Review: Language, Ideology and Identity in Serial Killer Narratives.

Posted by Samantha Walton on September 19, 2011 in Reviews tagged with

Gregoriou, Christiana. Language, Ideology and Identity in Serial Killer Narratives.

Reviewed by Samantha Walton, University of Edinburgh.

If serial killer narratives now rival narratives of detection in popularity in British and American popular culture, the heroisation of the serial killer, a figure considerably less sympathetic than most fictional detectives, can be seen as a marker of a significant declivity in the contemporary imagination which demands interrogation. Using linguistic analysis sensitive to naming, metaphor and transitivity, in Language, Ideology and Identity in Serial Killer Narratives Christiana Gregoriou explores the ideologies that structure serial killer narratives and in doing so, provides a careful and frequently disturbing account of contemporary responses to violent crime.

The volume is structured around explorations three key sub-genres in narratives of serial killing: news media coverage of twenty-first century mass and serial crimes; ‘true crime’ literature focusing on major late nineteenth century and twentieth century killers; and serial killer fictions in graphic novel and television formats. Charting linguistic patterns and visual metaphors across these differing formats, Gregoriou addresses the intertextuality of both true and fictional accounts and builds a compelling thesis concerning the drive to fictionalise, sensationalise and even glamorise the lives of compulsive killers. The study is pivoted around stylistic analyses of the mechanics of naming, describing and explaining, which are found to differ very little in the diverse sub-genres under consideration. The language and ideology of serial killer narratives are shown to emulate pre-existing tropes, with representations of murderers as ‘vampires’ (those who turned to crime as a consequences of a traumatic event in childhood) competing with portrayals of killers as monsters (born with a perverse predisposition to violent crime which posits them outside of the ‘human’) (73) in many narratives. As representations of killers are seen to fall time and again into these recognisable conventions, the consequences of stylising readers’ comprehensions of these incomprehensible crimes are thoroughly interrogated.

Particularly strong is Gregoriou’s dismantling of the ways in which the killer’s agency and responsibility are evaporated through language which sees victims dying rather than being killed by someone and through psychological profiling which traces murderous intentions back to absent mothers, drugs, popular culture or social exclusion. There are solid and consistent responses to misogynist, homophobic and racist tendencies in serial killer narratives, and the emphasis placed upon ethnicity when the subject under discussion is not white, the beauty of the female victim and the equation of homosexuality with murderous perversion in certain texts are all held to account. In her survey of academic literature on serial killer narratives, Gregoriou cites Jane Caputi, who sees Ripper narratives and the mythologising of the sexual killer as an “eminently logical step in the progression of patriarchal roles,” and a “new gynocidal archetype” (1987: 5). While being always meticulous and consistent in the dismantling of  misogynistic and the sexually exploitative responses to the dead, the study offers important reflections upon the tendency to sentimentalise or incriminate victims (depending on their standing in constructed hierarchies of ‘deserved-ness’) and to deny victims their dignity and singularity by classifying them as a killer’s ideal type. Analyses of how these dehumanising strategies function even in narratives most sympathetic to victims and most repulsed by killers are both compelling and timely.

In the outline of her research method, Gregoriou sets her focus upon bundles of culturally constructed perceptions and information shared by many which are referred to as “group schema” (5) – a possibly undertheorised term, perhaps borrowed from Piaget via recent cognitive anthropology, and loosely reminiscent of the discourse of Foucault. If a similar study were pursued according to a Foucauldian method, it might lead into thinking in terms of a wider episteme and its genealogy to account for, or at least expand, an understanding of some of the discourses at play in these texts. This is, of course, not Gregoriou’s method or intention, and this is arguably a good thing. Indeed, the study’s adoption of a critical discourse analysis method rather than a derivation of post-structuralism is one of its particular strengths, and Gregoriou’s openness to recording the patterns of meaning that develop through cliché and metaphor which have no immediately assignable relation to discourses recognisable in advance, contribute to an unexpectedly rich and open-ended reading of these narratives. The tendency to portray the activities of killers as ‘work’ in many true crime and news reports gives fascinating insight into the concerns of a white collar, post-industrial readership, a point which is fully realised in Gregoriou’s analysis of Dexter, the hard-working ‘ethical’ serial killer of North American prime time television. Further than this, the study also questions why it matters, for example, that newspaper reports on the deaths of victims remark repeatedly that “life is a journey” and “police work is a jigsaw puzzle” (29)? That journalists tend to describe the attacks of serial killers in terms of an explosion of a high-pressure liquid previously ‘bottled up’ has meaningful connotations in relation to the object immediately under discussion: the instigating factor being more chemical than rational (or even psychological), the agency of the serial killer is arguably diminished by such rhetoric. However, other metaphors, as pervasive yet less immediately relevant, are analysed nonetheless, suggesting further avenues for enquiry outside of Gregoriou’s immediate scope, and attesting to a reliable and unprejudiced research method.

One final issue raised by the study concerns agency, but not that of the killer, which is so often poignantly absent from the texts. While the study recognises that many of the ideologies active in these narratives are troubling and pervasive, so too does it leave scope for the evaporation of agency from readers who, it is assumed, passively consume these accounts ideologies intact. If this is in fact the case, Gregoriou’s choice to analyse tabloid alongside broadsheet, pulpy true-crime books alongside the smart post-modern anti-detective drama Dexter and the respected graphic novels of Alan Moore complicates the assumption, troublesome to researchers of crime fictions, that it is only some kind of superficially delimited uneducated mass that responds to these narratives and the opinions they obliquely express. Perhaps this is a question unanswerable from within literary, or even linguistic studies, and more within the realms of a quantitative sociology which may demand the loss of much of the stylistic rigour and qualitative nuance of Gregoriou’s analysis. Still, as it is noted in the study’s close, true crime and narrativised reportage have real social consequences, in that they contribute to a ‘culture of fear’ and a sense of individual vulnerability, risk-consciousness and responsibility in may-be-victims. This study asserts that the border between crime narratives and perceived social realities (or group schemas, as we might choose to call them), is both permeable and indeterminable, and that the language chosen to entertain, to provoke or to objectively relay information is not neutral, does not exist in a vacuum, and frequently communicates far more than bare facts. As Gregoriou suggests, the truth is in the grammar.

Samantha Walton took a BA in English Literature at KCL and an MSc in Social
and Political Theory at Birkbeck and is now researching a PhD at the
University of Edinburgh on representations of mental illness, legal
responsibility and free will in female-penned, golden age crime fiction.

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