as the spectator constantly needs to be in suspense and closely involved with the characters.
Perhaps the most crucial and significant choice of editing and narrative in Red Dragon is the way in which the spectator is introduced to the killer through the FBI’s description of him, and the visuals the spectator gets of the murder scenes. By ordering the film so that the spectator sees the blood-stained beds of the murdered families, the smashed mirrors, and the exact detailed descriptions of how the murders happened, before seeing the killer, the spectator already has an image of a monster for the killer. The spectator, from the violent images presented, has already built an image of the monstrous man who could carry out such killings, before actually seeing the killer. Therefore, the spectator awaits conformation by visualising the killer, “a movement from awareness to identification, from the fact that there is a killer to the knowledge of who the killer is.”17 However, even when the killer is eventually revealed to the spectator, the face of the killer is masked behind a stocking, which covers his nose and eyes. The spectator only clearly sees the disfigured mouth of the killer and the crooked false teeth he wears. Through just showing the cleft lip, the spectator is presented with a figure that is expected to produce evil. No longer is the killer presented as a man who is performing gruesome murders, but instead he is shown to be a man so physically and psychologically damaged, that his actions are not surprising. Here, the spectator identifies with the killer by sympathising with him, but the spectator is also unsure and wary of the killer. This is because the spectator is unable to identify with the killer physically, and so can only identify with the killer emotionally.
When watching a serial killer film, theorists have argued that the spectator identifies with the killer in a number of different ways. The majority of film academics do agree that the spectator does indeed identify with the killer. Carol Clover is one academic who questioned who the spectator identifies with. Previously, it had been assumed that the audience identified with the killer, however Clover argues that the audience identifies with not the killer, but instead the final girl victim. Clover discusses whether the viewer identifies with the fright of being attacked, as opposed to the gratification or satisfaction of the murderer as he attacks. However, through exploring the ways in which the spectator is encouraged to identify with the killer, I think that the spectator does identify with the killer. Not to identify with the killer’s wants and desires, as Edgar Morin indicates, but instead to develop an understanding and perception of the killer, in order to resolve questions which are raised. As is the case in Red Dragon, the spectator is encouraged to identify with the killer through a large number of devices. Arguably the most noteworthy device used is the inclusion of the character, Reba, into the narrative. Reba’s character brings about the emergence of an entirely new, and unseen, side to the killer, therefore allowing the spectator to see the killer in a relationship. This is not a conventional narrative element included in the character structure of a serial killer, however, by including this element into Red Dragon, both the writer of the novel and the director, obviously wanted the spectator to identify with the killer chiefly through sympathy. This identification is then emphasised by other devices, such as the types of shots used and the style of editing, to reiterate the encouraged sympathy the spectator is meant to evoke. Nevertheless, although the identification from the spectator to the killer is arguably achieved due to the production devices, each spectator will identify with the killer in a different way. Therefore, the devices used to encourage the spectator to identify with the killer are successful in their persuasion to identify, but all of the spectators will not always identify in the same way. Thus, in conclusion, it is of interest whether the filmmakers desire each spectator to identify in a specific way, as a result of the filmic devices laid out. Certain devices are used to evoke certain emotions from the viewer, but does this mean that every viewer identifies in the same way, therefore viewing the killer in the same way.
Schimd, David (2005). Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, pg 105-114, University of Chicago Press (reading printed from www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/738671.html).
Fuss, Diana (1960). Identification Papers. New York: Routledge.
Hill, Annette (1999). Risky Business: Film violence as an interactive phenomenon, pg 175-186. Stokes, Melvyn and Maltby, Richard (Eds.) (1999). Identifying Hollywood’s Audiences. London: British Film Institute.
Newitz, Annalee (1999). Serial killers, true crime, and economic performance anxiety, pg 65-86. Sharrett, Christopher (Ed.) (1999). Mythologies of violence in postmodern media. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press.
Simpson, Philip L (1999). The Politics of Apocalypse in the cinema of serial murder, pg 119-146. Sharrett, Christopher (Ed.) (1999). Mythologies of violence in postmodern media. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press.
Schneider, Steven Jay (2004). New Hollywood Violence. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Elliot, Julia (Ed.) (2001). Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus III. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harfield, Timothy D. ‘The Monster Without: Red Dragon, the Cleft-Lip, and the Politics of Recognition’. Available: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/mso/hid/hid5/harfield%20paper.pdf [1.4.08]
Corliss, Richard (1994). ‘The Man Behind the Monster’. Available: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,980191-2,00.html [4.4.08]
Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2003)
Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001)
Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003)
1 Elliot, Julia (Ed.) (2001). Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus III.
2 Schimd, David (2005). Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. Page 4 of 10.
3 Schimd, David (2005). Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. Page 5 of 10.
4Schimd, David (2005). Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. Page 4 of 10.
5Corliss, Richard (1994). ‘The Man Behind the Monster’.