Murder: Moral Panic, Mythos, Modernity
Saturday 1st August – Monday 3rd August 2015
Mansfield College, Oxford, United Kingdom
Murder is the ultimate taboo, an assault not just on an unlucky individual but on the very fabric of society. Crimes such as the Moors Murders and the Belsen school massacre were so seismically shocking that they changed forever national psyches and led to an irrecoverable loss of social innocence and trust. The importance of the social fabric in relation to murder is illustrated by the Amazonian Yanamano tribe. There, murder specifically relates to the killing of someone or something ‘of the village’ and the slaying of a person or animal from outside the village does not qualify as murder. The Yanamanoan concept of murder therefore focuses on the bonds that tie a community together and it is the violence done to these bonds, and the transgression of the deeper meanings and social contracts behind them, that constitute murder. The concept of murder is therefore culturally contingent rather than universal, and attitudes towards the crime also vary globally. The cultural output of certain Asian nations, such as Taiwan and Korea, celebrates violent spectacle and has a somewhat ambivalent standpoint on the murdering subject. In the West, newspaper reporting focuses on framing the victims of murder in the most sympathetic and engaging light. Significant differences can also occur with a single continent: none of the African nations have produced any known serial killers with the exception of South Africa, which has the second-highest number of recorded serial killers in the world.
The framing of cultural conceptions of murder often has a philosophical and metaphysical basis; in Christian thought only humans have souls and therefore murder relates only to the slaughter of a human being. By contrast, in Hinduism, a soul resides in all living creatures and the concept of murder is therefore far broader. What remains constant across national borders is the understanding that murder is an atavistic event that forces observers to confront the porous boundaries between subject, object and abject. Yet rather than being repressed and pushed to the safety of the cultural margins, it looms large in the popular imaginary. From legal debates about the Home Secretary’s right to impose whole life tariffs to tabloid coverage of the latest slaying, the subject of murder is always news. Indeed, as John Brophy observes in his 1966 treatise The Meaning of Murder, although murder accounts for a very small proportion of sudden deaths ‘the amount of “space” on printed pages and the expenditure of time and thought and emotion, by almost everyone on the subject of murder far exceeds what is given to all other forms of death’.
Various interpretations have been given to the continuing cultural fascination with murder and murderers, and Mark Seltzer sees it as residing in what he has termed ‘wound culture’, the compulsive desire to gaze at torn and opened bodies and torn and open psyches. There is a sense that the debates surrounding murder have the potential to reveal fundamental truths about human existence, and that engagement with this kind of material allows a safe and cathartic glimpse into the unknown. This link to the visual can also be seen in the aestheticisation of murder. Accounts by authors as artistically and temporally diverse as the 19th century murderer Pierre Rivière and contemporary novelist Poppy Z. Brite transform the visceral scene of murder into a thing of poetic beauty, and this focus on the aesthetics of murder has become a defining feature of television series such as Hannibal (2013-) and True Detective (2014-).
Murder has become a mainstay of popular entertainment; entire industries have sprung up around it, ranging from true crime publishing and programming to the burgeoning murderabilia market. Dark tourism, such as the London ‘Ripper’ tours, has helped to embed Jack the Ripper in the cultural mythos and, in America, merchandising became a key part of the execution ‘celebrations’ of killers including Ted Bundy and Gary Gilmore. This was taken to the extreme by Nike, whose enduring ‘Just do it’ slogan is based on Gilmore’s last words as he faced the firing the squad – yet contemporary consumers appear to be largely unfazed by or unaware of this connection. The perceived marketability of murder and murderers was brought into stark relief recently by news reports claiming that Afton Burton, the 26-year-old fiancée of Charles Manson, hoped to display his body in a Lenin-style tomb at a themed visitor attraction. The ‘celebrification’ of the serial killer can be seen to have transformed the killer from a folk devil against whom citizens can unite, to a kind of twisted counter-cultural folk hero who, in the words of cultural theorist Michel Foucault, has ‘been able to rise against power, traverse the law, and expose [himself] to death through death’.
Against this backdrop, this inter-disciplinary meeting seeks to investigate the subject – and perpetrators – of murder in their various guises. We invite participants to explore the subject and perpetrators of murder from the full range of disciplinary and professional perspectives. The conference aims to generate an inclusive dialogue involving researchers, artists, clinicians, social workers, representatives from the voluntary sector, legal professionals, individuals whose lives have been impacted by murder and others with an interest in the field. Topics for discussion include, but are not restricted to:
Defining and Conceptualising Murder:
– Legislative provisions for defining and punishing murder (including international law)
– Murder and the legal process (including defences and punishment)
– Cross-cultural perspectives
– Impact of historical and cultural change on the understanding of murder
– Philosophical perspectives – de Sade, Nietsche, Brady, etc.
– Religious conceptions of murder and death
– Penalties for murder – capital punishment vs. life imprisonment, whole life tariffs, ‘Right to Die’ and ‘Right to Life’, etc.
– Impact of race, gender, sexuality and class on the way murder is understood and punished
– Defences/justifications of murder
– Limits on the definition of murder: animals, mercy-killing, etc.
– Community responses to murder
Special Categories of Murder:
– War crimes and genocide
– School shootings, spree killing, thrill killing, mass murder, Craigslist murders
– Serial killers (including ‘Celebrity’ serial killers; serial killing as vocation or career choice)
– Family murders – matricide, patricide, filicide, infanticide
– Ideological murder: political assassinations, honour killing, martyrdom, freedom fighters, etc.
Murder and Psychology:
– Factors that lead people to commit murder
– Mental fitness of perpetrators– PTSD, psychopathy, schizophrenia, The M’Naghton Rule, etc.
– Copy-cat killing
– Grief/coming to terms with murder; healing community scars
Murder and Technology:
– Technologies that facilitate murder
– Technologies that facilitate the detection and punishment of murderers
– Forensic awareness and the ‘CSI effect’
Murder and the Media:
– Reporting/representing murder – factual accounts, fiction, and fact-based fiction
– Perpetrator vs. victim – narratological framing, empathy, and the creation of news agendas, etc.
– Murder as entertainment: documentaries/true crime, fiction/TV/film, snuff
– The aesthetics of murder
Economics of Murder:
– The cultural capital of murder
– Dark tourism, Ripperology, etc.
We particularly welcome creative responses to the subject, such as poetry/prose, short film screenings/original drama, installations, and alternative presentation styles that engage the audience and foster debate.
What to Send:
300 word abstracts should be submitted by Friday 1st May 2015. If an abstract is accepted for the conference, a full draft paper should be submitted by Friday 19th June 2015. Abstracts should be submitted simultaneously to both Organising Chairs; abstracts may be in Word or RTF formats with the following information and in this order:
a) author(s), b) affiliation as you would like it to appear in programme, c) email address, d) title of proposal, e) body of proposal, f) up to 10 keywords.
E-mails should be entitled: MURDER1 Abstract Submission.
Please use plain text (Times Roman 12) and abstain from using footnotes and any special formatting, characters or emphasis (such as bold, italics or underline). We acknowledge receipt and answer to all paper proposals submitted. If you do not receive a reply from us in a week you should assume we did not receive your proposal; it might be lost in cyberspace! We suggest, then, to look for an alternative electronic route or resend.
The conference is part of the Violence Project which aims to bring together people from different areas and interests to share ideas and explore various discussions which are innovative and exciting. All proposals accepted for and presented at the conference must be in English and will be eligible for publication in an ISBN eBook. Selected proposals may be developed for publication in a themed hard copy volume(s). All publications from the conference will require editors, to be chosen from interested delegates from the conference.
Inter-Disciplinary.Net believes it is a mark of personal courtesy and professional respect to your colleagues that all delegates should attend for the full duration of the meeting. If you are unable to make this commitment, please do not submit an abstract for presentation.
Please note: Inter-Disciplinary.Net is a not-for-profit network and we are not in a position to be able to assist with conference travel or subsistence.