By Andrés Muñoz
Spoiler for Season 2 of Netflix’s “You” below.
What do Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and Joe Goldberg of the hit Netflix show You have in common? Historically or fictionally, they’re all men involved in serial murders shown in the media.
The Federal Bureau of investigation defines serial murder as “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events“. Stories of serial killers have always drawn people to the cinemas or television screens. We are intrigued whether it is a long, intriguing film such as David Fincher’s Se7en or any killer in your typical episodic crime TV show like Criminal Minds or CSI.
With so many portrayals of male serial killers out there, one must ask: where are all the women-centred stories at?
Are there fewer women murderers out there, or are they simply less shown in the media, with You’s Love Quinn being an exciting and relevant outlier? Here are a few examples of female serial killers with stories to die for.
Psychology Of Killing
According to Marissa Harrison, a psychology professor at Penn State University, killing methods between men and women usually vary. She published a paper highlighting the differences between the sexes of serial killers and their possible origins in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies. Using evolutionary psychology, Harrison conducted a study of separate groups of 55 male and female serial killers.
The results showed that while the men skewed toward the “hunter” mentality (stalking strangers and studying them before striking, like hunters and their prey), women serial killers would follow a more figurative “gatherer” mentality, killing victims who are closer to them and profiting in some way from the crime. The study showed that while 75% of the male killings were sexually motivated, 52% of the female killings were financially motivated.
However, Harrison indicates that several sociological reasons might spawn a pathology of killing in humans, such as being victims of abuse and having childhood traumas. There are reasons to believe that prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies might not have been as split by gender as we’d think, and they might not be the central deciding factor as to why a person decides to kill.
In The Media
When we compare the number of male versus female-based serial killer portrayals in modern cinema and television, it’s clear that producers are fixated on perpetuating the typical white male serial killer trope. Mainly as those stories sell.
But, there have been several films and shows that display fascinating portrayals of women serial killers. Here are some of the most intriguing.
Charlize Theron’s 2003 film Monster focuses on Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who killed seven male clients in the late 80s. In a riveting performance that awarded Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress, famous critic Roger Ebert hailed it as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.”
This 1999 horror film by Japanese director Takashi Miike is an adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s book Audition. In it, a widower holds a series of auditions to find a new partner. He is smitten by one of the applicants, but after a while, the psychologically disturbed woman will wreak havoc upon him in a terrifying scene that will make audiences squirm.
This is one of Stephen King’s most famous horror adaptations. It’s the story of a renowned writer who is knocked unconscious in a blizzard after his car crashes. He wakes up at a woman’s home.
Kathy Bates, in an Academy-Award winning performance as deranged nurse Annie Wilkes, forces the writer to create a story while inflicting him with severe physical and psychological distress in the process. It is brilliantly told, with a 90% approval rate on Rottentomatoes.com; if you haven’t seen it, add it to your list!
While not exactly a serial killer but more a psychopathic assassin story, this television series gives us two engaging performances by Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh. Comer stars as Villanelle, an international assassin, with Oh as Eve Polastri, a British intelligence officer recruited by MI6 to track down Villanelle.
As the investigation advances, both women become obsessed with each other, playing a cat-and-mouse game that takes them across Europe. While Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote the first season, the show has kept a taut storyline with new head writers every season after that. It is a stylish, terrific, and enjoyable watch.
Our macabre interest in the human psyche and those that kill is natural. It is an opportunity for great storytelling, but while male serial killers have been glamorised in film and TV extensively, their female counterparts receive less attention. The above sample is only a few of several women-centred storylines that should receive more exposure.
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