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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Black Cats and Murder: Characteristics of a Serial Killer

A few days ago I sat down to read Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Black Cat. I really had no expectations for this story, except that it was rather short, was most likely about a cat, and could possibly contain some dark, eerie elements. However, I never presumed it to be about murder, death, and serial killers. Throughout his story of mystery and murder, Poe presents an unreliable narrator, encouraging his readers to question the true identity of this nameless narrator. In today’s news, there are often stories revealing the finding of a serial killer, or the body of an individual killed by a serial killer. There are more of these people out there than we think. But what really is a serial killer? What characteristics do they possess? After researching a few articles, I believe that Poe’s “unreliable narrator” really could be a true serial killer.
In January, the New York Times released an article about a young woman who had agreed to allow a photographer to take pictures of her. She never returned, and eleven months later, her decayed bones and leftover remnants were found. Police soon learned that this “photographer” was actually a serial killer; he was arrested previously for murder of a 12 year-old girl, for murder of another woman, and for molesting and beating an eight year-old girl. What could possess someone to do this? After researching other articles, I found information describing the typical traits of these killers, and was able to draw several connections to Poe’s narrator in The Black Cat.
The first quality I noticed was that serial killers are “involved with sadistic activity or tormenting small creatures” (Ressler). At the beginning of the story, the narrator reveals that one of his “principal sources of pleasure” (Poe 78) was his fascination and love for animals: “I was especially fond of animals…I never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them” (78). He even marries a young woman who also shares in his passion, and they acquire multiple different animals together, his favorite being a cat named Pluto. Their friendship lasted several years until the narrator began to grow “more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others” (79). The narrator begins to abuse his animals and his wife. One day the cat bites his hand, to which the narrator responds to by gouging out one of its eyes (80). This is not your typical response to such an event, but rather extremely brutal, abrupt, and violent. However, it does not end here. The narrator later hangs the cat to die on the limb of a tree (80). This cruel, vicious behavior fits very well into the criteria for a serial killer.
Another suggestion is that serial killers often “have criminal, psychiatric and alcoholic histories” (Ressler). It is interesting to note that the narrator openly admits his moody and irritable behavior to his disease: “but my disease grew upon me-for what is disease is like alcohol!” (79). He even says how the initial cutting of Pluto’s eye occurred when he came home intoxicated. Although we are unsure if this narrator was truly an alcoholic, it can be assumed that alcohol probably really did influence his savage actions. Lastly, the article notes how “many serial killers are fascinated with fire starting” (Ressler). Shortly after killing Pluto, the narrator wakes up to his whole house on fire. Now, we don’t know exactly who started this fire, but I did find it rather noteworthy to mention. All of the walls of his house are destroyed except one, and on this wall was the “figure of a gigantic cat…there was a rope about the animal’s neck” (81). I believe it was not by coincidence the fire was started, whether it was by the narrator or not, it definitely seems to haunt him.
Throughout this entire story, Poe does an extremely great job of presenting his “unreliable narrator”. Although it is never stated that he is a serial killer, there is much evidence to support the fact that he truly is. He tends to be cruel toward animals, he has alcoholic tendencies, and fire is a huge connection to his story. I found it very difficult to believe his perspective of the story, especially since he claimed to have a “docile and human disposition since infancy” (78). We will never know Poe’s original intentions of this short story, but it is fascinating to look at articles in the news and compare them to his questionable narrator. (Ressler article)

Poe, Edgar Allen. "The Black Cat." American Gothic Tales. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: The
Penguin Group. 78-87. Print. 

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