Bright Lights Film Journal

The Optimum Wound Profile: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as Atrocity Exhibition

“How entertaining do you find this?”

In an April 1971 interview with Douglas Reed, author J. G. Ballard discussed his apocalyptic novel The Atrocity Exhibition, explaining its primary themes of violence, entertainment, and passive media consumption:

My book deals with the irrational violence of modern society, the side of our culture that could be described as an atrocity exhibition. We’re all spectators (often bored ones) at tragedies like Vietnam. Real violence, frequently life, as it occurs, becomes a part of a huge entertainment industry. The Romans used to gather round arenas to have orgasms over vaudeville shows of real murder and rape. We laugh dismissively at the fairly common sci-fi plot of a future in which the public enjoys similar amusements, only via their TV sets. Yet what is a lot of today’s live and recorded news and documentary material if not a variation on just this theme? (qtd. in Vale 154)

What Ballard is describing here is what critic Mark Seltzer would later refer to as “wound culture: the public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound” (1). In America, particularly, the atrocity exhibition, that site of public violation and violence turned mediated spectacle for private consumption, has become exceedingly common. As Ballard notes, “Elements of psychopathic behavior are tolerated and annexed into normal life in a way that we are scarcely aware of . . . in the States one sees in film and television a range of violent and sexual imagery being tolerated that would have been inconceivable thirty years ago” (qtd. in Lewis, 32-3). The American landscape — a landscape that has absorbed the blood of countless victims of massacres, lynchings, and federally sanctioned genocides — has transformed into a bloody mediascape, a culture dominated by hyperreal images of death and violation that lack any real meaning to those who view the images.1 In a sense, the atrocity exhibition in America is America; we consume murder and rape as if these bodily and psychic violations were McDonald’s hamburgers. Over one billion have been served images and mediated spectacles of their own dead flesh.

Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition — a nonlinear, fragmented novel composed entirely of disjointed “mini-novels” with titles such as “The University of Death,” “The Assassination of John F. Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” — functions more as a surgical tool than an entertaining fiction. Indeed, the book dissects the postmodern culture, body, and psyche; it trepans the skull and splays the flesh to reveal the myths, icons, and disease within post-industrial society. I am not forcing these parallels between body and culture, psyche and society; as William Burroughs notes in his introduction to The Atrocity Exhibition, “The line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down . . . people are made of image” (7). Although Burroughs might be overstating the extent to which all people are “made of image,” celebrities — whether political stars, film stars, or even criminal stars2 — are produced, mediated, and reproduced through technologies of representation such as cameras, newspapers, television, and cinema. Ballard’s book meditates on the image of celebrity, particularly larger-than-life figures like John F. Kennedy, James Dean, and Jayne Mansfield. Note that these three celebrities are not simply famous; they are American icons, and each of them died violently and intensely.3

The violent demise of American icons, those mediated demigods of the 20th century, fascinate Ballard, in part because of the erotic nature of their deaths. Kennedy, Dean, and Mansfield were, and still are, sex symbols in their own right. Thus, eroticism is located at the site of violent death.4 The link between death and eroticism will be briefly explained later in this essay, but more important to mention at this juncture are the connections between death and image. As Joel Black notes, it isn’t simply the historical magnitude or political implications of the Kennedy assassination that fascinate the British Ballard and the American public, but rather “the fact that it happened to be recorded on film, however imperfectly and amateurishly . . . it [is] possible to re-experience the trauma of his death again and again, to slow the event down mercilessly, and to subject it to endless frame-by-frame analysis” (177). The Zapruder film functions, essentially, as a pure atrocity exhibition: it is a mediated site of public violence that punctured and fragmented the American psyche just as Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets5 punctured and fragmented Kennedy’s skull.

Zapruder’s 8mm film was not the only camera that captured the violence surrounding the Kennedy assassination; consider Robert H. Jackson’s iconic photograph of Jack Ruby shooting Oswald as he exited jail. The Zapruder film and the Jackson photo are two of the most (in)famous image-texts of the 20th century, and their significance is based on not only their historical value, but also because their subjects are important bodies that have been violated, wounded spectacularly.6 As Seltzer notes, “The spectacular public representation of violated bodies has come to function as a way of imagining and situating, albeit in a violently pathologized form, the very idea of ‘the public’ and, more exactly, the relations of bodies and persons to public spaces” (35). Thus, he writes, “the encounters with the body and with death are also encounters with exhibitions of catastrophe” (35). Mediating technologies capture these exhibitions and allow for “a rapport between death and representation, between the body and mechanisms of reproduction and reduplication” (Seltzer 37).

In essence, Seltzer writes, “‘atrocity exhibitions’ disclose, in the form of spectacular corporeal/machinal violence, a drive to make mass technology and public space a vehicle of private desire and, collaterally, to identify — or better, to realize — private desire in the public spectacle: the spectacles of public sex and public violence” (31). In The Atrocity Exhibition, the main character’s private desire is externalized onto his environment; car crashes become erotic sites of impact, billboards feature images of World War III, and “the pudenda of [Ronald Reagan is] mediated to him by a thousand television screens” (Ballard 105-6). The “protagonist” of Ballard’s novel is himself a serial individual — as his psychosis takes over, his name changes (Travis, Traven, Travers, Talbot) — he is always the same, yet always different. As Juno and Vale note in their introduction to The Atrocity Exhibition, these name changes also “mirror the increasing fragmentation of his external environment — a backdrop of splintered mass-cultural icons” (6). Thus, the public and the private intersect in both the atrocity exhibition and The Atrocity Exhibition. Now that the novel and the idea have been explored, another example of atrocity exhibition can be examined: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Like Ballard’s experimental novel, John McNaughton’s film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) functions as a clinical examination, an often terrifying and consistently brutal meditation on violence, sex, media, and entertainment. Further, if “Ballard’s prose is that of the camera — flat, mechanical, omni-detailed, ‘hyperreal’ — and shows that to write in a technological culture is to represent its technologies of perception,” as Paul Youngquist claims, then Henry‘s “flat, mechanical, omni-detailed, ‘hyperreal'” narrative and form show that to film and even exist in a late-capitalist mechanical culture is to reveal technologies of reflection, reduplication, and simulation (par. 2). The film is an atrocity exhibition: a blank, amoral showcase of death and all manners of psychic and bodily violation that manages to mesmerize its audience. But what do we get out of a cinematic exhibition of serial murder? To draw again from Seltzer’s notion of wound culture, “Compulsive killing has its place . . . in a public culture in which addictive violence has become not merely a collective spectacle but also one of the crucial sites where private desire and public culture cross. The convening of the public around scenes of violence has come to make up a wound culture” (109).

Henry is fascinating in part because it represents a terrifying aspect of the wound culture in which we live, an apocalypse culture in which private crises and psychological disturbances are exploded and made public and social. More accessible than Ballard’s book, Henry clearly shows how closely linked the private and the public are in the postmodern world of late-stage capitalism.

McNaughton’s film is impressive because it functions as pure horror; it reveals our vulnerability as both private and public beings. As Isabel Pinedo notes, “Given the dominance of the individual within American culture, the intimate apocalypse is the most effective way to stage the experience of helplessness” (108). Invoking and staging this feeling of helplessness is the purpose of the horror film, and the “intimate apocalypses” shown in Henry arouse in the viewer feelings of vulnerability and anxiety in three ways. On the most basic level, the film demonstrates the superficial normalcy of the serial predator, reminding the viewer of the constant, camouflaged agents of potential violence that lurk the streets. On another level, Henry implicates the audience in the murders shown on screen, and we are made aware of our own fascination with violence and our participation in and promotion of a wound culture. On a third level, the film defies traditional generic characteristics of the horror film to unsettle viewer expectations and create a profound sense of unease.

The titular character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is quiet, courteous to women (before killing them), and generous with French fries, beer, and advice. However, he is also a traumatized victim of child abuse, and his sociability is practiced and inauthentic. Henry is a mimic, a man without a functional identity, and it is this lack of identity that makes him so volatile; he is not a person, he is a condition. As such, Henry must shield his torn psyche from others, as intimacy invites traumatic personal apocalypse. Seltzer explains, “the opening of relation to others (the ‘sympathetic’ social bond) is at the same time the traumatic collapse of boundaries between self and other (a yielding of identity to identification). In this way, the opening of a possibility of a relation to others also opens the possibility of violence” (258). Henry is obsessed with identity, perhaps because he lacks one, but he is even more obsessed with identification — he avoids it at all costs, even telling Otis to vary his murder victims and methods to evade capture. Henry avoids identification by perpetually deferring the possible status of murder suspect (Pence 532).

Henry’s personality, if it might be called that, is based on mimicking the behaviors of “normal” men, but he still defines himself against everyone; as he tells Otis in one scene, “Look at the world. It’s either you or them.” Whenever Henry comes into contact with others, then, the boundary separating his absent “self” from “them” is in danger of collapsing, and so he eliminates — erases — the threat through murder. Jeffrey Pence argues that Henry effects erasure of identity in his murders in three ways: “First, the elision of the victim’s particular identity by random selection; second, the literal ‘rubbing out’ of the victim’s life; and third, the evacuation of the role of invested murderer by Henry, a self-erasure inherent in the original indifferent choice of victim” (532). In these ways, Henry is able to simultaneously erase and avoid self-erasure and personal apocalypse through traumatic violence.

Henry’s (non)identity is not simply the result of childhood abuse. His trauma also has roots in Frederic Jameson’s notion of late-stage capitalism and corporate culture. In the American capitalist society, citizens are told that they are “unique,” “special,” that they are “self made” and can create their own identities and capital through hard work. However, the individual is also “at the mercy of corporate policy makers and economic vicissitudes . . . a product of forces beyond his/her control,” to quote Linda Badley’s paraphrasing of Wendy Brown, who is in turn quoted by Seltzer.7 The individual “is informed, paradoxically, with democracy’s first principle in which the individual is self made [but] accountable for his/her failure [over which he or she has no real control] and therefore guilty” (Badley). Ressentiment follows, as the serial killer — Henry — seeks to avenge his pain through the distribution of it. As Seltzer explains, “Ressentiment . . . seeks to deaden the pain of relentless self-exposure and failed accountability in two directions: by externalizing it (locating a site, or another, on which to revenge one’s wound) and by generalizing it (remaking the world in the image of the wound, an injury landscape and wound culture)” (117). Simply put, Henry is a victim — an utterly traumatized victim — and so he seeks victims and, in doing so, ineffectively purges himself of his pain (thus his serial killing; he will never fully expunge his traumatic pain) and safeguards his (non)identity.

Henry protects his non-personality through murder, but he also, paradoxically, commits suicide and matricide by proxy when he preys on others. As a man whose identity has been obliterated or, at the very least, crippled due to childhood abuse, violent sexual trauma, and capitalist society, Henry ultimately fails to distinguish between “self” and “other.” Just like the murders he commits, he is always different and always the same. This seems contradictory, at first. Reconsider his remark to Otis: “It’s either you or them.” As stated above, this comment demonstrates the warped logic Henry uses to construct a tenuous identity and avoid identification — his statement is almost clichéd in its misanthropic, “battle-weary” sentiment. However, “It’s either you or them” also indicates Henry’s failure to understand the difference between “you” (“I”) and “them.” “It” — that which Henry wants to destroy — is either within him or others; he cannot be sure of its location.8 Henry kills others to kill himself as well as to protect his absent self. Seltzer explains that this “yielding of identity to identification proceeds by way of an utter absorption in technologies of reflection, reduplication, and simulation” (20), a process mentioned above. Indeed, for Henry and Otis, the lifelikeness — what Seltzer calls “primary mediation” — of empty images and superficial simulation and identification become available as soon as they acquire a camcorder, a device they use to record their activities and later watch, in slow motion, frame by frame, in a continual loop.

Although the notion that empty, homicidal “chameleon men” like Henry live among us is unnerving and frightening, it is our own fascination with spectacular violation and serial killers that horrifies us on a deeper level. As Seltzer notes, “The atrocity exhibition binds life itself to its technical reproduction and technical reproduction to spectacles of destruction: death is theater for the living in the pathological public sphere” (193). Indeed, Ballard had prophesied this mediated “theater of death” twenty-eight years before Seltzer:

I believe that organic sex, body against body, skin area against skin area, is becoming no longer possible, simply because if anything is to have meaning for us it must take place in terms of the values and experiences of the media landscape, the violent landscape . . . What we’re getting is a whole new order of sexual fantasies, involving a different order of experiences. We’ve got to recognize that what one sees through the window of the TV screen is as important as what one sees through a window on the street. (qtd. in Vale 157)

When Henry videotapes his and Otis’s terrorization of a suburban family, he preserves the violence for later enjoyment — he creates a mediated map of a “violent landscape” that he and Otis can explore later. Henry and Otis obsess over the video, as it captures not only the crime but also the scene of the crime: an ideal, domestic family home. The violation of bodies parallels the violation of the idealized domestic world that is so alien to the two murderers. This preservation of wounded body and “scene” through videotape allows Henry and Otis to “experience” their crime over and over, while also dissociating them from the violence. This type of spatially and temporally distanced experience of action is almost pornographic in nature — the videotaped murder links death and sex quite blatantly.9 Since they are distanced from the homicides through the video medium, they paradoxically experience the murders just as fully as they would while killing, as the serial killer is psychically distant from his actions even as he commits them; that is, the serial predator acts passionately, but he or she is psychologically dispassionate.

This psycho-mediated distance characterizes serial killers like Henry and Otis, but it also characterizes us, the audience who watches the killers watching their kills. As Seltzer comments, “A phantom public gathers around collective killing in a private consumption of scenes of public violence: no longer walking miles to see it, no longer hanging around for hours, public violence enters private interiors, as ‘we sit peacefully at home'” (183). Henry‘s viewers watch, through the film medium, murderers watching, through the video medium, a scene of “public” violence — that is, violence projected outwardly, tailor-made for mass reproduction and consumption. As the film’s director notes in the documentary Murder by Numbers, Henry plays with the idea of violence as entertainment to implicate the viewer in the spectacle of death:

During the first part, when the big fat guy gets the TV over the head, Henry and Otis walk in — the audience knows who these guys are; the fat guy doesn’t. The audience knows that they’ll kill him [immediately] if he offends them, and he takes right off and starts calling them names and being rude to them. But he is set up to be such an obnoxious and despicable character that you’re rooting for these guys to at least beat him, if not kill him.

This scene is certainly entertaining, and it even provokes slightly uncomfortable laughter from the audience. However, that uneasy laughter turns to excruciating discomfort in a later scene. During the family murder sequence, film stock is replaced with video, and handheld, véritéstyle camerawork is utilized from beginning to end. At one point Henry mounts his camera to a tripod, normalizing the shot, but the stand is soon knocked over, which causes the scene to be framed at a dutch angle. McNaughton explains the result and intent of this technique plainly enough:

When a poor innocent family are brutally murdered . . . how entertaining do you find this? And you think you’re watching that in the room as it’s happening, but then the camera pulls back and you realize that [Henry and Otis] are sitting on the couch watching the playback, entertaining themselves with having brutally murdered innocent people, and this is . . . an implication to the audience — this is what you do. You sit on your couch and you watch murder, mayhem, and you’re entertained by it. (Murder by Numbers)

Although some viewers might find Henry offensive, they have no good reason to. After all, don’t we read and experience, from a dispassionate and mediated distance, public violence, rape, genocide, and other horrors whenever we watch the nightly news or listen to the smarmy voices of talk radio broadcasters? We encounter mediated violence every day but we are upset, yet fascinated, by Henry because it really isn’t that unusual — we still witness “phantom events,” a loose fictionalization of an actual, infamous serial killer, and simulated violence. We’re not frightened by the film’s violence; we are terrified by our unsettling similarity to Henry and Otis. The only difference is that most of us don’t commit murders; still, we love consuming them when we are distanced from them through newsprint, film, video, music, comics, television, and advertisements.

Henry is frightening because it reminds us of the killers in our midst and our own desires to witness atrocity as entertainment, but it also functions as a horror film that terrifies us because it is so flat and mechanical. Cynthia Freeland explains that the film is disturbing because of its realism and amoral viewpoint, and because it “violates the usual rules of both the horror genre in general and the slasher film in particular. It offers no audience identification figure, nor does its plot depict any rightings of wrongs . . . [it] succeeds by creating terror and unease, both promising and withholding the spectacle of violence” (128). As Pence notes, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a portrait without “incisive access to the portrayed” (530). McNaughton employs a pseudo-documentary style that evokes a weird authenticity while also using expressive formal devices like film/video shifts, asynchronous and amplified sound, camera shots of camera shots, and unusual camera maneuvers and angles to call attention to Henry‘s themes of mediated reality and violence. The film, Pence argues, employs “conventions of cinematic realism — continuity editing, close-ups, shot-reverse-shot structures and point-of-view shots — and the grittier features and styles of documentary such as monochromatic imagery, limited cutting . . . low-budget locations and lighting, [and] handheld camerawork,” but fails to “lead viewers to the truth beneath or beyond the filmed event” (530; 531). Instead, Henry repeatedly leads its audience to dead ends (literally and figuratively), as we see no conclusive, stable motivations or explanations for brutal Henry, only reminders that we are watching a brutal film about Henry. In Annalee Newitz’s words, “The pseudo-documentary style of the film calls attention to Henry’s ‘normal’ act; the grainy photography and cinema vérité acting invite audiences to see it as artfully constructed . . . What appears to be ordinary in this film turns out to be both realistic and fake at the same time” (80).

The authenticity of Henry refers to the technology capturing the image of the psychopathic subject as well as the “authenticity” of the psychopath himself; in other words, Henry is as blank as Henry. Indeed, McNaughton’s camera is uninterested in understanding the truth behind the images it captures — the camera is frequently motionless, passively recording events as they transpire but offering no insight into their purpose. The camera is also jaundiced and impatient — recall the scene in which Henry and Becky drive to a motel at the end of the film: the camera dollies out and away from the car, seemingly bored with its subjects, a cinematic parallel to Henry’s distracted, uninterested response to Becky’s questions to him regarding their future: “You wanna listen to the radio?” However, the camera is also obsessive and absorbed when “the past” becomes present — it slowly zooms in on Henry and Becky’s faces when they discuss their childhoods, intent on finding meaning behind their eyes and conversation, and it slowly zooms out from extreme close-ups of the (already) dead bodies shown at the beginning of the film, creating loving tableaus of murderous violation. As McKinney notes, Henry “comes to life only when witnessing death, and even then it comes only to a kind of life” (19).

The film’s strange verisimilitude reflects the violent compulsions of the killer as well as our own compulsive consumption of media feeds and images that become acceptable substitutes for insights into reality, feeds and images that are as blank as a fictional film despite their claims to realism. The film’s flat affect and distant pseudo-documentarian approach to its violent subject matter is a formal analogue to the character of Henry, then, but also mass media. The detached eye of the camera parallels the detached eye of the postmodern viewer — the camerawork in Henry is simultaneously uninterested, jaundiced, and obsessive, which reflects not only Henry’s attitude toward violence but also our own. The flat form of the film is, ultimately, its function. In this way, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an atrocity exhibition, much in the way that The Atrocity Exhibition is one. But, then again, it’s also just a projection, an unsettling j’accuse from McNaughton, who reveals our atrocious inhibitions. The film is no less offensive than, say, the radio. Still, as McNaughton demonstrates, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from individuals who are oddly silent during car rides and repeat the question: “You wanna listen to the radio?”

Works Cited

Badley, Linda. Correspondence. March 31, 2010.

Ballard, J. G. The Atrocity Exhibition. 1969. San Francisco: RE/Search, 1990.

Black, Joel. The Reality Effect: Film Culture and the Graphic Imperative. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Freeland, Cynthia A. “Realist Horror.” Philosophy and Film. Ed. Cynthia A. Freeland and Thomas E. Wartenberg. New York: Routledge, 1995: 126-42.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Dir. John McNaughton. 1990. Director’s Edition. MPI, 1998. DVD.

Lewis, Jeremy, and J. G. Ballard. “An Interview with J. G. Ballard.” Mississippi Review 20(1/2), 1991: 27-40.

McKinney, Devin. “Violence: The Strong and the Weak.” Film Quarterly 46(4), 1993: 16-22.

Murder by Numbers. Dir. Mike Hodges. 2001. IFC. DVD.

Newitz, Annalee. “Serial Killers, True Crime, and Economic Performance Anxiety.”
Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media. Ed. Christopher Sharrett. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999: 65-83.

Pence, Jeffrey S. “Terror Incognito: Representation, Repetition, Experience in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Public Culture 6(3), 1994: 525-45.

Pinedo, Isabel Christina. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997.

Seltzer, Mark. Serial Killers: Life and Death in America’s Wound Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Simpson, Philip L. Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

Vale, V., ed. RE/Search: J. G. Ballard 8/9. San Francisco: RE/Search, 1984.

Youngquist, Paul. “Ballard’s Crash-Body.” Postmodern Culture 11(1), 2000: no pg. Web. May 1, 2010.

  1. This notion of unreality could be compared to Baudrillard’s famous quote, “The Gulf War did not take place.” Although the war certainly did happen, Americans only saw the war from the point of view of cameras strapped to missiles and green-tinted images of explosions on the television news. These images did not mean death or suffering; they connoted video games and action films. They were images of actions without consequences. []
  2. I.e. serial killers. []
  3. Note also that Kennedy, Dean, and Mansfield all died in vehicles in motion. Philip Simpson notes that mobile “rootlessness,” the icon of the car, is a source of American pride; it is a way to escape the past. However, the car also offers ways to kill or escape the consequences of killing (139). []
  4. A notion Georges Bataille had observed decades before Ballard, as Joel Black has noted (176). []
  5. Or the Mafia’s or CIA rogues’ or anti-Castro Cubans’ or whoever’s bullets … []
  6. Note that the Kennedy assassination and Ruby’s murder of Oswald were motiveless crimes, in the senses that the motives are still unknown and that the effect of the crimes was greater than their causes. []
  7. Wow! Hat trick! []
  8. This is related to Seltzer’s notion of the “mass in person,” which he defines as the serial killer — “the species of person proper to a mass-mediated public culture” (7). []
  9. Real death as la petite mort! []