The serial killer drama shows us that in this world it is very hard to be good
At long last, something good to watch on television! You might have heard people discussing The Fall in the supermarket queue. If you haven’t watched it, it might be a good idea to get hold of it, as there is unlikely to be anything else worth watching until Homeland returns to our screens in the autumn.
The Fall is excellent: excellent cast, script, direction, and setting. It is about a serial killer who is murdering young professional women in Belfast. The killer is called Peter Spector, and he is not some squalid creep who lives in a basement, but a nice family man, with a wife and two loving children, who works as a bereavement counsellor. The Spectre that you dread is out there, hiding in plain view. That perhaps is the original twist that the series provides: the killer is just like you or me, or rather, just like you or me aspire to be. We have come a long way in the horror stakes, haven’t we, from, let us say House of Wax (made in 1953, but the first horror film I ever saw, some time in the seventies). Then horror was something that was bizarre, not likely to happen in real life, safely confined to the screen. Now horror is all too real: and there are parts of The Fall that are truly frightening and ghastly. Paul Spector himself tells us that art is a lie (he may be quoting Nietzsche at this point, that is the sort of guy he is) because art tells us that there is order in the world, whereas in fact all is chaos.
We have also come a considerable distance in the serial killer stakes. There was once a time when the phenomenon of serial killing had to be explained to an audience. In fact much of the success of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) sprang from the way the film dissected the procedure, not of the police, but of serial killers. Now, in The Fall, none of the odd things that Paul Spector does have to be explained, as we are all au fait with the various strange things that serial killers do. And the ‘relationship’ between Detective Inspector Stella Gibson and Paul Spector is something that exists within the shadow once cast by Hannibal Lecter and his relationship with Clarice Starling. The methods and procedures of serial killers are now part of our mental furniture.
Why should this be so? There have, I assume, always been serial killers, but Jack the Ripper’s fascination rests in the mystery of his identity. The Fall is not a whodunit, or even a ‘why did he do it?’ Rather it reflects our fascination with motiveless malignity, with the Devil in our midst, perhaps with the bogeyman of our long lost early childhood. We are fascinated by evil and we are entertained by it too. Stella Gibson tells Spector that he is simply a misogynist; well, we all condemn that. But there is something much worse than misogyny going on here. There is the misogyny of making the murders of young women into public entertainment. The success of The Fall is based on turning us the viewers from mere spectators into, well, not participants, but people who are complicit with what is going on on screen. Like all good fiction, it draws you in. You may well condemn Paul Spector, but you do not condemn him as confidently as you might. Is there a serial killer in all of us? God forbid! But the question can at least be asked.
The Fall, in the end, is about the great sin that Jesus so forthrightly condemned, again and again: hypocrisy. We are not what we seem, and the world is not what it seems. But the opposite of hypocrisy – complete honesty – is equally difficult and unattractive. Stella Gibson is completely honest, but few would have her courage in pursuing goals such as that of sexual fulfilment so openly. Yes, we are hypocrites, because in a world like that of The Fall, it seems it is very hard to be good.