Serial killers inhabit “The Inside” of our cultural psyche

What does a serial killer do?

He kills.

No. That’s incidental. What does a serial killer do?

He practices ritual mutilation of his victims to titillate the viewer. He manifests a formidable intellect, matched only by his absolute sociopathy and alienation, to signify our cultural paragon of evil. He is the linchpin for a form of entertainment that is fantasy big-game hunting with humans.

In Tim Minear’s new TV series “The Inside” (debuted June 8 on Fox Network), the serial killer takes on a new function, of helping to reconstruct the meanings of mental illness, trauma, victims, abusers, and the value of what Minear calls “damaged people.”

“The Inside” features rape, torture and mutilated corpses. It invites us to be entertained by human-hunting, a pleasure we have always made more palatable using the device of the serial killer, who hunts people and must be hunted down to be stopped. These aspects of the show are comfortable and familiar to us. We have long used the serial killer as a receptacle for our exorcised evil. Then, we make a sacrifice of the serial killer to absolve ourselves of the evil we’ve aroused.

What American culture finds uncomfortable is the influx of new ideas about abuse, trauma, and mental illness that we’ve struggled to absorb over the last century. Marriage no longer legitimizes violence against spouses and children. We’ve placed the participants of domestic violence into the categories of “victim” and “abuser,” and these categories have strained under the new tension between intimacy and violence. We’ve resolved this by shifting responsibility to the victim. A victim once implied innocence, but now connotes a person who compulsively seeks an abuser and is complicit in the abuse. Also, abusers and victims are no longer temporary roles attached to isolated circumstances, but stable identities generated from childhood experiences with abuse. To combat this view, victims have recently been re-termed survivors, a word that emphasizes the strength of those who experienced trauma. At the same time, we are in the process of redefining a psychologically disordered person—once called deranged or neurotic—as mentally ill, the unlucky victims of disease. Furthermore, our cultural mythology about art and artists leads us to associate mental illness with creativity, and to view sickness as a potential gift.

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“The Inside” yokes the serial-killer thriller, a familiar cultural form, and adapts it to the task of processing these complexities. The serial killer/victim dyad is permitted to parallel and reflect the good guys. Virgil “Web” Webster (Peter Coyote), director of “The Inside”’s pack of serial-killer hunters (the FBI’s Los Angeles Violent Crimes Unit), deceives, manipulates, and controls the people who work for him. His newest recruit is Rebecca Locke (Rachel Nichols), a girl who was kidnapped at age10 and tortured by a serial killer before making her escape. Web claims that Rebecca “wants him to use her” and that she has a “gift forged in pain” for capturing serial killers. Rebecca insists she is no longer a vulnerable little girl, but her interactions with Web contradict her. Together they conspire to tie her hands to the tracks, and it’s hard to tell which of them controls the dynamic.

VCU agent Paul Ryan (Jay Harrington) represents our former ways of thinking about the causes and consequences of trauma. He operates using the old distinctions between victim and abuser, healthy and sick, good and evil. His first impulse is to protect Rebecca from Web. He perceives a clear distinction between Web the exploiter and Rebecca the exploited. He views Rebecca’s past trauma as a liability to her safety, not as an asset to the team.

We’ve used the serial killer in the past to reassure us that psychos are evil, evil is separate from good, and victims are the innocent casualties of evil people. The serial killer was our scapegoat. We reveled in the hunt and made him responsible for our sins, our voyeurism, and our fascination with violence. The serial killer was the Other. The arrogance of being human is expressed in our constant attempt to separate evil from good in a world where they are two sides of the same process, and the smallness of being human is that we constantly fail in the one thing we do have control over, which is just ourselves.

As older boundaries describing good and evil collapse under an evolving attitude toward trauma, abuse, and the mentally ill, we need a new kind of serial killer to recast the boundaries and fortify them. “The Inside” is a manifestation of the culture’s effort to play for a while at admitting that the Other is the Self, until they are both redefined and the illusion is thrown up again.