by Paul North
How strange we are! We talk about our friends. We whisper: look, she's doing it again. She acts like that because her mother treated her in such and such a way. And: look at him. He always does this sort of thing. He finally got diagnosed but clearly they have to increase his dosage. Look at us: we're evolutionarily selected to hate our enemies, to choose mates with even finger lengths, to vote republican. We love to talk about psychology, the predilections, ticks, repetitions, drives, the mechanisms that make us do what we do. Along the same lines, we fetishize abnormal psychology and tell ourselves we're well within normal, and we know we are because we watch Dexter and Criminal Minds.
Some of what our friends do we put down to psychology, but TV serial killers are totally psychologized beings. The relationship of psychology to fateful thinking can be seen most clearly in them. What serial killers do is so extreme it can only be explained by reference to a tight internal network of causes controlling their being and activities. Morality doesn't affect them; they have no second thoughts before and no regrets after. All their acts are determined by the internal network, and it's up to the detective—an amateur psychologist, sometimes a professional—to unravel it. Serial killers are totally psychologized. Nothing they do is free. Each gesture can be traced to something in their childhood, some event that caused a twist in their mind, an imbalance in their essence, an association of false ideas, though these ideas are often deeply imaginative. And yet, you would never ask what the bloody act means to a serial killer. You never wonder whether they made a conscious decision to skin their victims; instead, you ask about the pathology that caused the act. Serial killers—on TV and in the movies—are one of the few creatures around whose actions can all be ascribed a cause. The serial killer is the body of fate, and psychology is its mind, its criminal mind.
Cassius laments: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves…" We can't pinpoint exactly when fate became fault, when destiny moved out of the stars and into the psyche, but in 1599 in Julius Caesar Shakespeare noted that it had already happened. How do you predict behavior, understand the world, tell a good person from a bad person when fate is not in the stars but within you? Not Cassius, but a much later literary character tells us: "You try to reconstruct his thinking. You try to find patterns." You find patterns, not in the stars, but in the head. So says Will Graham, the "forensic specialist" in the first Hannibal Lecter novel by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon. Bloodstains darken the walls and the floor. Those traces of the crime are easy to see. The stains that blot out reason in the killer's mind are hidden and have to be uncovered painstakingly and the task is not without risk.