Tuesday, July 20, 2021

What Does A Murderer Look Like?

by Janis Patterson

Answer - just like anyone else.

Back in the early days of mysteries it was a trope to have the villain be either ugly, deformed or physically handicapped, as if their outward appearance were some sort of resonance to their inner deformity. (And let’s face it, deliberate murder is a deformity of the soul. I’m not talking about in self defense or defense of another, either. You know what I mean.)

Anyway, besides being cruel and extremely politically incorrect, it was also a dead giveaway to anyone who read more than one or two stories.

I believe that under the right (wrong?) circumstances and pressures, anyone can take another’s life, but we’re talking about those who do it deliberately and with malice aforethought. How do we spot them?

Answer - sometimes we don’t.

Life would be so much easier for everyone if one’s outward appearance revealed their inner proclivities, but it doesn’t work that way. Think of Ted Bundy, who by outward appearances was the kind of young man every mother prayed her daughter would bring home - good looking, well-mannered, well-educated, apparently with a shining future awaiting him.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Beneath his almost leading-man exterior lurked a monster who loved to kidnap, rape, torture and kill young women. A low estimate of his kill tally is around 30, while most say it is probably much more.

Another deceptive monster is the sexual sadist and murderer Dennis Rader (aka the ‘Bind Torture Kill’ / BTK killer). He looked just like a kindly suburban father/grandfather type - balding, glasses, an open, plain face and lived an almost stereotypical modest suburban life with his family. But - he had definite weird and kinky sexual tastes, though he kept them well hidden, and he was thought of as normal, polite and well-mannered. He also liked sadism and killing and is reputed to have killed at least 10 people.

Remember the fictional (thank Heavens!) little girl so expertly played by Patti McCormack in the 1950s film THE BAD SEED? She was absolutely average looking, but evil to the core, killing everyone who displeased her. I remember I was about the same age as she when I first saw the film and was absolutely horrified. A little girl the same age as I, a cold-blooded murderess? That little girl could be sitting next to me in class. She might be in my Girl Scout troop! The revelation of the ubiquity of human evil shook me to the core.

The two killers who murdered the Clutter family and shot to fame because of Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD certainly looked (to the popular imagination) like killers, but to say that is an indication of prejudice, just as it is to say that Bundy had to be a hero because he was handsome.

Almost every day in the news we see pictures of ordinary people who have either committed great crimes or performed good and heroic deeds. Some are handsome and some are plain and some are downright ugly, but their looks in no way equates their actions. To paraphrase MLK, people should be judged not for their appearance, but for their character.

So - the endgame of this overly-long little homily is that when you create your characters, do not automatically match their physiognomy to their actions. On the other hand, don’t go too far the other way and make every handsome person a villain. Our job is to create believable characters, not perpetuate stereotypes. There are handsome heroes - and villains. There are ugly villains - and heroes. And most people are a mixture of both. Make your characters real.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Right on. Those folks with the desire to kill are usually psychopaths, but unfortunately that's not written on their foreheads. They look like normal folks.

authorlindathorne said...

Boy, the stories and movies you mentioned above took me back. The Bad Seed is one I'll especially never forget. I remember the others. One you can add to this list is one written by our own Marilyn Meredith. She wrote a horror book (at least I considered it horror), called Wishing Makes it So. The evil person was a pretty little girl. I sometimes wish I could get it out of my mind, but it sticks.

Morgan Mandel said...

Yes, The Bad Seed was one of my favorites! And that's good advice about not being too obvious when describing a villain. Sometimes a person starts out normal and some kind of trigger sets them going in the wrong direction.