The Hollywood Effect

Public awareness of the contributions that psychologists can make to the investigation of crimes largely grew out of the general fascination with serial killers. These vile and determined murderers have become the stuff of urban myths. They are the mainstay of fictional crime drama and are guaranteed to steal the headlines if they break into fact. They seem to epitomise the essence of evil and to symbolise the darkest corners of the psyche. With such a load resting on the images of people who kill again and again it is perhaps not surprising that the images have been distorted and that fantasy and invention often hide the true facts about the nature of these nasty killers.

Much of the invention about Serial Killers that passes instead of real knowledge has its origins in the often quoted but under-researched writings of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, based in Quantico, Virginia (e.g. Ressler, Burgess and Douglas 1988). The deficiencies of these reports has been noted by a number of authors (e.g. Coleman and Norris, 2000; Canter and Alison, 1999b; Muller, 2000), who all draw attention to the misrepresentation of established psychological theory within the FBI's ideas, the weaknesses of their methodologies as well as the lack of any convincing empirical evidence for their claims. Yet the fascination that Hollywood has with the FBI gives the musings of its agents a currency that far outweighs their validity. Leading film actors are given lines to quote that repeat confused and misinformed opinions in otherwise worthy films such a Copycat, or Seven and as a consequence audiences from Alaska to Zanzibar gain the mistaken impression that what is said with such conviction and apparent authority must be the truth.

Handbook of Psychology in Legal Contexts, Second Edition Edited by D. Carson and R. Bull. © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Out of this 'Hollywood Effect', of gracing personal opinion with dramatic illustration and thereby giving that opinion apparent authority, have emerged a great range of statements about Serial Killers, not one of which survives close scientific scrutiny. So, for example, Serial Killers are thought to be considerably above average intelligence, they are not thought ever to be of African-American extraction. The phenomenon of Serial Killing is presented as an almost uniquely American one that had virtually no existence until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Serial Killers are claimed only to attack victims of the same ethnicity as themselves and a strongly sexual component is assumed always to be present. Most curiously of all, the complex sets of processes that underlie serial killings are apparently reducible to the simple, if rather ambiguous dichotomy of being 'organised' or 'disorganised' (Hazelwood and Douglas 1980).

As a number of systematic studies are beginning to make clear, all of these claims about Serial Killing are false (Missen; 2000; Canter et al., 2000). The claims fall at the first hurdle of systematic study. Even the most elementary reading of the world's newspapers shows that Serial Killing occurs all over the world in many different forms, committed by many different sorts of people. The claims that emanate from FBI 'research' are false precisely because that research is so flawed. In any other context the results of such badly conducted studies would not have been published. It is only because of the hunger that the mass media and Hollywood have for anything that touches on the evil of Serial Killing that the claims we have outlined, and many others, have been so widely broadcast.

0 0

Post a comment