Over the past few posts you’ve probably noticed a pattern (and no, it’s not bad spelling). I’m talking about my insistence that psychopaths aren’t scary. From Red Dragon to The Church of the Dead Girls, the terror does not come from the time we spend watching the psycho. If anything those scenes where we get to see what’s really happening are a letdown because they always fall short of our imagination. This means the motives of the killer are much less interesting than what they do.
So… the true terror of a psychopath comes from the aftermath of their crimes.
The movie Se7en is a perfect example of this. I won’t get into the gritty details because if you haven’t seen the movie by now then you probably don’t want to. But throughout the movie we only see what the killer has done, and we don’t meet him until the third act where all the characters we care about are now apart of his plan. It is the building of this tension, letting us imagine what kind of person can do these things, that generates the terror. Our minds fill in the gaps. We supply the dread. So many horror films and books make this mistake. When you show the killer you lose the magic. Then the story becomes about catching the killer rather than understanding them.
Another, and perhaps less extreme, example of this is the television show Adventure Time. In episode 19 of Season 2, titled “Mystery Train,” Jake surprises Finn by throwing him into a murder mystery onboard a train. Every time the train enters a tunnel someone dies (there are lots of tunnels). We see all of the aftermath of death, and we are constantly wondering who the killer is. During one scene, when Jake and Finn are trying to put things together they come up with an elaborate motivation structure to find the killer. This reminded me of the focus on classics like Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales in the movie Se7en. We all seem to grasp at a motive but when that motive is denied we provide the tension through this desperate search for meaning.
Another similarity is that in both Finn and Jake along with Mills and Somerset resort to illegal search and seizure in the efforts to find the villain. This reflects our desperation to find a killer in our midst despite the cost to our moral framework. At the end of both stories we get the scoop in terms of motivation. In Adventure Time is was all a fun joke for Finn’s birthday party, nobody really died. In the movie Se7en, John Doe (the killer) says, “Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you'll notice you've got their strict attention. This line has a Looney Tunes feel of Bugs Bunny smacking Elmer Fudd around. This line also shows us that the motives of this extreme killer are laughable, a fun joke because nobody cares about our moral framework anymore.
That’s why Se7en ends with the head in the box and not a diatribe as to why John Doe did these things. The aftermath of insanity is much worse than the reasoning behind it.