Hannibal Lecter, Charles Manson … and the Evil Professor

The Following and the tradition of serial-killer horror.

Ryan Hardy and his team.
Former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, played by Kevin Bacon, is brought in to help track down Joe Carroll and his followers The Following.

Still from The Following © Fox. All rights reserved.

Elsewhere in Slate: Read Troy Patterson’s review of The Following.

In last night’s premiere of Fox’s The Following, FBI agent Ryan Hardy, played by Kevin Bacon, enters a room where a dead body’s propped up in a chair, sees “Nevermore” scrawled in blood on the wall, and transforms a crime scene into the world’s worst American lit seminar.*

“The Raven!” he shouts at the marshals with the flabbergasted contempt of someone who can’t believe no one else sees the smoking gun right in front of their faces. Urgently, he adds: “Poe is symbolizing the finality of death!” But apparently these clock-punchers don’t agree this is a Poe-inspired kill. So Hardy, enraged, stomps off, randomly throwing a plastic chair at a brick wall. If the feds can’t grasp the gravity of symbolism, why the hell did he return from retirement?

Kevin Williamson, creator of this serial-killer serial, is credited with introducing a self-aware style into the horror genre. (He wrote the meta-rich screenplay for Scream.) But his real genre legacy, one he’s spreading now to television, is transforming the characters of horror into dime-store literary critics. Hardy’s antagonist, the debonair psychopath Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), is a smart former English professor who has inspired a cult of followers to kill on command.

Carroll escapes from prison, gets caught again, and then whiles away the hours dropping clues and explaining the literary origins of his crimes. These face-offs between Carroll and FBI agents want to resemble the tense mind games in The Silence of the Lambs but will actually remind you more of office hours with a dispirited adjunct professor. “Every good story needs a love interest,” Carroll lectures Hardy, referring to his wife, whom Hardy later slept with. He describes one murder as an “inciting incident.” As if serial killing wasn’t bad enough, he’s apparently also a student of Robert McKee. Shudder.

Popular culture has been mythologizing serial killers since long before the term was coined in the 1970s. The press did it with Jack the Ripper, the Summer of Sam case, and the Charles Manson rampage. Just as with the elevating of gangsters, what the media started, movies finished. The Silence of the Lambs and Seven imagined brilliant, debonair psychopaths always several steps ahead of law enforcement. Through the taut elegance of their suspense and their superb performances, these movies made us believe in some pretty far-fetched things. The Following is not that good. 

The show’s riskiest and most promising idea is to make Carroll a cult leader whose real power is that of persuasion. In this, he resembles Charles Manson, still the most famous serial killer in history, because be convinced seemingly ordinary people to go on a bloody killing spree. It’s a canny choice; despite the publicity his crimes received—he operated on Hollywood’s front door, for God’s sake! —Manson has inspired few great movies, especially when compared to the relatively obscure Midwestern psychopath Ed Gein, whose story was the seed that produced no less than three classic films (Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Silence of the Lambs). Perhaps that’s because convincing others to kill is less cinematic than cutting off people’s faces and wearing them as a mask. Who knows?

The interesting dramatic problem facing The Following is: How does someone become that charismatic? What charm would possibly be so alluring that it could inspire people to end other people’s lives and ruin their own? Williamson’s answer: pretentious readings of gothic literature. To be fair, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. After all, anyone who has ever heard a rumor about a professor having an affair with a student knows that teaching can be a kind of seduction. And the show frequently flashes back to Carroll’s teaching days, showing us his smooth, cool-guy pedagogy. It also dedicates much time to the society of his young followers, but it’s in these two worlds where Williamson lazily resorts to Hollywood clichés.

You could imagine damaged Goth kids or precocious Nietzsche readers falling under a professor’s murderous spell. But instead we get the kind of blandly attractive, fresh-faced, interchangeable kids that you would find in any slasher movie. Kevin Williamson’s imagination doesn’t appear big enough to see the followers as more than Los Angles bores—just like he doesn’t manage to envision the killer as motivated by anything other than a postmodern novelist’s need to tell a good story.

All this might be forgivable if there was fun to be had. Williamson’s Scream at least had a sense of humor about nubile kids picking apart genre clichés before getting torn to shreds, but The Following takes itself deadly seriously, even when a wink is desperately called for. In the third episode, the killer exacts punishment on a newspaper critic who panned his book by having an acolyte douse him with lighter fluid and set him on fire. Cut to the FBI interrogation room where poor Annie Parisse, a wonderful actress playing another FBI agent, must ask the dumbest question in the history of television: “Why torture critics?”

To be fair, the query crossed my mind a few times watching the first four episodes of this show. I kid! Smuggling a revenge fantasy into your show is exactly the kind of knowing, jokey nod we hope to get from Kevin Williamson. But the scene’s presented completely straight, like any interrogation from a standard police procedural. The dour, thudding seriousness doesn’t allow for any sneaky charm.  

And while there has been predictable buzz about the envelope-pushing gore, I doubt many horror fans will find the blood splattered in this show notable. Where savvy horror directors like Alexandre Aja (High Tension, Piranha) ping-pong between violence that is deliriously pulse-pounding and hard-to-watch disturbing, this show offers neither. The violence is rote, dutiful, but most of all sober.

The eye-gouging in this show appears to be foreplay to the real action: Chatter about how the eyes are the essence of identity in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. This is also what makes this show seem behind the times, a relic from an era when horror was far more marginal and scary movie directors were insecure about their cultural status. As horror has become increasingly mainstream, cable already features Dexter, a serial-killer series with psychological nuance. And shows abut zombies (The Walking Dead) and vampires (True Blood) are unapologetic about their genre tropes. In fact, they delight in them. The Following, by contrast, seems to want to prove its worthiness. It’s a show that wants to be smart. But that’s what makes it so stupid.

Correction, Jan. 22, 2012: This article mistakenly described a corpse as hanging from the ceiling. (Return.)