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Getting Away with Murder: The Cultural Construction of Serial Killers

Renée Faubion,                                           

Course Description

German Expressionists were preoccupied with the phenomenon of serial murder. In numerous paintings, a few staged photographs, and one great film (Fritz Lang’s M), they return again and again to this subject. As educated audiences, we understand that works of art and film present interpretations of reality, as opposed to being objective depictions of events. What we might miss, however, is the fact that other assessments of serial killing in disciplines such as the sciences and sociology might themselves also be interpretations shaped to some extent by the cultures that create them. In this class, we will consider the stories (both fictional and academic) cultures develop to explain the phenomenon of serial killing. For example, why is sexual deviance often assumed to be a motive even when no overtly sexual aggression is demonstrated in the course of a particular serial crime—and why are such killings at times romanticized? What happens to a culture’s explanations of serial killing when the perpetrator is a woman? The Ripper crimes, perhaps the most famous serial killings in western culture, will be a focus of extended study this semester as we try to understand how a range of cultural forces, including sensationalism, anti-Semitism, Victorian sexuality, and social reform movements, came together to shape responses to this legendary crime. Our texts will come from a range of disciplines, including art, literature, the history of criminal psychology, and cultural studies.

Readings and Texts

Jenkins, Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide 
Suskind, Perfume 
Harris, The Silence of the Lambs 
Also articles and book excerpts addressing a range of elements that play into the presentation of serial murder, including its symbolic significance, attempts at diagnosis, and examinations of its appeal in popular culture.

Films and Other Course Materials

Fritz Lang,
Nick Broomfield, Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Course Fee


Student Requirements

Two shorter essays, including an analysis of various narratives (ethnic, class, gender, etc.) surrounding some of the key suspects in the Jack the Ripper case to cap our module on that figure; a research project leading to a cultural study of a serial killer case not addressed in class; co-facilitation of discussion; strong preparation and participation in seminar sessions.

About the Instructor

After receiving degrees in Russian from Trinity University and the University of Kansas, Renée Faubion earned a second M.A. and a Ph.D. in English at UNM. She has published work on Tim O'Brien and on H.D. and has won four awards for excellence in teaching.