During the early to mid 90s, the American public reached a watershed moment in their understanding of serial killers, for several different reasons. First, films like The Silence of the Lambs and series like The X-Files cemented the serial killer as a figure in the popular consciousness. Second, a whole generation had elapsed since the serial killer emerged as a discrete type in the 70s, meaning there was a clearer sense of the serial killer as a period figure. Finally, the FBI and other American government agencies were more comfortable using the term “serial killer” in public announcements, meaning that it seeped more into the popular vernacular as well. In order to keep up with these changes, horror films searched for increasingly exotic and arcane crimes scenes to evoke the peculiar mindset of the serial killer, along with ever more extravagant visions of the American city through the serial killer’s eyes.
Released in 1995, Jon Amiel’s Copycat goes in the opposite direction, conceding that cinema has exhausted its capacity to represent serial killers, thereby converging serial killing with postmodern simulation. For screenwriters Armon Milchan and Mark Tarlov, serial killers are defined, first and foremost, by their ability to galvanise media images, and produce a new kind of media convergence. The more cinema tries to replicate that process, the screenwriters suggest, the more it is doomed to fall back upon empty simulation, since without the actual crimes of the serial killer these mediatised images can never fully ramify. As a result, Copycat understands serial killing as the one enterprise that might restore the serial circulation of images from mere simulation, painting the serial killer as the sole figure who stands outside the postmodern spaces of the film – or at least the one figure with real autonomy over them.
We see this focus on simulation from the very beginning of the film. Amiel introduces our first female lead, Dr. Helen Hudson, played by Sigourney Weaver, in front of a live image of her own face. She’s a forensic psychologist, delivering a lecture on the sensibility of serial killers, a lecture that is itself a simulation, since we learn that she delivers it in thousands of universities all over the country. As part of her address, she instructs all the white men in their late 20s and early 30s to stand up, and then informs the audience that these people are the most likely to become serial killers. This sense of serial killing as a demographic, rather than a collection of inviolable individuals, percolates throughout the film, and incentivises the film’s own efforts to repeat the media regime of serial killers through its own aesthetic form.
From here, we shift to the other female lead, Inspector Mary Jane “MJ” Monahan, played by Holly Hunter. We meet MJ prowling through what appears to be a ghettoised apartment block, but actually turns out to be an FBI situation designed to provide her with training in urban combat. Once these two characters are established as a function of simulation, Amiel introduces the main plot points that drive the film. After she finishes her lecture, Helen goes to the bathroom, where she is immediately apprehended by Daryll Lee Cullum, a psychopath played by Harry Connick Jr. Helen wrote about Daryll in one of her books, and testified at his trial to the effect that he was mentally competent when he committed his crimes. In revenge for being reduced to just another psychopath, and to insist on the irreducible singularity of his crimes, Daryll brutally lynches Helen in one of the stalls, and prepares to slice her throat.
This scene cuts midway through, shifting us eighteen months into the present, where we catch up with Helen and MJ in succession. On the one hand, Helen has developed severe agoraphobia as a result of her attack, and has totally retreated from her academic career and lecture circuit, spending her whole life within a secure apartment in San Francisco, where the action unfolds. On the other hand, MJ has become involved in a curious string of murders, which she eventually realises are the work of a serial killer, but an unusual type of serial killer. Rather than developing his own modus operandi, this killer operates by simulating iconic or canonical serial killers – criminals famous enough to have their own monikers. As he moves through the Boston Strangler, the Hillside Strangler, and Son of Sam, it becomes clear he’s following the order of killers in Helen’s lecture, so MJ enlists her as a consultant on the case.
Before we even get into the case, however, the film dwells at some length on Helen’s hermetic life in her apartment. This plays out as one of the many digital hubs that percolated through 90s cinema. It’s uncannily similar to The Bone Collector, except that Helen is constricted by agoraphobia rather than quadriplegia. It also anticipates Sandra Bullock’s internet den in The Net. During these scenes, Amiel shifts subliminally between detached and POV shots, making it unclear whether a specific killer is actually watching Helen, or if we’re immersed in the mobile, surveillant, psychopathic gaze that she discerns more generally in the outside world in the wake of her attack. Similarly, it’s unclear whether the serial killer in this case is actually targeting Helen, or whether his crimes just speak to this surveillant gaze in a peculiarly pregnant way – his second body, for example, is dumped in the Golden Gate Recreation Area, at the top of one of the most vertiginous and agoraphobic sites in San Fran.
During these scenes, we start to see the slasher migrate into the serial killer to form a new porous potential in even the most apparently sequestered spaces. While there are certainly traces of Ellen Ripley in the focus on constricted spaces here, Helen’s apartment isn’t as confined as it initially seems. Sure, there are locks on all the doors, and the windows are always kept down, but there is another way in – the cyberspace Helen escapes to every night. Since the serial killer, who we soon meet, has a computer hub in the heart of his own lair, he’s able to communicate with Helen pretty regularly, leading her to come up with a new metaphor for serial killing – a virus with endless mutations. Just as the slasher segues into the serial killer, so the serial killer becomes a new kind of hactivist during the middle part of Copycat. When Helen notes that the crimes may correspond to the lunar cycle, it’s an inchoate way of articulating an even more disturbing truth – that serial killing hours correspond to chat room hours, meaning that the nascent internet has produced a terrifying portal for serial killers to make entries into domestic space.
The serial killer thus becomes a harbinger of the digital in Copycat, just as the unique media pull of serial killers becomes a harbinger of a new digital media sphere. While this digital porosity primarily occurs through Helen’s computer hub, it dissolves the physical dimensions of her apartment as well. Time and again, the killer manages to get access to her, or to someone close to her, despite her recourse to the most rigorous security protocols. Beyond a certain point, this killer simply uses the power of images to dismantle these physical thresholds, again anticipating a digital space that would become more insidious than any material measures we might adopt to thwart it. As Helen notes, there are more books about Jack the Ripper than Abraham Lincoln, meaning that, once this new killer appropriates the images of past killers, he becomes as viral and inescapable as a modern meme. The result is the first mainstream depiction of a genuinely digital serial killer, or a genuinely postmodern serial killer, one who makes his mark by rearranging and appropriating images above all else.
Just as the digital presence of this serial killer disrupts physical thresholds, the film also attempts to visualise cyberspace in traditional physical terms – typically by way of the zones between public and private space that prove most triggering for Helen’s agoraphobia. Her initial attack occurs in one of these public-private spaces – the public toilet adjoining her lecture theatre – while the corridor outside her apartment is much more terrifying than the straightforwardly public world on the street outside. In one of the most suspenseful scenes, she realises that the killer is inside her apartment, but still can’t bring herself to traverse the corridor, despite the promise of a genuinely public world outside. Remaining in private space, even with a killer, is less scary than negotiating the public-private space of the corridor. Of course, this leads us to suspect that the public promise of the street might never eventuate, and that proper public space has ceased to exist, just as proper private space has ceased to exist, permitting the killer ingress to Helen’s apartment. This leaves us (and her) in an uneasy situation where nothing is public, nothing is private, and everything is eerily, digitally porous.
Rather than insist upon himself as an inviolable individual, as does Daryll, Helen’s original attacker, this new killer celebrates himself as a demographic, by treating serial killers as a creative pastiche of what has come before rather than a modernist bid at originality. The screenplay thus emphasises the demographic of the killer, as a white male in his late 20s or early 30s, while also framing serial killing as a last bastion of white male artistry and white male identity politics. Helen informs MJ that “he really wants us to think what he’s doing is art,” while the killer also sees himself as an artist first and foremost, producing literal bodies of work: “And if you find that your hands are still willing, you can turn murder into art.” Serial killing becomes a radical solution to the culture wars of the 90s, a way of opening and closing the canon at the same time, as this particular killer rails against the idea of serial killers as a closed canon, only to playfully affirm it through his macabre project of pastiche and bricolage.
So thoroughly is serial killing equated with white male identity politics that white men are themselves emphatically displaced from the film, in the same way that The Silence of the Lambs depended on a queer-coded female lead to pursue the killer, and films in the wake of Se7en tended to pair a black detective with a female ingenue to contain this perverse white male self-expression. The only significant white male character in Copycat, apart from the two serial killers, is Inspector Reuben Goetz, MJ’s partner, played by Dermon Mulroney, but the film never really has a stable place for him, or even a consistent interest in him. Professionally, as a police officer, he doesn’t contribute much to the narrative – except dying in the line of fire, when MJ accidentally shoots him in a hostage scene that is so incidental to the main plot that it plays primarily as a convenient strategy to take this white male lens out of the picture.
Before that point, Reuben exists mainly as a romantic foil for both Helen and MJ, but his presence is as awry, atonal and offbeat as the roles women are typically meant to perform in more conventional male-oriented procedurals. Sidelined and displaced time and again, his presence tends to decentre heterosexuality in the film, making the romantic element feel curiously fragmented and unformed, as if this part of the film were still in a draft stage. While he’s attached to both Helen and MJ, the attraction remains diffuse, making it unclear who’s drawn to whom. Sometimes Amiel has to elevate the romance to weird operatic beats to make it sustainable, but just as often it collapses into a crushing banality: “I love you, you know.” “Yeah, I know.” Since Helen’s only carer is her gay best friend, Andy, played by Phil Rothman, Rueben starts to seem like a gay best friend too, since these various efforts to cast him as a love interest to the two women are totally unconvincing, and borderline parodic. When Reuben and Phil are killed in quick succession, Helen and MJ thus lose their gay best friends in quick succession, leaving us with the relationship that most interests the film – the queer proximity of serial killer survivors, female friendship defined by a serial killer’s wake.
With the two remaining white men out of the picture, the film spends its third act calibrating Helen and MJ’s relationship against the last stage in the serial killer’s plan. The two women deduce that his last two copycat murders will take us to the very brink of simulation – to Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, the two criminals whose command over American media images seems unrepeatable. Only Zodiac has come close, but he’s already baked into the essence of the case – not merely because of the San Francisco backdrop, but because MJ’s boss was one of the main investigators in the case. This need to traverse simulation extends to the very fabric of the film, as Amiel ends by reprising the opening scene, in which Darryl tried to kill Helen, from the lens of this new serial killer, who we learn is one Peter Foley, played by William McNamara. Luring MJ and then Helen into the same bathroom where Daryll targeted Helen, Peter lynches Helen for a second time but now also positions himself in the role of the policeman who was killed while attempting to save Helen the first time , thereby transforming himself into both the object and agent of this simulation of the film’s opening mise-en-scene.
Since we never saw the resolution of that opening scene, it does initially appear as if John has managed to remake the opening scene in his own image. This time, however, Helen inserts herself into the scene even more emphatically, trying to hang herself in an effort to remove John’s agency and sense of control. Although this allows her and MJ to escape, and leads to John’s death, it doesn’t remove the serial killer’s unique power over the media images that percolate through the film. The film ends with this crime scene, meaning we never see any world outside the simulation that John has enacted, however much Helen and MJ might have managed to inflect it to their advantage. Moreover, the credits roll over Darryl in prison, reciting a letter that reveals he was the mastermind behind John’s modus operandi. Amiel thus ends with a moment of transfer between Darryl, arguably the last of the classicist serial killers, and John, the first in a new line of pastiche-based serial killers. To the very end, the film is uneasily, queasily aware that no single apprehension or conviction can thwart the symbiosis between serial killers and American media, especially in an inchoate digital sphere.
What the film can offer is the recuperative power of fandom as a way of engaging with this symbiosis on its own terms. At heart, Helen is a serial killer fan, with enough time, space and obsession to put the pieces together when conventional law enforcement can’t. For all her academic knowledge, it’s this fandom that she finally offers MJ – a form of obsession that’s commensurate to the insidious digital propinquity of a new breed of serial killer. In the queer proximity between the two women, we finally see the emergence of a new kind of true crime fan and a fandom that thrives on late-night browsing on Websleuths – the fans who would eventually spawn the true crime podcast culture of the present, as well as the injunction to digital sleuthing that’s now par for the course with most true crime films and documentaries. And it’s that taste for fandom as a new forensic tool that gives Copycat its peculiar sense of play, its resistance to the hubris of regular procedurals, and its scepticism of the masculine common-sense of crime fiction itself, in favour of a new kind of open-ended digital curiosity.