In this week’s American Horror Story, we spent time with Bloody Face. Bloody Face, the poorly named serial killer stalking Massachusetts, was revealed last week to be Dr. Oliver Thredson, the psychiatrist appointed by the court to determine whether Kit Walker, the man arrested for the Bloody Face murders, was competent to stand trial. With this reveal, Dr. Thredson joined the ranks of famous serial killers in pop culture.
The term serial killer was created in the 1970s to classify a murderer who has killed at least three distinct times with a cooling period in between them. Often, the killings are of similar victims, and have certain aspects of the murder in common. For example, David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” serial killer operating in New York City in the 1970s, shot 5 couples in their cars throughout New York City (he would kill 6 people). Contrary to popular belief, there have been serial killers throughout history, all over the world, and of every age, race and gender.
Trying to determine whether a serial killer has a mental illness is difficult. The obvious answer is yes, to kill repeatedly in the same pattern over years implies that something is wrong with them. But the answer is not that simple. To determine if someone is insane, the term used by the court system, that person must not be able to tell right from wrong. Most serial killers are able to say what they do is wrong, so most are not insane. Some fit into the clinical diagnosis of psychopath, but many don’t have enough symptoms to fit the diagnosis (Charles Manson is part of this group). Others may have co-occurring disorders, but since 99% of the population isn’t a serial killer, that mental disorder is not the cause. Studies looking into the biological causes have researched extra testosterone and studies looking into environmental factors have researched parental neglect and bullying, but none have been conclusive. Part of the issue is that there are not enough serial killers to get a good research sample (but more than enough for the world).
However, the investigative side of the phenomena has been fruitful. Due to the repeat nature of the crimes, a forensic investigative technique called Offender Profiling was created. This technique was created in the 1970s by the FBI from extensive interviewing of incarcerated killers, conducted by the psychologists heading the Behavioral Analysis Unit. Often depicted as an almost magical ability to understand a person’s personality from tiny details, actual offender profiling is based on statistical analysis from known information about serial killers.
Despite their prevalence in the 1970s, serial killers and profiling didn’t become popular until the 1990s, with the movie Silence of the Lambs. The movie was based on Thomas Harris’ book of the same name about a rookie FBI agent working with a serial killer to catch another serial killer (sound familiar?). It started Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, and it would make his career. Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer he portrayed, became the basis for most pop culture serial killers, and is probably who you imagined when you read the term. He was a psychiatrist who helped the police catch killers, while also being a killer. He was erudite, charming and monstrous, making a compelling character and a movie icon all in one. Later movies would reveal his issues with mother and the mother figures in his life. His ability to plan and execute detailed crimes that baffle all the police except for one brilliant and troubled officer has reverberated down the pop culture scene, blocking out most other interpretations.
The other common reference for serial killers (and certainly Dr. Thredson) is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The movie was based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, in turned based on the crimes of a man named Ed Gein (Gein’s crimes would also become the basis for Silence of the Lamb’s Buffalo Bill and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface). In the movie, Norman Bates, the seemingly nice, normal hotel owner, is a serial killer with serious mother issues (Spoiler alert?). His mother’s smothering love causes him to become unable to have a healthy relationship with women, so he takes on his mother’s personality and kills them. To create the pop culture serial killer, mother issues are the number one ingredient. It’s an easy way to shorthand the incredibly complex (and still unknown) process that takes a child and makes them a repeat murder. Norman Bates is the archetype of that kind of killer.
So getting back to the show, Dr. Thredson is a mix of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates. He’s a psychiatrist with mother issues, abandoned and neglected, and is searching for a replacement. By kidnapping Lana, the intrepid reporter, he plans to replace his mother with someone who will love him unconditionally. Unlike the current movie serial killers, he doesn’t have a hugely elaborate plan (though he does have a killing room in a sub-basement, also a common serial killer commodity in pop culture land), just to kidnap and torture his victims. In the post-Saw world, that‘s kind of refreshing. (Criminal Minds, the most literal descendent of Silence of the Lambs, has killers who have very elaborate plans, buildings in which to commit their crimes, and occasionally people to help them.) How this storyline is going to connect back to Briarcliff, I’m not sure (perhaps his mother is there). The frame story is about Bloody Face killing people in the present, but unless Dr. Thredson is immortal, I don’t think it’s him. My guess is that it’s Kit, after his time in Briarcliff and with Dr. Thredson made him movie crazy. Maybe Kit will save Lana, kill Dr. Thredson and become Bloody Face himself.
For more information about serial killers and profiling, the best place to start is with the original profilers themselves. John E. Douglas wrote 13 books on profiling, its technique and creation, but the best is his first, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit. It tells the story of the creation of profiling and his time interviewing some of the deadliest people on Earth. His partner, Robert K. Ressler, also wrote a series of books on the topic, and his best is Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI. It covers very similar time frame from Douglas’ book, but is more focused on the interviews with the killers and his techniques in conducting them.
Next week: The possessed Sister Eunice fights with the Nazi Dr. Arden, finally allowing us to determine if Nazis or the Devil are more evil.