Natural Products of Consumer Society: Serial Killers in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho
American Psycho, Lionsgate Films, 2000
by Eric D. Lehman
In the spring of 2016 I traveled to New York City to see a musical. “Are you seeing Hamilton?” asked my excited colleagues. No, I told them, I was going to see the musical version of American Psycho, which had just come over from London’s West End to debut on Broadway. Blank stares, shrugs, and one “wow!” But not one of these academics castigated me for going. Furthermore, nearly every newspaper and magazine praised the show, calling it “brilliant,” “slick,” “stylish,” “smooth,” and “a bloody triumph.” The Associated Press tagged it as “a darkly wonderful adaptation of the once-controversial novel by Bret Easton Ellis.” Once-controversial indeed. The tumult that had attended the release of the book had apparently passed, and subsequent decades had turned it into fodder for college syllabi, inspired a 2000 movie starring Christian Bale and directed by Mary Harmon, and referenced by innumerable other cultural touchstones, from Dexter to Kanye West. Like it or not, the novel is no longer considered “sensationlistic trash,” and has been firmly established as part of literary history and culture now.
This means we should pay more attention to Bret Easton Ellis’s upsetting monsterpiece. I had already read the novel when my graduate class in Contemporary Literature discussed it in 1996, and was surprised that only a few people understood it as cultural commentary. The professor was in fact unaware that the “music chapters” were not to be taken seriously, and in fact the music described in excruciating and loving detail by the narrator was actually pop trash. These are mistakes that have long since been corrected. However, there are still some holes in the analysis that deserve attention, particularly the relationship between society and the serial killer who narrates the book, Patrick Bateman.
Ellis quotes Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground at the beginning of the novel: “Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed.” This quote seems to point to the author’s belief that societies create people like the narrator Patrick Bateman, not such a big stretch for sociologists and novelists alike. Graham Caveney, in his early essay of praise for American Psycho, “The Beast in the Jungle, the Figure in the Carpet,” makes a connection between Bateman and a consumer, outlining a society in which individualization is lost and in which people are driven crazy by the sensory overload. He quotes Bateman in the novel, “There are too many fucking movies to choose from!” However, if the serial killer possesses the same values as a society, he is not a crazy or cancerous product of that society. Instead, Ellis seems to be demonstrating that he is a healthy or natural product of it. It creates him, and nourishes him. That is a far more troubling idea.
At first glance, the book is a logical extension of the argument that Ellis put forth in his first novel, Less Than Zero. That book, and most of his others, portrays a society that has been transformed by the rampant consumerism at its heart, where humans have been “commodified.” The narrator, Clay, repeats “Wonder if he’s for sale” at various points throughout the text and, while watching a friend prostitute himself, hears the “buyer” say “You’re a beautiful boy and that’s all that matters.” The characters obtain value only through their physical characteristics, and interact with each other as if they were objects.
American Psycho takes this argument to an extreme, but it is a logical extreme. At a meal, Patrick Bateman and his fellow bankers “spot another waitress approaching.”
‘She is hot,’ Van Patten says, ignoring his scallop sausage. ‘Hardbody.’ McDermott nods in agreement. ‘Definitely.’ ‘I’m not impressed,’ Price sniffs. ‘Look at her knees.’ While the hardbody stands there we check her out, and though her knees do support long, tan legs, I can’t help noticing that one knee is, admittedly, bigger than the other one. The left knee is knobbier, almost imperceptibly thicker than the right knee, and this unnoticeable flaw now seems overwhelming and we all lose interest.
This typical passage shows the extent that the objectification of humans has been taken to in the novel. The flaw on the object, in this case a woman, deters the characters from believing it worthy of consideration. Everyone participates in this objectification, which becomes even clearer as the novel progresses. The only way that Ellis describes people is by detailed accounts of their bodies, clothes, or their net worth. The narrator philosophizes, in a rare moment of insight, “Surface, surface, surface, was all anyone found meaning in.”
If people are products, then using them and throwing them away is what we do with them. Every serious critic of Ellis’s work has mentioned examples of the way that characters are treated as products for the “use” of others. What might this use entail? Perhaps merely sex, perhaps more. Will Blythe’s vindication of the novel in his article, “The Case for Bret Easton Ellis,” compares the narrator of the novel with a consumer, saying “American Psycho equates the serial killer with the avid consumer. One group shops till they drop, the other shoots till they drop.” Blythe stops there, but perhaps it’s even worse than he imagines. Perhaps the similarities between the consumer and serial killer are even more than mere allegory.
We see throughout the book how the narrator of American Psycho operates with disregard for anything except physical appearance. People are turned into products, sometimes literally. In the following, particularly graphic excerpt, Bateman tries to make meatloaf out of a woman that he has murdered:
A Richard Marx CD plays on the stereo, a bag from Zabar’s loaded with sourdough onion bagels and spices sits on the kitchen table while I grind bone and fat and flesh into patties, and though it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit and along with a Xanax (which I am now taking half hourly) this thought momentarily calms me and then I’m humming, humming the theme to a show I watched often as a child.
The formula is logical. If people=objects, then consumer of objects=consumer of people. The previous passage is particularly useful because it shows how Bateman literally “consumes” people. However, a serial killer does not necessarily eat his victims, just as not all products are food. The parallel of victim to product holds true for all Bateman’s murders, in which he uses people as he likes. And in a literary sense, at least, a serial killer is a logical protagonist in the society that exists in the text, if not reality.
However, it might be instructive to look at how this fits with some of the popular theories about serial killers, in particular those around when Ellis was writing and reportedly researching them. In Profiling Violent Crimes: An Investigative Tool, serial killer researcher Ronald Holmes tells us, “This, then, is a serial killer’s personal perception of all his future victims; each one is nothing more than a mere object, depersonalized in advance, with each existing only for himself and only to be seized and used as he sees fit.” Sounds familiar. In the first chapter, Patrick Bateman sees what he perceives to be a beautiful woman walking into a townhouse. Later on, we discover that he has killed her and kept the head in his freezer. He has taken something that he desired in the manner of the majority of serial killers, who “will identify and carefully stalk their prey for hours or days preceding the attack,” according to Ronald Holmes and James DeBurger’s contemporary book Serial Murder. Indeed, all of the murders in the novel take place in a manner typical of serial killers; Ellis has done his homework.
There are various “types” of serial killers classified by criminologists, including “visionary,” “hedonistic,” and “power/control.” Bateman has characteristics of all except perhaps “mission-oriented,” the kind that commits mass-murder to eradicate a certain ethnic group, for example. He sometimes appears to be motivated by violent lust, but the pleasure that he experiences when killing women in the novel is not derived from simple sexual arousal. The narrator thinks to himself, “I have to admit to myself what a turn-on it is encouraging these girls to debase themselves in front of me.” He receives satisfaction from the power he has over the women, as well as the “bums” and other men that he kills.
As defined by the 1980s psychologists who Ellis might have read, the hedonistic and power/control types certainly have a psychological similarity to the consumer. In the book this is shown best in the relationship between Paul Owen and Bateman. Owen, a co-worker at a Wall Street firm, seems to be the ideal of the society in which the narrator exists. Bateman’s interest in Paul Owen begins in the first chapter, where he finds out about “the Fisher account that Paul Owen is handling.” Though it certainly represents financial success, we never find out what the mysterious Fisher account is or why Bateman is interested in it. Bateman obviously envies this important account, as he mentions it at numerous points in the text. He envies Owen in many other ways: at a business meeting he tells the reader about Owen’s outfit, “it’s really the tie-blue and black and red and yellow bold stripes from Andrew Fezza by Zanzarra- that impresses me” and later on at the meeting he admires “the way he’s styled and slicked back his hair, with a part so even and sharp it…devastates me.”
Both the mysterious account and the personal appearance of Owen become even more important to Bateman as the novel progresses. At a U2 concert that they both attend, the anti-hero has a religious experience in which he mystically bonds with Bono, the lead singer, who tells him, in a vivid hallucination, “I…am…the… devil…and I am… just…like…you…” The reader expects such an experience to be important to Bateman, but as soon as this message is imparted, the intense feeling he experienced during the epiphany “vanishes and now more than ever I need to know about the Fisher account that Owen is handling and this information seems vital, more pertinent than the bond of similarity I have with Bono.” Owen’s financial dealings are so important to Bateman that he ignores the knowledge imparted in his hallucination and tries to wheedle information about the account out of Owen. During this conversation, Owen’s physical appearance is brought up again by Bateman. “’I want it,’ I shout, staring at his perfect, even part; even his scalp is tan.” Owen is obviously the ideal person in Bateman’s world, though of course in this world a “person” is only an object or collection of objects. Paul Owen manifests only as the clothes he wears and the accounts he handles; he is an image of wealth that we see in advertising.
At the conclusion of Bateman’s jealousy of Paul Owen, the serial killer brings his fellow broker back to his apartment. After having dinner with him he hits him in the face with an ax, watches him die horribly, and enjoys it thoroughly. Bateman kills what he envies and is transformed through this act into an object of “envy” in this way. Again, Ronald Holmes writes:
Just prior to his every decision to victimize, a [power/control oriented] serial killer always first experiences a sudden and precipitous psychological fall, an extreme low…his meaning is derived from the fact that he thinks himself profoundly special, unique…so with the onset of this mental low, he finds it virtually impossible to respond to it[the psychological fall]…[this]triggers his pre-established compulsion for violence…when he finally has a live and helpless victim on hand, the violence he inflicts is not carried out for the sake of violence alone, but more so, for the purpose of reestablishing and reaffirming his own great worth via the brutal degradation of his victim.
For comparison, the basic psychological reasoning behind the product/buyer relationship is outlined well in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself.” The novel demonstrates the way this psychology is similar to the pattern behind serial killer behavior. In fact, using the categories that Holmes outlines, the consumer psychology that Berger presents matches almost perfectly.
According to Holmes, during the “Distorted Thinking” stage, the serial killer (or the consumer) believes himself to be beautiful, in control of his universe, and is satisfied with the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of his existence in the society. Then comes “The Fall.” The serial killer (or again the consumer) sees the image in advertising, in the real world, or in his imagination, that disturbs this view, making him feel inferior. The “Negative Inward Response” follows when he confronts what he perceives as his inadequacy and decides on some level that he needs to validate his self-status. The next Holmes category, the “Negative Outward Response” is the only category that does not fit consumer psychology. Although the compulsive spending of money simply to affirm one’s self-image could certainly be seen as a “Negative Outward Response,” there is a definite difference between this and violence. This difference separates the average consumer from the serial killer. However, in Bre Easton Ellis’s world, where people are only products to be used, the line between serial killer and consumer becomes blurred. Furthermore, Holmes’s “Restoration” proceeds from there in an identical manner to Berger’s consumer theory, in which the serial killer/consumer now becomes interested again in his comfort.
In other words, the serial killer has power over his victim, while the buyer, by owning a product, has power over that object. The serial killer needs the power, the ownership, the control over people to feel he is superior and thus have self-love, while the consumer needs the power, the ownership, the control over the product to feel he is superior, and thus have self-love. These two parallel psychologies have come together in the person of Patrick Bateman, something Ellis outlines clearly and unnervingly.
But in case Ellis’s thesis is not clear, he also shows practical ways in which the consumer society nourishes its serial killer creation. After all, Bateman lets his nature be known to others many times in the text. While eating dinner with a business associate, he confesses, “My life is a living hell…and there are many more people I, uh, want to…want to, well, I guess murder.” At another point he tells a date, “I’m into, oh, murders and executions mostly.” Later, he leaves a full list of all his murders on the answering machine of another businessman, saying things like, “I left her in a parking lot…near a Dunkin’ Donuts…somewhere around midtown.” These confessions are either ignored or misunderstood. A more pointed example of this is in the chapter “Taxi Driver,” where a taxi driver identifies the narrator from a “Wanted” poster and does not turn him in. Instead he steals Bateman’s money, watch, and sunglasses.
An even more concrete piece of evidence that this society is “serial killer-friendly” exists in the chapter entitled “The Best City for Business.” In this chapter Bateman returns to a fellow broker’s apartment after horribly killing two escort girls there several months earlier. The place is spotless and a real estate agent is conducting business. Bateman is sure that no news has been released about the killings and it has not been reported to the police, being obsessive about his own crimes as most serial killers are. The real estate agent notices the surgical mask in his hand and suspects what this means. She asks him if he saw an ad in the Times, and then, when he says yes, she tells him that there was no ad. At this point she figures that he is involved with the deaths that have occurred at the apartment. She suggests he should go, telling him “Don’t make any trouble.” The point here is that two grisly murders have been covered up for the sake of a real estate sale. She cannot report him to the police if she wants to complete this sale; the customer would find out about the murders.
These incidents are tangible examples of how consumer society helps Bateman exist. But they also demonstrate the selfishness and greed that reaches its epitome in the character of a serial killer. This is where we truly see how Ellis has proffered Bateman as a “healthy” or “natural” product of this society, not someone that is made “sick” or “crazy” by it. Some studies of serial killers, particularly in the 1980s, seem to agree. Elliot Leyton’s book, Compulsive Killers: The Story of Modern Multiple Murder, posits that serial killers are an extension of the focus on success and ambition in capitalist society. In Serial Murder, Ronald Holmes and co-author James DeBurger say that “It is also becoming more apparent that American culture has embedded norms, values, and beliefs that increase the likelihood of interpersonal violence.” They also list factors in society that they believe contribute to the phenomenon: normalization of interpersonal violence, strong emphasis on creature comforts, emphasis on “thrills” and “highs,” redundant violence, magical thinking, unmotivated resentment and blaming of “others,” normalization of impulsiveness, excess of violent role models, anonymity and depersonalization in dense urban areas, extensive and rapid spatial-geographic mobility, and emphasis on speed and immediate need-gratification.
We needn’t take this too far. Ellis is making a moralistic, literary connection, not one based in social science. As consumerism continues to run rampant in our society, Ellis is saying, so will people like Patrick Bateman. But the character’s story is more than an allegory, as some critics and reviewers have posited. Ellis has revealed him to be the natural end-point of objectification and greed, the unimpeded result of an runaway economic and cultural system.
Are consumer societies like ours the only ones with killers? Of course not. There are many and various reasons individuals want to murder large numbers of other people. Looking at it from Ellis’s perspective, we might find that in an honor-bound, family-centered society, a vengeance slayer is the expected outcome, rather than an aberration. In a society based on total religious or ideological purity, the inquisitorial torturer appears as a logical outgrowth of its principles and values. And in a consumer capitalist society in which everything is given a monetary value, Patrick Bateman is the particular manifestation of its unrestrained development. According to American Psycho’s alarming thesis, he is this society’s eventual, natural creation. It’s a terrifying thought.
I attended the musical of American Psycho with my friend, a New York banker who had also read the book when it came out in 1991. We laughed together at the antics of the shallow characters, made more obvious and satirical by their dramatization. We listened to Duncan Sheik’s glossy score, and watched actor Benjamin Walker prance across the stage in his underwear holding a copy of Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. We even chatted briefly about the possibility that there were murderers in the audience. And when the play was over, what did I do? I went immediately to the shop in the cellar near the restrooms, and bought my wife a mug and t-shirt.
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Blythe, Will. “The Case for Bret Easton Ellis.” Esquire. October 1994.
Caveney, Graham and Elizabeth Young. Shopping in Space: Essays on America’s Blank Generation Fiction. New York: Grove Press, 1992.
Darrach, Brad and Dr. Joel Norris. “An American Tragedy.” Life. August 1984.
DeBurger, James and Ronald Holmes. Serial Murder. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1988.
Ellis, Bret Easton. Less Than Zero. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. New York: Random House, 1991.
Holmes, Ronald. Profiling Violent Crimes: An Investigative Tool. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1989.
Kennedy, Mark. “Review: Darkly Wonderful American Psycho Slays Onstage.” Associated Press. April 21, 2016.
Leyton, Elliot. Compulsive Killers: The Story of Modern Multiple Murder. New York: NYU Press, 1986.
“Psycho Analysis.” Rolling Stone. 4 April 1991.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and his work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Follow him @afootinconnecticut, and visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.