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Into the Labyrinth – The Serial Killer Cycle.

Posted by keith1942 on January 2, 2015

The final labyrinth in Se7en.

The final labyrinth in Se7en.

One of the films I enjoyed back in 1996 was Se7en and it occasioned the following study. Whilst the film’s subject of multiple murders was not pleasant, the richness of its narrative and visual texture was immensely stimulating; it made me think again about serial killer films. It seemed to me an example of a classic genre piece, rather in the way that Double Indemnity defines classic film noir or Bladerunner the dystopian city. So I want to use Se7en to explore some ideas about the themes and motifs found in serial killer films, and the questions around film values that these raise. Se7en is (I believe) a fictional account, as are most of these films; even the ones that relate to recorded events (e.g. The Hawk (1992) to the Yorkshire Ripper) are obviously more fiction than faction. The facts of serial killings would require more than one article to discuss.

The Internet Movie Database lists 73 serial killer films, sticking mainly to recent versions and with a only few foreign language films. To be included in this pantheon of repetitive killings a film must have three victims. The crimes are defined by the need to kill rather than other motives for murder. They are committed by a gallery of murderers. from the teenage duo of Natural Born Killers, through the dream-like terrorism of Michael Myers, to the urbane aesthetics of Dr Hannibal Lector. These killers have appeared in the science fiction, horror and detective genres, even once in the style of a spaghetti western.

Such movies go back to the early days of cinema. Three classic variants date from the post First World War decade, products of an early creative movement in cinema, German Expressionism. The first, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919), broke new ground both in its style, (conscious artificiality, stark lines and black and white contrasts) and in its story-line of a somnambulist (sleepwalker) murdering people whilst in a state of hypnosis. In 1922, the recurring story of Dracula was bought to the screen as Nosferatu: this vampiric serial killer threatened both film characters and audiences. In 1930, Fritz Lang’s M was based on the actual Düsseldorf serial child murders. Lang ended up in Hollywood escaping real-life fascist serial killers. He was part of an influx from Germany that was to heavily influence the themes and style of Hollywood, most notably in film noir; dark journeys through the city underworld, often fatal to the usually resilient film hero.

In England, the serial killer entered films in Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926), which referred obliquely to the infamous Jack the Ripper. The Ripper re-appeared at regular intervals over the years, London and its fogs providing a suitably scary location for such deeds. In more recent times the cycle has proved fruitful, both for auteur fans, who seek singular works by a particular director, and Hollywood, which seeks films audiences are captivated enough by to pay to see. Two key movies come from the sixties, Peeping Tom and Psycho (both 1960). Each was seminal for this particular cycle. Each used a close focus on the serial killer to produce disturbing waves for the filmic heroes/heroines and the watching audiences.

Peeping Tom was rubbished by critics inflamed by its subject matter, virtually ending the film career of director Michael Powell. Psycho, an early example of mass systematic marketing, turned such horror to its advantage and was a key film in ushering in modern film packaging and consumption.

The 1980s saw exploitation in the teen market, with the `Freddie’ and `Halloween’ killings; and shared with the adult market were the less visceral explorations of Manhunter

(1986) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). The Alien trilogy provided an alternative science fiction nightmare, inhuman, but equally terrifying. The late 1980s and early 1990s were especially fruitful, with a number of popular key movies of which Se7en was one.

The environment.

Se7en, dark and dank.

Se7en, dark and dank.

Whilst some serial killer films “…are set in white neighbourhoods – surburbia, the farm belt, the backwoods.” (Taubin 1991) – this is not always so. Se7en is resolutely urban and multi-cultural, depicting a contemporary inner-city that is a modern hell. It makes explicit this long running motif of both serial killer films and noir films. The association with hell is firmly stated with the film’s liberal use of metaphors from two classic literary texts, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. The characters refer to these stories and the film itself recreates some of their imagery, most notably in the stygian darkness and the continuous rain. This fits aptly with the noirish world which is common in serial killing movies.

Other films in the cycle repeatedly display infernal features, like Lector’s prison in Silence of the Lambs or the lock-up garage in the British TV Prime Suspect 1. The killer in Manhunter recycles the paintings and poetry of William Blake, another artist obsessed by hell. In the earlier The Boston Strangler (1967), the killer’s memories of one murder are intercut with a daytime task, stoking a furnace.

A recurring image is the hero searching dim, labyrinthine buildings and spaces or pursuing down never ending corridors. Mills’ (Brad Pitt) chase in Se7en is remarkably reminiscent of an earlier example in The Boston Strangler. Graham (William Peterson) in Manhunter flees Lector’s (Brian Cox) cell down an interminable and winding ramp. M includes a search through the labyrinth of a huge office block, followed by the trial in dark, gloomy cellars. The use of the Internet in Copycat (1996) can be seen as a modern labyrinth.

In the film noir, the hero is submerged in an underworld of vice and danger. Se7en resolutely incorporates this world into the serial killer cycle, so that the opening credits show light escaping darkness through the titles. The rest of the film is a slow journey towards the light of the final climax.

Heroes / heroines.

Somerset in Se7en.

Somerset in Se7en.

Se7en is typical of modern Hollywood in its use of a black and white male duo, however its characterisation of the black Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is not typical. He is a Renaissance man, intellectually and morally above the other characters. His understanding and intuition are displayed in the way that he analyses the problems and events. His systematic working methods exemplified in the library sequence, his persona emphasised by the record of classical music that is played by one of the guards. The attitude of his colleagues on the force is shown by the comment, “we’ll be happy when you leave”. He would seem to be a variant on such earlier investigators as Sherlock Holmes or William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose. Like them, he is a loner, unmarried and with no apparent social life.

If Somerset is a hero in the classical mode then Mills is very much the postmodernist. When Somerset suggests that Mills study Dante and Milton he uses, not the originals but, Student Notes to the `texts’. Unlike Somerset, he is married, but there are no offspring, only two dogs whom Mills calls ‘the children’. As the investigation proceeds it becomes apparent that, in a noir sense, Somerset is a seeker hero and Mills a victim hero.

In this film both central characters are male, however, other films have placed women centre stage. Most notable are Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in Silence of the Lambs, and recently the Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) and M J Monahan (Holly Hunter) double act in Copycat. However these women’s success in the male world is somewhat problematic. Clarice is caught between Lector and Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), alternative good and bad father figures. Copycat, which uses Weaver’s star persona to develop a serial killer plot, did not do well at the box office.


The villain's lair in Se7en.

The villain’s lair in Se7en.

Many of the serial killer films concentrate on the pursuit and confrontation between the detective and killer. Sometimes there is a limited sympathy for a creature produced by the distortions of family, society or biology. This is true of both Mark (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom, and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho. But the latter, especially in its sequels, also presents a threatening monster who is more feared than understood. Amy Taubin comments, “. . . classic examples include Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and more peripherally, G W Past’s Pandora’s Box (1928). They depict, respectively, three pathological archetypes: the child murderer; the Bluebeard figure whose victims are wives (i.e. good girls); and Jack the Ripper who specialises in killing prostitutes (i.e. bad girls).”

On this basis, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) and Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) are Bluebeards; the `tooth fairy’ (Tom Noonan in Manhunter) combines that with child murders; Freddie develops child murders in the epoch of the teenager; and Doe (Kevin Spacey in Se7en) is a Ripper type. However, Se7en’s emphasis on the religious and classical aspects also draws out the satanic side of the killer.

Doe is a Faustian character, both in his diabolical cleverness, in the environment of his flat, which reeks of the atmosphere of a coven’s lair, and in his usurpation of the prerogative of the deity to judge and punish. This aspect is present in other films; Lector tells Graham in Manhunter, that “if one does as God does enough times one will become as God is…”. This is the original sin of the archangel Lucifer, doomed to hell for aspiring to God’s unique position; the deadly sin of envy which is Doe’s sin in Se7en. Doe’s Faustian powers result in Mills falling under his sway. It is a victory for the power of evil that few of the other films care to essay. Whilst the Aliens and Freddie return again and again, we can be confident that a heroine/hero always appears to offer salvation. Se7en fulfils the logic of Paradise Lost with Satan successful and heroic.

This aspect crosses over with Dracula and the horror genre. In his study of Hammer Films (1973), David Pirie refers to Lord Byron, “in his conversation and poetry (he) took up the part of a fallen or exiled being, expelled from Heaven or sentenced to a new avatar on earth for some crime; existing under a curse, pre-doomed to a fate… which he seemed determined to fulfil”. His comments apply especially to the Bluebeard and Ripper types. Both Lector and Doe have the urbanity and aristocratic style of the gothic villain described by Pirie. The choice of English actors for the Lector characterisation brings with it the associations of the Gothic and the Marquis de Sade in Hammer films.

In an article on Peeping Tom (1994), Peter Wollen quotes Thomas De Quincey’s `Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. This is an aspect consciously emphasised by Se7en; the film’s director of photography, Darius Khondji “saw these crimes as the work of an artist” and designed his lighting with this in mind. And the director, David Fincher, seems to have carried over both stylistic points and motifs from his earlier Aliens 3. In that film we (and Ripley) visit a penal colony, where the inmates are obsessed by religion (and played by mainly English actors). Their battle with the alien serial killer takes place in a labyrinth of a disused space colony facility. The climax occurs in the central furnace.


Tracy in .

Tracy in Se7en.

Amy Taubin comments, “almost all serial killers are white males who kill within their own racial group.” This is in fact true of only part of the cycle, The Boston Strangler is more egalitarian with black and white victims. In Prime Suspect one part of the series has white women as victims, the next both black and white. Se7en fits the dominant model, with its victims all white, but both male and female. Is this part of the explanation of the black Somerset as the seeker hero? In Dust Devil the killer, possessed by a magical spirit kills the white neo-colonialists and is pursued by a black policeman. Repressed fears surfacing?

Se7en is typical in other, more worrying ways. The key victim is Tracy Mills (Gwyneth Paltrow) with her unborn child and her presence in the film is essentially to set up the climactic revelation that subverts Mills. Women figure strongly as victims in all parts of the cycle, just as the killers are usually male. From Caligari to Copycat, good women, like children, make fine victims, being considered (in dominant values) as defenceless and in need of protection. So Starling and Hunter are welcome exceptions.

Equally value-laden, punishing bad women serves to protect patriarchy from subversion and is open to accusations of misogyny. From Lulu onwards, `Rippers’ look like a handy way of disciplining unruly women. In Se7en for example, though both the prostitute and her client suffer pain, the punishment is directed at the woman. That Tracy is pregnant would seem to relate to different fears: concerns about the threat to our society and its future. DCI Tennison

(Helen Mirren) in Prime Suspect decides to have an abortion as she unravels the gruesome tale of a Bluebeard sex killer. Se7en’s use of children re-inforces a similarly bleak view. Prior to the climax Somerset meets Tracy who tells him she is pregnant, but is unsure if Mills wants the child. Somerset admits that once faced with the same choice he opted for abortion. It is Doe’s final taunt, revealing to Mills his wife’s pregnancy, that seems to drive him over the edge. Satan has successfully suborned the hero and destroyed the future.

Other examples usually avoid such bleak endings. Manhunter, typically of Hollywood, closes by re-uniting the family; after Graham’s victory over the killer there is a cut to the quartet, father, mother, son, dog (plus pet turtles) on the family beach.

As myth.


The centrality of the labyrinth in the serial killer form takes us back to an ancient version of the story, That set on the island of Crete which housed the Minotaur. King Minos annoyed the gods by refusing to sacrifice a bull that appeared miraculously from the waves; the punishment was the obsession with the bull by the King’s wife Pasiphae resulting in an offspring, the Minotaur – part human, part bull. The Minotaur was imprisoned in the labyrinth and the subject city of Athens was forced to send young men and women as sacrifices for the beast. Theseus, crucially with the assistance of Ariadne, entered the labyrinth, slew the Minotaur and emerged victorious.

This potent myth has appeared and re-appeared many guises and in many art forms – including Shakespearean drama, opera and modern avant-garde art. It would certainly seem the basis of the majority of serial killer tales. Not just in the labyrinth but in the young innocent victims and in the necessity for the hero to confront and slay the monster. The numerous classical references in Se7en seem particularly appropriate in this sense. And the idea of sacrifice and atonement are also central to the film. Whilst the film does not end in a labyrinth it sends in an equivalence – a forest of pylons and cables poles which shield the monster and the seekers from the observation of the watching authorities. And it is the blonde heroine [though now dead] who leads the seekers into this lair- though to a radically different conclusion. But even here there are parallels to the original myth. The victorious Theseus occasions the death of his own father through negligence.


One of the seven deadly sins.

One of the seven deadly sins.

Whilst the audience’s initial memories of the films are often of the fear and trepidation caused by the serial killer activity, the best films do not merely titillate or make the flesh crawl. Over the genre there is a high degree of social comment, frequently placing the murderer and his/her acts within a very specific social context. Dr Caligari figures both as the manipulator of the murderous Cesare and head of the local asylum. There are two versions of this film, with different endings, but both pose questions about authority and repression.

M draws parallels between the criminal underworld, who organise a trial of the murderer, and the state police. In Hitchcock’s The Lodger an innocent Ivor Novello is suspected of the ripper murders and narrowly escapes lynch justice at the hands of a mob. A similar moral position is suggested in the sixties classics. Peeping Tom shows a killer produced by the sadistic psychological experiments of a father, the son killing and dying from the excesses of patriarchy. And the point has been made that Psycho does not simply play with notions of guilt and repentance in the death of Marion Crane. It is shot through with references to money and people’s responses to it – the film’s opening contrasts a lack of money with someone else’s excess.

Modern serial killer films have played with the contradictions of class, gender and racism to good effect. Silence of the Lambs has the central conflict between the ‘backwoods’ Clarice and the classier Hannibal Lector. The Boston Strangler has the upper class John S Bottomly (Henry Fonda) pursuing the working class and immigrant Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis). The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has lumpen proletarians wreaking vengeance.

Some films offer a strong dose of white fears of the return of the repressed black man, e.g. Candyman, though here any comment seems overwhelmed by shock tactics. Two films based on a real-life African story are better. Windprints embodies a naturalistic comment on apartheid and racism where the murders are instigated by white farmers on black people. Dust Devil is more non-naturalistic: there are overtones of witchcraft in its story of the possession of a white male who kills white colonialists in a Namibia passing from subjection to Independence. The film ends with the possession transferred to a white woman who strides purposefully towards the UN troop carriers policing the new land. Repression is really returning.

Many of the films raise issues of gender and sexuality, e.g. the preponderance of women as victims. The recurring use of knife-like weapons for the murders and accompanying mutilations carries phallic overtones. (One of the more disturbing aspects of Somerset is his skill with a flick knife). In psycho-analytical terms a killer like the murderer in M or the `tooth fairy’ in Manhunter manifests instinctual needs and drives at an individual level. A killer such as Doe seems to express the moral demands at a social level (see Wood and Walker).

With both examples it is worrying that the serial killer phenomenon is directed so frequently by men at women, children or sometimes homosexuals. In Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1969) Popaul, the serial killer, faced with the woman he loves turns the knife on himself. In a similar scene in The Hawk the wife uses a knife on her killer husband.

Silence of the Lambs, Prime Suspect and Copycat offer other women characters who resist and battle against this oppression. DCI Tennison (like Clarice Starling) excels in a male world of manipulation; but what is really interesting is that Prime Suspect encourages the audience to judge both her actions and their cost to Tennison. Her motherhood and her emotional life are the price of her work. In The Hawk, the same actress, Helen Mirren, plays Annie Marsh, the wife of a serial killer. Her growing suspicion has to overcome the stigma of prior mental treatment after childbirth and the patronising male attitudes of the police. After the killing of her husband, Annie observes police self-congratulations (in a scene strongly reminiscent of Prime Suspect) over the success actually engineered by her. The final image of her re-union with her children blends female independence and courage with the joys of motherhood.

An aspect of both the films and the literary texts is judgement. M notably ends on a trial of the murderer, not by the state but by the criminal underworld. In Se7en judgement is central to the development of the narrative through the device of seven deadly sins. As an ineffective police force fails to cope with `evil’, Doe assumes the mantle of judge and jury and takes the law into his own hands. He despatches morally unsound characters missed by the official judicial system; a continuation of the Ripper in Lulu. Se7en offers a particularly damming judgement on modern urban life. It is one of the bleakest views of the city following a decade of downbeat displays that make some early noirs look positively optimistic. Early in the film Somerset offers a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Long is the way, and hard that out of hell leads up to light”. This is the route followed by the narrative, from the opening titles, surely some of the darkest images ever seen on screen, to the final confrontation staged in the bleak, unrelenting light of the desert.

At this point the typical Hollywood ending, when a law enforcer provides the vigilante justice which the official system cannot provide, is reversed. As John Wrathall wrote in the Sight & Sound review, “it’s hard to imagine even the most morally degraded audiences cheering when Mills shoots Doe.” It is as dark as the ending of Aliens 3, where the abortion is achieved by the mother’s suicide. To avoid total despair the audience are left with another Somerset quote, (from Hemingway), “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for… I agree with the second part.” But still a world away from having Norman Bates and company safety tucked away in the sanatorium.


Gross, Larry (1995) `Exploding Hollywood’ in Sight & Sound, March 1995 (Natural Born Killers).

Kermode, Mark and Franke, Lizzie (1992) `Blowing Up a Storm: The Making of Dust Devil’ in Sight & Sound, September 1992.

Newitz, Annalee (date unknown) `Serial Killers, True Crime and Economic Performance Anxiety’, in Cineaction No 38 – the whole issue is around `Murder in America’

Pirie, David (1973) A Heritage of Horror, London.

Gordon Fraser Bernard Rose, Bernard and McCabe, Colin (1993) `More Things in Heaven and Earth’ in Sight & Sound, March 1993 (Candyman).

Taubin, Amy (1991) `Killing Men’ in Sight & Sound May 1991.

Taubin, Amy (1996) `The Allure of Decay’ in Sight & Sound January 1996, (Se7en)

Williams, David (1995) ‘The Sins of the Serial Killer’, interview with Darius Khondjii in American Cinematographer October 1995.

Williams, Linda (1994) `Learning to Scream’ in Sight & Sound December 1994 (Psycho)

Williams, Tony (1978) ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ in American Movies in the Seventies, Movie 25.

Wollen, Peter (1994) ‘Dying for Art’ in Sight & Sound December 1994 (Peeping Tom)

Wood, Robin and Walker, Michael (1973) Claude Chabrol, London: Studio Vista (They discuss the relevance of Freudian notions to serial killing).

Wrathall, John (1996) Review of Se7en in Sight & Sound, January.

Originally appeared in the itp Film Reader, itp publications 1996.

4 Responses to “Into the Labyrinth – The Serial Killer Cycle.”

  1. […] The parallels are carried in both the visual and aural patterns of the film: which also bear the influence of other serial killer films. The director, Alberto Rodriguez, has a penchant for dramatic overhead shots; emphasising the distance of the contemporary audience. The opening such shots also strike an interesting variation of the serial killer labyrinth. […]

  2. […] The staircase is a good example of the design, cinematography and editing of the film. At one point there is an impressive reverse track down a staircase and out into a Convent Garden street. A trope that Hitchcock perfected early in his career. And the film offers an intriguing variation on the serial killer’s labyrinth. […]

  3. […] out of the juxtaposition of mountain and bunkers. The latter form a labyrinth under the mountains. Into the Labyrinth offers the traditional and mythic lairs for monsters; going right back to the founding example of […]

  4. […] and myth in a distinct manner. It transposes a central motif of serial killer films to sci-fi, the labyrinth. It is also [literally and metaphorically] the darkest of the film […]

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