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2019: Year of the Serial Killer?

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     One of this summer’s biggest blockbusters is going to be a little more murderous than you expected. The cast from Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features a variety of characters from the infamous Manson Family, including their leader, Charles Manson. With Margot Robbie cast as the late Sharon Tate, odds are that the horrific murders are going to be a major plot point for Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively) to work though.

     The inclusion of Charles Manson is not surprising, though, as 2019 is shaping up to be the year of the serial killer. Manson’s shocking history has also inspired the film The Haunting of Sharon Tate, starring Hillary Duff, which is due to premier in theaters on April 5th, and the film Charlie Says, staring Dr. Who’s Matt Smith, premiering on May 19th. In January of this year, Ted Bundy dominated social media following the Netflix release of Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. This loosely coincides with the late January Sundance Film Festival release of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, the Ted Bundy biographical film starring Zac Efron as Bundy.

     The dark, gruesome lives of serial killers can be compared to automobile accidents on the side of the road; horrifying to see, yet the morbid nature is hard to look away from. As Helen Morrison, a forensic psychiatrist who has interviewed many serial killers, explains to Michael Bond of the BBC, the root of such interest in serial killers is how normal they appear. Our interest in them stems from how they look and function just like the rest of society, yet there is something malicious hidden below the surface. James Hoare argued, again for the BBC, that serial killers are so interesting because of how absurdly malevolent they are. Their actions and daily lives seem too shocking to be true, yet knowing that they exist creates a grim fascination within audiences. While horror movie villains serve to scare audiences, serial killers act almost like a cautionary tale, reminding society that danger can be around any corner.

     While Manson and Bundy have been the main antagonists of this year so far, a hauntingly long list of other infamous serial killers lies waiting to fuel the serial killer movie trend. Stories about the Zodiac Killer, who is believed by some to also be the Monster of Florence, has been absent from the silver screen since David Fincher’s film, Zodiac (2007). Though American serial killers have been the most famous so far, Canadian serial killers, such as Paul Bernardo or Roch Theriault, have equally haunting stories to tell in the theaters. The list continues on with John Wayne Gacy, Ed Kemper, and the BTK Killer, to name a few.

     There is a question of morality when it comes to making movies about serial killers, though, namely when it comes to those affected by the actions of the serial killer depicted. For example, Bryan Hartnell, survivor of one of the famous Zodiac murderes, explains that watching Zodiac (2007) was so realistic that it was eerie to watch. Additionally, Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra, almost always opposes the use of her deceased sister in movies about the Manson Family. To Debra, films highlighting her sister’s death serve to remind her of the early-August tragedy. That being said, Quentin Tarantino’s willingness to cooperate with her has caused Debra to have a change of heart, giving her blessing to the award-winning film maker for his upcoming film.

     Writers and directors must also make the decision as to how a serial killer is portrayed throughout a film. Though Patty Jenkins’ Monster (2003) was praised by critics, many questioned the decision to depict serial killer Aileen Wuornos as a victim of her environment. Wuornos, who was working as a prostitute at the time, murdered seven men and initially claimed that it was for self-defence. John Tanner, the prosecutor in Wuornos’s court case, reminded readers in an article by John Stossel, a reporter for ABC News, that the murdered men “had wives […] daughters, brothers, sons, [and] friends”. Stossel went on to quote Wuornos during her trial, admitting that her crimes were not self-defence, and that she would kill again if given the chance “’cause [she had] hated humans for a long time”.

     A very similar conundrum happened following release of Karla (2006), a film by Joel Bender about Karla Homolka during the crime spree of her boyfriend, Paul Bernardo. Though not as well received as Jenkins’ Monster, the film fell in to a similar moral issue with Homolka being depicted as a victim, despite her involvement with Bernardo. Instead of being victimized by her environment, Karla portrays Homolka as a prisoner to Bernardo’s beatings and manipulation. Robert Koehler of Variety argues that the film is “more willing to explicitly show Paul’s constant beatings of Karla than the worst aspects of the killings”, establishing Homolka as the victim instead of Bernardo’s victims.

     Finally, there is the question of if movies skew how the public views serial killers. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) has been accused as being the reason behind various copycat crimes in the years following its release. The most notable of these crimes is the 1999 Columbine School Massacre, with the two shooters referring to the movie in short form (NBK) in various journal entries. Natural Born Killers has been accused as glorifying serial killers, making them seem like celebrities instead of criminals.

     The world of cinema is constantly changing with trends coming and going all the time, and the year of 2019 is shaping up to be the year of serial killer movies. With plenty of movies planned, and potential for more to be announced, the question arises of whether serial killers should be allowed to become a trend. These infamous individuals could either serve as monsters that audiences can’t help but watch, or they could become a cinematic mistake that ends abruptly. It’s still early in the year, so there is plenty of time to see how this killer trend performs.

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