Serial Killers and the Cultures that Create Them

  • Susanne Komfort-Hein / Susanne Scholz (Hg.): Lustmord. Medialisierungen eines kulturellen Phantasmas um 1900. (Reihe Kulturwissenschaftliche Gender Studies 13) Königstein/Ts.: Ulrike Helmer 2007. 180 S. 20 s/w Abb. Paperback. EUR (D) 22,00.
    ISBN: 978-3-89741-228-6.

Jack the Ripper as a Cultural Phantasm


It all started with Jack the Ripper. He wasn’t the first person to fit the commonly accepted definition of the serial killer (murdering three or more people over the course of at least 30 days with a ›cooling off‹ period in-between each murder). Nor did he invent the concept of murder for sexual pleasure. But most experts agree that with his murders of at least 5 women at the end of 1888 and perhaps several more the following year, he ushered in the age of the serial killer. Jack established a type of person that one might aspire to be (or aspire to understand), and in the process became the prototype of the serial killer that survives to this day. He was, of course, never captured, and over a century later he lurks throughout the volume Lustmord: Medialisierungen eines kulturellen Phantasmas um 1900. This book is the result of a 2005 workshop and conference at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt. It joins a long series of scholarly studies of sexual murder, 1 such as Kerstin Brückweh’s Mordlust, 2 Hania Siebenpfeiffer’s Böse Lust, 3 and Maria Tatar’s Lustmord 4 – to name just a small handful of the more interesting recent books about Lustmord. This collection of essays once again rounds up all of the usual suspects, but it does so with a specific and focused purpose: it seeks to examine why the longstanding tradition of sexual murder is not by accident associated with the turn-of-the-twentieth-century. This is not a volume that seeks to understand the motivations of Lustmörder, nor is it interested in solving never-resolved cases such as that of Jack the Ripper. In fact, although certain figures, such as Jack the Ripper and Fritz Haarmann, pop up throughout the eight entries that make up this volume, it’s not really a book about serial killers at all. Rather, it’s about the cultures in which these killers lived: how they arose from them, how they attracted their fascination, how they defined them.


The volume’s editors, Susanne Komfort-Hein and Susanne Scholz, argue in their clear and succinct introduction that they view Lustmord as above all a »diskursive[s] Phänomen« or even a »kulturelle[s] Phantasma« (p. 12) and that the Lustmörder is »eine Projektionsfigur« (p. 8). They explicitly state that they and the other contributors to the volume aren’t interested so much in the murderers themselves, as in what they say about the cultures that gave rise to them and the media that seek to understand them:

Die Interdiskursivität des Phänomens Lustmord steht dabei im Vordergrund, d.h. unser Blick richtet sich auf die kulturelle Funktion und die Entstehung eines Phantasmas Lustmord am Kreuzungspunkt unterschiedlicher kultureller Diskurse, vor allem auf seine Medialisierungen und Narrativierungen. (p. 12)

The criminals themselves play a minor role in this volume; the real protagonists are the various media that attempt to represent them. This might, in fact, give us a clue as to why the authors in this volume continually return to Jack the Ripper as the exemplary serial killer: it is not only his foundational role that is of interest here, but also the fact that he was never identified. He thus provides us with the perfect blank slate that allows us to link his crimes not to a specific individual, but rather to give collective ownership to an entire culture.


Case Studies


In her entry »The Making of Jack the Ripper« (p. 21–36) Susanne Scholz understands the Ripper as a transitional figure that marks the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of a new era and new values. He is both a product of his society and a challenge to it – the ideal representative of its wishes, fears, and ambivalences bound up into one person. One might almost say that if Jack had not existed, late Victorian English culture would have had to invent him. And, on some level, Scholz argues, that is precisely what happened. The story she tells is a ›Making of…‹ story: how the unsolved murders of five prostitutes (the actual number is still in dispute) became a cultural phantasm given the name of a single assailant, Jack the Ripper. Behind the ›Making of…‹ story – the real criminal, if you will – is an ambivalent and concerned English society wrestling with new gender roles, new sexual morals, new immigrant ›threats‹ to national identity, and a new fear of atavistic impulses caused by the progress of modernity.


Arne Höcker continues to probe this relationship between committing crimes and narrating crimes in his chapter, »Die Lust am Text« (p. 37–51). He explicitly addresses a topic that is implicit throughout the volume: the uneasy relationship between representations of criminals that claim to be works of art and those that claim to be works of science. At the center of his investigation is the modern notion of the case history, which, he argues, conflates »Lust am Mord« with »Lust am Text.« He discusses at length the case of Andreas Bichel, an early 19th-century criminal who falls outside the period under investigation here, and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the late 19th-century sexologist who fits right into the period being investigated and, not surprisingly, is the real subject of this chapter. Höcker argues that Bichel becomes a certifiably pathological Lustmörder only decades after his death and at the hands of Krafft-Ebing, who for the first time brought the notion of Lust into the equation in his diagnosis of the murderer. Whose Lust is it ultimately?, he wonders.


Hania Siebenpfeiffer takes us back to Jack the Ripper in her chapter, »Re-Writing Jack he Ripper« (p. 55–72). She examines two German fictional accounts of Jack’s murders, Frank Wedekind’s Monstretragödie and G. W. Pabst’s cinematic adaption of Wedekind’s dramas, Die Büchse der Pandora. Here, the issue of gender that is always lurking in analyses of serial murder comes to the fore. Siebenpfeiffer argues that Wedekind’s dramas are less concerned with the crimes of the individual criminals than with the general issue of destructive male desire and the perceived threat posed by women. She is, therefore, very much in line with the main trend of this volume, which is decidedly not about individual criminals and individual crimes, but rather more general social issues. Pabst’s film adds an interesting further self-reflexive level, she argues, in that it conflates the view of the criminal with the view of the spectator. His Jack the Ripper is not a monster, but much more of an everyman. Pabst’s text – which comes from a very different culture four decades after Jack committed his crimes – thus understands what Scholz argued in her chapter was present (yet hidden) in Victorian England and what Höcker argued in his chapter was also present (yet untheorized) in Krafft-Ebing’s diagnosis of Andreas Bichel: that the serial killer is a projection of our own fears and fantasies that we don’t dare to acknowledge or view in connection with ourselves.


Stefan Höltgen continues the focus on Jack the Ripper, but he takes us in a new direction. Until this point, the authors have presented us with interesting new readings of well-known texts. In his entry, »Im Anfang war die Tat« (p. 73–87), he looks at the appearance of Jack the Ripper in early films. He discusses several pre-World War I short films that feature Jack the Ripper – long before the more celebrated post-War films such as Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), The Lodger (1927), and Die Büchse der Pandora (1929), each of which he also discusses. All of the motifs, techniques, and plots of the genre of the serial killer film – examples of which now number in the hundreds – were, he argues, established in these first films. Indeed, by now the genre has become so well-established that films seem to derive more from other films than from the actual crimes themselves. Jack the Ripper is not only a cultural projection, he is a cinematic projection as well.


In »Frauenmord als Spektakel« (p. 91–115), Kathrin Hoffmann-Curtius takes a close look at Max Beckmann’s Martyrium, a portrait of the murdered revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. She notes that images of murdered women increase dramatically during and after the First World War and finds elements of wartime propaganda, religious iconography, and allegories of nationhood in Beckmann’s painting. Maria Tatar has already made this point regarding Otto Dix and George Grosz, 5 but Hoffmann-Curtius interestingly contrasts Beckmann’s painting of a murdered woman with those of Dix and Grosz: while the latter two expressed their opposition to traditional aesthetic rules in their paintings, dismantling their female representations just as they dismantled traditional forms, Beckmann united himself with the 19th-century realist tradition, serving as an observer to a crime, not a fantasy criminal in the guise of artist.


Susanne Komfort-Hein continues Hoffmann-Curtius’s examination of the uneasy relationship between the artist and the Frauenmörder in her entry on »Lustmord und Avantarde« (p. 115–129). Taking Heinrich Mann’s Künstlernovelle Pippo Spano as her central text, she argues that the various by-now-familiar discourses of crisis that occupied the avant-garde (language, values, reality, etc.) were bound up with a crisis of gender roles that united avant-garde artists and Lustmörder.


The final two chapters are explicitly concerned with the role of gender in representations of serial killers, a concern that is implicit (and often explicit) throughout the volume. And both chapters present a twist on the typical understanding of Lustmord as representing male violence against female victims. Karsten Uhl looks at portrayals of female sexual murderers (p. 133–148), a decidedly small group in comparison with their male colleagues. He argues that around 1900 a specific type of serial killing – Giftmord – began to be associated with women as a distinctively female variety of murder. He attributes this to the need around this time to understand the personality of the criminal, and indeed to understand it in terms of gender. Uhl’s analysis ties in nicely with Höcker’s earlier study of Krafft-Ebing in its assertion that late-19th-century criminology re-diagnoses earlier criminals based on its own ideologies and worldviews.


Kerstin Brückweh finishes the volume by taking us well into the 20th-century with a discussion of another non-traditional Lustmörder: Fritz Haarmann (p. 149–164). The traditional gender roles of male murderer and female victim are once again thrown into disarray, given that Haarmann’s victims were all men. However, as is the custom throughout this volume, Brückweh is not fundamentally interested in the killer, but rather in those who seek to represent and understand him. In this case, that person is Theodor Lessing, whose volume on Haarmann is the real subject of analysis here. Brückweh reads Lessing’s book on Haarmann in the context of anti-Semitism and as a battle between psychoanalysis and psychiatry for the right to understand the deviant criminal.


A Culture on Trial


Although the inclusion of Lessing’s work from 1924/25 stretches the boundaries of a study that bills itself as concentrating on the period »um 1900«, it is fitting that Lessing be included here. For just as Lessing’s alleged study of a criminal soon becomes much more of a study of a culture, so too is this volume a study of a specific period in European modernity much more than a study of serial killers themselves. And it is a much more interesting volume for having made this turn. People have been fascinated with criminals and their crimes – especially the most shocking and disturbing criminals, such as those under discussion here – for as long as there have been criminals, which is to say: as long as there have been people. But this fascination has taken different paths over the centuries. Until the late 19th century, criminals were essentially people who committed crimes. They then, as Michel Foucault has famously argued, became a type of person that deviated from a supposed norm. 6 This volume follows in Lessing’s tradition and represents a third stage of how serial killers and other criminals are understood: they are not simply people who commit crimes, nor are they simply deviations from a norm; rather, they are reflections of the culture that they live in. This fascination (and, let’s face it, as sober and as serious as we can be in academic studies such as this, there must be some element of fascination that we devote ourselves to such a disturbing topic) is thus directed less at the criminal himself than with what he says about our culture. European culture around 1900 is the real subject of the case studies in this volume; that is what’s on trial. And while most of what is presented here will be familiar territory to experts in the field, each author contributes an interesting and fresh perspective to the topics under discussion. The volume holds together nicely and is well-written and effectively argued throughout.



The editors are aware that they are conflating several terms – such as Lustmord, Serienmord, and Sexualmord – but since they are addressing a specific historical period, they use the term commonly associated with that time (p. 17, footnote nr. 3). I will follow them in this regard.    zurück
Kerstin Brückweh: Mordlust. Serienmorde, Gewalt und Emotionen im 20. Jahrhundert. (Campus Historische Studien 43) Frankfurt/M. – New York: Campus 2006.   zurück
Hania Siebenpfeiffer: Böse Lust: Gewaltverbrechen in Diskursen der Weimarer Republik. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau 2005).   zurück
Maria Tatar: Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany. Princeton/N.J.: Princeton University Press 1995.   zurück
See Tatar: Lustmord, p. 68–131.   zurück
Foucault’s most succinct statement of this argument can be found in Michel Foucault: The Dangerous Individual. In: Lawrence D. Kritzman (Ed.): Politics, Philosophy, Culture. New York, London: Routledge 1988, pp 125–151. He makes the argument at greater length in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books 1979.   zurück