On io9, Esther Inglis-Arkell takes on the serial-killer genre, as exemplified on TV shows such as Hannibal, Dexter and True Detective:
Individually, these shows are good. It’s the aggregate, and the lack of alternatives, that’s terrible. The idea of the genius-artist-philosopher-killer has become stagnant and dull. Everywhere you look, it’s the same boring nihilism, the same boring excuses, and the same slightly-creepy glamour — which is growing boring.
Her piece is called “It’s Time to Bring Back the Banality of Evil.”
I wish to show no disrespect for the coiner of that phrase, “banality of evil,” or for the book in which she trotted the concept out. Or even for the concept. And yet . . .
Bring back the “banality of evil” . . . to art?
This strikes me as an almost anti-intellectual demand. Fiction is usually about the exceptional, and for good reasons.
Serial killer fiction is a modern reincarnation of ancient mythology, the stories of gods behaving badly, of Devils and demons, of Power corrupted. It allows for the picking at the scab of common sense reality by turning crime into pornography, and then turning us about-face and making us recoil at our own lusts.
All people seek power. And mastery. Crime is the crudest power. Masterful crime is at once the most frightening and the most attractive. Genius serial killers serve as one of the few probings of mastery that can mirror our baser natures, which common culture necessarily would have us shun and suppress. By revealing it, and then in frame of art reversing our evaluations — in great art, several times over, or from a multitude of angles — we gain something that realism cannot deliver: self-knowledge perhaps immune from complacency.
Realism in fiction is fine, in its way. But a little goes a long way — and in another sense realism is a plague upon civilization.
Literary realism is deeply antithetical to human nature. It is usually moralistic and prissy and lowbrow. (This is even more true when praised by alleged highbrows.) Too often realistic fiction (and, even more so, the praise of realism) expresses nothing greater than a fear of imagination, of the fantastic, of the night mind, of Dream Time. It betrays our very human origins in sleep and dreams and illusion. It shuns the wellsprings of chthonian depths. It extols the shallow reaches of the mundane, drowning us in the surface tension of the puddles of the average and common.
Realism condemns us to the ho and the hum.
So, sure: show us the petty killers, if you must. But a serial killer is all the more frightening because he (rarely she) expresses our real fears, of being out-mastered by evil.
If you want to bring the banality of evil back to art, develop more political fiction, for it is in the political realm where you see serial murders glorified, while also bureaucratized. The appalling made banal. And then show all the normal citizens whooping and hollering, eager to vote the serial killers back into office.