It’s wise to avoid binary distinctions. The impulse is understandable, given organic life’s penchant for symmetry, and in particular the bilateral symmetry that shapes our human bodies (and, indeed, the body plans of most multicellular life). Yin and yang, black and white – reality is more complicated than that, and any attempt to shoehorn the messy chaos of existence into neat categories will backfire sooner or later.
With all that said, the task of categorizing often begins with a simple separation into two groups. So it was with the dawn of forensic profiling, when the concept of the “serial killer” was first being hammered out. This time period is exquisitely portrayed in Netflix’s Mindhunters, two seasons of which are available now. It’s a compelling show, not just for its pitch-perfect portrayals of various human monsters (seriously: watch the comparison of the real Ed Kemper to Cameron Britton’s portrayal, it’s downright eerie), but also for the peek it offers into a fairly radical historical change in how the FBI thinks of – and therefore tracks and catches – serial murderers. And one of the first distinctions that became clear when forensic profilers were making sense of senseless brutality was the distinction between “organized” and “disorganized” killers.
Those categories mean more or less what you’d imagine they do. Organized killers plan their crimes, stalk their victims carefully, think ahead about what evidence they are leaving – they try, in short, to walk among us, cloaking their cold machinations as they select their prey. Disorganized killers tend to kill in a frenzy. They don’t plan, they savage; they often leave abundant evidence at the scene of their carnage. Forethought is not their strong suit.
The organized/disorganized dichotomy is reflected in horror in one of the great internecine divides of the genre: werewolf and vampire. Serial killers are monsters clad in human flesh, so it shouldn’t surprise us that our own psychology is reflected so clearly in our monsters; after all, we are where our monsters come from. The vampire represents, in this sense, the organized killer. She lives among us. She stalks her prey carefully, and generally, to avoid detection, plans ahead. She is cold and methodical.
In other words, if we are speaking in terms of binary archetypes, vampires are organized killers; werewolves are disorganized killers. All human myths have human roots; these two ancient human stories have their origin in the duality of human savagery.
There has been an interesting innovation in recent decades in American horror cinema, and in horror and literature at least since the publication of John Fowles’ The Collector in 1963; the serial killer as sympathetic villain (even at times an antihero). In this sense, we’re not talking about some crazed undead slasher, or a mute figure looming in an emotionless mask. I’m talking Hannibal Lecter. Dexter. Jigsaw. Jolly fellows whose mayhem is portrayed as hideous, yes, but whose tortured or brilliant psyches are the real monster of the story. It is, in a sense, humanity finally coming to terms with the most brutal truth of all: that monsters are entirely and completely human.