A double major in English and philosophy, Powers became interested in the audience’s reaction to, and relationship with, fictional serial killers after she took classes about vampires and Hitchcock films with professors Nathan Snaza and Abigail Cheever.
She was particularly interested in cases where the serial killer moved from antagonist to protagonist, she says. This shift in the role of the serial killer in the social context was the core of Powers’ research, as well as the male-driven violence and eroticism represented in the serial killer “that may go so far as to blur the boundaries between violence and romance.”
“Serial killers have been featured in several novels and films, but their motives, characters, and roles have changed,” she says. “The eroticism of the serial killer changes with this re-identification and, in the process, the violent-lust model is complicated with emotions like love.”
Powers researched the serial killer and reader/viewer relationship in works of film and fiction. Regardless of whether the audience can connect with the serial killer, Powers says that there is no doubt that the character has a particular powerful hold on the viewer’s attentions and imagination.
“In my vampires class, I was fascinated to see this enormous trajectory where we moved from a villainous character like Dracula, who is clearly an antagonist, to Edward Cullen who is this love interest,” she says. “It is the same with the serial killer. Recent popular fictions like the Dexter series or American Psycho, present the character in a sympathetic light that changes the audience’s perspective of the serial killer.”
As Powers puts it, a subtle yet effective trick played in cinematography is turning the focus on the serial killer — either through a detective or point of view. Shedding light on circumstances such as childhood trauma allows the audience to develop compassion for him.
“The moment you make a killer into a victim — and especially if you spend a lot of time knowing the character — it seems to always direct a kind of sympathy,” she says. “The audience might think that the tragic back story is enough in some way to forgive the serial killer and they try negotiating with themselves.”
Powers says that her own love of reading allowed her to realize that books and films influence the way she perceives people.
“I wanted to be more aware of what people think, how people think, and how to frame my own thoughts in a way that made them clear to other people,” she says. “Being a better thinker and a better writer seemed like the kind of skills that would benefit me no matter what I ended up doing after I graduate.”