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How Chelsea Cain is Eviscerating Serial Killer Fiction

September 22nd, 2009 7:30am EDT
Chelsea CainLet's face it. Our culture has a disconcerting fascination with serial killers; the more perverted, maniacal, and heinous the better. Whether on or off the screen, real or fictional, we crave that which we are simultaneously terrified of, death. The more torturous and gore ridden methods ranking highest on the list. We make these figures into iconic cultural figures that blur the lines of reality. Many of the serial killer characters created by Hollywood are built around the personalities of real killers and manage to alter their crimes into entertainment. The name Hannibal Lecter is a household one whereas Jeffrey Dahmer, the real life cannibal serial killer the Lecter character was inspired by, is not. Uttering the line, "Hello, Clarice" is understood by many, whether or not they have actually seen its origin text, 'Silence of the Lambs'. These fictitious figures are also commonly coded as the hero of the film, book, or television show, however only if they are a main character. From the infamous Lecter to the current fan favorite, Dexter (of Showtime's 'Dexter') these killers are charismatic heroes who leave their audiences cheering them on instead of questioning their vile actions.

Then there lies the construction of the characters themselves. Most films, shows, and books model their pet serial killers after the FBI standard profile: white males, extremely intelligent, in their 30s-40s, who began as bed wetters and animal killers in their youth. Does this bore the audience? No, but it does make non-traditional representations more intriguing. Author Chelsea Cain does exactly that with her series following serial killer, Gretchen Lowell and her torrid relationship with detective Archie Sheridan.

At first glance it seems like a gender switch of Thomas Harris' famous Hannibal Lecter series, but after the first five pages of the first book, 'Heartsick', it is clearly not the case. When asked in an interview with Amazon.com about the relationship difference between her characters and Harris', Cain explained, "I thought that the connection to Lecter was inevitable since Heartsick features a detective who visits a jailed serial killer. But I wasn't consciously inspired by Silence of the Lambs (or Red Dragon, which is the Harris book it more accurately echoes). I grew up in the Pacific Northwest when the Green River Killer was at large, and I was fascinated by the relationship between a cop who'd spent his career hunting a killer and the killer he ends up catching. I'd seen an episode of Larry King that featured two of the Green River Task Force cops and they had footage of one of the cops with Gary Ridgway (the Green River Killer) in jail and they were chatting like old friends. They were both trying to manipulate one another. The cop wanted Ridgway to tell him where more bodies were. Ridgway is a psychopath and wanted to feel in control. But on the surface, they seemed like buddies having a drink together at a bar. It was kind of disturbing. I wanted to explore that. Making the killer a woman was a way to make the relationship even more intense. Making her a very attractive woman upped the ante considerably."

Her answer sums up an extremely minor element of the series. All of the characters, major and minor, are fleshed out and three-dimensional; further heightening the tension throughout the books because they feel like real people. The actions through 'Heartsick' and 'Sweetheart' are disturbingly refreshing. Cain manages to push the boundaries of the mystery genre while also calling into question the readers' own ethics. The third, and most recent book, 'Evil at Heart', accomplishes what no other novel of its kind has ever done- it brings the fascination of serial killers we experience in real life to the forefront. Gretchen, her well-constructed psychopathic killer, reifies the true meaning of the concept of celebrity. Her actions jumpstarted a national campaign for her, from the mainstream reaction of people wearing 'Run, Gretchen!' shirts and getting the 'Beauty Killer' manicure, to the creation of crime scene tours cashing in on recorded locations of her deeds, to the extreme reaction of copy cat fans who decide to try and slice and dice each other to be like her, and more unfathomable, to get her attention. The idea of positing Gretchen as a celebrity figure should seem deplorable and an act that stays within the confines of the fictional page, but it isn't, instead it merely brings our cultural actions to light.

We strenuously beg of you to read these novels before the film adaptation hits the theaters. With piles of popular fiction making a beeline to Hollywood screens only to be butchered, this is one text that needs to successfully translate. The real question is does Hollywood have the guts to place such a strong female figure onscreen? Crazed women have been onscreen before, 'Fatal Attraction', 'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle', etc. but we haven't seen one completely in control of her own actions who is not following the directions of a higher, male figure (ex. Jack's Jill in the 'Profiler' television series). We hope it will be Oscar material, with the likes of Kate Winslet playing the role of Gretchen, instead falling into a February thriller release rut.

If you have read any of the books, who would you like to see cast?

Sarah Lafferty
Story by Sarah Lafferty
Starpulse contributing writer

Follow Sarah on twitter at starbuckscout.


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