Seduction of the Serial Killer: Representing Justice with Lecter, Dexter
and the Death Note
Swinburne University of Technology
The idea of seriality producing mythology has been a recurring theme from the Ancient Greeks to Andy Warhol. What then are we to make of the serial killer, those murderers whose multiple crimes similarly feature a recurring theme or motif that regularly elevates these killers to the status of myth? Since Jack the Ripper, the serial killer has been the monster at the heart of modernity, the irrational urge law and society has sought to control and understand. And yet the popular cultural trend (from the 00s on) has been towards the representation of sympathetic, almost seductive, serial killers in media texts like Hannibal (2001), Dexter (2006-2013) and Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s 2003 manga Death Note.
This paper analyses how these millennial serial killers are often offered up as alternative justice figures, operating outside the constraints of law or morality, to punish those criminals who escape or otherwise operate beyond the reach of the legal system, with Dexter and Death Note’s Light representing the end point of these killers, those who offer an entirely new system of justice (“a new world”) predicated on their ability to kill those they consider deserving of death. In these texts then, the serial killer becomes a discursive site where multiple discourses of law and justice, good and evil, excess and nihilism and celebrity and citizenry can be contested and debated.
Towards the end of From Hell (2001), the (relatively loose) film adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel of the same name, when Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) finally confronts Dr William Gull (Derek Jacobi) with the revelation that he knows that he is Jack the Ripper, Gull responds that he will be remembered as “giving birth to the 20th Century”. In many respects Gull is right. The serial killer has become a central part of the 20th Century’s mythology. From the Ancient Greeks to Andy Warhol’s Mythologies to Roland Barthes text of the same name to the multiplatform transmedia narratives of modern media franchises (of which Death Note would be an example), there has been a persistent recognition of how important repetition and seriality has been in the construction of mythologies, the telling of the same stories, over and over again, in different forms and in different ways. Little wonder then that the serial killer - as a serial murderer - has become part of modern mythology. Like the mythic structures referenced by Campbell, Propp and Jung, the serial killer deals in patterns, motifs and symbols – the repetition - of crimes, of victims, of methodologies and of course, of that most potent of images, death. This is what has ultimately made them such popular subjects for both news and popular media representations.
But the function of the serial killer goes further than this. As Ken Gelder (2000) notes, the serial killer also operates as a mirror of the “individual and social evils” of their times, drawing on the etymology of the word “monster” (“demonstrate”) to show or reveal what is wrong with society (p. 81). In this way the serial killer comes to personify the "inner anxieties, interdictions and the guilt of the age" (Davenport-Hines 1999, p. 314). As I have written previously, the serial killer is therefore:
“Emblematic of the contradictions in modernity, the ‘thing in the dark’ or premodern impulse that modernity claims to have controlled – or at the very least is capable of dealing with – through law […] the non-rational, feelings, urges and desires that modernity does not and cannot deal with (as modernity only believes in rationality and progress), [those] feelings, urges and desires that manifest themselves in acts of rage and violence” (Bainbridge 2008: p. 15).
But as serial killer stories evolved along with media technologies, from oral histories, through ‘yellow journalism’, to song, movies, online news reports and, most importantly for this paper, with the 2003 manga series Death Note another possibility for the serial killer emerged – that of alternative justice figure. These serial killers use murder as a form of social cleansing to remove what they perceive as the most dangerous elements of society, those that the legal system has often failed to deal with. In this way their crimes become less reflective of social problems and more operational in that they fix societal ills; the serial killer functions as a kind of moral agent who kills for (what they understand to be) the greater social good. Arguably, this has been a part of the serial killer’s role since Jack the Ripper’s attempts at socially cleansing Whitechapel of the sexual depravity felt to be embodied by the prostitutes who worked and were killed there.
Written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, Death Note ran for 108 chapters in the Japanese manga magazine Shonen Jump from December 2003 to May 2006 and was later collected in 12 tankobon volumes. The series enjoyed enormous success around the world, its take-up in various countries usually accompanied by news articles generating moral panics around Death Note’s narrative and copycat crimes by its audience. Indeed, the series was so successful it spawned two live action movies (and a third spin-off movie), an anime series, a novel, video games and numerous items of merchandise. In this paper I want to analyse Death Note, primarily focusing on the manga, in the context of both Japanese detective fiction and the Western popular cultural fascination with serial killers commencing in the 90s, examining Death Note as a discursive site where multiple discourses of law and justice, good and evil, excess and nihilism and celebrity and citizenry can all be contested and debated.
The story revolves around a student, Light Yagami, who finds the perfect murder weapon – a Shinigami (death god’s) notebook; any human whose name is written within it, while he pictures their face, will die. Armed with this notebook, Light sets out to rid the world of evil, one criminal at a time, identifying himself publicly only as “Kira” (i.e. derived from the Japanese pronunciation of “killer”). The authorities, lead by the idiosyncratic detective L, (and later his successors Mello and Near) set out to stop him. Complicating matters is the fact that Light’s father is the head of the taskforce working with L to bring Kira down – and the appearance of a second Death Note wielded by the bubbly, Light-adoring, Misa Amane.
As Toni Johnson-Woods suggests, Death Note deals with “the essence of evil” (Johnson-Woods 2010, p. 12), an evil embodied by the central question of the series: is it right to kill someone evil? (1:66), a question explored through the initial struggle between the serial killer Light and the detective L. As the figure originally responsible for hunting down Kira, L is the “sleuth” who can “solve any case, no matter what it is [...]” (1:59) and can be seen as a character typified by the tentei shosetsu (detective fiction) genre that has “captivated the Japanese reading public since the late nineteenth century… [and] defied rigid categorization and restricted strict definition” (Kawana 2008, p. 1). But more than this, he is an embodiment of the modernity Light exists to critique.
The early twentieth century was a heady time of rapid economic growth, political drama, industrialization and cultural diversity for Japan. However, as Kawana notes, “it was also a turbulent period plagued by a general melancholy that made its sufferers dizzy and woozy as [the Japanese] tried to acclimate themselves to the new world order – modernity […] yet the genre [of detective fiction] enjoyed a steady popularity throughout the ordeal” (Kawana 2008, p. 2). This idea of modernity is a peculiarly Japanese one, for as Kawana goes on to note, Japan’s Meiji period (1868-1912) was marked by an “optimism… for a future brought about by modernization” (Kawana 2008, p. 5) was tempered by the “self-reflexive culture of decadence” in the Taisho period (1912-1926) (Kawana 2008, p. 3). This produced a strange confluence of “backward concepts… imagination, superstition, and other elements of fushigi (strangeness, mystery)” (described by Gerald Figal 1999, qtd Kawana 2008, p. 5) in contrast to “modern reason” (Figal 1999, p. 4-5). Kawana describes this as a “kind of murky, uncertain Japanese modernity… the sequel to the Meiji Enlightenment, in which the future is no longer an automatic improvement over the present” (Kawana 2008, p. 5-6). This is what we see embodied in the character of L, a combination of reason (an incredibly sharp mind driven by deductive reasoning) tempered by strangeness (his look, his way of sitting in chairs, constantly appearing barefoot and displaying a fondness for sweet things). With his panda eyes, shyness and bad posture he has more in common with otaku than Sherlock Holmes. Yet he narrows the suspects to Light quite early on and most of the saga plays out the battle of wits between them.
It is Light Yagami’s name that points to his delusion. Explaining his name he says “you write the kanji for ‘moon’ and read it light – unusual isn’t it? And Yagami is written with the kanji for ‘night’ and ‘god’" (2:104). Like L, Light is brilliant, but he is also handsome and articulate, less of an outsider, more of a social reformer, in his own words (when the Death Note’s original owner Ryuk questions his morality) “a [17-year-old] serious, straight-A student […] a model teenager” (Light qtd 1).
The relationship between Light and the shinigami Ryuk is born out of boredom, the manga opening with Ryuk and Light simultaneously reflecting on their worlds “same old thing, day after day […] what a bore” (Ryuk), “This world is a rotten mess” (Light) (1:5), the Death Note gives them both an opportunity to step outside their respective worlds – by dropping it into the human world Ryuk replaces his boredom with an interesting diversion; by taking it Light has the means to make a difference.
Light’s philosophy is simple: “Start looking around you […] And all you see are people the world would be better off without […]. This world is a rotten mess. It really needs to be cleaned up[…]. With this notebook I can actually do it […]. I’m using the Death Note to change the world” (Light qtd 1). Light sets out to end the lives of “the world’s most brutal criminals” and sees himself as “passing righteous judgment on them! And then nobody will commit crimes anymore. The world will start to become a better place […]. They’ll realize they’ll die if they don’t change their ways […]. I’ll make this a world inhabited only by people I decide are good […]. And I […] will reign over a new world” (Light qtd 1).
Light therefore sees himself as a justice figure, actually acting for the good of the world, even if this ‘morality’ is later replaced by megalomania. He aims to “purge the world of evil” (1:53) and when L, through a surrogate, accuses him of being evil he responds: “Me… evil? I am righteous!! I’m the hero who’s liberating people from fear. I’m the savior who’s going to be like a God of this perfect new world! Those who try to fight me… they’re the evil ones!!” (1). In Death Note then, the Vengeful Spirit of Japanese popular culture, here represented by Ryuk but perhaps best known in the West through the J Cycle of films – and best represented by Sadako of The Ring Cycle - is pressed into the service of a serial killer in the name of justice.
Serial killers in popular culture
This link between serial killing and justice is an interesting development in the figure of the serial killer, but it is also arguably one that has been building for at least fifty years with the turning point in popular media depictions of serial killers being Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960. While there were previous and concurrent representations of serial killers, notably the English Peeping Tom (1960), Psycho’s enormous popularity and prevalence in popular and academic discourse meant that it became the benchmark for representing serial killers, echoing through the slasher cycles (commencing with Halloween in 1978) and serial killer cycles of films that followed, giving us three important elements:
i) the human monster (Norman Bates),
ii) the confluence of news and popular discourses (Robert Bloch’s original novel was based on news reports of Ed Gein, himself the inspiration for the later Texas Chainsaw Massacre of 1978)
iii) and perhaps, most importantly for this paper, the first suggestion of sympathy for the serial killer.
Twice during the film, we as audience-members are placed in the position of not only identifying with Norman Bates, but fearing for him; once during the clean-up following Marion Crane’s death in which the disorder of the motel room is restored to order and, more famously, as Marion’s car is sinking into the swampland at the back of the motel and for one perilous, agonizing moment stops sinking; then, waiting for the car to sink again, we share Norman’s fear of discovery. For the first time we live in the world of, and empathise with, the killer.
This curiosity with the serial killer developed into a huge popular culture industry throughout the 1970s, the sale of “murderabilia” (movies, magazines, ephemera, trading cards and toys) giving the serial killer “an unparalleled degree of visibility in the contemporary American public sphere” (Schmid 2006, p. 295) and echoed in the amazing array of merchandising that accompanied Death Note. As David Schmid goes on to observe, by 2006 you could buy action figures of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy from Spectre Studios, items actually made by serial killers themselves from Serial Killer Central and various related items (locks of hair and the like) from Supernaught.com (Schmid 2006, p. 295). Schmid points to this “iconic status of serial killers [as] compelling evidence of the collapse of the difference between fame and notoriety” (Schmid 2006, p. 297) and the “sharp decline in the importance of ‘merit’ as a defining factor in fame” (Schmid 2006, p. 297). “In a culture defined by celebrity, serial killers are among the biggest stars of all, instantly recognised by the vast majority of Americans” (Schmid 2006, p. 295) and, by extension, the world. But perhaps it goes further than this if, as Jacques Derrida suggests, we experience a “shudder of admiration” for a criminal as a kind of “primeval […] lawmaker or prophet” (Derrida 1992, p. 40). This is an idea to which I’ll return.
This notion of the serial killer as celebrity is also a running theme of Death Note. Kira is alternately celebrated as a guardian of justice and derided as a mass murderer, with websites devoted to him (1:66-67). Throughout history, criminals have long been targeted by “professional opinion-makers” (Schmid 2006, p. 299) like newspaper editors and reporters, as emblematic of the problems with culture at that time (Kooistra 1989, p. 40). This was certainly true in the 1980s when, in 1985, editorial standards were uniformly lowered to compete with tabloid publications (Krajicek 2013), making the serial killer ideal fodder for over-reporting (see Schlesinger and Tumber 1994, p. 184; Surette 1994, p. 135) as they best embodied the “all scandal, all the time” (Schmid 2006, p. 301) tabloid ethos of the era, leading to a new moral panic around the prevalence and activity of serial killers (identified by Philip Jenkins in 1994, among others), a new myth suited for the tabloid age, again commented on by both Kira and Misa’s manipulation of the tabloid ethos of Sakura TV and director Demogawa (in Volume 3) in the manga.
By the 90s the interest in serial killers had translated into a number of high-profile and often self-reflexive films – Seven (1995), Kalifornia (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994) and most importantly, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1992) – along with television series, like Millennium (1996–1999) and Profiler (1996-2000). Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers comment on aspects of serial killer culture, the desire to collect and attain fame respectively. Seven offers up the possibility of the serial killer as a justice figure, punishing others for their sins (an important idea I will return to later) – but it is Hannibal Lecter, of Silence of the Lambs, that is perhaps the best remembered of these popular cultural serial killers and the most important development in their representation since Norman Bates.
For despite Lecter heading the AFI’s list of most famous movie villains, in Silence of the Lambs, as in the prequel Red Dragon (2002), Lecter is presented as a helpful figure, as a guide for the young FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). As representatives of the serial killer and the law respectively, Lecter and Starling’s relationship points the way forward in serial killer representation, towards a time where it falls to the killer to correct the deficiencies in the law. Starling must rely on Lecter because the law alone cannot capture Buffalo Bill. Lecter therefore becomes a simultaneously repellent and seductive figure, contrasted with the completely charisma-less, truly terrifying figures in each film, like Francis Dolarhyde (in Red Dragon), Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) and Mason Verger from Hannibal. By the end of Silence we are laughing along with him as he stalks his odious doctor, promising to “have a friend over for dinner.” Indeed, by the end of the sequel, Hannibal, Lecter has become a kind of antihero. As Alan Moore suggests, Lecter’s creator Thomas Harris seems to have become seduced by his own creation with Hannibal recasting Lecter in the lead role, triumphing over his enemies and even winning Starling over to his side (in the novel at least. While Clarice retains some degree of autonomy in the film the idea was so repugnant to Jodie Foster that she did not return for the sequel). This was followed up not with another sequel, potentially saving Starling, but rather a prequel – Hannibal Rising (2007) – simultaneously serving as explanation and apologia for Doctor Lecter’s behaviour.
Serial killers in Japan similarly enjoyed a filmic revival driven in part by the success of Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1995) and partly by the rising crime levels in Japan itself, particularly in regard to motiveless crimes and suicides among children and young adults (Harper 2008, p. 57). Jim Harper sees such films as being an “attempt in cinematic terms to deal with the increasing violence and crime within a country that had previously enjoyed the reputation of being one of the safest in the world” (Harper 2008, p. 57). Like the murderous protagonists of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (1997), Light is another “killer who were to all intents and purposes entirely normal, until some trigger turned them into psychopaths” (Harper 2008, p. 57) (indeed the battle of wills between L and Light echoes the battle of wills between the detective Takabe and the drifter/killer Mamiya in Cure). Similarly, Light’s ability to use the Death Note to make people kill themselves (as seen in the way he dispatches Naomi Misora in Volume 2) echoes Mamiya’s ability to make people commit suicide in Cure, the suicide-invoking computer-game in Toru Matsura’s Synesthesia (2005) and the deadly trends of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2002).
What is novel in Japanese serial killer films are the number of female protagonists, like the sexually domineering Masami in Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Kichiku (1997), Evil Dead Trap 2’s (1991, Izo Hashimoto) psychotic Aki or Takashi Miike’s ode to masculine torturers, Asami Yamasaki, in Audition (2000). When Misa appears as a second holder of a Death Note, with her own shinigami Rem and a devotion to Light, she is clearly a nod to this tradition in Japanese serial killer representations: a perky, giggly girl who is very disturbed.
The serial killer as justice figure
Both Paul Kooistra and David Schmid argued the serial killer could not function as a “heroic criminal” (Kooistra 1989, p. 10) because they “lack the empathic dimensions of these Robin-Hood like outlaws” (Schmid 2006, p. 305). But the serial killer’s move from sympathetic character (Norman) to guide (Lecter) to potential hero (Light) was confirmed with Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series of novels (commencing in 2004) that became an even more popular television series in 2006. Here, Dexter Morgan is employed as a Miami blood-spatter expert who also operates as a serial killer, but who only kills “bad people”, those who have escaped or otherwise operate outside the reach of the law. Like Lecter before him, Dexter functions as an alternative justice figure because the people he kills are always worse than himself, linked to broader societal issues of child or sexual abuse and thereby more deserving of punishment and less of sympathy. By way of example, in the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter Dexter notes in regard to his latest target, a child abusing priest, ‘I would never do that. Could never allow that. I am not like Father Donovan, not that kind of monster’ (Lindsay 2004, p. 11).
Policeman Harry Morgan adopted Dexter, the child of one of his informants after she is killed. Harry quickly recognizes Dexter’s penchant for killing and decides to do something about it:
“I’m afraid your urge to kill is only going to get stronger […] So we can’t stop this. But maybe we can do something to channel it. Use it for good […] Son, there are people out there who do really bad things, terrible people. And the police can’t catch them all. Do you understand what I’m saying? [...] but of course you have to learn how to spot them, how to cover your tracks. But I can teach you [….] You can’t help what happened to you but you can make the best of it” (Season One, “Pilot”).
As Dexter’s creator Jeff Lindsay outlines the code in Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Harry tells Dexter:
“You can channel it […] control it. Choose what or who you kill. There are plenty of people who deserve it, Dex [….] To choose carefully amongst those who deserved it. To make absolutely sure. Then tidy it up. Leave no traces. And always avoid emotional involvement; it can lead to mistakes" (Lindsay 2004: 28-29).
Harry’s superior officer, Captain Tom Matthews, describes being a policeman as:
“A tough job. It can wear on even the best of us [… ]. The system doesn’t always work. Sometimes they get away, you know that. And that just got harder and harder for Harry to deal with" (Season Two, “There’s something about Harry”).
Harry thus becomes the pater imporiosius, simultaneously Dexter’s father figure and signifier of law providing Dexter with a code to be followed, “a ritual” involving preparation, rubber sheets, duct tape. Dexter thus becomes in his own words:
“An idea transcended into life […]. I need to work harder, explore new rituals, evolve. Am I evil? Am I good? I’m done asking those questions. I don’t have the answers. Does anyone?” (Season Two “The British Invasion”).
In the end, Dexter simply functions as a way of addressing the problems with the legal system.
It is this Code of Harry that demarcates Dexter from earlier serial killer moral agents such as John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in Se7en and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (1991). Arthur Raney has previously argued for a theory of media enjoyment whereby audiences will judge the justness of an action against their own personal perceptions of morality, often shaped by the sympathy they feel for the killer and how ‘deserving’ they consider the murder to be (Raney & Bryant 2002). Se7en’s John Doe views himself as a moral agent because he is “setting an example” by functioning as a “source against the sins people, with their indifference, tolerate” but his murders are so extreme in their violence and gore, with the need to display the bodies after the murders, often flayed and posed, that he distances audience support. Similarly, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman is a moral agent who describes himself as a ‘bad conscience’ (in Bret Easton Ellis’ original novel) killing those who exhibit excessive and conspicuous consumption but his bloody and often sexually violent killings also serve to distance the audience. Furthermore both of them have internal logic that seems muddy (Doe’s choice of victims is still comparatively random, Bateman’s killings seem more motivated by jealousy than anything else) in the face of Dexter’s codified conduct and both lack the legitimacy that Harry’s support of Dexter (as a policeman and therefore representative of law) extends to him.
As Kooistra suggested, but did not think applied to serial killers, stories like Dexter’s help us “vicariously release rebellious feelings generated by the restrictions imposed by authority” (Kooistra 1989, p. 10). Dexter actively fills the lacunae in the legal system, bringing back justice at the expense of legal process. But while Jeff Lindsay was "Darkly Dreaming Dexter”, Death Note was also exploring the potential for serial killers to not just be agents of justice, but to be architects of a whole new world order. Here, Light Yagami sets out to be a truly utopian serial killer. “I’m ridding the world of evil and creating a utopia” (Light qtd 1:54). Like Dexter he has an internal logic, matched with charismas, that makes his actions appealing. He is likened to a superhero by school kids discussing Kira in the playground noting: “The cops couldn’t pull it off. It’s gotta be some superhero brigade, like X-Men or something” (1:62).
Like the superhero, Light personifies the relationship between law and justice – another way of thinking discursively about law, because a vigilante like Light Yagami - and the later Dexter Morgan - personifies the tension between a modern adherence to the rule of law and pre- (or even post-) modern explorations of Derrida’s aporia in different personae: the modern secret identity on the one hand (eg. the dedicated student) and the premodern justice figure on the other (eg. the serial killer) ,with a postmodern exploration coming from an oscillation between the two.
Hence a vigilante like Light can personify the inherent tensions in law in a way that other crimefighters, be they Perry Mason or Harry Callaghan, cannot. As Walter Benjamin notes in his essay ‘Critique of Violence’:
“in the great criminal this violence confronts the law with the threat of declaring a new law, a threat that even today, despite its impotence, in important instances horrifies the public as it did in primeval times” (Benjamin 1996, p. 183).
Light offers us an alternative form of justice free of morality or legal procedure: due process or a fair trial. This is highlighted by the fact that Light’s father is Superintendant Yagami of the NPA and chief investigator on the case, (in a twist revealed 1: 100). He thus symbolizes law in two ways, through patriarchy and profession. He considers Kira to be “evil… there’s no denying that…the real evil is the power to kill people. Someone who finds himself with that power is cursed. No matter how you use it, anything obtained by killing people can never bring true happiness” (Yagami qtd 3:125). Whereas Light sees the Death Note as a tool: “I’ve never once considered finding that notebook and gaining this power a misfortune. In fact, it’s made me happier than I’ve ever been. And I’m going to create a perfect world” (Light qtd 3:128-129). Light intends to use the Death Note to address the problems in modernity (the criminals going free as a result of the system). In this way the serial killer is reconfigured as an antihero, someone who can address the failures in the same legal system that fails to understand them.
Indeed, these themes of tension between law and justice are even clearer in Shusuke Kaneko’s Death Note (2006) adaptations, Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name released three months apart[i]. Here Light is more clearly delineated as a law student and the subsequent characters Mello and Near do not appear. The struggle is therefore drawn between the ideal of justice (without law) presented by Light and the ideal of law (following due process) represented by L and Light’s father. This was foregrounded by the director Kaneko as they built on themes he had explored in his earlier Crossfire (2000) following a young pyrokinetic girl’s personal vendetta that becomes, according to Harper, “a moral crusade” (Harper 2008, p. 137). As Harper goes on to note: “Kaneko himself channels a fair amount of righteous fury into Crossfire, most notably on matters of law and order. The police are shackled by laws that protect the guilty…” (Harper 2008, p.137), that are echoed in Death Note’s exploration of “the dangers of exercising unchecked power, regardless of how altruistic the motives might be” (Harper 2008, p.176). In Death Note the Vengeful Spirit of Japanese popular culture (perhaps best known in the West through the J Cycle of films – and best represented by Sadako of The Ring Cycle) is pressed into the service of a serial killer in the name of justice. Through his link to the shinigmai, the serial killer (as represented by Light) has become a new type of monster, one who kills out of a desire to do justice.
As Kawana notes “detective writers have served as guides to the dark side of modernity, urging readers to examine problems from new angles and devise solutions in and outside the textual space” (Kawana 2008, p. 11). This is how Death Note operates as a discursive site, offering up Light as an alternative justice figure, operating outside the constraints of law or morality, to punish those criminals who escape or otherwise operate beyond the reach of the legal system. In this way, the serial killer can exist at the very end of what I term the pre-modern spectrum of law, ensuring justice is served even when the system doesn’t always work. For just as the police procedural has previously often constructed a pre-modern idea of law through its direct line to the truth and lack of accountability, this pre-modern, or sacred, ideal of justice can be even more powerfully signified by the serial killer. Like the latter Dexter, Light clearly embodies the notion of transcendent justice over equality and ritual over rationality. But throughout he maintains a very modern sense of progress by “bringing villains to justice” and “cleaning up the streets”, i.e. making society better, safer and therefore more efficient. In Death Note then it is the execution of the criminal, by Light, that provides narrative closure. Indeed, this is to be Light’s ultimate fate too, bypassing the court system by writing a name in a notebook and thus replacing the delivery of the verdict as the moment of catharsis, offering both resolution and a sense of justice being done, even as it openly critiques the legal system. The serial killer thus remains emblematic of the contradictions in modernity and more particularly, actually speaking to the ongoing tension between law and justice.
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[i] L in a spin-off film directed by The Ring’s Hideo Nakata.
Jason Bainbridge is Professor and Chair of Media and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology. He has written widely on popular representations of law, anime and manga, superheroes and justice and crime narratives. His most recent publication is the 3rd edition of his co-authored text Media and Journalism: New Approaches to Theory and Practice (OUP, 2015).
The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 2 2015
Editors: Rachel Franks and Wendy J. Dunn