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Normal for the Abnormal

How the image of a maniac appeared in popular culture, and why series on this topic can have a therapeutic function

'Silence of the Lambs'

The image of a serial killer and/or rapist is a product of scientific discourse, transferred to the cinema, and then to TV series. In many films, the plot is based on finding and capturing such criminals by using a particular method — social and psychological profiling, and the appearance of a maniac in the cinema has been normalized today. Maria Marey, Senior Lecturer at HSE School of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, analysed how science and philosophy have contributed to the emergence of serial killer characters in popular culture, and how it affects the audience.

Why you shouldn’t be ashamed of watching series anymore

The status of TV series in the modern world has changed. People no longer have to make excuses for watching them. The philosopher and cultural critic Alexander Pavlov mentions it in the book ‘Prestigious Pleasure: Socio-philosophical Interpretations of the “Serial Explosion"’. Many modern TV series represent social reality and relationships in society.

‘Now it is a completely legitimate part of popular culture, even claiming to be considered high art (or at least can be evaluated this way), and certainly it’s not just entertainment in case of boredom, a way to fill empty or free time,’ says Maria Marey in her article ‘A Maniac from the Neighboring Canon. How Science Normalizes Cult Evil’. By studying how TV shows work and why we love them so much, we can learn a lot about ourselves, believe the researcher.

The researcher sees her work as a step towards starting a conversation about a very specific type of TV series that describes scientific or sci-fi methods of finding and catching serial killers and attempts to get into their minds. ‘In the last decade, they have become very popular and, in my opinion, should be studied separately from traditional horror films, because they scare us in an unusual way,’ says the author. There is nothing intentionally frightening, except the terrifying normality, the ordinariness of evil that is shown in these series.

How does a maniac differ from a trickster?

It is important that the series can demonstrate not only heroics, and constant action, but also the daily life and reflections of characters, which were previously possible only in arthouse cinema, says Maria Marey. ‘Series have enough screen time for this, they can stick to a certain pace of narration and there are opportunities to reveal the characters from all possible sides. And it is significant that the hero of such narratives is often an antihero, that is, not a great person, but a controversial character in an ethical sense, with whom viewers can easily associate themselves,’ says the researcher.

In her analysis, she refers to the article ‘The Logic of TV Series’ by Eva Rapoport, lecturer at the Department of Cultural Sciences at HSE School of Cultural Studies. Rapoport points out that one of the most interesting examples of serial heroes is a trickster — a joker, a rogue, a rebel who violates social norms. His image is rooted in mythology, folklore and religion. He differs from a simple eccentric character in the story, which begins with misunderstanding, and, as Maria Marey clarifies, with the rejection of the principles and norms of public life. In literature and cinema, a trickster can be recognized, for example, in Ostap Bender from The Twelve Chairs, Baron Munchausen or Ivan the Fool.

This character, hacking social norms by his nature, is convenient for demonstrating social ideas that the series authors want to convey to the viewer. Eva Rapoport states that Dexter Morgan from the TV series ‘Dexter’, about a serial killer who works as a forensic expert on blood pattern analysis in the Miami police department, is ‘a witty example of socialization history’.

 ‘A psychopath can also serve as a metaphor for a trickster, since he does not live by the laws of society, simply does not understand them, he is unable to feel them. His unconditional desire to fit into this society anyway makes him a full-fledged trickster and a source of information about the appropriate examples. Using the example of Dexter, we can talk about defamiliarisation, which allows us to discuss issues that seem to be known and obvious to everyone within the framework of the series,’ states Eva Rapoport.

However, Maria Marey suggests that in those series focused on scientific approach to the problem, a psychopath, sociopath or maniac differs from a trickster. As examples, she uses the TV series ‘Criminal Minds’, ‘Des’, ‘The Fall’, ‘Mindhunter’, ‘Alienist’, and ‘Mad to Be Normal’, in which potentially dangerous persons suffer from mental disorders that change their nature, making them murderers and maniacs, who remain sane.

The author believes that a maniac is not someone who does not understand social norms, but rather someone who consciously violates them. A trickster can destroy stereotypes, social and cultural norms, their behavior can be an extreme expression of eccentricity, but their essence, the main part of their nature doesn’t tend to crimes. ‘A trickster is different from other people, he may like to be ordinary, but he can't. A maniac, unlike him, leads normal life and can be quite successfully socialized, imitating the behavior and habits of an ordinary person,’ the researcher notes.

The Serial Killer as Object of Study and Control

To consider how some philosophical ideas or concepts (specifically the concept of the ‘abnormal’) function in the series, Maria Marey uses the socio-philosophical analysis and discourse theory of Michel Foucault. In his ‘Abnormal’ course of lectures, the philosopher analyzes a character — an ‘abnormal’ who appears at the junction of medical, legal, police and power discourses. This is a social construct, a new one, potentially dangerous, requiring not just isolation, but corrective action.

If a madman known to previous eras could be called a trickster who breaks social norms and can be excluded from society (or legitimately plays the role of buffoon or fool), then an abnormal is someone who must be forcibly ‘normalized’ via diagnosis and the application of subsequent police and medical correctional practices.

‘He is Different, not an outcast; he should not be destroyed with the help of a bloody and spectacular execution, not expelled, but studied and controlled by observing and fixing various spiritual (mental) and bodily manifestations of his distorted nature. The power of knowledge is an art that creates these characters in the social and legal field by finding, fixing, defining, classifying and, if possible, normalizing, them,’ writes Maria Marey.

According to Foucault, an ‘abnormal’ is a criminal who commits a socially dangerous act, violating the social contract and moral norms. But in order to identify him as abnormal, it is necessary to conduct forensic and psychiatric examinations, which can ‘directly or indirectly influence the decision of the court,’ which means that it has the power of life and death over a person.

The examination thus creates a crime. ‘Criminality’ appears as a characteristic, a criminal subject is not just as a person who has committed an offense at some point, while a psychiatrist, as Foucault notes, becomes a judge who determines whether a particular criminal falls under the definition of ‘abnormal’.

The banality of evil

In many ways, the interest in insanity, mania and maniacal issues is connected with the phenomenon of so-called ‘emotional tourism’ — the desire to see how terrible everything can be and then return to one’s regular quiet life, says Maria Marey. As she explains, this is ‘entertainment’ of the same kind as attending public executions, gladiatorial fights or excursions to old prisons or mental hospitals — a safe pleasure that allows you to tickle your nerves, but does not pose a real danger.

However, European and American cinema over the past 20-25 years has featured a number of TV series in which there is no habitual opposition between the protagonist and antagonist, the researcher notes. There is no division between the bearer of power (a detective, a police officer, a journalist, a ‘caring citizen struggling for the truth’) and the maniac they pursue — an absolute evil embodied in a terrible, disgusting figure, not quite human.

The idea of the ‘banality of evil’ has become popular: the villain is portrayed as an ordinary person who leads an ordinary life, evoking sympathy among friends, family and acquaintances; someone who doesn’t differ from other people when he doesn’t commit crimes, notes the researcher. The villain may have his own developed system of moral norms, and his crimes perfectly fit within it.

Maria Marey lists the following examples:

 an endless series of maniacs who are invisible among ordinary residents of large and small US cities prosecuted by profiler investigators from the TV series ‘Criminal Minds’ — its plot is based on real events;

 an ordinary employee of the employment bureau, the hero of a book by Brian Masters, ‘Killing for Company’, and the TV series ‘Des’ Dennis Nielsen, a real person;

 Miami medical examiner Dexter Morgan (‘Dexter’), a fictional character;

 a psychologist and crisis centre worker in Belfast Paul Spector (‘The Fall’), a fictional character;

 numerous murderers and serial rapists, who were studied by FBI special agent John Douglas, author of the book ‘Mindhunter’ (the TV series ‘Mindhunter’ is also based on this book) and a dozen others, who came up with what is called ‘profiling’ in the series;

 one of the most famous and frightening characters among American intellectual villains, the hero of the novels by Thomas Harris and the film ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and the TV series ‘Hannibal’, Dr. Lecter, a fictional character whose prototypes were serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Heidnik.


The author notes that all these characters and stories are united by the fact that their characters, actions, as well as the ways of recognizing and catching them involve not only police techniques, but also psychology and psychiatry, as well as a relatively new science, which one of its founders, criminologist John Douglas called ‘profiling’. This term can now be found in many American and European TV series (‘Criminal Minds’, ‘Mindhunter’), but in fact it was only created in the late 1970s as a new method of catching serial criminals who committed violent crimes.

‘Profiling’ is the compiling of a psychological portrait of a person based on the crimes committed by them. This is a set of fairly general characteristics that describe possible past traumas of the subject of analysis, their upbringing, character, gender, race, age, sexual preferences, possible places of work, etc. These characteristics can help the police and the FBI (John Douglas worked with both) to narrow down the circle of possible suspects. In addition, and something equally relevant, profiling can help explain the reasons for committing crimes — not just motive, but the features of the criminal's personality that made him a murderer,’ adds the researcher.

John Douglas worked in the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit since 1977 and developed research methods for people who committed ‘high-profile’ serial crimes such as rape and/or murder. The main research methods used included collecting all known information about the subject, as well as long interviews on pre-developed questionnaires, which were changed and improved during the study. Douglas tried to find out why they did it, how they perceived what they did, how they share memories, whether they return to these events in their memories, why they committed these crimes, what happened in their mind during crimes, and whether something could influence the choice of victim, change the decision or cause remorse. Douglas wrote that these were the first attempts to use a source of information that had previously been ignored — the criminals themselves.

Douglas noted that for a successful trial and sentencing in a murder case, either irrefutable evidence (forensic medical examination), witness statements or confessions of the accused, or very strong circumstantial evidence were required. Now, thanks to their work, the police and prosecutors have ‘another arrow in their quiver.’ The role of expert profilers has become increasingly important at all stages of police work. A better understanding of the psychology of the maniac contributes to catching them more effectively, states Douglas.

To understand a maniac, you need to imagine yourself in their shoes

Maria Marey suggests that in this way there was a ‘reconstruction of the criminal's personality (and at the same time — their identification, construction, and separation from the general number of people who committed serious violent crimes) together with the emergence of an expert.’ At the time when Douglas and his colleagues started working, there were neither experts nor, in fact, maniacs, the author notes.

‘Of course, they existed physically, but not as objects of special research, standing out as a result of their cruelty and desperate, defiant illogicality of their atrocities, which was not understood and often prevented their capture. In the process of studying, both sides gained discursive certainty, acquired characteristics, clarified their nature, specific features, habitual practices, etc.’

Douglas believed that his and his colleagues’ work was necessary due to the fact that in the second half of the 20th century in the United States, the nature of violent crimes was changing: the number of crimes was growing, and law enforcement officers simply could not understand some of them. There were no suspects, and those who were later caught were in no way connected with the victims, there was no obvious motive for their actions, and the cruelty and strangeness was both frightening and hindered understanding.

In cases where the perpetrators were clearly mentally ill, the situation was somewhat simpler, they could explain everything by mental disorder. But many of them were terrifyingly normal in every other way — or at least they weren't any weirder than the rest of the population. As a result, there was no answer to the question ‘why?’. This meant that there was no way to prevent something like this or to see similar features in other crimes and solve them.

Douglas mentioned several times that the work of profilers allows you to reveal the true identity of the criminal. This suggests that, firstly, it may be hidden from the eyes of an observer who does not know what exactly to look for. Secondly, the criminal himself may not be fully aware of his motives and desires (without admitting them to himself or having no words to express them). And thirdly, experts, after conducting a study, gain not only knowledge about the identity of the criminal, but also the power of an expert, a classifier involved in determining punishment.

However, Douglas also talks about another power — someone who really understands ‘what happened and why.’ He wrote that the only way to catch maniacs is to learn to think like them, to walk in their shoes. Going with them all the way from the emergence of a desire or need until the realization of it. The same must be done with the victim. Only when there is a clear idea of how a particular victim would react to the terrible things that happened to them, can one truly understand the behavior and reaction of the criminal.

Therapeutic function of mass culture

Viewers who love TV shows about maniacs can now not only look at the terrible things, but also watch how they are disassembled into constituent elements, classified, and labeled, says the researcher. It makes the world clearer and calms things down a bit. Even if there are a lot of terrible people around — now, at least, it is an understandable horror, named, and therefore seemingly more harmless. Thus, the therapeutic function of mass culture is fulfilled, as well as its task of creating a view of the world, says Maria Marey.

Study author:
Author: Marina Selina, October 27, 2022