People love a good serial killer, amiright? Murder and mayhem. All. The. Time. In the fictional world of film and literature, serial killers can be counted on to deliver the morbid, ridiculous, and hard-to-solve murders that keep the actors of Criminal Minds in work. (Hi, Criminal Minds fans! I see you. I love you. I am you.)
Side Note: I’d say the two main things I miss from having a TV and cable is that I miss out on the random marathons of Criminal Minds and Law & Order: SVU.
It’s just not the same if you have to intentionally put on an episode of one of those on Hulu or Netflix or something. Criminal profilers, though. They rock. I remember fondly the NBC show Profiler (1996-1999) starring the incomparable Ally Walker as the titular “Criminal Profiler” working at the FBI’s fictional Violent Crimes Task Force.
(She also recently had a run a few years ago on SoA! Dayum, the woman ages well and/or not at all.) Oh, man, I loved that show. It was an awkward age for me and I remember watching Profiler and Pretender with my parents on a regular basis. Je. Sus. What a powerhouse double feature those two were!! Profiler and The Pretender! I feel like they even aired one after another? And on like a Thursday, Friday, or maybe even Saturday? (Did networks do that back then? Air original programming on Saturdays? Idk.) They even had a crossover Profiler/Pretender event. And Lord (or just Bri?) knows I looooove me a crossover series event!!! Like, seriously, no matter what, I love it when Dick Wolf does the whole Chicago Fire/Chicago P.D./Law & Order: SVU epic crossover. I mean, the two Chicago shows almost always crossover but then SVU and Chi PD will do some random ass crossovers, which are so weird and awkward and awesome and I obviously ‘ship Benson and Voight. I want them to
have sex crossover at least once a month.
Ahem. Back to profilers and serial killers.
Take it away, Supervisory Special Agent and Profiler, Spencer Reid!
While any casual serial killer observer knows that 9 times out of 10, the UNSUB (sorry, that’s “unknown subject,” for all of you losers out there) is going to be a white male, mid-thirties, with moderate to high intelligence, who feels undervalued at work and/or home (bonus points if he still lives at home with his mother; even more bonus points if he still lives at home with his dead mother), and, most likely, he’s getting his rocks off by killing people, as well. Easy peasy, we could all be profilers, right?? But… dun, dun, dun… what about a female serial killer???? Do they exist?! In real life, who cares? But, in
art trash entertainment, we care. Oh, do we care.
BTW. Criminal Minds Fun Facts:
According to the Criminal Minds Wikia (god, I love and fear the internet): Over the show’s existence, there have been around 112 serial killers featured—only 11 of whom were female! (That doesn’t include all of the other crazy categories they have aside from serial killers, like “rampage killers” and “serial-turned-spree killers” or “budding serial killers”… etc.)
So, in this ridiculous fictional world, the serial killer “field” is only about 10% female. (I feel like I’m doing some sort of news program on the percentage of female CEOs or something. Glass ceilings are everywhere, ladies.)
Over the past several months, I’ve stumbled upon two female serial killer book series. The first series, from author Chelsea Cain (an Iowa City native and UI grad school alum! Hay gurl!), is one that revolves around Detective Archie Sheridan (pretty great name for a detective) and the female serial killer Gretchen Lowell—dubbed the “Beauty Killer” by the press. I mean, that’s just immediately so delicious. There are currently five books in this series: Heartsick, Sweetheart, Evil at Heart, The Night Season, Kill You Twice, and Let Me Go. I could talk more about all of the books, but I’m not going to do that at this point. This series is not for the faint of heart. Dearest Christina, not a wilting lily herself, couldn’t make it through the first few chapters of Heartsick. I enjoyed this series because there did seem to be some believable tension between Det. Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell (I like to use their full names when I think of them). There is not your run of the mill sexual tension between the two. Instead, Cain introduces a lingering, festering, cat-and-mouse, perverted, sexual tension that was the result of Det. Archie Sheridan’s prolonged investigation, his intimate (and unknowing) contact with the accused Gretchen Lowell, and, finally, the serious emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that Archie suffers at her hands. And that’s just the backdrop for the books; we enter the story after several years have passed (and Gretchen Lowell is about to return, natch). Anyways. The lesson here is… Women can be crazy/good serial killers, too!!! #girlpower
The second series featuring a female serial killer—and the one I am going to write about—is from author Alexandra Sokoloff. Sokoloff’s “Huntress/FBI Thriller” series (the third book was just published) includes Huntress Moon, Blood Moon, and Cold Moon. They all feature female serial killer Cara Lindstrom and FBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke.
Whereas Cain let her serial killer truly embrace her hedonistic murderous behaviors, Sokoloff’s character Cara Lindstrom is a murderer in the vigilante vein, and that is how she is seen by those attempting to stop her—she is described as a ruthless, calculating female vigilante who doesn’t particularly relish her kills. The character Lindstrom sees her behavior as more mystical and pre-ordained in that she must fight “It,” or the “Beast,” which is a kind of evil personified that she “sees” or senses in people.
Thus, Cain’s series has a truly fucked up villain in Gretchen Lowell who is kind of incredible for her manipulations and her twisted relationship with Det. Archie Sheridan and so represents, to my mind, a kind of equal-opportunity killer that happens to be female; one who uses her femininity, but operates in a similar manner to other psychopathic serial killers. Sokoloff’s killer Cara Lindstrom, on the other hand, was always presented as a figure scarred by her experiences as a child—her entire family was killed by a different serial killer (seriously), which resulted in her entering the problematic foster care system at a young age. If she is a monster, it’s clear from the start that we have somehow created her.
One of the profilers (!) in Cold Moon observes of Lindstrom that “Not many people would argue against the fact that her targets are loathsome examples of our species, fully deserving of punishment” (149). This individual, Roarke’s mentor from the American Profiler School for People Who Want to Learn How to Profile Murderers and Do Other Stuff Good, Too™, goes on to debate with Roarke about the mental state of Lindstrom and concludes: “So perhaps she’s not insane at all. Perhaps she’s on a mission fueled by a very particular worldview: that there is actual evil in the world and that the most valid response to it is to eliminate it whenever possible” (pp. 149-150). This gets closest to the way in which Lindstrom is presented to us and how she seems to see herself; she is mission-oriented and caught up in a larger cosmological battle that, though it can never be won, must be fought.
[Minor Cold Moon (Book 3) spoilers ahead…]
By the third book, Cold Moon, Cara Lindstrom is in custody. Despite what we (as readers) and Agent Roarke know about Lindstrom’s many murders, she is only being held and tried for one murder charge—a case where she slit the throat of a pimp.
It is interesting to note at this point that the book (and series) transitions into a much more explicit sort of feminist revenge killing fantasy. The series never shied away from presenting her as killing men who were, by most standards, “bad”. But this story takes it much further. Sokoloff was smart in that Lindstrom doesn’t create this public persona for herself, but rather other women and members of the media develop it and it becomes this viral movement/epidemic quite separate from the actual woman.
Through her characters, Sokoloff weaves in issues of violence against women and all of the times when the “system” seems to fail them—everything from repeatedly emphasizing the problematic and vast numbers of young female runaways, to the number of young girls coerced into prostitution and the men who seek out said underage girls, and even the rules regarding female prisoners being overseen by male guards.
Remember, Lindstrom’s being accused of killing this guy (a local pimp) and there is only one witness (a young runaway and former prostitute). Then, certain anonymous bloggers (all operating under the pseudonym Bitch, a cyberfaction in the style of Anonymous) seize on Lindstrom’s story—she was a childhood victim somehow spared death from an infamous serial killer who then grew up in the foster care system and seemingly struggled there before being sent to a juvenile detention center for the attempted murder of an abusive counselor and, now, has only been accused of killing one pimp.
They thus paint her as both wrongly accused (she didn’t do it!) but rightly justified if she did (though no one claims it was self-defense; rather, she would be “justified” simply by being a fed up female). In particular, they (and thus Sokoloff) incorporate the idea of “Santa Muerte” in relation to Cara Lindstrom. Bitch decides to use Lindstrom as their cause célèbre. At one point, one of the bloggers confronts Agent Roarke about Lindstrom and her “victim”:
The young woman’s voice went flat and hard like slate. “I know he was a predatory fuck, like Danny Ramirez. I know he sold teenage girls on the street because it’s a safer gig for him than selling drugs. How much lower can a person be, Agent Roarke? … [Cara’s] not the one who should be locked up, here. And I think you know it.” He said the only thing he could. “We have laws in this country.” “The laws aren’t working.” He knew he had no counter to that. But if there wasn’t the law, what was there? “So that’s the plan?” he asked sharply. “You’re going to make her into a heroine?” Her eyes drifted someplace far away. “There are lots of plans. Lots of them. And we don’t have to make her into anything. She is what she is.” Roarke knew that for a fact. But before he could answer, the blogger added, with a slight, distant smile. “Maybe it’s time.” For the second time that day, he felt spectral fingers on the back of his neck. “Time for what?” “Time for a reckoning.” (pp. 111-112)
Even among the FBI agents tasked with Lindstrom’s case, Agent Singh, a woman, summarizes the “allure” of casting Cara Lindstrom as a Santa Muerte figure. She explains it to Agent Roarke in the following way:
She frowned, as if seeking words. “A divine energy,” she explained. “A living myth.” She looked at Roarke and seemed compelled to be more precise. “A force beyond the simply human. The article suggests that there is something larger at work in Cara’s actions, something cosmic. A female vengeance against outrages. In today’s fundamentalist climate it is an alluring idea.” (pp. 62-63).
After hearing this explanation, Roarke reflects that:
He hadn’t read the article that way. He’d been focused on the telling of a criminal incident he himself had been involved with. But standing in the dark room with Singh, he wondered if he might have missed the point entirely— because it was not meant for him.” (p. 63)
With these moments, Sokoloff sets up her dominant political themes that play significant roles alongside the characters.
The first is that systemic violence against women exists and is a problem.
This leads to the second tenet, which is that there is also a diffuse but widespread popular desire for female retribution or vengeance (whether mundane or divine in nature).
Finally, these two together leads to the third message that, despite having a male narrator the majority of the time, the reality is that men cannot identify with women’s experiences in this arena, nor can they really fathom the desire for vengeance, much less solve the original problem of violence against women in the first place.
And, so, Sokoloff’s Agent Roarke is constantly in contact with women in various positions and at different strata in society: female killers, victims, prisoners, FBI agents, social workers, lawyers, doctoral students, bloggers, store clerks, bloggers, activists, runaways, prostitutes, addicts. These figures, developed to varying degrees, are not simply used to help our main male character “grow”, because it is constantly reiterated that the women recognize that he wants to help, that he’s a good guy for the most part, but that he might not be able to help and he has to accept that. It’s not about him.
Reiterating this point about the apparent gender divide in terms of understanding and addressing the wider world of systemic violence against women, Cara’s (female) lawyer asks Roarke:
“…Have you ever asked yourself if you’re the right man for this job?” “Only every day since it started,” he replied, and meant it. “I would say you are not. I would say there is no man right for this job. I would say that men should have nothing to do with this. It is a problem of such proportions it can only be solved by women.” He glanced at the Santa Muerte altar, at the shadows dancing over the skeletal face. Then he looked back to Molina. “Or by a saint?” he asked her, with an edge.” She smiled thinly. “Es tiempo para un nuevo camino.” Roarke struggled with the Spanish. (p. 144)
This passage brings to mind another tactic Sokoloff seems to be using to underline her point about the differences between men and women; here, though, the woman is also speaking Spanish, and Roarke literally cannot translate it without help. It’s an embodiment of a communication and cultural barrier between men and women, but exaggerated (and muddied) in a confusing way through a linguistic barrier.
A large part of the story involves the fictional press about Lindstrom and connections to Santa Muerte, who is a complicated figure in Mexico right now. Sokoloff occasionally uses a female character who speaks Spanish, and the story is set in California (though primarily northern California and the greater Northwest area), which suggests some familiarity with Mexican culture and the Spanish language (with its myriad forms today in America), but it is not first and foremost a mystery novel or thriller set in an explicitly Spanish-American world or borderland. Setting aside questions about how and why this fictional white girl (Lindstrom) becomes associated with a primarily Mexican figure—Santa Muerte—is a topic worthy of conversation elsewhere. But who is Santa Muerte outside of this book??
If you do a quick google search of Santa Muerte, you will get a lot of recent media covergae. Whether it’s NBC News, Foreign Policy, or National Geographic, most mainstream and basic articles harp on a few aspects of Santa Muerte. First, devotion to Santa Muerte is growing apparently. Second, it is not recognized by the Catholic Church. Third, it’s seemingly (or superficially?) associated with drug cartels, traffickers, criminals, those in prison, ex-convicts, and people who are poor. The question remains, however, to what extent that is an accurate representation of its devotees and whether or not it even matters.
Santa Muerte. Holy Death. Niña Blanca. Skeleton Saint. Lady of the Shadows. There are a lot of names for this figure, in Spanish (and English), and the multiplicity of titles is reflected in the multiple devotional practices and views.
Depictions vary but take popular imagery of the grim reaper and dress it up in drag and you have her, in my opinion. To get a better sense of what Santa Muerte can look like in the real world, the following photographs come to us from Erin Lee, a contributor to Vice.com, and accompanied a photo journalism article that ran on November 1, 2014, titled “La Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Saint of Delinquents and Outcasts.”
Santa Muerte is definitely popular—both in terms of its growing following and in terms of the barrage of press about her (and popular entertainment, like Breaking Bad). Scholars have likewise been attracted to the study of the cult in recent years, mostly tracing the Saint Death’s genealogy and her connections to popular Catholicism, Mexican culture of death, and even pre-Columbian influences like the Mesoamerican gods related to death and the underworld (see Pamela Bastante and Brenton Dickieson, “Nuestra Señora de las Sombras: The Enigmatic Identity of Santa Muerte,” Journal of the Southwest 55 (4), 2013.) Most of the scholars agree that the Bony Gal’s possesses a unique degree of adaptability, which contributes to both her popularity and her ambiguous reputation.
As Bastante and Dickieson noted, in theological terms, she is (or can be) a folk saint, a goddess, an angel, and a demon, though her role as a folk saint is most well established in terms of how devotees turn to her for help. But, the “angel” aspect seemed reasonable, as well, in terms of how she is appealed to and viewed. Santa Muerte is reminiscent of the Archangel Gabriel (uncanonized, but capable of miracles) and the Archangel Michael as the Angel of Death. Whether her malleability contributes to her appeal, or her popularity contributes to her multiple personas, the interest and devotion to Santa Muerte is definitely a grass-roots movement.
And, as a Mexican grass-roots movement that began gaining popularity in the 1990s but really exploded since 2000 (though Santa Muerte has existed in religious circles much longer), it is deeply interwoven with the harsh living conditions and prevalence of crime that has likewise increased in northern Mexico along the same period of time.
In a really interesting (to some of us) article that explores the worship of Santa Muerte by first geo-mapping the street altars for her in Mexico City and then analyzing the devotees’ relationship with the saint, Regnar Albaek Kristensen argued that what is more important than (or at least as important to) Lady Death’s supposed affiliation with crime, is the way in which Santa Muerte seems to be keeping families connected “across the social abyss of imprisonment.” [See Kristensen, “La Santa Muerte in Mexico City: The Cult and its Ambiguities,” Journal of Latin American Studies 47 (3), 2015.] Thus, yes, Santa Muerte is connected with ex-convicts and criminals, though not necessarily in the way that the popular media likes to present (as the patron saint of drug traffickers, for example). Kristensen continued to posit that “rather than a one-dimensional sacred defender of criminals and police, she is adopted…as a capricious ‘family member’, embracing the same ambivalence as the forces she helps to navigate.”
Though there are more historical references to Santa Muerte being appealed to on behalf of wronged women, she is simply (or perhaps not so simply) appealed to for all manner of issues. She is death. She walks among us. She doesn’t care about our status, and she might not save us, but she is just because she comes for everyone.
What Sokoloff has done, then, is to take a recently and increasingly popular idol and play with her reputation as deadly, associated with crime, not above a little retribution or divine punishment, and transformed it into a Death Saint concerned first and foremost with women’s appeals and divine fatal justice.
A bit like everyone’s favorite ex-vengeance demon, Anya, yes?
(I just had to lighten the mood, if only briefly.)
But, returning to our fictional female serial killer…
As Cold Moon progresses, replete with numerous mysteries and plot twists I won’t spoil, the “press” about Lindstrom within the book continues to snowball. About two-thirds of the way, there’s another more alarmist and incendiary blog post from Bitch that describes the recent spate of murders (of both pimps and johns) and, from this, concludes that “There is a killer out there who gets it” (p. 219). That is some pretty bold fucking language! A killer who gets it. A feminist Dexter of sorts. The article continues and reads as follows:
Goldman may have believed, as many men do, that there’s no such thing as raping a prostitute. Or, being a rapist, he may not have cared one way or another… Goldman was killed on Thursday, his throat cut from ear to ear in an alley off the Tenderloin stroll known to “mongers” as a safe spot for a quick blowjob… Let’s be clear about the men who have died. They are sex traffickers. Rapists. Child predators. Abusers of every ilk. Pimp or john, they’re finally getting what they deserve. This is a call to arms. This is a war against rape culture (pp. 219-220).
You heard it here first! Make sure to reference strongfemalefriendship.com when you are being accused of murder, girls! … I’m sorry, is that not the lesson here? Oh, it’s simply entertainment? A quick read? Fiction? Duh, okay, I knew that!
And, folks, there you have it: 3500 words and a few gifs on the obviously, completely, totally related topics of Criminal Minds, profilers on television, NBC shows, the prevalence of male serial killers in popular culture, female serial killers in fiction, violence against women, the popular folk saint Santa Muerte, justice, Anya the ex-vengeance demon, and a war on rape culture.
I think I need a nap.