“We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow” – Ted Bundy, American kidnapper, rapist, serial killer.
“What is it that attracts us to the stories of and the heinous crimes committed by a serial killer? What is it that draws us to read about the exploits of these depraved people?” Anirban Bhattacharyya writes in his book The Deadly Dozen: India’s Most Notorious Serial Killers. Perhaps, there’s actually an explanation to why we waited eagerly for the new series of Mindhunter or binge-watched Perfume on Netflix.
The one thing that all of us have learnt from TV shows, movies and books is that serial killers could be anyone. They could be ordinary people, act like your mundane next-door neighbor who waters the plants and goes shopping before festivals. Or, not.
They are probably very charming too. More often than not it is this tactic that helps them lead their victims to their inevitable pitfall.
The stories of gruesome crimes committed by those whose convoluted thought processes are a matter of great scholarly and often, a voyeuristic curiosity have intrigued mankind since time immemorial. The latest addition to understanding criminal’s minds are TV shows and just coming into visual contact with these characters almost always makes us feel like excited bystanders at Bill Tench’s barbeque parties with probing questions about the workings of the FBI or gape with wide-eyed awe at the unravelling of convoluted mysteries on Criminal Minds.
Psychologist Suvarna Sen, Secretary of Eastern Zonal Psychological Association and Consulting Psychologist at Belle Vue Clinic, Kolkata explains it through the conscious, unconscious and subconscious theory. She said that all sinister and unlawful desires are stored in the unconscious part of our mind where they remain and manifest themselves through our interests in books and shows on brutal murders. “Such taboo affairs are consciously fought by the human mind and the ‘revenge complex’ is suppressed by most of us. However, it is different for serial killers as their socio-economic conditions often play a role in their later actions, those that are lapped up by an audience on the other end of a TV, book or computer. Aggressive and violent movies always seem more attractive to those in whom the unconscious needs a vent,” she said.
However, Dr. Prem Lata Chawla from Vimhans Hospital in Delhi said that she doesn’t think psychology can truly map out why an ordinary being becomes a serial killer. “We watch such shows solely for the thrill factor in it,” she said.
Author Anirban Bhattacharyya believes that humans are genetically programmed to be attracted to the macabre. “The human mind is always attracted to the dark side. We are coded that way. That is why we are concerned about the killings of others, when we know that it is not going to adversely affect us in any way”.
A new wave of crime shows based on real-life incidents has captured the imagination of viewers across the country as well where ignoble stories of kidnapping, serial killing and grotesque acts of crime varying greatly in nature, is being consumed by an overtly enthusiastic audience whose interests stem from borderline voyeurism.
Atul Mohan, box office expert and film trade analyst explains, “These subjects are depressing but do well at the box office as past trends indicate."
We know how The Stoneman used to bash his victim’s faces in on the streets. However, on the other hand, movies like Ek Villain and Murder, Johnny Gaddar and Andhadhun, are also based on brutal murders but they are a cinematic work of fiction. With Raman Raghav 2.0, we know he was a serial murder and the thought disturbs us as it has a tinge of reality to it.
"Earlier, only a handful of people had access to shows on serial killers but now they can share as well as pick from an array of choices on OTT platforms. Indian producers are also creating original work for these mediums and their studies show that this formula works in order to receive positive viewer responses. More of these are slowly gaining ground as the subject matter intrigues the audience further," Mohan said.
To drive home the point mathematically, Raman Raghav started out with a budget of 35 million rupees and ended up with a total turnout of 70 million rupees with an IMDB rating of 7.3. On the other hand, Netflix’s new series starring Jacqueline Fernandez, is expected to do quite well. The previous season of Mindhunter had received a IMDB rating of 8.6 and the new season looks equally promising.
It’s the TRPs, says Bhattacharya. “We have seen this with Anurag’s [Kashyap] Raman Raghav 2.0 and The Stoneman Murders and we will continue seeing such excitement in the future as well.”
While it is true that directors are now expected to take on a more egalitarian path towards the creation of such art and include more in-depth narratives on the socio-political issues that prove to be conducive for the creation of such societal monsters, it also now admits the involvement of a system and the state which gives us the opportunity to view these media through critical eyes.
Kolkata based director Saibal Mitra explains this phenomenon with regards to foreign language films. “Several movies in German, French and Russian have been made on the subject. My film, Shajarur Kanta is based on the same subject, revolving around a serial killer whose murder weapon is a porcupine’s quill. I realized how gripping the matter really is and weighed the audience reaction on the same lines.
Just as Jack the Ripper had captured the minds of directors all over the world, it has also brought to the forefront the socio-economic conditions from which they rise and also gives rise to conspiracy theories. Mental health issues also come to the forefront. People always seek ‘thrill’ in all facets of life in order to come out of repressive shells and seek answers. Hero worship of the detectives who solve the crimes is also a major factor in this regard. The German movie The Golden Glove upholds these characteristics well.”
In the wild, wild west roamed some of the most infamous killers in the history of mankind. The BTK Killer, which stands for “Blind them, torture them, kill them”, left clues behind, every time he butchered someone to death, whereas Russia’s Chessboard Killer grabbed a drink of vodka before murdering his victims. The life of Ted Bundy has given ample scope for documentarians and filmmakers to turn the charming, educated womanizer and serial killer’s modus operandi into a palatable form for viewer consumption.
However, closer home we have equally capable original and copycat killers whose methods were no less spine-chilling than their western counterparts. Raman Raghav is India’s Jack the Ripper whose various names Sindhi Dalwai, Tambi and Talwai and his long list of victims from the lower rungs of society plagued the crime inspecting unit of the Bombay Police. Or Cyanide Mohan whose Ted Bundy-ish charms led to the deaths of more than a score of women in local washrooms of Karnataka, all poisoned from tablets infused with cyanide, offered as abortion pills.
The Nithari Killings’ duo, Mominder Singh Pandher and Surinder Koli were accused for the murder and consequent consumption of several children in a quaint Noida neighbourhood took the Indian media by storm in the December of 2006 and gave rise to innumerable conspiracy theories claiming their innocence, the most popular of which led to the making of the Netflix series The Karma Killings.
While Bhattacharyya knew the exact modus operandi of the killings, for his book, he had to step into the shoes of the murderer.
“I treated every case differently. Beer Man made me laugh as it was such a botched up case! The way it was reported messed with the investigation. The feel then became a dark comedy, sarcastic and witty. During Nithari, my mind was shocked and numbed by the fact that there were so many open angles and conspiracy theories. I decided to write it not as a story format but as an investigation, as opposed to the narrative form of the other stories. In this case, we would never know what actually happened much like the Arushi Talwar case,” he said.
What about women serial killers?
Florida based serial killer Aileen Wuornos had once said, "I killed those men, robbed them as cold as ice. And I'd do it again, too. There's no chance in keeping me alive or anything, because I'd kill again. I have hate crawling through my system...I am so sick of hearing this 'she's crazy' stuff. I've been evaluated so many times. I'm competent, sane, and I'm trying to tell the truth. I'm one who seriously hates human life and would kill again”.
Anirban Bhattacharyya said, “People always think that serial killers can’t be women. They have a set stereotype on what sort of people can be serial killers in the first place. Thus, I gave it a local language twist in my book like in a film to make the viewer feel ‘present’. Women like Cyanide Mallika and the notorious trio, Anjanabai, Seema Gavit and Renuka Shinde, the child killers of India are notable milestones in the study of this genre of crime. We always feel that serial killing is not an Indian phenomenon but there have been notorious killers in our country as well.”
His point manifests itself through the creation of Posham Pa, ZEE5’s psychological thriller based on the trio’s lives which sheds light on the organization aspect of serial killing, of children in their case where the accusation upon them entailed using children to beg for money and then killing them off when their need came to an end. The show meticulously tries to portray the extreme spectrums of the human consciousness, the overlapping of the Id over the Ego.
The movie bears a stark resemblance with the investigative methods used in the show Mindhunter, a show whose second season received critical acclaim for the portrayal of serial killers like Charles Manson, Edmund Kemper and Dennis Rader. The interview method used by Holden Ford and Bill Tench to profile these murderers find their Indian parallels in Nikhat Ismael and Gundeep Singh, documentarians trying to trace the crimes committed by the women on a death row.
Yashoroop Dey, a student of Economics at King’s College, London, whose favourite show is Mindhunter, says that “It is the chaotic state of the minds of serial killers” that interests him.
For Dey, the lives of Indian women killers are most intriguing. “They did away with the preset structures of morality and the patriarchal notion associated with violence, without attaching much thought to these concepts in the first place,” he said.
There is no doubt that the cult of serial killing and its consequent immortalization through literature and film has become an integral part of the audience’s psyche for a major part of the late 20th and 21st centuries, what with movies on Indian serial killers such as The Stoneman Murders and Raman Raghav 2.0 and shows like Posham Pa and The Karma Killings which have continually captured the minds of an eager audience. It helps map a psychological trajectory of where a meek, law-abiding citizen’s mind might travel unattended. Those whose senses are triggered by the mention of Hannibal Lecter or Leatherface would attune to the fact that our generation’s fascination with this genre is thriving as much as those of distant United States, United Kingdom or the Koreas.