Discussion: Murder Most Foul
In her book Murder Most Foul: The Killer and The American Gothic Imagination, Karen Haltunnen delineates the shift in cultural attitudes that occurred over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the subsequent shift in images of the murderer. Whereas suffering and evil were originally viewed as a part of life, Enlightenment discourses tended to remove both the inevitability of pain and the concept of innate human evil. Discourses on murder reflected these changes as well as the changing institution of the trial. Murder and death were thus problematized, especially in regard to the figure of the murderer. The problem of understanding the murderer in a naturally good humanity was solved by painting the murderer as a 'moral monster' whose disease separated him or far from the rest of humanity. As the guilt of the murderer could no longer be certain and anti-narratives or alternative explanations could be entertained, the murder itself became mysterious and ultimately unknowable. The newly emerging attitude towards murder was enveloped in the Gothic sensibility; the violence of the murders were abhorrent and impossible to comprehend, as well as enshrouded in mystery.
The institutions and attitudes that emerged in the nineteenth century opposed the religious institutions and doctrines that made murder comprehensible to people living in the eighteenth century. The act of murder was more clearly comprehensible in a religious worldview; as every individual was tainted with sin, the murderer was little different than the average human being, a theme that was explored in eighteenth century execution sermons. "By emphasizing that the fundamental cause of murder was universal depravity and its course the slippery slope of common sinfulness, by arguing that all of sinful humanity was guilty of murder...the execution sermon identified the spiritual predicament of the condemned criminal with that of the larger community" (18). Likewise, pain and suffering were not distanced from the individual, but were seen as a natural part of life. "Orthodox Christianity had traditionally viewed pain not only as God's punishment for sin... but also as a redemptive opportunity to transcend the world and the flesh by imitating the suffering of Christ" (62). Additionally, the trials of the eighteenth century were notable for their sense of certainty. The trial was meant to "ferret out God's truth, considered to be single and uncontestable" (93). Thus, the narrative of the murder was relatively unproblematic, leaving little room for mystery. These attitudes were to be challenged in the course of the next century.
The discourses and attitudes towards murder changed dramatically over the next century, creating a Gothic narrative of murder and the murderer. A narrative of original sin, in which pain was to be expected, gave way to an Enlightenment narrative in which humans were naturally good and pain could be avoided. These ideals "argued that humankind was endowed with a moral sense, analogous to the five senses... [and] human nature was endowed with an instinctive love of virtue" (42). In this view, human beings were not meant to suffer pain as part of a divine plan, but had the ability and the mandate to eradicate it. The ideals of humans' innate "moral sense" conflicted with the reality of the brutal murderer, and could only be understood by separating the murderer from the rest of society. The "cold-blooded killer" was constructed as a diseased and disfigured deviant, "a "mental alien" - the contemporary term for the mad person - someone set apart from normal, healthy humanity by somatic disease and by the mental, physical, and moral peculiarities it generated" (210). The horror and mystery of the Gothic murder also had their roots in this society. As pain became more abhorrent, the act of murder became more difficult to understand, making depictions of murder and mutilation highly sensationalistic. "In the cultural context of humanitarianism, the crime of murder was increasingly deemed a sensational event... News of murder generated "a thrill of horror," "a chill of horror"" (70-71). Likewise, the trial system, which relied on evidence and allowed attorneys to construct very different, yet plausible, narratives based on that evidence, created uncertainty and mystery, in which there was no God to decide the absolute truth. There was an "absence of any single organizing intelligence in the early nineteenth-century nonfictional accounts. The ordinary reader was the primary "detective" in the new legal narrative of the crime" (117). The murder became a mysterious and horrific event, with an alienated "moral monster" as its central figure.
The Gothic discourse on murder created a narrative that separated the reader from the act of murder by rendering it horrific and mysterious and by making the murderer inhuman and difficult to identify with. However, while doing this, it paradoxically brought the reader closer to the act of murder. As voyeurs who enjoyed the sensationalism of murder stories, they were implicated of the same crime as the "mental alien" who committed them. Additionally, as 'detectives' who followed the murderer through the scene of the crime and tried to come to a conclusion by thinking like the murderer, the readers drew themselves closer to the murder and murderer. This tension existed throughout the Gothic narratives of murder, as readers could simultaneously be drawn away and drawn in.
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