In his seminal work American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis uses the character of the yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman in order to criticize American consumer culture while simultaneously challenging the reader to confront his or her own responses to that culture, responses that Ellis seems to suggest are only removed from the sociopathic actions of Bateman in a manner of degree, rather than kind. To see how Ellis uses the character of Patrick Bateman to explore the dual role of the serial killer as liberated individual and microcosmic representation of society, one may compare Bateman to the real life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who managed to keep his multiple murders a secret for the better part of the 1970s. Examining Bateman's characterization alongside the history of Gacy's murders and seemingly normal civilian life will help to demonstrate how the fascination with the two-faced killer ultimately stems from a deep-seated acknowledgment that any given serial killer is only as monstrous as the society which produces it, and furthermore, that the public actually craves figures like this in order for them to serve as simultaneous symbols of liberation and condemnation.
Before examining Bateman and Gacy in greater detail, it will be helpful to further explicate the larger thesis of this essay, because one cannot appreciate Ellis' social critique without understanding the complex role played by serial killers in the public consciousness, a role that is often misunderstood. The novel itself has been derided as "a monstrous book with a monstrous thesis" due to its graphic content, but this criticism is ultimately based on a misunderstanding of the role serial killers play in regards to the public consciousness; put simply, this critique and others like it consider the graphic representation of violence and the fact that Bateman is never punished for his crimes as indicative of an approval, as if the novel were attempting to present Bateman as a hero whose actions should be lauded, if not at least understood (Rogers 231). Instead, one must consider Bateman, and the fact that he commits his crimes with impunity, as a reflection of the real world, in which punishment is almost never meted out to the majority of those responsible, because while lower-class criminals are captured and tried with zealous determination, the powerful rarely experience the law in the same way as others.
This is why the first dialogue in the novel is that of Bateman's friend, Timothy Price, saying "I'm resourceful, […] I'm creative, I'm young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled. In essence what I'm saying is that society cannot afford to lose me. I'm an asset" (Ellis 3). All of these statements could apply just as easily to Bateman, and in fact, aside from age, they could apply quite easily be self-applied by any number of powerful people who have committed or authorized acts of violence, torture, and murder with impunity, from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. To Barack Obama, who managed to win the Nobel Peace Prize before authorizing the extrajudicial killing of American citizens, among other atrocities. Thus, to read American Psycho as "a monstrous book with a monstrous thesis" is to buy into the very same hegemonic social standards that allow the powerful to act with impunity in the first place, and misses the central satirical statement of the novel. Its thesis is only monstrous in as much as it reveals the monstrosity of Western society, and the monstrous way in which society is "both attracted to and repulsed by the threatening monster" (Kooijman & Laine 55).
While the actions of serial killers can and are condemned based on any number of easily-recognizable ethical standards, this does not mean that they represent an aberration; rather, in many ways the serial killer represents the natural distillation of a society's larger ethos into the individual psyche, and in doing so, "both determines and refutes the boundaries of what is and is not civilization" (Rogers 231). Thus, the image of the perfectly two-faced killer, who is apparently healthy and normal on the outside but murderous and cruel on the inside, has fascinated the public not out of a fear of the killer that could be lurking just under the surface, but because in many ways, this character gives expression to some of the urges and reactions otherwise suppressed by contemporary society. This is not so suggest that everyone secretly has sociopathic urges, or that the interest in serial killers is necessarily an interest in their violent actions, but rather to note that the serial killer who gets away with his (or less commonly, her) crimes by maintaining a facade of normalcy intrigues the public precisely because they get away with it; the serial killer is viewed almost as a kind of superhuman being, able to engage in their vice of choice while ostensibly maintaining the same societal standards that keep everyone else in check. Furthermore, the serial killer implicitly reveals the ways in which society commits crimes just as atrocious, and how the "normal" members of the public are complicit in these widespread atrocities just as much as the killer is guilty of his own crimes.
This is why serial killers are the subject of such intense and simultaneous interest and revulsion, celebration and condemnation. The successful serial killer reveals the arbitrary nature of social convention precisely by maintaining it, and forces the public to consider whether or not its own maintenance of social convention is only a way to cover up the atrocities committed on a grand, historical scale. For example, American Psycho was published in 1991 and takes place during the 1980s, and although the topic is not dealt with explicitly in the novel, one cannot read it without considering the contemporaneous AIDS pandemic that was claiming people's lives at an alarming rate, primarily due to a lack of societal and political interest in what was deemed a "gay disease," and thus not worthy of official intervention. Yes, Bateman's actions are cruel, vindictive, and violent, but no more so than the cruelty and violence committed upon thousands of people suffering from AIDS precisely as a result of social conventions that determined that those victims were not worthy of assistance. Similarly, John Wayne Gacy committed the majority of his murders between the years 1972 and 1978, in the shadow of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Again, while Gacy's crimes were horrendous according to any reasonable ethical standard, they are clearly no more horrendous than the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, atrocities only made possible by the complicity of the American public.
Thus, the violence of both Bateman and Gacy cannot be considered an aberration, but rather a natural reification of the violence committed by the society in which they find themselves, with the only difference being that they do not feel the need to commit that violence along socially acceptable channels. In this way, the serial killer figure gives expression to those urges the public wishes it could express but does not out of devotion to social custom, while serving as a monstrous scapegoat that can be condemned in order to reestablish the authority of these social conventions, and ultimately legitimize the monopoly on atrocity, violence, and cruelty that official society claims for itself. Recognizing this helps explain why, after a serial killer's actions have been uncovered, there is a rapid and extremely shallow attempt to uncover the underlying reasons for the crimes.
For example, Gacy's crimes, like many other serial killers, are frequently explained as the result "of psychological and physical abuse perpetrated on the criminal as children," but this explanation only serves to contain the blame within a single family, and thus implicitly shields society from taking any of it (Campbell 131). This is part of the "pervasive, recognizable rhetoric of serial killer narratives" that works to characterize serial killers according to set of assumptions and images that implicitly protect dominant society from any genuine criticism (Hantke 179). Thus, while it extremely common to blame serial killers' actions on their abusive childhoods, it is much less frequent to hear anyone blaming those abusive childhoods on the Bible's assertion that to "spare the rod [is to] spoil the child," even though religion has frequently been the motivation and justification for some of history's greatest atrocities. When a serial killer is discovered, the public must search for any reason to discretize and quarantine that killer from the larger society in order to condemn the killer without having to deal with any of the societal implications of that his existence.
This process of condemnation is precisely why Ellis chooses to make Bateman a successful, popular yuppie-financier rather than a loner, as is often the case with serial killers; by making Bateman a young, powerful individual, Ellis is demonstrating how the characteristics necessary to be "successful" in contemporary America are precisely the characteristics necessary to become a serial killer, and thus forces the reader to confront the inextricable connection between killers and society that is often disregarded in popular treatments of…