November 21, 2007

Serial killers stalking South Africa

The darker side of international "necrocapitalism"?

Serial killers are trendy. They are the topic of an ever-increasing array of movies, books, and TV shows. One theorist has gone so far to suggest that they are the "gothic double" of the zombie-like consumers wandering the malls of a "necrocapitalist" world, in perpetual quest for another purchase. Indeed, argues Brian Jarvis in "Monsters Inc.: Serial killers and consumer culture," the commodification of violence is an integral aspect of the violence inherent in commodification.

If that is so, then it is no surprise that the United States – where millions of consumers stagger under crippling loads of credit card debt – would lead the world in serial murders. Although I don’t know of a central repository of such data, that is what I've always heard (with Russia following closely on our heels).

How, then, to explain South Africa's claim of passing us by as the world's largest producer of serial killers, surpassing both the United States and Russia?

For one thing, South Africa has a much higher overall murder rate than do either the United States or Russia.

But perhaps a more precise answer will come out of the largest-scale research project on serial murders in the world. The research is being conducted by the specialized Investigative Psychology Unit (IPU) – the South African equivalent of the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit – and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice from the City University of New York.

The IPU was established in 1994 by investigative psychologist Micki Pistorius, who became notorious in South Africa and earned praise from legendary FBI profiler Robert Ressler (see my blog essay on profiling). According to a news story this month in South Africa's Daily Star, however, "her methods raised eyebrows in some quarters, and may have contributed to the common public perception that serial killer profiling involves more 'mumbo jumbo' than scientific compilation and analysis of data."

Pistorius theorized that interruption of the normal stages of psychosexual development as posited by Freud could generate a serial killer. She was well known for spending time at the scene of a murder in order to experience the residual energy field the killer left behind.

"I want to retrace the steps of the killer, and it is a place where I can get into his mind. These are the places where they act out their most secret fantasies and I believe the atmosphere is still laden with emotion, waiting for me to tap into it," she once said.

It may have been her emotional approach that caused her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder a few years ago. Such vicarious traumatization is not uncommon among professionals whose work brings them close to trauma survivors and perpetrators.

The brisk business of serial killing in South Africa is keeping the new head of the IPU, psychologist and criminologist GĂ©rard Labuschagne, quite busy. In addition to handling two dozen serial murder investigations over the past six years, he conducts research and provides training to others in South Africa and around the world.

Profiling in South Africa is based not on hunches or emotions but on science and research, taking into account the uniquely South African perspective, Labuschagne insists.

"Our situation is unique in terms of socio-economic and cultural factors," he told the Daily News. "Our high unemployment rate, for instance, makes it easy for killers to lure victims with promises of work."

For a different, and very intriguing, perspective on serial killers, I recommend anthropologist Elliott Leyton's class-based analysis, Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer. (My review of the book is on its Amazon page.)

Hat tip to Psychology & Crime News for alerting me to the "Monsters Inc." article, which (along with thousands of other articles) is available for free from Sage Publications through the end of November.