Networks Making a Killing with Serial Killer Shows

Sawed off limbs, gouged out eyes, slashed throats, decapitation, disembowelment, cannibalism, human corpses used as fertilizer, graphic rape and blood splattering stabbings – just another day’s work for TV’s new favorite characters. 

Serial killers are a hot trend on TV these days. You can even watch your favorite serial killer hero doing all the above, 5 out of 7 days of the week – and then go out and emulate him. Currently there are 20 shows revolving around serial killers, seven of which premiered in the beginning of 2013. 

  • 20 TV Shows About Serial Killers: Seven new programs added in 2013, including “Hannibal,” based on fictional monster Hannibal Lecter.
  • Most Violent Broadcast Television Show: The FBI Estimates there are 35 - 50 serial killers operating in the U.S. at any one time. CBS’ “Criminal Minds” has had more than 100 serial killers in past 7 seasons.
  • Everyone’s Favorite Serial Killer: Showtime’s “Dexter” has killed 123 people in past 7 seasons.
  • ‘Dexter’ Plays Role in Three Real Murders: There have been three documented murders and one prevented murder, all inspired by the serial killer show “Dexter.

Hollywood is not only obsessed with making shows about serial killers, it even glorifies them as the “good guys.” These “heroes” include Dexter Morgan, a blood-splatter pathologist who sawed off someone’s head in the first episode. In the next few seasons, he goes on to slash throats, stab with pitchforks, decapitate some more, saw someone in half, beat another to death, and brutally murder in other ways. He’s killed at least 60 people on camera, and another 65 off-camera. 

Then there’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist who appreciates opera and fine cuisine – oh yeah, which often includes human flesh. In one episode, the cameras linger on one of Hannibal’s victims: a bloody woman with gouged out eyes, hung over a desk, her body skewered with poles and other sharp objects coming out at all angles. One of the characters even warns us, saying, “Prepare yourself, it’s gruesome.” 

Unfortunately they don’t give this warning before every graphic image in the show, and there are plenty of them. In the first episode, several times two women’s bloody bodies are shown impaled with elk antlers. Another scene reveals lungs strung up and manipulated to resemble angels’ wings. Naturally, a show about a cannibal wouldn’t be complete without plenty of images of opened up bodies with organs removed as well and the doctor himself cooking and eating them. 

Fox’s “The Following”’ doesn’t hold back from the gross either. The show, about a serial killer who creates a cult following of killers who do his bidding as well as kill themselves on camera, comes up with creative ways to disturb audiences each episode. In one scene a girl walks into a crowd, takes off her clothes and starts stabbing herself repeatedly, while the camera focuses on the blood spurting out and the shocked faces and screams of the crowd around her. Another scene shows a woman taking an ice-pick to gouge out her own eyes and a person being buried alive. 

While shows like these are shown later in the evening, “Bates Motel,” comes on A&E as early as 7 PM. It had a graphic rape scene and brutal stabbing in the very first episode, yet somehow it was still rated appropriate for 14-year-old children. 

Just Another ‘Marginalized’ Minority

“No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence, the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of the crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”- 1930 MPAA movie code

We’ve come a long way from the days of good guys in white hats and bad guys with big black mustaches. But sympathetic depictions of serial killers and mass murderers? Yes. With the increase in serial killer television shows came a correlating increase in the positive portrayals of murderers. 

Television shows like “Dexter,” “Bates Motel,” and “Hannibal” place the murderer in the starring role. “Bates Motel” star Freddie Highmore said in an interview, “I mean, right from the start, we see Norman as someone we “empathize with and sympathize with.” Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan gushed that Hannibal’s title character was “phenomenally charismatic” and “unfailingly mesmerizing.” Former Showtime executive producer Robert Greenblatt was even quoted as saying about “Dexter,”: “This is a complex and fascinating look at serial killers, which, up to this point, have been marginalized.” 

And we all know that marginalizing anyone is a grave liberal sin.  

The very idea that a serial killer deserves a spotlight would’ve shocked audiences decades ago, but today, Hollywood thinks they are a fascinating topic worth exploring. To be sure, adding depth and nuance to a villain’s character is not in and of itself a bad thing, in the same way that making the hero a human with human weaknesses is essential to good screenwriting. The problem is when the characterization sets up a moral equivalence between the killers and their victims or pursuers. 

Sincerest form of Flattery

“I made a few attempts to chop her up like ‘Dexter’ with Masters power tools but I was afraid it was too loud and it sucked at cutting flesh ... I though t... it would be simple like ‘Dexter.’” – San Diego woman who confessed that “Dexter” showed her how to murder and mutilate a woman in 2012

At least three brutal murders and one attempted murder have been inspired by the show “Dexter.” A man who says he was fascinated with “Dexter” was convicted of murdering and dismembering a man in 2008, just a year after the show premiered. Police found the murderer had modeled a “killing room,” covered in plastic sheets to do the deed, just like the one seen on the popular television show. 

A 17-year-old Indiana teen strangled his 10-year-old brother, saying that he identified with Showtime’s serial killer “Dexter”: “I feel just like him,” he admitted. The teen claimed to model his killing after Dexter. 

In San Diego, July 2012, three people raped, murdered and dismembered a woman. The woman who confessed to the act wrote in a note to the police that, as she strangled the victim, it was “as if my idol Dexter had spoken directly to me.” One potential murder inspired by Dexter was prevented thankfully. In 2011, 21-year-old Andrew Busskohl broke into a stranger’s house and planned to murder the man, but was arrested before he could go through with his plan. According to the court papers, he got the idea from "Dexter," and dreamed of becoming an infamous serial killer like Jack the Ripper. According to the Star Tribune:

“Like the Showtime series character, Busskohl, 21, first targeted people he perceived had committed crimes and avoided punishment, documents say. After failing to find such a victim, he chose names from a phone book.” 

Producers Reject Criticism

Robert Greenblatt, head of NBC entertainment and former producer for Showtime, has had to defend “Dexter” multiple times. On Jan. 7, 2013, in the CNN newsroom Greenblatt stated that he was “skeptical of this direct connection that people are always trying to make between violence on television and violence in real life.” Maybe Greenblatt hasn’t heard of the three cases of murder that his show inspired. 

Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly had to defend his show “The Following” after criticism as well. He justified it as the FCC’s fault: “If you actually put it through the filter of broadcast standards of what we say is allowable or not, there is nothing in that show that we’ve even had to fight over.” Reilly added that broadcast networks like Fox were trying to keep up with the “intensity” of popular paid cable shows like “Dexter.”  

When “Criminal Minds” came under fire after the Sandy Hook shooting, CBS entertainment President Nina Tassler claimed her show was for adults, while not explaining why it was then rated TV-14. Tassler even admitted, “I don’t let my [14-year-old] kid watch it.” 

The show even was criticized by a former cast member, actor Mandy Patinkin, who called joining the cast “the biggest public mistake I ever made.” Patinkin left the “Criminal Minds” after just two seasons, calling the show’s content “disturbing to my soul.” He went on to condemn the show as unhealthy for anyone, not just himself, saying: “Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about.” 

“Criminal Minds” is definitely one of the darkest programs on television, featuring more than 100 serial killers in its seven-year run, despite the FBI’s estimate that there are 35 – 50 serial killers operating in the U.S. at any one time. (“Criminal Minds” resulted in a real-life death. An episode where a child killed his abusive father inspired a 12-year-old boy to shoot his own abusive father to death in 2011.) 

Patinkin wasn’t the only one who has admitted to being affected by his role in violent media. Doug Richardson, screenwriter for the 1995 film “Money Train,” wondered if he’d made a mistake as well, after a violent scene he wrote was copied in real life. Shortly after the film was released in 1995, a group of teens tried to rob a subway toll booth and then torched it, killing the man inside; a scenario that came directly from the movie. Richardson later remarked, “So, as a writer, am I supposed to wonder if what I’m doing is drama or pornography?”

Reality has mimicked fiction so often that some network execs have realized they have limits. The April 19 episode of “Hannibal,” which featured child-killers was pulled due to the “grisly nature” of the episode, which executive producer Bryan Fuller felt was inappropriate considering that week’s bombing of the Boston Marathon, which left at least 21 people dead. The NBC station in Salt Lake City, Utah, actually stopped airing the show, after receiving numerous complaints for its violent content

Meanwhile, the media can admit that they do influence society if it’s for one of their pet causes. Hollywood and news media gush about the positive portrayals of gays on television and how that has increased approval ratings of homosexuality among youth, according to polls. Shows like “Glee,” “Modern Family,” and “The New Normal” have been influential forces on public perception, especially among those under 30, yet the media won’t admit that they have just as much influence in glamorizing violence. 

No End in Sight

After seven years on the air, the show that started the serial killer TV trend is coming to an end. According to “The Hollywood Reporter,” Dexter will end in 2013 after its eighth season. The show ranked as the No.1-rated series on Showtime, drawing in 6.2 million weekly viewers. Millions of people witnessed hundreds of murders each year on this program alone. Unfortunately, “Dexter” won’t leave a void in its wake. Hannibal plans to stick around, and there are six other shows about serial killers will replace Dexter. Except this time around, most of them are on primetime broadcast television.

 

Kristine Marsh
Kristine Marsh
Kristine Marsh is a staff writer/analyst for the Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute.