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Graduate student examines America's fascination with serial killers

STANFORD -- When graduate student David Schmid reads books and magazines about crime, or views television programs and films about murder, he's not escaping from his academic work. He's conducting research for it.

Schmid, a doctoral candidate in modern thought and literature, is writing his thesis on serial killers.

He is trying to make sense of the explosion of literary and media representations of serial murder in the United States during the last 20 to 30 years. During that time, he said, serial murder has gone from being "a relatively obscure criminological category that was developed and used by the FBI" to the subject of countless movies, detective novels, television specials and even trading cards.

The serial killer has become "one of America's pre-eminent deviants," Schmid said.

The incidence of serial murder has increased over the last three decades, he said, "but certainly not to the same extent as representations of the act have increased."

For his thesis, Schmid said, he is looking at "how our understanding of what serial murder is, and what type of person becomes a serial killer, is influenced by the representations we consume, be they films, television or books ."

However, he said, "it is important to recognize that we are talking about something that is an act, and not just a representation."

Schmid said he is trying to develop an analysis of serial murder that doesn't take it for granted or see it as natural, "but at the same time never loses sight of the fact that even though our understanding of it may be constru cted, there is always a reality called serial murder that leaves dead victims."

Any study of the subject must include that double focus, he said, "because otherwise, if you'll excuse the pun, you produce a study that is somewhat bloodless."

English literature background

Schmid did his undergraduate work in English literature at Pembroke College, Oxford University. He received a master's degree in critical theory at the University of Sussex and, after taking some time off, enrolled at Stanford in the fall of 1989.

Modern Thought and Literature is probably the only program in the country that would allow him to do his project on serial killers, Schmid said.

"The beauty of the program," he said, "is that it gives you the flexibility to approach an issue like serial murder and to transcend disciplinary boundaries, drawing information from a variety of disciplines."

In addition to his work in literary studies, Schmid has incorporated elements of history, anthropology, sociology, psychology and feminist studies. He has three advisers, two in the English Department, and one in history.

It is his aim, Schmid said, to produce a piece of work that will increase the understanding of murder and the culture of violence in America. It is fundamental to that understanding, he said, "to destroy the line that says 'I'm normal, he's not.' We have to understand that serial murder is at the extreme end of a continuum of violent behavior that also includes child abuse, spousal abuse, sexual harassment, rape - all kinds of violent and contemptuous behavi ors that show a lack of respect for other people."

Everyone is not equally implicated, Schmid said, since the vast majority of serial murders and other violent crimes are committed by men. That doesn't mean, he said, "that we should now look at a whole class of people - men - a nd say 'you are guilty by association.' But I think we have to face the fact that the culture of violence in this country is multi-faceted and no part of it should be separated from the rest. We have to consider it as a system of inter locking parts."

To show the connections between the individual and society, Schmid will examine the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee man who preyed on boys and young men and is alleged to have engaged in cannibalism as well as murder.

Obviously, Schmid said, Dahmer "has deep-seated mental problems and should, for the safety of others, be permanently incarcerated."

"But I go beyond that point and ask what are the social forces that both contributed to the making of someone like Dahmer and to our understanding of him and what he did."

Dahmer's crimes, said Schmid, did not occur in a vacuum. "It's not just the story of a mad murderer and his unfortunate victims. Those crimes involved the whole community."

That was particularly evident, he said, when it developed that a Laotian boy who had escaped from Dahmer was detained and questioned by the police, who concluded they had come across a "lovers' quarrel." The police released the boy to Dahmer, who subsequently murdered him.

"That really touched a chord with many people in Milwaukee who felt that, for whatever reason, they were receiving substandard service from the police," Schmid said. "A serial murder is never just the story of an individual. It is also the story of that individual's family, the community that individual came from, and in its most general sense, it is the story of our society.

"If you limit your inquiry to whether the murderer had abusive parents or an insane grandfather, then you will produce an account of the murder that is limited to that context," Schmid said. "But once you start to ask broader q uestions - for example, how does Dahmer's choice of victims make sense in the larger context of how the gay community was protected by the Milwaukee police - what emerges is the connection of the murderer with the larger community, not just with his own psyche or his family."

It is that connection, Schmid said, that the vast majority of popular representations of serial murder want to avoid.

Difference between serial, mass murderers

There is a difference, Schmid said, between serial killers and mass murderers - those who kill a large number of people at one time, in an office high rise, for example, or at a McDonald's.

Mass murderers, who often kill themselves after killing many others, are people who feel victimized and excluded from society and believe they have run out of options, Schmid said. Engaging in mass murder is "an attempt to give their death what their life conspicuously lacked: meaning."

Serial killers are different, he said. "If they feel any sense of exclusion, it is probably chosen. It's the type of exclusion that says 'I am better than everyone else,' or 'I am different from everyone else.' "

The motivation of a serial killer is different from the motivation of a mass murderer, Schmid said. "It's possible to look at a mass murderer and say maybe if this person hadn't lost his job, or if he had had a more understandi ng family, he could have been turned around. With serial killers, I don't think that's true. Their motivation systems are so individual and so bizarre, there is not usually a time when you could look at their lives and say 'If this had not happened, then that might not have happened.' "

Why the popular interest?

Why are people so interested in serial killers? Why, for example, was the film version of Silence of the Lambs, about a serial killer, so popular?

Perhaps because they allow the viewer to indulge feelings of both attraction and repulsion, Schmid said.

Reading a book or watching a film about a serial killer allows those in the audience to fantasize about being such a person, capable of killing without guilt or remorse, he said.

But at the same time, a film like Silence of the Lambs "reflects our own normality back to us. We can watch it and say 'My God, this man's crazy' and the implied message is 'Thank goodness I'm so normal.' "

Such films, Schmid said, "are not interested in challenging our sense of ourselves as ordinary people."


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