Dead Dragon

The exhausted serial killer.

WHEN I STARTED my first stint at Seattle Weekly, 24 years ago this week, our cover piece was Steven Winn's "Ted Bundy: The Whole Story," which became the first Bundy book. Today it is clear: Ted—followed by his alarmingly profuse local successors—was the Northwest's most enduring export. He inspired Thomas Harris, Hannibal Lecter's creator, and spawned the serial killer as our central pop hero. In a fantasy culture devoted to sex and death scenarios, the psycho is our main man—more ruthless than a gangster or CEO, the reductio ad absurdum of Kael's ultimate cinematic formula: "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."

Yet infinite evil has its limits as a pop phenom. Red Dragon should boost Hannibal's career earnings to $1 billion, but despite some upbeat reviews, he has palpably peaked. The backlash began with the third book and movie, Hannibal. People hated the ending, even though it was medically plausible and depicted Jeff Dahmer's actual fantasy of a date with a zombie (the conscious victim's brain is used as entr饩. Lecter's lapse into black comedy and the movie's wandering story lines incited a chorus of bad buzz.

Red Dragon, the first Lecter tale, is a sharper story. Even so, Lecter's days are numbered. Anthony Hopkins is as sick of the character as anyone else. Harris may write another Lecter screenplay, but to do so would be cannibalizing his own oeuvre. The gory 2002 movie Ted Bundy, now on DVD, occupies a far lower niche than the 1986 Mark Harmon TV movie. Ted's dead, man. And the psycho killer in general has reverted to clich鮠

Overexposure is fatal for such characters, because they're essentially empty and need the cover of darkness. These guys aren't evil geniuses, just evil. Ted kept talking to journalists hoping for a clue about what he called "the Entity" that made him kill. He had no idea. The Entity had no ideas, only a highly bizarre secret ritual. Each time Ted enacted it, the shabby nothingness of his little drama made him feel even worse. Ultimately, a dramatic character needs a real motive. Ted never had one. When Harris revealed Lecter's motive in Hannibal (a tough youth, boo-hoo), he revealed him to be a hollow fraud.

In 1978, when Ted's biographer and I taught at the Tacoma school Ted had attended, a student wrote an essay about him: "He was our baby-sitter. He was not a very nice baby-sitter. He would play games and scare us and then say they were just games." But the games had no human meaning. Sorry, Ted and Hannibal. As archetypes, your game is played.

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