Modern Media and the Birth of the Serial Killer

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“One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the twentieth century”  
–(attributed to) Jack The Ripper, 1888 

      It is certainly possible that Jack the Ripper has given birth to the 20th Century Man (a being coping with being flooded with post-Industrial availability– knowledge and experience brought by easy access, mass resources, transportation and expansion of land– and the fear, strange but seemingly inevitable, in constantly changing cities where the claustrophobic proximity of worlds of people makes them unavoidable yet distanced, alienated and alienating) and the serial killer or, more correctly, the media’s serial killer. No one knows for sure if serial killers existed before The Ripper– it’s doubted but, if true, irrelevant, as we the writer, the readers, and society at large are dealing with the serial killer as formed by the 20th century’s new waves of technology creating the concepts of media and coverage and sensationalism. The serial killer itself in our post-Industrial society ceases to be a human being not based on more complicated thoughts of morality and the deeds of killer making him a “monster,” “animal,” or “demon”; he ceases to be a human because, once in the media he is in himself a concept, an idea, a symbol used in media, in propaganda to illustrate (and carry the burden of) a threat, a danger, a chaos supposedly only the city knows.

      So it is possible Jack the Ripper birthed (or merely illuminated, unearthed) the mentality of 20th century society but it certainly can be turned around and said the 20th century urbanization gave birth to him for the same reasons and with the same effect.

      The 2001 film, From Hell, directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, adapted from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel of the same name, opens with the above quote. The Hughes brothers film street stories. Menace II Society, Dead Presidents: ghetto life, the crimes of the impoverished, the ‘hood– street stories. While initially it may have been surprising to see them herald a project about Victorian London and Jack the Ripper until one realized it was still a street story in someone else’s ‘hood but with the same tragic life of impoverished criminals.

      The focus of this paper, however, is does not include From Hell for simple technical reasons but mention of it must be made for the fact of it being a film about the world’s first covered serial killer, born of– or giving birth to– the city. The focus of the paper is the portrayal of the serial killer in the fiction films M by Fritz Lang and Summer of Sam by Spike Lee.

      The fact that David Berkowitz of Summer of Sam was a real man (or, for that matter, so Jack the Ripper must have been) and M‘s Hans Beckert was not is irrelevant. In fact, it can and will be argued that Berkowitz and the Ripper as we know them from media and stories are, too, like Hans Beckert, inspired by real figures but aren’t actually real. As it is unnecessary and, indeed, irrelevant for a reader to agree or disagree with the actions of any fictional literary character, it is unnecessary for film audiences to take a character on film, even if based on a real person, as the real being. It is absurd. That aside, the writer of the paper can treat these serial killers as the allegorical figures of urban hysteria as their respective films portray them.

      Lang and Lee’s films don’t pretend to be about the killers themselves. These are not the killers’ biographies documenting the degradation that led to murderous desires or day-in-the-life films focusing the acts of murder; these are films, essentially, about the city the killers are part of and the fear gripping its citizens, the hysteria and chaos that makes monsters of all, bringing the worst assumptions and suspicions to the surface– assumptions and suspicions where one can say, as said in M, “the killer is all of us. Your neighbor could be the murderer.” Tom Gunning, in The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity argues how M‘s Hans Beckert is only an embodiment of an ideal with which to illustrate the depravity of the expressionistic, chaotic city: 


…the city in M seems to possess a will of its own…it could be seen as the protagonist of the film. The film’s lack of an immediately identifiable protagonist …marks its greatest difference…the film co-ordinates several points of view, presenting a number of semi-autonomous episodes, all centered around the search for a murderer of children. The film does not pivot around Hans Beckert, but around his absence rather than his presence, around the search for this mysterious and initially elusive figure….he is the film’s blind spot, its aporia, rather than its point of coherence. (Gunning, 164) 


      In a 1999 interview with Prairie Miller, collected among the many in Spike Lee: Interviews, edited by Cynthia Fuchs, Spike Lee makes clear that: “[The film Summer of Sam] is not about David Berkowitz. It’s not about Son of Sam. It’s about his evil energy that affected 8 million New Yorkers…Our intention was never to do a film about a serial killer…our intention was never to go into the mind of a psychopath and to follow him…that’s not the film we made (Fuchs, 179, 182).

      Lang and Lee both made a conscious effort not to show their respective killers’ faces throughout the movie. Instead, both directors found ways to represent them symbolically and as symbols themselves. When we first see Hans Beckert in M, he is but a shadow looming on the screen, standing over his latest child victim, Elsie Beckmann, who herself is represented by the ball she plays with, bouncing off of a wall with, coincidentally, the police poster announcing the presence of the murderer on the streets of Berlin. Beckert’s face is never seen outside of his own home as he stands in the mirror, making grotesque faces as, in voice-over, police commissioner Lohmann describes how he and his police teams are following specific strategies in trying to find the killer. In Summer of Sam, Berkowitz is always shot from the chin down or from the rear, stalking his victims in shadows further cloaking his identity. He is represented by the large lettered and/or numbered toy blocks he uses to spell out “Murder” and “Victims 1,2,3,4,5,6, and 7”– always shown with strategic editing after he’s committed another murder and before or during newsreel radio voice-overs or television footage, as if taunting the police with more than the physical letter he’s written to Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin warning he “won’t stop”, just as M‘s Beckert writes to Berlin’s newspaper for publication of his warning to kill again.  Only in his house, surrounded by rotting food, walls covered in his own insane graffiti where he writes about his love for blood and killing, is his face shown, his body nearly fully naked– in their homes are the killer’s exposed, vulnerable as victims of themselves.

      In From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Siegfried Kracauer describes M‘s Hans Beckert: “[Beckert is] Cesare as his own Caligari,” alluding to Carl Mayer and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligeri, an original German Expressionist film that undoubtedly influenced Lang. The idea that internal forces, even those imagined in the crazed mind as external, are driving these killers is expressed in the M and …Sam: Beckert, defending himself at the kangaroo court at the film’s end, and Berkowitz, in his confession in a letter to Jimmy Breslin, both admit to voices or demons compelling them to murder. “I can’t help it,” Beckert sobs helplessly. “…this cursed thing inside me…this fire, this voice, this agony…screams and cries out inside me when I have to [kill]…” Berkowitz claims his god or devil, Sam, “commands me to kill…he loves to drink blood.” It is often unclear, even to Berkowitz, whether Sam is the one he follows/worships, or himself. He uses Sam and “I” or “me” interchangeably while simultaneously calling him “Father Sam” that instructs him to murder. Furthermore, he claims a 1,000 year old dog named Harvey also barks inside his head and won’t quiet until he’s killed. These killers, possessed of “evil” spirits or of themselves, are victims– helpless against the raging of the voices.

      As the killers in the films are represented by objects associated with them, so are their victims. As previously mentioned, Beckert’s victim Elsie Beckmann is never shown onscreen physically after she’s been snatched by Hans– her death is revealed as the ball she’s played with her entire onscreen time rolls out slowly on the grass and the balloon Hans buys for her, released from her lifeless hand, floats on the wind and is tangled in a group of telephone wires– the balloon, a strangely deformed human-like shape, tangled in the wires seems to suggest the plight of Elsie, Hans’ other child victims, and perhaps all of the city dwellers as victims tangled up in the terror and alienation of urban life where good and evil are available in floods at one’s fingertips and people, piled on top of one another without being able to touch, see, and understand each other, are forced to collide into each other only in violence in fear and hysteria. In Summer of Sam, Berkowitz’s victims are represented by their cars as they are almost always out late, parked in lover’s lanes or abandoned lots, when they are murdered. Though we often do see the victims’ faces and their deaths, we might as well haven’t seen them at all– whenever we see a car onscreen at night we almost certainly expect a murder, the tension rising as audience connects in the mind the victims to their cars– there is more focus on the car than the actual victims.

      The concept of justice in the two films is immensely complex and there is no real distinguishing between the “good guys” and “bad guys”– or, more appropriately, the guys who should be credited with ridding the streets of the evil force looming. This is brilliantly emphasized in both movies by both directors’ skillful cross-cutting between the police and vigilantes as they plot to find the killer and race each other to catch him first.

      The police force, often taken to be an allegorical representation of upstanding, though evidently inefficient democracy– and vital to the argument of whether it is wise to compromise democratic individual rights for public security. The vigilantes who seek to find the killer mostly because he– Beckert and Berkowitz– is “bad for business,” bringing more attention to their own criminal activities as the police search through their turf. In Lang’s film, one of the thieves laments, “Cops are crawling the streets like ants again…on your back even if you’re with a broad…every night I have to check under the bed to see if the murderer’s hiding there. You can’t do business anymore for tripping over cops anymore…measures taken by the police and the daily raids…are hampering our activities…the police have been after this murderer for eight months now– we can’t wait. We have to catch him” The vigilantes in Lee’s film are Italian-American gangster wannabes, pushing small time drugs and starting petty street fights for restlessness, following orders from (perhaps) legitimate Boss, Luigi, who echoes, “We gotta catch this rat bastard! We gotta do it– because [the police]can’t…” The vigilantes are merciless, lashing out on anyone suspicious, and in M are allegorical representations themselves of the Nazi Party, “cleansing” the city and country of all threats to the “good” German ethics– whether psychological, racial, or religious. In Summer of Sam, they lash out on foreigners, out-of-staters, minorities, even targeting the Punk Rock Ritchie, friend of Vinnie, one of the “boys.” Ritchie, in fact, could be extended to represent that “one little girl” saved in M by the hurried, merciless efforts of the vigilantes, however, Ritchie is caught by the vigilantes, assumed to be the Son of Sam based on extreme (to them) music and fashion tastes. Ritchie is tortured by Luigi’s puppets and is saved only when the news is announced that the police, unlike the police in M, have caught the real murderer. Ritchie is an inadvertent, offhand victim of Sam (or Sam’s influence), and is, like Elsie and her ball, Berkowitz and his dice, and Beckert and his shadow, represented symbolically by his guitar and, in turn, represents the new revolution rejected vehemently by mainstream society at the time– it is interesting to note the parallels between the excesses and artistic progress of late-70s to 80s New York and Weimar Berlin, both movements eventually crushed by new political powers.

      Spike Lee and Fritz Lang both go to great lengths to explore the social circumstances that enable the serial killer to thrive in modern cities as well as the cycle of hysteria that both creates and is created by the serial killer. Both films are less portraits of psychopaths than portraits of cities. Both films are saturated in allegory– Lang’s admittedly more than Lee’s but both are allegorical just the same– and provide vital social commentary to, hopefully, help viewers to reflect on the problems of urbanization and technology, industrialization, and overpopulation.


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