Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What Is the Monster of the Twenty-First Century?-Part Three

The Psychopathic Monster

When I was a child, I watched monster movies every chance I got. Every Friday night, our local horror host, Sammy Terry, showed monster movies from the 1930s through the 1960s, and on Saturday nights, we were treated to Science Fiction Theater. (1) Then, in the late 1970s and early '80s, a new kind of horror movie showed up at the theater. Mad slashers and hackers--Michael Myers from Halloween (1978), Jason from Friday the Thirteenth (1980), and all their demented offspring--practically monopolized horror movies for years. I objected. My complaint was that these are not horror movies and that slashers and hackers are not monsters. In my mind, a monster is a vampire, a werewolf, a zombie, or a space alien, or a giant ant, tarantula, or preying mantis. A horror movie has a monster, not a human being, as its villain or antagonist. I was not interested in guys with knives. (2) I felt that the essence of horror or terror is not blood and guts but something else. But I was missing something, for the murderous psychopath is in fact a monster, and one of the few real kinds of monsters in human history.

In our scientific age--more accurately, in this age of Scientism--we see psychopathy as a mental illness or as an organic (in other words, material) phenomenon. The psychopath might cut people into pieces, but that's only because there is something wrong with his brain. In the Middle Ages and even into the twentieth century, people who cut, shredded, and consumed other people were called beasts, werewolves, or vampires. They were seen as evil, demonic, or possessed. Only in the nineteenth century, when psychology became a science of sorts, did the psychopath cross over from the realm of the supernatural or metaphysical into the realm of the material or scientific. The psychopath did another kind of crossing over as well. In the Middle Ages, he lived on the fringes of humanity, in a cave, deep in the woods, or in a hovel on the edge of settlement. (3) But in the nineteenth century--not coincidentally, towards the end of the nineteenth century--the psychopathic killer moved to the city, and there he found his natural home.

For most of the history of humanity, we lived on farms and in rural areas. There were cities of course, and people were naturally drawn to cities, but life in the city as we know it was not possible until the mass movements and mass developments of the nineteenth century--mass production, mass transportation, mass education, mass employment, mass organization, mass media, and so on. The psychopathic killer had a hard time of it in his hometown. There would have been little in the way of privacy. Everyone knew everyone else. Moreover, the psychopath would not have easily found prey among people who were intimately connected to family, friends, church, and society. But the developments of the nineteenth gave the psychopath all he needed, for in a city of masses, he found secrecy, privacy, and anonymity for himself, and the loneliness, isolation, and alienation he needed in his prey. By the 1880s, it seems, large cities reached critical mass. In 1888, Jack the Ripper butchered five women in London. Five years later, H.H. Holmes dissected, dissolved, and otherwise mutilated and murdered at least twenty-seven in his Chicago house of horrors. The day of the serial killer had arrived, and as the twentieth century progressed, he became ever more notorious, a true monster for our times. He is still with us and not likely to go away anytime soon, for, again, he thrives on the secrecy, privacy, anonymity, isolation, and alienation of modern life, especially in cities and especially among the lives of the lonely and desperate masses.

To be continued . . .

(1) Both were on WTTV Channel 4 out of Bloomington and Indianapolis, one of the premiere independent TV stations in the United States. Pay TV of today is basically Channel 4 of old: old movies, old television shows, old cartoons, sports, talk shows, news, etc.
(2) I also objected to the stupidity of the characters, who, when faced with the realization that a crazy guy with a knife is on the loose, decide to split up. And I objected to the subtext for so many of those movies: the independent teenagers, experimenting with sex and other transgressions, must be punished by being cut into pieces. It's a kind of Puritanism that, I suppose, goes back to our origins as a nation.
(3) That at least is the popular notion. There were psychopaths or serial killers among the well born as well. Elizabeth Báthory is the obvious example. In any case, it's worth noting that the historical monster also inhabited the outer edges of the world. It's no coincidence that the psychopath--the Medieval beast, vampire, or werewolf--did as well. I will have more on all that by the end of this series of articles.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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