by K.P. Kulski
When Charlize Theron depicted Aileen Wuornos in the movie 2003 Monster, it was to critical acclaim, eventually winning Theron an Academy Award. Certainly, Theron’s role was a riveting portrayal, but the true story of not only the murders but Wuornos herself is complex, twisted and well… rivetting. We’ve seen the real and made-up faces of male serial killers, but few times have we seen a female one. We didn’t know what to expect. There was a nationwide gasp when the beautiful Theron transformed herself into the physicality of Wuornos through the help of make-up, but also through something more, a dark vulnerability.
But Wuornos was the not the first female serial killer, any quick Google search will come up with lists that span the centuries with crimes that will turn your stomach. Ever present on those lists is the infamous Hungarian noble, Elizabeth Bathory of the 17th century, often proclaimed as the most prolific female serial killer in history or romanticized in popular imaginations as a supernatural creature,
thirsting for blood. The flourish of storytelling that has evolved with time has helped create this image, as well from the relative proximity of the infamous Vlad the Impaler of Romania, later popularized by Bram Stoker as Dracula.
The story of Bathory is much more complex and while you may find Wuornos’s method of murder less heinous, the two woman share the same dark vulnerability despite from being from vastly different time periods, cultures and socio-economic classes.
Why did they kill?
Wuornos who occasionally worked as a prostitute, targeted men. The calculation behind the murders is uncertain, but she claims to have shot them after they attempted to sexually assault her. Unlike Bathory, we have clearer history of Wuornos’s childhood, one that seemed filled with her experiences of both physical and sexual violence perpetrated by men in her life.
Bathory’s childhood is less certain other than she spent those years mostly the family estate of Ecsed. Rumors abound on the mental health and sexual deviance of her family members, but there is no definitive evidence to prove them. She married young to Ferenc Nàdasdy. Shortly before at age thirteen, she gave birth to a child most likely fathered by a male of a lower social class, possibly even a servant. It is no surprise that the child was sent away immediately after birth. Bathory was considered a beauty in her time and following the birth of her first child, got into line with social expectations and often capitalizing on them. If anything, she seemed to become acutely aware of appearances.
Wuornos experienced a life where sex was a twisted commodity that both created the “monster” she became, but also provided money and goods. Bathory, as were so many women of her time and of the noble class, was subject to the requirements of propriety and strategic work of creating heirs. Along with that came the work of household management and the growth and/or protection of family power.
When Wuornos shot and killed seven men, most likely actual or potential johns, it was in reaction to either a real or imaged threat of sexual violence. A type of violence she had been, since childhood much too experienced with and familiar.
There is no record of Bathory consuming or bathing in the blood of her victims, but some
accounts suggest that she often tortured and murdered after social events that required her to maintain a high level of appearance. Her victims were all girls and young women, some as young as ten, but mostly those at the age of puberty, at or near sexual maturity.
In reaction to societal stressors, both killers seemed driven to take extreme actions that resulted in rebellion. What is particularly striking about these two examples of killers, is that they were not driven to murder only out of sexual deviation or some latent sociopathic fascination. They murdered because they were women, because they had experienced life as women, despite the time period and socio-economic differences.
Whatever psychosis they most likely had before they experienced the worst of life, it was the worst of their female experiences that they were reacting. Feeling sympathy for figures like these is dangerous and their crimes are very real. Particularly, in the case of Bathory, the crimes were brutal, horrid and filled with the unimaginable, which harnessed a vile concentrated form of rage at some of the darkest parts of the female existence.