On Being Human: “The Killer Inside Me,” by Jim Thompson

Before Dexter Morgan and Norman Bates, there was Lou Ford, the small town Texas deputy sheriff in The Killer Inside Me. Written in 1952, eight years before Robert Bloch’s Psycho, it is a disturbing look into the mind of a serial killer, written from the killer’s perspective. Like Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy, the shadow of World War 2 looms over Thompson’s dark novel. Beckett stripped modern storytelling to its very foundations to explore the extreme limits of the self. Thompson also takes a long hard look at what lay inside the soul of mankind. When the dust finally settled, the world was witness to industrialized mass murder on a horrific scale. To use quote attributed to Stalin, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.” Thompson explores the dangerous territory inhabited by a sheriff operating way beyond the bounds of normal law enforcement. We give police officers and soldiers the permission to use lethal force, for use when an individual or society faces a threat. We also assume that those same individuals in law enforcement and military are mentally balanced and morally upright. This is not the case with Sheriff Lou Ford.

Lou Ford is deputy sheriff in Central City, Texas, a small town with its share of problems. To his friends and coworkers, Ford remains a constant source of homespun wisdom. Every time he talks, it sounds like a cliché or corny platitude. This penchant for corny sayings is makes Ford so creepy, since beneath his boring whitebread façade is a sociopath and sexual sadist. Like Dexter Morgan, he has a name for his affliction, calling it “the sickness.” In order to preserve his position as deputy sheriff and his sanity, Ford must keep “the sickness” buried and under control. The novel traces Ford’s attempt to cover up a pair of murders he committed. Make no mistake, Ford, despite his cornpone banal exterior, is an intelligent predator. When he converses with a doctor about selling his father’s home-based medical practice, he effortlessly outwits the doctor. In the end, Ford loses control of his scheme to cover-up the murders and loses his sanity.

What do serial killers represent in terms of the question, “What does it mean to be human?” The short answer is that a serial killer is a monster. Except serial killers are not monsters in the same way as mythical monsters or the classic cinema monsters from Universal Studios. This brings up the philosophical concept of essentialism versus existentialism. Let’s break it down this way: essentialism is about essence and existentialism is about actions. Lou Ford is a serial killer because a) that is what he is or b) that is what he does. One sees this dichotomy all the time in things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer where vamps and demons are killed without a second thought, but the murder, even accidental, of a human is cold-blooded murder. But is the average garden variety human better than a serial killer? And if so, why?

This is complicated because serial killer literature, especially those done in the first person, rides the line between essentialist monstrosity and existential horror. The common label of “monster” for serial killer dehumanizes them. In doing so, we feel more comfortable with ourselves and have less issue with their incarceration. Very few people felt any discomfort when they found out serial killer, cannibal, and former chocolate factory employee Jeffrey Dahmer was killed in prison.

The flip side to the monster talk is medical talk. Lou Ford justifies his actions because he wants to keep “the sickness” under control. Using psychiatry and psychology have been instrumental in plumbing the thought processes of these individuals. But some still see psychology as an excuse. “He didn’t mean to murder those people, he was sick.” It also separates out serial killers in a different way, this time by placing them in the category labeled “insane.” Then it is back to the catching monsters agenda: profile, apprehend, and contain. Labeling serial killers as monsters or insane is also, ironically, a very human behavior. Humans are pattern-seeking animals. Since the crimes and atrocities perpetrated by serial killers is so beyond the pale of normal human interaction, we seek to label them, so we can better understand them and deal with them. That is why criminals go to prison and animals belong in zoos. However, in the end, we have to confront the situation head on. Yes, what serial killers do is monstrous and heinous, but they are human beings not monsters. Lou Ford is just another example of what happens when we hold up the mirror to ourselves. Beneath his corny platitudes exists a dark vicious undercurrent he struggles to control. Ford even discerns and labels it. In the end, he lost control of “the sickness” and it led to his doom. In some ways, Ford’s struggles mirrored the global catastrophe following World War 2. What does it mean to be human? Controlling “the sickness” and playing the part.

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