I’ve not see the word ‘prurience’ used in the press for some time. Until recently, when I noticed its use in several reviews of The Fall. I’m a bit of a word obsessive, always wanting to find out exactly what a word means and where it comes from. Etymology I think it’s called. There I go again. Back to ‘prurience’. It means an unhealthy fascination with sexual matters and derives from the Latin for ‘to itch’.
Most of the reviews of The Fall have been glowing. Sam Wollaston of The Guardian described it as ‘a properly thoughtful, brooding, clever and bleak psychological thriller – and as scary as hell’. On the other hand a number of reviewers have accused it of glamorizing violence against women.
I must confess that I find it hard to watch. I think the main reason is the contrast between the surface normality of the serial killer and his underlying psychopatholgy. He is a loving family man yet we see things from his point of view as he stalks and murders his victims. This has been done before – Peeping Tom, The Killer Inside Me, Hitchcock’s Frenzy & Psycho – but never has the killer been so attractive and appealing. The actor was specifically chosen for his angelic good looks. He was once a model for mens’ underpants which I hope is a coincidence, considering the character’s interest in the female variety. The camera does linger over the bodies and underwear of female characters – including Gillian Anderson. Yes, The Fall is prurient.
The Fall’s writer, Alan Cubitt, took on these criticisms in a piece in the Guardian in June 2013. He admitted that he had deliberately identified the killer from the start so that he could explore his psychology. The killer objectifies and dehumanizes his prey and carries out his acts to reassure himself of his power and potency. In the first episode he explores a woman’s private space – stealing underwear, leaving a macabre calling card on the bed and orange peel on the table. Cubitt points out that this is the same behaviour as flashing, taking underwear from washing lines and making obscene phone calls. The implication is that what the killer does has its roots in male psychology.
The angel/devil thing is chillingly effective as a dramatic device but is the psychology convincing? Much of the effect derives from the contrast between the killer’s ‘normal’ family life with his wife and children and the way the killer compartmentalises his life keeping the two – angel and devil – separate. I’m not sure that this would happen in reality. A man’s nature is just that – what he does and what he thinks. Schizophrenics separate out parts of their beings but then those unfortunate people are clearly mentally ill. A psychopath is supposed to be ‘normal’ but with no moral sense. We are all psychopaths to some extent – it is a continuum. You can google ‘psychopathology test’ and take it yourself. I rated quite low down. So I’m safe to have around. Well, quite safe.
It is true that clever psychopaths can learn how to appear normal, and are often superficially ordinary and charming. But this is a mask. And masks can slip. I just can’t believe that a perverted killer could be a loving husband and father for any length of time without the mask slipping and arousing suspicion.
In his article, Cubitt mentions that he based his killer on the real life case of Russell Williams who was a decorated pilot in the Canadian military. Until his arrest in 2010, Williams had no previous convictions but had a long career of breaking and entering and stealing underwear. This escalated to killing and he was eventually caught and convicted of murder. If you check the details of the case, Williams was in a dysfunctional marriage with no children. He lived apart from his wife for much of the time. He cleverly hid the files containing his records of his crimes on his computer’s hard drive and explained his nocturnal activities as necessary walks to ease his chronic back pain. In fact his wife is currently being sued by the family of one of his victims on the grounds that she ‘must have known’ – which is the usual response of a layperson to such cases.
Leading a double life seems to be a characteristic of such killers eg John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgway and Ted Bundy, and it is easy to see how a wife or partner might make herself blind to the truth. One thing I noticed, however, in reading up these cases, is that the killers’ marriages/partnerships were usually dysfunctional and nearly always did not involve children. My suspicion is that the killer’s normal family life depicted in The Fall is a brilliantly effective plot device but is not based on reality.
And what about the idea that the actions of Paul Spector, the killer in The Fall, stem from male psychology? Taking it to its logical conclusion this would imply that all men have the seeds of Paul Spector inside them. I think not. I believe that everyone’s nature – male and female – contains tendencies toward biophilia on the one hand – encouraging living things to grow and fulfil themselves – and necrophilia on the other – controlling and hurting living things and, ultimately, destroying them. Male psychology, with its evolution-determined tendency towards aggression and dominance, is probably a more fertile incubator for a Paul Spector than the female version but the truth is likely to be much more complex.
So is The Fall brilliant or prurient? Probably both.