Gothic criminology was developed in the first decade of the 21st century as a postmodern theoretical model, incorporating elements from key criminological/sociological texts and themes embedded in various literature and film genres, with the goal of highlighting the continued existence of monstrous evil in its various modern permutations. As developed by Caroline (Kay) S. Picart and Cecil Greek, the perspective has been used to compare reel and real-world criminal activity, including, for example, male serial killers (metaphorically depicted as vampires), female serial killers such as Eileen Wuornos, dirty cops (interpreted as Golem), suicidal terrorists, societal responses to chaos-induced contemporary global evil (the Behemoth), and supernatural malevolent forces taking possession of human bodies. The potential usefulness of the theory in explaining other expressions of dystopic societal deviance and crime appears to be expanding.
This article brings together scholarship on crime and celebrity in media culture to offer an overview on the works that engage with their intersection points. Focusing on Anglo-American media culture in particular, it offers a useful overview of the field of celebrity studies and to the notable scholars that are sharpening their focus to include media discourses of notoriety and infamy. The text also includes approaches from film and television studies, cultural studies, and cultural criminology. After establishing an introduction to the place of notoriety within the context of celebrity studies, there follows a detailed, though not exhaustive, taxonomy of different types of notoriety (Infamous Crime, Celebrity Criminal, Criminal Celebrity, Celebrity Victim, Victimized Celebrity, Victims of Celebrity, and Celebrity Expert). This taxonomy draws on the work of media scholars studying fame and provides a vocabulary for theorizing and contextualizing the place of crime and transgression within contemporary media culture. With the taxonomy of notoriety in place, the remainder of the article considers two significant cultural practices of criminalized celebrity: the first is the forensic framing of criminality, transgression, and violence made possible by the figure of the Celebrity Expert. Such experts provide a containment system for the atavism of the criminal act by offering rational explanations and analytical tools. In the hands of the Celebrity Expert, the sensationalism of the true crime story is tempered by discourses of scientific rationalism. This process is often problematic because forensic accounts of crime must balance the tension between telling sensational stories of (often sexualized) violence and offering reassurance that justice can be realized through systems of scientific procedure. The second practice is generally considered more contentious: the industries of crime tourism and collection, dubbed murderabilia. Fans of true crime are invited to take part in “Ripper walks” through Whitechapel or Black Dahlia–themed bus tours through Los Angeles. The murderabilia trade proves that crime is indeed a lucrative business, and that celebrity fandom is not a practice limited to the admiration of film stars or musicians. The article concludes with a consideration of the serial killer, a highly mediated figure around which all of the debates and discourses of crime and celebrity circulates.
In contemporary society, “closure” refers to “end to a traumatic event or an emotional process” (Berns, 2011, pp. 18–19)—and, in the more specific context of capital punishment, controversy over what, if anything, is needed for murder victims’ families to attain healing and finality or move forward with their lives, including the execution of their loved one’s killer. The term is highly politicized, and is used by both death penalty advocates and its opponents to build arguments in favor of their respective positions. Closure has been indelibly linked to both capital punishment and media institutions since the late 1990s and early 2000s. The media’s penchant for covering emotional events and its role in informing the American public and recording newsworthy events make it perfectly suited to construct, publicize, and reinforce capital punishment’s alleged therapeutic consequences. Legal and political officials also reinforce the supposed link between closure and capital punishment, asking jurors to sentence offenders to death or upholding death sentences to provide victims’ families with a chance to heal. Such assertions are also closely related to beliefs that a particular offender is defiant or lacks remorse. Surprisingly, however, the association between closure and capital punishment has only recently been subjected to empirical scrutiny. Researchers have found that victims’ families deem closure a myth and often find executions themselves unsatisfying, provided that a perpetrator does not enjoy high media visibility so that the execution has a silencing effect, as did Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s execution by lethal injection in 2001. Recent empirical examinations of the link between capital punishment and closure prompt a redefinition of closure through which victims’ family members learn to cope with, work through, and tell the story of a murder and its impact. This redefinition is less sensational and thus perhaps less newsworthy, which may have the salubrious effect of discouraging extensive media emphasis on executions’ closure potential. Another way to decouple closure from capital punishment is for media organizations to change their practices of covering perpetrators, such as by not continually showing images of the perpetrator and by incorporating a more extensive focus on the victims and their families. While government officials have called for the media to exercise restraint in the wake of such events as the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, victims’ groups are now beginning to advocate for this same goal, with much success.
Phillip L. Simpson
Serial killing is an age-old problem, though it was not popularly known by that name until the 1980s. It took the rise of mass media and the mechanisms of mass production to create the conditions for the rise of serial murder in the modern world. The mass media representation of a series of murders arguably dates back to the notoriety accorded to the so-called Jack the Ripper killings of prostitutes in London in the autumn of 1888. The Ripper murders stand at a particular nexus in the representation of true crime, where fact and legend immediately fused in popular media to create a terrifying new modern, urban mythology of a preternaturally cunning human super-predator: one who strikes from the shadows to commit ghastly murder with impunity and then retreats back into that darkness until the next atrocity. Since the days of Jack the Ripper, a ghoulish pantheon of other serial killers has captivated the public imagination through representation in media: the Zodiac Killer, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy Jr., Henry Lee Lucas, Richard Ramirez, and Jeffrey Dahmer, just to name a few. However, the term “serial killer” did not enter the American popular vocabulary until the 1980s, so in another sense, the true representation of what we now know as serial killing could not begin until it had this latest, proper name. In tandem, as cultural consciousness of serial murder expanded, fictional serial killers proliferated the media landscape: Patrick Bateman, Norman Bates, Francis Dolarhyde, Lou Ford, Jame Gumb, Mickey and Mallory Knox, Leatherface, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan, Tom Ripley, and a host of others. Serial killers as they exist in the popular imagination are media constructs rooted in sociological/criminological/psychological realities. These constructs originate from collective fears or anxieties specific to a particular time and place, which also means as times and the cultural zeitgeist change, the serial killer as a character epitomizing human evil is endlessly reinvented for new audiences in popular media.