Serial Killer is the New Cowboy

Looking over the summer blockbuster movies I see that “The Lone Ranger” flopped. The western, that iconic American genre, seems to be on the wane.  Post-modern treatments, or westerns with twists (“Brokeback Mountain”; “Unforgiven”), attract an audience and/or admiration, but the straight up, unironic, unreconstituted, cowboy narrative feels anachronistic.


It seems to me that the Serial Killer is the heir apparent to the Cowboy as the 21st-century cinematic embodiment of tumescent, hyper-extended American individualism. Like the cowboy, the serial killer both troubles and fascinates.

Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” sets the standard for the monster-hero serial killer (who often spawns serial movies and sequels as well). Other examples can be found in “Seven,” “Scream,” “American Psycho,” the Major Holiday Slasher Flicks, “The Lovely Bones,” and more. Cable and network series include the acclaimed and popular “Dexter,” as well as a share of the crime procedural dramas.

Obviously, there are vastly more serial killers as a percentage of Hollywood characters than there ever are in real life, violent though our country may be. Sadly, and to indirectly support my assertion, I find myself having to underscore the actual rarity of serial killers to my son far too often.

A quick Ngram search of content corroborates the inversely declining and rising narrative fortunes of “cowboy” and “serial killer,” respectively.  (Ngram has problems, to be sure, but it’s an interesting metric and snapshot of trends). The term serial killer is a recent, mid to late-20th century coinage.  Although the subject of the cowboy hearkens to the 1870s, the term reached peak popularity retrospectively, in the late 1930s. It’s been on the decline since the 21st century began. While still not as common as cowboy, serial killer has been trending meteorically since the start of the 21st century, although the data only go to 2008. Since then, the serial killer’s panache has only grown.

The lineage isn’t precise by any means, since the cowboy and/or gunslinger, while very much his own man, had a claim to white hat heroism and honor that the serial killer lacks. While a cowboy might kill, the serial killer only kills, and wears only the black hat—although he’s delighted over in the movies, all the same, and makes up in glamour what he lacks in honor.

The cinematic serial killer, like the cowboy of yore, roams the country alone, as a law unto himself. Neither is constrained, or protected, by laws, custom, or concepts of justice. The serial killer takes what he wants with the ultimate disregard for others, stretching atavism and self-determination just as far as they can possibly go. He embodies the nightmare (and the secret, troubling thrill) of a world of nothing but hyper-individualists in a fight to fulfill their desires, however grotesque they may be.

The serial killer is the monstrosity and abnormality that grows out of normal, laudatory convictions—in this case, of unbridled freedom, liberty, and individualism.

Like the cowboy of yore, the cinematic serial killer usually has some vigilante standard for his actions. He always has reasons for what he does that go beyond cruelty, sociopathy, greed, and madness (ie, Seven, or Hannibal Lector’s choices of victims as explained in The Silence of the Lambs). Or, if he has no private “code of justice” that dictates when, why, and how he kills, then at least the Hollywood serial killer has taste, style, and a gorgeous physique, which occasionally substitute in America for a moral code or philosophy.

Just as no one likes a poor, unpropertied sadist in popular literature—have you ever known one to succeed who wasn’t landed or filthy rich?—no one likes a witless, tasteless, overweight serial killer.

In this regard, Hollywood takes tremendous poetic license. “The thing about criminals is, they’re dumb,” explains a lawyer acquaintance of mine. Or crazy. Or both dumb and crazy. They usually get caught because of these two characteristics.

Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was fascinated by an early serial killer, William Hickman.  She came by her gruesome preoccupation honestly, and ingenuously. Like Rand’s imagined subject, the serial killer inhabits a cold, ruthless world where the individual must survive or languish on his own. Her fascination isn’t to say that she found him admirable, per se (although some claim that she did) but simply the disturbing terminus of her own logic. Like a tumor, the serial killer was the monstrous thing created—and perhaps inevitably-- by the gross proliferation of what she thought to be otherwise non-monstrous, normal ideals.

The normative values of any society spawn their own caricatured monsters and heroes or, in some cases, hybrid monster-heroes in fiction about whom we’re undecided. They raise the “what if” extreme fringe of common beliefs… what if… every single individual acted only as an individual, and did only what they desired to do… what if… we were all maximally, unrestrainedly, if monstrously, self-realized and determined? The cowboy used to play with some of that tension. Now, it’s the serial killer. As I find myself thinking about our young century quite often, and to quote The Who,  "it's a hard hard world."

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Michio Kaku: Genetic and digital immortality are within reach

Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.

Videos
  • Through the Connectome Project we may soon be able to map the pathways of the entire human brain, including memories, and create computer programs that evoke the person the digitization is stemmed from.
  • We age because errors build up in our cells — mitochondria to be exact.
  • With CRISPR technology we may soon be able to edit out errors that build up as we age, and extend the human lifespan.
Keep reading Show less