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Confronting murder in the newspaper, on screen, and in sensational trials, it is often felt that the killer is fundamentally incomprehensible and morally alien. But this was t always the most popular response to murder. In this text, Karen Halttunen explores the changing view of murder from early New England sermons read at the public execution of murderers, through the 19th century, when secular and sensational accounts replaced the sacred treatment of the crime, to the true crime literature and tabloid reporting of the late 1990s. The early narratives were shaped by a strong belief in original sin and spiritual redemption, by the idea that all murderers were natural manifestations of the innate depravity of humankind. In a dramatic departure from that view, the Gothic imagination - with its central conventions of the fundamental horror and mystery of the crime - seized upon the murderer as a moral monster, separated from the rmal majority by an impassable gulf. Halttunen shows how this perception helped shape the modern response to criminal transgression, mandating criminal incarceration, and informing a social-scientific model of criminal deviance.
Karen Halttunen is Professor of History at the University of California at Davis.