Sympathy for the Devil: How Monster (2003) Refocuses Killer Cinema

“I remember…[they] set up this beautiful gigantic red and yellow ferris wheel. It lit up to nite sky. They called it the Monster.”

“You’ll never meet someone like me again.”

Most of what I know about serial killers come from documentaries and films, or simply put, they come from a camera. The camera’s entire function is to frame, or show and cut. This means that it arrives with a specific political lens, as it presents something as real and visible, but while doing so, cuts something else and frames this subject in a certain light. Just as one thing or person is shot in a certain way, countless other shots and perspectives are left behind. True crime projects are an easy way to gage these politics, as their subjects are already so political and troubling. Films about serial killers are additionally politicized, but because these films are not documentaries, the issues around accountability are slightly different. For instance, the first time I learned about Aileen Wuornos was from the Hotel Halloween episode of American Horror Story (AHS). It’s one of most famous episodes as it features a dinner party where the ghosts of different American serial killers arrive, dine, and then kill a few ‘guests’. While promoting the episode, creators emphasized that this scene was a collection of the worst human beings to ever exist, at least in an American sense. It was largely an opportunity to imagine what these figures would have said if they were in the same room. The episode argues that these figures would all get along and trade secrets, as they were essentially coworkers. Because the episode doesn’t have time to explain exactly who these people are, we get these very quick expositional comments in the background, just to emphasize that each person did horrible things. The scene is entirely focused on these killers, while their victims are mentioned briefly and without any real identification. Even when victims are referred to, it’s done to simply intensify the scene’s creep factor. I initially thought this episode was an incredible thought experiment, and a part of me still thinks that. However, there is something deeply troubling about the way the episode mixes genuine murder with fictitious, as it leaves some problematic overlap.

A later season, 1984, establishes an even greater overlap, as it turns an actual serial killer into a character for its completely made-up story. I don’t care to name the killer, so I’ll just say that they recreate and mention the killer’s actual victims while simultaneously telling this supernatural story. This combination diminishes everything about these victim’s lives, as the show implies that their trauma and abuse is comparable to the show’s entertaining and glorified violence to fictitious characters. It’s deeply insulting to these victims, and it’s a demonstration of the way Western media feeds off real-world trauma, and makes killers seem compelling and elusive rather than just white and boring enough to be dismissed by local police.  

“I always wanted to be in the movies.”

Wuornos is a terrifying figure in the episode, and notably the only female killer present at the Halloween dinner. While my opinion of the episode has changed over time, it did introduce me to the female serial killer genre, one which is as small as it is typecast in media. There are not many female serial killer movies, and those that exist often depict their killer in an extremely specific light. The killer genre itself arrives from the troubling impulse to repeat what we do not understand. Maybe if we could go back, bring in actors, recreate the trauma, we could discover why something like this could happen and what would drive a person to do such a thing. That impulse explains why we get multiple films about one killer, as each claim that they have a more compelling reading and/or they focus on a different point in the killer’s life. Perhaps their childhood holds all the answers, or maybe when they were in college and had a girlfriend. Although it is important to recognize cultural trauma, that trauma is nothing compared to the personal trauma of victims and their families. The issue I have with many serial killer films is that, unlike traditional horror or thriller movies, these project deal with real subjects, real trauma, and of course, real murder. This is inherently problematic, as there are those who do not want their trauma to be repeated on screen as some sort of entertainment. These films are likewise different than true crime documentaries or podcasts, as they place less emphasis on exact detail and more on general character. There is no way to absolutely reproduce the past, especially moments where there are no records or witnesses, so as a result, these projects contain a lot of creative license and extrapolation. While both serial killer documentaries and films operate through a similar political lens, true crime films focus on blank spaces while documentaries fixate and close read what is available.

My main issue with the killer genre is that it is extremely damaging and often glorifying rather than introspective. That is especially true of male serial killer movies, as the killer is typically the focus and is depicted as a charismatic figure. These movies are not motivated by the killer’s victims, or their stories, more in the gruesome incidences that happened to them. Their worst day rather than their life or legacy. Simply put, the victims are just there to be victims and they are given no other opportunity to speak. If they are lucky, they are shown briefly on a cork board in the background of a scene, mentioned a few times in past tense, or visited in the morgue by investigators. Even if that is the case, the hunt and killer’s perspectives are deemed ‘more interesting’ than these victims. You can understand why so many victims’ families have a problem with these kinds of films, and why others worry that this glorification or just attention might cause more killing. It is likewise important to recognize that these films are not made for the victim, they are made for an audience, one who has trouble distancing the reality of the killer from the slightly fictitious narrative in front of them. A small side note, if you are interested in a different and more sympathetic model, might I suggest Twin Peaks. It is not a true crime film, but it does a profound job of re-examining these issues and placing more importance on grief and the victim.  

Female serial killers are quite different than male killers, as are their films, or rather, lack thereof. Male killers are often described as having anger and control issues, as well as hatred towards women, especially women of colour. By comparison, female killers (in film) are shown as either an angel of mercy, someone who kills defenseless people and believes they are doing the right thing, or their kills are the direct result of some sexual trauma and abuse. They are often overly sexualized in these films, as they act like a praying mantis whose sexual availability is directly tied to their kills. That is certainly present in the AHS episode, as Wuornos is shown as aggressive, crude, sex-obsessed, and unremorseful. Although being unremorseful is a unique thing in female killer canon, I think the reason Wuornos is depicted in this way is because the episode tries to amalgamate her into this boy’s club. Her kills are radically different than theirs, but the episode wants us to view her in the same lens. That was my impression of her until I saw Patty Jenkins’ Monster, which presents its own set of problems. It is a sympathetic portrayal, and that is inherently troubling.

“Everybody just thinks I’m this bad shitty fucking person, and all I’m fucking tryin’ to do is survive.”

Being an ex-English lit student, I must ask the most obvious question about Jenkins’ work: who, or what, is the monster in Jenkins’ critically acclaimed Monster? The film is a startling break in the traditionally sexist female killer cannon, not that there have been many about films about actual women serial killers. Fictitious female killers are a bit like the Brides of Dracula, as they do terrible things in a sexualized way, but those terrible things can be written off because the woman was infected/influenced by a man. In this Dracula example, Dracula is ultimately to blame for everything the women do because he turned them in the first place and made them like him. They would never do such things without his influence, and that is the crucial footnote. Even films where the female killer is a normal human, their actions are overly sexualized, caused by a man, and/or shown through an excessive male gaze as a black widow. This characterization is typical in fictional films with female killers, but, it has also bled into the biopic and the true crime genre as a whole. Technically speaking, Wuornos’ case is prone for this kind of representation, as she was a prostitute who killed men who picked her up off the street. That alone sets up her story for a male gaze, just like any of these other female killer films. What makes Monster unique is that it shows what influenced and drove Wuornos without perpetuating that violent gaze, suggesting that society and poverty drove Wuornos to murder. There are multiple graphic scenes in the film, but considering the subject, they are not overtly graphic. For instance, there are only two sex scenes, one rape and the other consensual, and the rape has no nudity and is shot with Wuornos’ face as the focus. Please note, this scene is still brutal and difficult to watch, but it’s framed in such a way as to highlight the trauma, not the attacker’s experience and gaze.

Sex and prostitution might be important for the film, but the acts themselves are not shown. The suggestion is that Wuornos’ character, and it is a character, hates being a prostitute, and has dealt with severe trauma through that work, and therefore does not want us to see these events. We see the lead up, the death (if there is any), and then we cut away. The first nudity we see in the film is non-sexualized, and it’s a brief shot where Wuornos looks at herself in the mirror while covered in blood.

The film is told from Wuornos’ perspective, which means that we predominantly see what she does and hear her thoughts through narration. There is never a point at which we know what is happening with the police investigation, as we see a few newspaper clippings and news updates, but that is it. We don’t even get a scene where Wuornos sells some of her victim’s stuff to a pawnshop, which investigators later found with her fingerprints on them. I think the reason we are not shown these broader events is because Jenkins’ film is defined by a single line; “It’s always been the harmless stuff that hurts the most”. The film centers on those little painful things, even in its first sequence. When we are introduced to Wuornos, we see her sitting underneath an overpass by a busy highway, and then we cut back to her childhood. This opening narration mentions her early beauty-centric philosophy on life, but Wuornos’ somewhat naïve impression of the world gets interrupted several times by reality. There are moments in this sequence where we suddenly cut away from Wuornos’ childhood to a different scene or image. These cuts happen just before something traumatic occurs, as though Wuornos cannot bear to remember these events, and turns to something different. This happens throughout the film, like in one scene where Wuornos mentions, in narration, the time she met a celebrity at a school, but to remember when that happened, she has to recall that it was right after she put her baby up for adoption. She mentions the adoption so briefly, as though it was just another random school event which happens to all 13-year-old. Because Wuornos can’t focus on trauma for long, we instead get these little comments about it. Comments which seem harmless, as she mentions them so freely and briefly, yet are incredibly traumatic when you stop and consider what she is actually saying.

Wuornos’ kills are likewise tied to this trauma in the film, as her first kill is self-defense. After she kills this abusive man, she opens his trunk and finds a saw and other possible torture materials like ties and rope. The implication is that this man was planning on murdering and torturing her if she had not acted. He figured that she was dispensable because she was a prostitute, and he isn’t the only character who thinks that way. We are shown repeatedly that society has utterly failed Wuornos at every point and that it is in no way sympathetic to her. She can’t escape from prostitution, and worse, people don’t want her to. Anytime she tries to find a job or just get away from prostitution, people push her back into that work. Even her girlfriend, who seems completely oblivious to how dangerous that work is, wants her to go back so they can have money. There is no escape.

“I’m not a bad person. I’m a real good person.”

The film does an excellent job of portraying Wuornos as a person, not just a sexualized psycho. It shows the practical side of her life, aspects like where she kept her stuff, how she cleaned herself while homeless, how she lured men in by lying about having children. I would argue that the film’s quintessential monster is society itself, not just Wuornos. While Wuornos’ actions are horrible, particularly with her final victim, who was just trying to help, so are the events which lead up to these actions. In one conversation between Wuornos’ girlfriend (Selby) and her aunt, the aunt mentions that “people make bad choices” and then they must pay for those choices. However, she also prefaces this comment by suggesting that being a prostitute and being gay are both choices. This comparison illustrates that just as Selby never chose to be gay and shouldn’t be punished or insulted for the way she is, Wuornos never chose to be a prostitute and she should also be given respect and help. If anything, the film suggests that many of Wuornos’ choices were made for her by poverty, and that she couldn’t do anything else. The monster here is the heartless void which swallows and destroys people, the kind which begets nothing but violence upon violence. I think as well, the film’s title is a reference to the very concept of monstrosity, and how we try to easily sort people into that category. Wuornos is not easy to categorize, just based on her characterization in Jenkins’ film. Yes, she did horrible things, and yes she deserves to be imprisoned, but is she as heartless as the other killers depicted in that AHS episode?  

The film is a tragedy for everyone involved, victims and killer alike. The most unsympathetic figures, however, are Wuornos’ victims. Except for her last, each victim is a horrible person who Wuornos suspects, perhaps wrongly, means to harm her. She desperately needs money, is traumatized enough to equate sex with violence, and believes that anyone who picks her up off the street is part of the problem and should be punished. Perhaps that last part is true, there should be more protection, help, and insurance for sex workers, as sex work is work. That is an important point made by the film, as keep in mind, this film came out about a year after Wuornos’ execution and was more focused on helping abused women like Wuornos.

Wuornos is equally a killer and a victim in Monster, but at least the film shows her without perpetuating the male gaze which abused her in the first place. Wuornos gave Jenkins permission to tell her story and gave her access to the letters she had received. It’s also noteworthy that when the film was released, reviewers were obsessed with Charlize Theron’s physical transformation and weight gain, less about her incredible performance. Their takeaway from the film was that Wuornos was the monster, not because of her actions, but because she looked a certain way. The male gaze so carefully avoided in the film found its way into the reception, as so often happens in films like this. I wrote at length about something similar with the reception to Jennifer’s Body, which also focuses on a queer female killer, albeit fictional. Then again, perhaps there are too many similarities between Monster and Jennifer’s Body, as the later has every right to treat its fictional characters as symbols of a broader commentary. Does Monster have that right?

“Thank you, judge. And may you rot in hell!”

My major hesitation about Monster is that the victim’s families have every right to hate the movie. It is absolutely unflattering to each victim, and it does what I previously noted about male serial killer films; it only talks about the killer. The victims here are not just victims, they are would-be abusers. That would be less problematic in a fictional film, but this one claims to be based on a true story. The victims also can’t speak for themselves, and their families would never consider them an abuser. It is hard to speculate whether they were, but it is undeniable that they were murdered. Monster is not interested in them as people, more as emblems for this larger systemic problem. That is not fair, and it’s the exact thing I criticized male serial killer films about earlier. So why do I feel more lenient to Monster? Why do most viewers feel that way?

There are only two moments in Jenkins’ film which suggest that something else is happening beyond Wuornos’ version of the story. She shows genuine remorse for her final victim, but still kills him because he has seen her gun and could profile her. The second moment where we rethink things happens during the court scene, just as the judge announces Wuornos’ death sentence. We don’t hear the sentence itself, but we do see people crying and rejoicing in the back of the courtroom. It is never specified which victim they are representing in court, but they clearly think that justice has prevailed. The film has a complicating reading on this ending, as it is still sympathetic and seemingly against the death penalty, but it also provides no possible redemption. Wuornos let’s Selby have a life and tells her its ok to inform the police about everything to save herself. That is the only moral redemption in the film, and keep in mind, Selby is a fictional character that Jenkins had to invent. Wuornos’ actual girlfriend wanted nothing to do with the film, and so Jenkins took aspects of their relationship and created a separate person. The events between Wuornos and her actual girlfriend are pretty much the same, but the girlfriend acted quite differently and notably wanted to help Wuornos leave prostitution. Again, there is this troubling balance between invention and accuracy, close reading and speculation, that so defines serial killer cinema.

“It’s always been the harmless stuff that hurts the most.”

I think the healthiest way to view the film is as a discussion, something we can use to redefine male gaze killer films, those fictitious and not. There are no male killers in the film, but the consequences of that violent thinking are everywhere, and it’s what Wuornos considers every time she gets into a car with a stranger. Monster asks us to reconsider the lens through which we talk about violence against women, both the literal kind and the stuff we see in films. It likewise asks us to consider how Wuornos’ actions were motivated by contemporary systemic violence, and how we could change such a system through cinema. Unlike the performance I first saw in AHS, Wuornos in Monster is not a member of some privileged male serial killer group, she is their would-be victim, and that fear is what drives her character in Jenkin’s film.