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Every Monday, Joe Carroll is going to commit a horrific crime, at least until Ryan Hardy brings him down. Meanwhile, a fairy-tale killer haunts Rick Castle, The Gormogon and The Gravedigger taunt Dr. Temperance Brennan, and God-knows-who is stalking women in Central Park on Law and Order: SVU.
Fox’s The Following is the latest television drama to explore the crimes of a serial killer, but it’s in good company. It seems no procedural show can avoid a serial-murder plot. Serial killers are the stuff of midseason sweeps, multi-episode dramas and life-altering revelations for a show’s heroes and heroines. If you want the measure of serial killers’ success, Dexter will return in June for a whopping eighth season. This isn’t a trend, it’s a full-on epidemic.
According to a 2005 report by the FBI, less than 1 percent of all murders are actually the work of serial killers. Why, then, are so many running around on TV? There’s an obvious pull for writers: Serial-killer stories can play out over multiple episodes. As television procedurals move toward longer story arcs, and away from one-off investigations, it’s always tempting to create a single villain who can keep a detective busy for a full season. But I think there’s something more interesting at work.
The FBI defines a serial killer as having committed multiple murders over a period of time, with a “cooling off period” in between each killing. That means these aren’t crimes of passion — serial killers don’t just kill the cheating spouse or the turncoat gang member. They attack people based on availability, vulnerability, and, critically, based on desirability — the FBI’s terminology for the category of people the killer wants to attack (people of a certain gender, race, age, etc.). Ever since people started living in cities, in relative anonymity from their neighbors, the nameless and seemingly unmotivated murderer has been the thing that goes bump in the night. The serial killer is the urban werewolf, blending into the crowded streets and subways by day and stalking the innocent by night.
It’s important to note that FBI experts believe serial killers do not generally feel compelled to continue killing. They choose to kill. Only a fraction of real-life serial killers are motivated by sex. Even fewer are “geniuses”; serial killers range in intelligence, just like you and me. The attribute that serial killers do seem to have in common with their TV counterparts is that they are master manipulators, able to lure in victims while convincing family and friends that nothing is amiss. The Following has created an entire series out of one imagined serial killer’s ability to bend people to his will.
While we may be able to forgive, and even empathize with, a crime committed out of anger, or violent behavior that comes from years of abuse and neglect, we are fascinated and repulsed by cold-blooded killing. From Hannibal to Dexter to Joe Carroll, writers invent larger-than-life murderers with poetic signatures to give a name and a shape to the anxiety we all feel when we enter our apartments alone in the dark, when we turn down an alley for an ill-advised short-cut, or when we lock eyes with a neighbor who just seems a little bit strange. If Ryan Hardy can bring down Joe Carroll, then maybe we can all sleep a little better at night.