WHERE THE WILD THINGS REALLY ARE – THE SERIAL KILLER, HIS VICTIM AND THE NIGHT FOREST
Here is a joke:
A serial killer and his female victim walk into the forest at night. After a while she says she’s scared. He replies ‘What do you mean you’re scared? I’m the one who has to walk out of here alone’.
When I heard this my first reaction was against its obvious tastelessness. Then, the whole thing unravelled into something as strange and complex as the forest itself.
The joke plays on the idea that the forest is more frightening to both the killer and the victim than the implied murder that is about to take place there. When the victim says she is scared, it is of the forest, because she doesn’t know her companion is a serial killer. We know because we are privy to the joke. We know the real threat is the killer, not the forest. The killer is also afraid of the forest. He is more afraid of the forest than of the terrible act he is about to commit. In fact we suspect from what he says that while he may be under some imperative to murder this victim, he doesn’t want to. Once he does, he will have to walk out of the night forest alone. We have an image here of a man who is subjected to an archaic and atavistic terror, at odds with the terror he himself is about to unleash. Murder is a superficial thing in comparison.
Wild places at night have always been frightening, even to those of us who are urban through and through and have never been there. Think of the Disney version of Snow White, or the forest around Hogwarts. Forests are inhabited by sinister or marginal people, dangerous and rare beasts, and supernatural beings which are usually hostile. Forests are our pasts – much of the world was thickly forested before humans entered and changed the land for ever. They feel pre-human to us. Forests are dark, and we humans evolved on the sunlit savannah, loving the parklands and the broad rivers where we can find game and watch for predators from afar. Forests are both repellent and romantic. We are not at home there.
Even serial killers are not at home there. You would think that there really ought to be some murders in the night forest, along with the unicorns and the gingerbread cottages. This makes the fear of the serial killer the punch line of the joke. It makes rational sense to be scared of the forest. The serial killer is one of us after all. He has asked for our sympathy by revealing his very human fears.
If the forest at night represents the murky and tangled darkness of our secret and ‘worst’ selves, we would expect the serial killer to be unafraid. Serial killers are a well explored trope and we think we understand them from cop shows and the news media. We think of them as damaged, for sure, but functionally fearless. A man accustomed to plumbing the ghastly depths of inhumanity should simply do what he has to do, and go hard and go home. After all, he has already faced the worst of himself. What is more frightening than his own depths and his own deeds? What can possibly be out there? The reason the joke is a joke, is because it violates our ideas about serial killers. This one is a wimp, afraid of a few trees! He is no wild dark thing, he is domesticated. Thus he is diminished in our eyes, and so he should be.
While the serial killer has domesticated himself by revealing his fears, he has also revealed himself by telling his victim he will walk out alone. We know nothing about her, apart from the fact that she is scared of the wrong thing and that she will probably be murdered very soon after she realizes her mistake. She is a notional character, and strangely we identify less with her than with her killer. Unless she turns and fights or runs away, but we suspect she won’t, because the joke has effectively foretold her future.
There is a lot to consider in a joke. This is in fact a very good joke, because it can be used as a probe to investigate our culture and our collective psyche, as well as explore our individual reactions. Jokes are like dreams – almost endless. Carl Jung talks about the skill of circumnambulating the dream. The problem is almost always knowing where to stop. Regardless of how far we go in our analysis, a good joke is never just a laugh. The one above educates us because it is above all else, transgressive. It violates our ideas about serial killers, and about human fear and strangeness.
Here’s to transgression. Here’s to the night forest, and the strange creatures who seek comfort there. Here’s to the cultural probe, to weird-ass humour and to our capacity to find learning everywhere. Ex tenebris lux indeed!