Dec 212011

Halttunen, Karen. Murder most foul: the killer and the American Gothic imagination Harvard University Press, 1998 Google Books

Halttunen’s book is about the transformation of how American society handles social deviance (violent crime, particularly) from the pre-industrial to the post-industrial.

In pre-industrial America, people mainly lived in small agrarian communities, and religion was the main form of media. The execution sermon was the main social discourse around the social deviance of violent crime. Sermons didn’t care about the physical particulars of the crime, the method of violence or the relationship between killer and victim. The main focus was the spiritual state of the perpetrator, and that he was brought back into society before his death. The climax of the narrative was the killer’s repentance and contrition before his or her death.

In this world, drawing on the Calvinist idea of “total depravity”, everybody was a potential sinner, and anybody could step off that tightrope of virtue and fall. Even minor acts like petty theft or even bickering could be the first step towards murder. There wasn’t a population of good people here with bad people over there; everybody was just as likely to go bad. The “how” of murder was largely irrelevant, and the “why” was already a given: mankind’s flawed nature, original sin. Exploring this brought about spiritual renewal.

The captivity narrative, a specialized literary response to Indian warfare, was structured along similar lines: it traced the removal of the white captive — figure of the soul in bondage to sin — by demonic henchmen into the dark chaos of the wilderness, where she is brought to full recognition of the depravity of her own heart, and then finally restored to Christian civilization and hope for salvation.

Pg. 27

(It’s interesting to compare this “there and back again” structure of captivity narratives and convent horror stories to sadomasochistic narratives like A Man Called Horse and The Story of O, which are linear, not cyclical. Maybe what we have here are people “strongly misreading” a familiar text and retelling it for socially transgressive purposes, just as you could view the Gothic as a “strong misreading” of the sentimental novel.)

Industrialization changed all that, making people move to cities and spreading literacy. Enlightenment values said that humans were basically good or could be made that way, and social deviance could and should be controlled. The “why” of killing had to be explained by postulating ideas like bad seeds or environmental influence; either way, the killer was fundamentally different from the rest of humanity, a monster.

Halttunen cites the David Fincher film Se7en as an illustration of these two conflicting viewpoints: Detective Somerset sees society as pervasively corrupt and he and the killer are both part of it, only separated by degrees, while Detective Mills insists that the killer is an aberrant exception and that he himself is part of a sane, just society. Of course, this is precisely what the killer uses to manipulate Mills to horrifying ends.

As pain and violence became hidden from everyday life (i.e. obscene = off-scene), it became part of media spectacle. “In the early eighteenth century, the term ‘anesthesia’ had referred to a defective lack of feeling; by the end of the century, it connoted a ‘positive medical relieving of feeling, a blessing rather than a defect.'” (Pg. 65) An awareness of pain became a kind of minority taste, cultivated by elites.

The same generation that discovered pain to be intolerable and deal repulsive, discovered their pornographic possibilities as a source of dreadful pleasure, precisely because their unacceptability made them obscene. By the late eighteenth century, “In the world of the imagination, death and violence have merged with desire.” Sentimentalists themselves constructed sympathy as a “dear delicious pain,” “a sort of pleasing Anguish”; their critic William Godwin went further, calling sensibility a “moon-struck madness, hunting after torture.” The emerging pornography of death took shape in such varied cultural expressions as Baroque tomb sculpture, the popular obsession with cadavers and their dissection, the Gothic theme of the living corpse, and the Romantic tendency (best exemplified by Edgar Allan Poe) to represent the dead bod as an object of beauty and desire. In relabelling violence, pain, and death as obscene, the humanitarian revolution conferred a new imaginative significance on the body in extremis as illicit, titillating, prurient.


Gothic fiction in general showed a marked predilection for scenes of torture, sexual violation, and murder, and treated such subjects in a manner calculated to arouse maximum revulsion and disgust. And its treatment of torture closely linked pain with beauty, and cruelty with sexual desire, articulating an erotic sensibility that exerted a powerful influence on English Romanticism from the late eighteenth century through the Decadents. The literature of “romantic agony” carried forward the Gothic exploration of the newly discovered bond between pleasure and suffering.

Pg. 66-67

This brings us to previously discussed works like Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as flagellation in works of “pornography qua pornography”. Haltunnen argues sadomasochistic pornography, at least in the English speaking world, didn’t appear until the 18th century, which I dispute, citing Thomas Otway’s play Venice Preserv’d (1682) and Samuel Butler’s mock epic poem Hudibras (1663).

The key to the advent of sadomasochistic pornography is the changing attitudes towards pain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If pornography is best defined as the representation of sexual behaviour with a deliberate violation of moral and social taboos, then the growing violence of it in this period is attributable to the new shock value of pain within a culture redefining it as forbidden and therefore obscene. In a similar fashion, the new shock value of pain and death defined by humanitarianism reshaped murder literature into a pornography of violence.

Pg. 69, emphasis in original

Another factor was the massive changes in sexual mores over the same period, with murder narratives reflecting anxieties about gender, family, reproduction and sexuality.

I’m reminded of how PD, founder of the bondage website, as inspired by crime scene photography. That’s a genre of imagery that was not only technologically impossible in pre-industrial society, but would have made no sense in a world where the soul mattered more than the body. While sexual flagellation did exist long before the industrial revolution, it would have been generally unintelligible to societies that thought about pain and the body in such different ways.

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