The Unlikely Function of Serial Killers in Society

They provide moral clarity.

Posted Feb 08, 2021 |

State of Florida Archives / Public Domain
Ted Bundy headshot
Source: State of Florida Archives / Public Domain

For some time now, in this column, I have been arguing that we as a society have culturally constructed the serial killer as an evil monster in our factual as well as fictional accounts of him. I further contend that serial killers actually serve a moral function or purpose in society from a philosophical perspective.

I recognize that this statement seems incredible at face value but, according to the functionalist tradition of sociology in which I am well-versed, everyone in society has a role and a purpose. From a functionalist perspective, all types of behavior, whether good or bad, are to be expected. That includes serial murder.

Emile Durkheim, the founding father of sociology, believed that crime and deviance are inevitable in any society and, in limited amounts, are actually functional and necessary. He claimed that some crime is necessary because it promotes clarification of the moral boundaries that define a society and establish its social order. According to Durkheim, the bonds that unite a society are strengthened when moral boundaries are clarified and reinforced.

Sociologist Kai Erickson discussed the importance of protecting moral boundaries in society and explained how the process works when he wrote:

On the whole, members of a community inform one another about the placement of their boundaries by participating in the confrontations which occur when persons who venture out to the edges of the group are met by policing agents whose special business it is to guard the cultural integrity of the community… the confrontations… act as boundary maintaining devices in the sense that they demonstrate to whatever audience is concerned where the line is drawn between behavior that belongs in the special universe of the group and behavior that does not. In general, this kind of information is not easily relayed by the straightforward use of language (1).

Typically, language is insufficient to frame the problematic behavior of those who are considered to be deviant, so society by way of its policing agents constructs symbols and images to demonstrate the dangers allegedly posed by the “other” to the community.

From a functionalist perspective, the social construction of the serial killer identity is symbolic and it helps to clarify the moral boundary that separates good and evil in society. It defines the actions of the serial killer as inhuman and beyond reason. By accepting the framing of serial killers as evil, the public is given moral clarity. Such clarity can be both reassuring and comforting.

By framing the serial killer as evil, the public has an explanation for the actions of the criminal and it also has a reason to feel better about itself. Why? The serial killer identity provides the public with a reference point for judging the acceptability of its own behavior. The actions of the serial killer clearly set the bar for acceptable behavior very low, so it is easy for the public to minimize its own moral failings by comparison.

For example, a person might think, “I may not be a saint but at least I don’t kill or eat people.” In addition to providing moral clarity, the framing of serial killers as evil is functional because it provides the public with a point of reference and a way to put its own negative behavior in perspective. It suggests that despite all of our faults, compared to serial killers, the rest of us are not so bad. 

Serial killers clearly do horrible things to innocent people. Ted Bundy and Ed Kemper, for example, raped, tortured, and killed their victims, and then engaged in necrophilia and dismembered the corpses. Jeffrey Dahmer was a cannibal. I would argue that such actions establish the outer limits of human depravity. Is there anything worse one person can do to another than what Bundy, Dahmer, Kemper, Ramirez, and their ilk do to their victims?

When the crimes of serial killers are reported by the news media, they are typically framed as the inhuman acts of vampires, devils, or heartless monsters. The killers are almost always depicted as being pure evil to distinguish them from decent people. From a functionalist perspective, such media framing suggests that if you want to know what evil is and what evil does, then you need to look no further than Ted Bundy and other serial killers. 

References

1)      Erickson, K.T. 1966. Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. 11.