By Patrick J. Kiger
The new Fox TV series The Following, which premieres January 21 at 9 p.m. Eastern time, offers an unusual—and zeitgeist-infused–twist on the usual police procedural in which an investigator pursues a serial killer.
After Joe Carroll (portrayed by James Purefoy)—a former college literature instructor who murdered 14 female students-escapes from death row, the FBI enlists retired agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), who apprehended him a decade before, to track him down before he continues his spree. The big difference is that this time, the menace confronting Hardy has gone viral. The glib, charismatic Carroll, whose grisly crimes were inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, became an object of public and media fascination in the fashion of the infamous Ted Bundy. Carroll managed to leverage his high profile to connect with perhaps hundreds of other similarly deranged individuals across the nation. He then covertly organized the killers into a far-flung network that magnifies his ability to inflict carnage.
Here’s the trailer for the show.
The idea of a network of murderous maniacs working in concert is not only novel, but trendy. In part because it evokes the Internet-age concept of crowdsourcing, in which a problem is solved or a business goal is accomplished by distributing incremental tasks to a large group of people who work in parallel. It also in some ways parallels another phenomenon, the flash mob, in which a group of individuals are recruited—usually via the Internet or mobile messaging—to suddenly show up in one place and commit an act. Like other efforts to play off Internet-Age trends in TV crime dramas—like the murder-on-webcam depicted a few seasons ago on the hit series NCIS—the premise of The Following prompts the inevitable chilling question: Could it really happen?
Serial killers themselves, of course, are hardly a new concept. A 2005 FBI report on the subject, based upon a symposium of experts in such crimes, defines serial killing as “a series of three or more killings… having common characteristics such as to suggest the reasonable possibility that the crimes were committed by the same actor or actors.” According to that report, the careers of such criminals have been extensively documented dating back at least to the 1800s, when the infamous “Jack the Ripper” murdered as many as nine victims, and journalists received a series of letters taunting the police. Since then, we’ve seen numerous cases, such as Dennis Rader, AKA the BTK killer, who slaughtered 10 victims in and around Wichita, KS, and Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, who confessed to murdering 48 women over a 20-year time period in the Seattle area. One of the most prolific killers in U.S. history may be Randy Steven Kraft, who was convicted in 1989 of murdering 16 men, and implicated in as many as 65 other murders in southern California, Oregon and Michigan.
According to the FBI report, much of the mythology that has developed around serial killers is factually flawed. For example, serial killers aren’t necessarily dysfunctional loners—to the contrary, they’re sometimes respected members in their communities—and they’re not all evil geniuses who cleverly outsmart investigators at every turn, but like other criminals range from borderline mentally-disabled to above average in intelligence. Not all of them are raving madmen, though as a group they tend to suffer from a variety of personality disorders. And contrary to the pronouncements of fictional police psychologists in movie and TV thrillers, serial killers aren’t necessarily helplessly following a murderous compulsion; some, like Rader, have stopped for periods of time, when they were occupied by other events in their lives. Others have been motivated by financial gain, rather than a sexual compulsion or the thrill of killing The FBI’s experts concede that it’s unclear what turns a person into a serial killer, though they believe that it may be influenced by a combination of factors, including the inability to develop normal social coping mechanisms and childhood abuse and neglect. During the trial of serial killer Randy Kraft in 1989, his attorneys introduced a positron emission tomography, (PET) scan showing that his brain had certain abnormalities. The jury sentenced him to death anyway.
Like the serial murders depicted in The Following and other drams, the template of a malevolent psychopathic Svengali who recruits followers and directs them to kill also has a basis in reality. The annals of crime contain figures such as Charles Manson, an ex-convict-turned-hippie guru who amassed a group of followers and psychologically manipulated them into committing eight murders. Manson saw the crimes as a twisted fulfillment both of chapter 9 in the Book of Revelation and the lyrics to the Beatles’ White Album. In the 1990s, the Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinriko, led by a charismatic, vision-impaired fanatic named Shoko Asahara, carried out a 1995 nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people, and attempted to carry out at least nine other assaults with biological weapons that fortunately proved to be unsuccessful. Like Manson, Ashahara—who claimed to be a reincarnation of the Hindu god Shiva—fantasized that the crimes would trigger a societal collapse.
But The Following takes those reality-based notions a few steps further, by turning serial murder into a meme—that is, an idea, belief system and/or pattern of behavior that spreads virally throughout a culture. In real life, killers have worked in teams—“Hillside Strangler” killers Angelo Buono Jr. and Kenneth Bianchi, cousins who committed a series of torture killings in Los Angeles in 1977-78, and “DC Sniper” perpetrators John Allen Muhammad and his protégé Lee Boyd Malvo, who randomly killed 10 people in the Washington DC area in 2002, are prime examples.
But in those cases, the killers knew one another and recruited collaborators through face-to-face contact. As Ed Sanders described in his book The Family, Manson used his personal magnetism and “incredible talent for using one part of a personality against another” to recruit followers who moved into his insular commune, where he could develop his control over them at close range. And as Kathleen Taylor details in her 2004 book Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, establishing Svengali-like control over another person generally has involved extensive, elaborate interaction, often accompanied by physical coercion. One essential element in conventional brainwashing theory, for example, is “milieu control”—that is, isolating a subject and limiting his or her communication with the outside world, in order to alter the subject’s perception of reality and make him or her more docile.
On the other hand, Al Qaeda terrorists have successfully used Internet chat rooms and social networking sites to recruit others to their violent ideology, without face-to-face contact (here’s a 2011 paper on that subject written by an Israeli university professor, entitled “Al Qaeda Has Sent You A Friend Request: Terrorists Using Online Social Networking.” And some of these AQ newbies subsequently have tried to stage terror attacks on their own; a 2011 Rand Corporation study noted that 32 jihadist plots were hatched by such “homegrown terrorists” in the US since 2001. But few ever developed beyond the planning stage (and most of those were aided by FBI sting operations). Hypothetically, at least, it might be possible for a serial killer in prison to mimic such recruiting efforts, provided that he already had access to an outside collaborator with access to the internet. Getting those recruits to act on his murderous impulses might be more of a challenge.
Take a look inside The Following with Creator and Executive Producer Kevin Williamson, Director and Executive Producer Marcos Siega, as well as cast members Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Natalie Zea, Annie Parisse, and Shawn Ashmore.
Don’t miss the premiere of all-new series The Following Monday Jan. 21 at 9/8c on FOX.