Murder by Imitation: The Influence of Se7en’s Title Sequence

The serial killer film is nothing if not prolific: Robert Cettl discusses over six hundred examples in his annotated filmography, Richard Dyer argues that there are over two thousand serial killer films, and the IMDB lists more than 3500 film and television titles. [1] As with any genre, the serial killer film is marked by its typicality. Indeed, Philip Simpson criticises the serial killer film as a subgenre that is “endlessly derivative of its predecessors”. [2] The tropes of the clever, fiendish killer, his grotesque, ritualistic ‘signature’ and the gifted but damaged investigator are certainly familiar, but how does the serial killer film replicate itself on a textural level? This article will analyse the influence of Kyle Cooper’s much admired opening title sequence in Se7en (David Fincher, 1995). [3] However, rather than exploring the general influence of the sequence, I will focus on its stylistic similarities to the credit sequences of other serial killer texts such as The Bone Collector (Phillip Noyce, 1999), Red Dragon (Brett Rattner, 2002), Sanctimony (Uwe Boll, 2001), Taking Lives (D.J. Caruso, 2004) and the first season of Whitechapel (Ben Court and Caroline Ip, 2009). I will argue that their imitative or plagiaristic qualities can be interpreted in terms of Mark Seltzer’s work on the repetitive and circular discourse of serial killing.

The title sequence of Se7en appears a few minutes into the film, occurring after a brusque initial encounter between Detectives William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) at the scene of the first murder. The sequence runs for just over two minutes and contains over a hundred shots, many in close up. It shows a person (whom we retroactively infer is the killer John Doe [Kevin Spacey]) shaving off the skin on his fingertips, and then working on a group of notebooks while wearing bandages. We see Doe writing in longhand, and highlighting and erasing portions of other texts. He also develops photographs and uses scissors to trim Polaroids and pieces of film. Doe incorporates some of these images and texts into the notebooks and then uses needle and thread to stitch the pages of his journal into a book, one of many.

The title sequence provides vital story material for the viewer about Doe’s activities. He removes his fingertips to ensure that he does not leave fingerprints behind, either in his apartment or at crime scenes. This also enables him to toy with the investigators by leaving a message composed of fingerprints on a wall at the second murder scene. Instead of this resulting in Doe’s apprehension, it points the police to his third victim, whose amputated arm was used to ‘write’ the words “help me”. After Doe surrenders, the police discover that he does not have a Social Security number, nor any banking or other official records. He is also, as Somerset states, “John Doe by choice”. His anonymity focuses police attention on to his mission or “work”. Indeed, during the final confrontation Doe insists that he is not personally important, but that his crimes will be remembered and studied because of their shocking nature and diabolical logic (and Se7en is more memorable than many other serial killer films for precisely this reason).

Doe’s production of his journals in the title sequence foreshadows the prominence given to the writing and consumption of texts in the film, particularly those on religion and homicide. During the title sequence he carefully excises the word ‘God’ from a banknote. Somerset speculates, correctly, that Doe is preaching a sermon on the Christian doctrine of the seven deadly sins through the murders he commits. The manner in which each victim dies corresponds to one of the sins, as if Doe has imprinted his Word on their respective corpses. Somerset visits the library to find relevant source materials such as Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to help Mills with the investigation. [4] Subsequently, the detectives are able to identify Doe through the FBI’s covert surveillance of the reading habits of library patrons – he has borrowed several of the books that Somerset had selected. This shared cultural knowledge indicates that the serial killer and detective are linked psychologically, which is a common trope in serial killer films. [5] The detectives track Doe to his ‘lair’, where they find 2000 journal volumes. Each book consists of rambling passages about the killer’s contempt for contemporary society, as well as ideas and examples from other texts on crime, religion, and sin that have inspired him.

The importance of textuality in Se7en is also evident in the title sequence’s style. The credits seem to have been composed by hand or using a typewriter. They blur and jump frequently, drawing our attention to the carefully textured dimensions of the sequence. [6] Most of the credits appear on Kodalith, which is intercut with the footage of Doe. The shots of the black film are often scratched or marked in some way, recalling the work of Stan Brakhage. Kyle Cooper explained that these effects were achieved by manipulating the material in various ways: “while filming it shake the Kodalith, move the Kodalith, turn the camera off, … open the gate, let light spill into the gate, throw it out of focus, bang the camera, any kind of experiment”. [7] The credits also include letters and numbers unrelated to the production, and finish with what might be construed as instructions for a projectionist. The sequence also employs flash frames and superimpositions, while a remix of the Nine Inch Nails track ‘Closer’ contributes a jerky, metallic quality. Thus it possesses the “materialized textuality” that Eleftheria Thanouli associates with post-classical filmic narration. [8] The overall effect creates a visual and sonic parallel of Doe’s collage textual practice at the level of form.

Serial Killing and ‘Primary Mediation’
The confluence of identity, textuality, and technology in Se7en’s title sequence has interesting resonances with how these things interact in the discourses surrounding serial murder. Mark Seltzer claims the phenomenon of serial killing is an important component of what he calls the “pathological public sphere” or “wound culture”. [9] He contends that modern American society is fascinated with the spectacle of violence and destruction. This is discernible in and experienced through the mass media’s everyday reportage of accidents, crime, and natural disasters, as well as traumatic narratives in popular entertainment. Indeed, the construction of the ‘public’ depends on the sharing wounds or traumas, as demonstrated by the collective responses to events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 1992 Los Angeles Justice Riots, Hurricane Katrina, the Boston marathon bombing, or, more recently, the Black Lives Matter protests. Since violence and mass media coalesce at the site of the traumatised body, wound culture involves “an endless switching between inside and outside, private fantasy and public reality” that destabilises the boundaries between the individual and the collective. [10]

Seltzer asserts that within this context serial killing functions as an identity crisis. In his opinion, the aetiology of the serial killer does not reside in an abusive childhood or prolonged exposure to violent images or pornography in a straightforward manner, even though these are familiar tropes within serial killer discourse. Instead, his homicidal persona is shaped through “primary mediation”, a process that involves a mimetic relation with technology and context. [11] Lacking an identity of his own, the serial killer is subject to his identifications: he is a figure who imitates. However, the serial killer’s excessive socialisation, his inseparability from the other, produces a problem of proximity that must be resolved. Identification is potentially murderous because it involves the replacement of that which is being emulated and absorbed. [12] “Chameleon-like, the serial killer copies and simulates others … predead, he plays dead and takes life”. [13] Thus, instead of internalising his aggression, the serial killer exteriorises it, thereby establishing his subjectivity through the annihilation of somebody else.

Primary mediation involves an intimate connection between subject and scene. The serial killer does not exhibit obvious signs of his monstrosity. Rather, he is “the monochrome man, he melts into place; the minus man”. [14] His propensity for imitation is so effective that he is absorbed into his environment. Since he lacks an identity that would be properly his own, he resembles everyone in general and no one in particular. In Se7en John Doe has been able to move around the city unnoticed for at least a year before the film commences. He poses as a photographer while harassing Mills, and when he surrenders he is ignored until he yells for attention, despite being covered in blood. The serial killer’s inconspicuousness is also apparent in his preference for using nondescript sites such as hotels and motels as killing grounds. It is in these “non-places” that copy ‘home’ that the killer begins to locate his self-ness. [15]

The equivalency of spaces is part of a broader pattern of exchange in serial killer discourse. Seltzer contends that serial killing often entails the conflation of identity, corporeality, technology, environment, and violence. The dissolution of these boundaries parallels the collapse of the public/private and inside/outside distinctions found in wound culture. As part of this process, subjectivity is intermingled with and exchanged for information and textuality. Consequently, his identity is inextricably linked to “Writing, dictation, typing, shorthand, communication technologies, the data stream, pulp fiction and the true crime genre, the mass media and mediatronic intimacy”. [16] The serial killer’s affinity for technologies of representation is evident in John Doe’s notebooks, as well as the title sequences of films such as Red Dragon and Taking Lives.

If the serial killer seems remarkably typical, it is because he experiences his identity as a type of person: the ‘serial killer’. The serial killer “internalizes the public (popular and journalistic) and expert (criminological and psychological) definitions of his kind of person”. [17] The discourse of serial killing “consistently blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction and elides the differences between historic serial killers and fictional ones. [18] Fictional and ‘true crime’ accounts often inform each other. The term ‘serial killing’, which refers to crimes committed in a series, was derived from Saturday afternoon movie serials. The FBI’s violent offender profile template was shaped partly by detective novels. The author Thomas Harris, a pivotal figure in the subgenre, based characters and events in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs on real life FBI agents like John Douglas and cases such as Ed Gein. [19] The critical and creative frameworks associated with serial killing create and sustain a feedback loop in which the killer establishes or locates ‘his’ identity. [20] In Se7en John Doe is defined by and becomes indistinguishable from his personal reading list.

The eradication of boundaries and interchangeability of subjectivity and context in serial killing is also facilitated by a proclivity for analogy in fictional and true crime accounts. The terms used to describe information and media technologies are compared to, and comingled with, those applicable to corporeality. Seltzer argues, “Bodies, identities, and information are drawn into an absolute and violent proximity”. [21] The serial killer stages his ‘becoming’ in this fecund metonymic web by literalising the metaphors he incorporates. In this respect, serial killing is an example of magical thinking in which thoughts become actions. In Se7en John Doe’s sermons on moral degradation are written on the bodies of his victims.

Later Title Sequences
There are several connections between the title sequence of Se7en and those of Red Dragon, Sanctimony, Taking Lives, Whitechapel and The Bone Collector. There are a number of stylistic similarities. Sanctimony, Taking Lives and Whitechapel all have credits look as if they were created using a typewriter. The credits in Taking Lives and Whitechapel are shaky and those in the latter have a ghosted quality that resembles the streaky images in Se7en. There is an analogue of this streaking in The Bone Collector, which contains numerous coloured bars moving across the screen. These are linked eventually to the city lights of Manhattan where the film takes place. The echoes of past events and locations are pivotal to the narrative. Sanctuary, Taking Lives and Whitechapel also use flash framing; indeed, the flickering lighting employed throughout Whitechapel’s titles gives the impression that the sequence has been hand cranked. Each of the five sequences uses tight framings to emphasise things such as newspapers, scrapbooks, forensic accounts, crime scene reports, or weapons. Like Se7en, Sanctimony, Taking Lives, and Whitechapel all use a rapid cutting rate that make the sequences difficult to follow or fully comprehend on a first viewing.

These title sequences draw our attention to their texture. The Bone Collector, Sanctimony and Taking Lives all utilise layering or superimpositions. In the latter, the juxtaposition of these images provides a sense that Illeana is looking through them in order to see a pattern in what hitherto have been regarded as unrelated homicides. The first season of Whitechapel concerns a serial killer who tries to reproduce Jack the Ripper’s murders. Photographs of the Ripper’s victims and newspaper accounts of his crimes have been torn into fragments in the credits. Similarly, in Sanctimony some of the newspaper cuttings about the Monkey Maker killer are torn, frayed or brown, which points to their age and materiality. In Taking Lives, Illeana scans through microfiche copies of newspaper accounts of the murders committed across Canada over several years by Costa (Ethan Hawke), as well as crime scene reports and dental x-rays. The microfiche acetate has a grainy look that recalls the markings on the black film strip in Se7en. It also deploys colour filters to saturate the screen in a manner reminiscent of John Doe developing photographs. Finally, there are some sonic parallels with Se7en. As Illeana moves slides around, the microfiche reader creates a jarring noise that clearly evokes ‘Closer’. Sanctimony’s title sequence uses a thudding fast tempo dance beat that matches the editing rhythms and gestures ahead to the underground club scene that features in the narrative.

The later title sequences are often filled with objects that create a sense of clutter. The challenge of perceiving everything on screen is exacerbated by movement, either through camerawork or within the frame. The jittery quality of Se7en’s credits, the use of superimpositions, tracking shots, and Doe’s actions combine to create a kinetic effect. Red Dragon employs a roving camera to shift between newspaper cuttings covering Hannibal Lecter’s (Anthony Hopkins) arrest and trial. In Sanctimony, newspaper headlines and pieces of paper rotate on screen as if floating in water. The texts Illeana examines in Taking Lives move upwards and sideways as she changes slides. This footage is intercut with shots of Costa transforming his appearance, including a shot that rotates about 270 degrees as he inserts a contact lens. While the array of material in these sequences provides important narrative information, its elusiveness encourages detection. Burt suggests that the “invisible writing” on the Kodalith footage in Se7en “is apparently addressed to the DVD viewer”. [22] The visual strategies of the later title sequences incite multiple viewings that deepen the spectator’s fascination.

Primary Mediation II
The title sequence of Se7en gestures to the ways in which the film can be interpreted in terms of Seltzer’s concept of primary mediation. The Bone Collector, Red Dragon, Sanctimony, Taking Lives and Whitechapel operate in a similar fashion. Each of the title sequences that borrow from Se7en engages explicitly with textuality and therefore media technologies. All of them use newspaper coverage to convey important story information. The most obvious example occurs in Red Dragon. Like Se7en, the title sequence begins several minutes into the film after Hannibal Lecter stabs FBI investigator Will Graham (Edward Norton). The sequence functions as a montage by displaying footage of a scrapbook that incorporates articles on Hannibal Lecter’s gruesome murders and trial as well as Graham’s injuries and subsequent retirement. The scrapbook, which we learn subsequently has been compiled by the Tooth Fairy killer Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), clearly refers to John Doe’s journals because, in addition to press clippings, it contains handwritten sections, a Biblical passage, and a photograph of a man whose eyes have been scratched away. The sequence thus gestures to Lecter’s celebrity status and its link to true crime discourse within the context of the film, since most of the articles appear to be from The Tatler, a tabloid publication that provides Dolarhyde and Lecter with the means to communicate surreptitiously through the personal columns.

The title sequence of The Bone Collector does something similar, but the public figure is the film’s protagonist, the author and quadriplegic police officer Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington). It also foreshadows the device by which the killer Richard Thompson/Marcus Andrews (Leland Orser) taunts Rhyme. The sequence mixes shots of books written by Rhyme, drawings taken from a book called The Bone Collector, some newspaper articles apparently being read on microfiche, and an old map of Manhattan. A close up of the blurb of Rhyme’s book The Scene of the Crime proclaims his expertise in forensic science, as well as his ability to immerse his readers in his casework. It also points to both Thompson’s motive and the narrative emphasis on absorption into place. As the news cutting reveals, Andrews had planted evidence in six murder cases while working as a police forensic technician. Rhyme’s testimony helped to convict him at his subsequent trial. After his release from prison, Andrews reinvented himself as Thompson and became a medical orderly to get close to Rhyme, seeking revenge for the sexual abuse he suffered while incarcerated. When the camera tilts up to show Rhyme’s other book Death Hunter: Crimes of Old New York, Leland Orser’s name appears. This links the serial killer to textuality. Thompson stages his crime scenes to resemble images and scenarios from the book The Bone Collector, leaving tiny scraps of paper that form an old publisher’s logo behind at each crime scene as a clue.

The Bone Collector and Whitechapel develop an intimate connection between the serial killer antagonist and the urban environments in which the film is set. The title sequence of Whitechapel includes shots of a man dressed in black walking through narrow streets, alleys, and an underground passage. This footage is intercut with historical accounts of Jack the Ripper’s crimes and shots of somebody wiping blood from a long knife. These shots, which are frequently repeated in the series as montage transitions, presage the project of Dr David Cohen (Paul Hickey) to replicate the Ripper slayings exactly 120 years later. This involves using the original murder locations in the Whitechapel (or the nearest adjacent site, since most of the 19th century streets and lanes no longer exist). Consequently, the narrative emphasises these places: the police visit and conduct surveillance at these crime scenes, and they are assisted by a “Ripperologist”, Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton), who conducts nightly walking tours of the original murder sites for fee-paying tourists. Yet despite the police presence and Buchan’s knowledge, Cohen is able to commit murders without being noticed. His capacity to evade observation seems to endow him with an unnatural quality that enables him to merge into his surroundings at will. As the gruff, pragmatic Detective Sergeant Ray Miles (Phil Davis) says at one point, “He ain’t human”.

Richard Thompson’s identity as “The Bone Collector” (he removes a piece of bone from his victims) is also closely aligned with the environment in which his murders occur. This is alluded to in the title sequence through the shots of an old map of Manhattan and drawings from the novel. He kidnaps his victims by posing as a taxi driver, which points to his geographical knowledge. The crimes are set in locations such as a subway track, an underground steam junction, and a former slaughterhouse. Since these sites are associated with a century old publication, Thompson also leaves clues such as oyster shells, asbestos and an iron bolt along with the scraps of paper at the crime scenes to provide hints about where the next victim might be found. These items require forensic dissection and analysis, thus piquing the curiosity, and justifying the participation, of the author of books on crime scenes and old New York murder cases. A clue at the final crime scene leads Amelia to a nearby abandoned subway station, where she finds an old train carriage with Rhyme’s police badge number on it, thereby disclosing Thompson’s true target. This enables the film to fold back on itself spatially as it climaxes in Rhyme’s apartment, where the forensic analysis of the clues has occurred, as Thompson reveals his motive for the crimes as he tries to murder Rhyme.

John Doe’s persona is formulated through his consumption of (or assumption into) books on religion and criminology. In addition to The Bone Collector, Whitechapel, Red Dragon, Sanctimony and Taking Lives are all connected to the discourse of serial killing. The prolific literature on Jack the Ripper becomes a significant element of Whitechapel. The detectives on the case conduct research on the original killings by reading various books. However, as Buchan points out, since there are numerous suspects for the 1888 murders, it is necessary to focus on one in order catch the contemporary murderer. His obsession with Jack the Ripper eventually makes him a suspect. Miles describes Buchan’s basement study, which is filled with Ripper case materials, as a “killer’s lair”. Indeed, it is precisely Buchan’s expert knowledge and interpretation of the Whitechapel murders that provide a model for Cohen’s crimes. Unbeknownst to Buchan, he has been corresponding online with Cohen, giving the latter gruesome and highly specific details of the wounds suffered by the original victims. It is also Buchan’s version of history that prevails in relation to the “double event”, when Jack the Ripper purportedly killed Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes in one night. Buchan theorises that the Ripper had only killed Eddowes. Cohen follows this interpretation by killing one woman, and dumping her body at Mitre Square, the site of Eddowes’ death and the only original crime scene still in existence, despite a large crowd in attendance. This is only possible because Buchan is mistaken for the murderer, and the ensuing commotion creates a major distraction that enables Cohen to position his victim and escape unnoticed.

Red Dragon can be situated in relation to the Hannibal Lecter franchise. Ted Tally wrote the screenplay; he also wrote The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991). The cinematographer was Dante Spinotti, who gave Manhunter such a distinctive look. Anthony Heald and Frankie Faison reprise their roles as Dr Chilton and Barney respectively from Demme’s film. The emphasis on conveying story information through the use of newspapers in Red Dragon’s title sequence points to the film’s literary origins. It is arguably a more faithful adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel than Manhunter because it incorporates more of Harris’ source material, particularly in relation to Dolarhyde. It includes an episode where Dolarhyde eats William Blake’s drawing “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun”. While Manhunter ends with a confrontation between the police and Dolarhyde in St Louis, in Red Dragon Dolarhyde fakes his own death, burns down his house, and is killed after attacking the Graham family at their home in Florida. Red Dragon also alters the dynamic between Graham and Lecter so that Lecter features more prominently in the remake while Graham is less assured than in Manhunter. Consequently, their relationship is closer to the master/pupil dynamic that Lecter has with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991). This is reinforced by the end of Red Dragon, which finishes with Lecter being told of Starling’s impending visit, thereby pointing to his role as the psychiatric master (and the continuation of the franchise) as the conclusion loops back to the beginning of its cinematic predecessor and temporal successor. Given Spinotti’s involvement, it is perhaps not surprising that Red Dragon acknowledges Manhunter visually. When Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), Graham’s former FBI boss, visits Will in Florida to ask for his assistance on the Tooth Fairy case, the composition recalls a similar sequence in Manhunter. Later in Red Dragon when Will visits the Leeds murder site, the blue hues in sequence are another gesture to Mann’s film.

Sanctimony is marked by its pastiche of other serial killing films. The Monkey Maker killer Tom Gerrick (Casper van Dien) is a wealthy man working in the financial sector. Arrogant, smug and misogynistic, he resembles Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000). The term “sanctimony” is defined on screen at the end of the title sequence in religious terms, which links the Monkey Maker murders to those of John Doe. The way the newspaper cuttings rotate in the title sequence is similar to the way that Lincoln Rhyme uses his computer to manipulate the scraps of old paper left by the bone collector. Gerrick visits a nightclub that has a downstairs area where people engage in taboo sexual activities (and where a simulated snuff movie has been shot). This setting resembles the sequence in Se7en in an adult theatre and underground brothel where a man is forced to rape a prostitute to death while wear a strap-on dildo shaped like a hunting knife. The film employs colour filters in several sequences, which can be interpreted as a reference to Manhunter. As the police close in on him, Gerrick goes on a public killing spree. This includes shooting somebody on a television talk show in a scene that might have been borrowed from Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994).

Taking Lives and Whitechapel both draw specifically on the figure of John Doe in Se7en. In Taking Lives Costa murders a man every few years in order to steal his identity. This requires him to alter his appearance and take on the habits, lifestyles and careers of his victims. The credit sequence depicts the procedures he undertakes with each transformation. We see him inserting contact lenses, cutting and dyeing his hair, shaving body hair (including his knuckles), putting in a dental bridge, and, in a reference to Se7en, sanding his fingertips. The shots of the dental bridge and fingertips are intercut with those of Illeana looking at dental x-rays and fingerprints. The inference is that Costa, like Doe, is aware of police procedures and takes steps to prevent leaving forensic traces. As with Doe, he eradicates his own identity in order to reconstitute it through serial homicide.

In Whitechapel the killer who seeks to emulate Jack the Ripper is a hospital doctor that the police encounter on several occasions. His actual identity remains unknown, even after his death. Instead, he uses the name David Cohen, which, as Detective Inspector Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) observes, was a pseudonym for Jewish John Does in late Victorian England. Cohen’s dark, cluttered flat has similarities to Doe’s apartment. The police find a number of disguises that allowed Cohen to move around inner city London unnoticed as Doe does in Se7en. Just before he attacks the woman he intends to be his equivalent of Mary Kelly, the Ripper’s final victim and most brutal killing, Cohen removes his false beard, eyebrows and teeth. Consequently, his head looks like a death mask, but there is also more than a passing resemblance between Hickey’s features and Kevin Spacey’s appearance in Se7en. Like Doe, Cohen chooses death rather than capture. He commits suicide in order to protect both his personal anonymity and the prospect of enduring infamy stemming from his monstrous project.

Identity Theft
The influence of Se7en’s title sequence on The Bone Collector, Red Dragon, Sanctimony, Taking Lives and Whitechapel appears to confirm Simpson’s arguments that the serial killer text is derivative, and that the subgenre has a tendency to reproduce virally. [23] Interestingly, this occurs in an essay about Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995). As the film’s title suggests, Copycat involves a criminal who imitates the modus operandi of another offender. The serial killer Peter Foley (William McNamara) taunts the police by murdering victims according to the templates provided by real life killers The Boston Strangler, The Hillside Strangler, Son of Sam, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. There are obvious similarities between this scenario and that of The Bone Collector and the first season of Whitechapel. Foley’s pattern is discerned by the psychologist Dr Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) who claims at one point during the investigation, “These guys are like viruses”. If the serial killer subgenre replicates itself virally, then Copycat, as well as Se7en, is a prominent component of the genetic code of Whitechapel and The Bone Collector, just as elements of Thomas Harris’s novels and the film versions of Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs are reproduced in Red Dragon.

Just as Se7en is not the only major influence on the texts that have been discussed here, it is important to acknowledge that its title sequence was inspired by earlier material. While it is beyond the scope of this article to identify all of its sources, one important antecedent is Mark Romanek’s 1994 music video for Nine Inch Nails’ single ‘Closer’. The video contains a number of elements that are used in the credits for Se7en, such as flickering lighting, objects moving quickly within the frame, shots of film leader and scratches on the ‘print’. In an article about creative plagiarism within music videos, Maria Demopolous argues that Romanek’s work can be interpreted as “an animated meltdown of the photographs of Joe-Peter Witkin”. [24] Other inspirations for the ‘Closer’ video might include Francis Bacon, the Brothers Quay and Stan Brakhage. (And the recording of ‘Closer’ also includes a drum sample from Iggy Pop’s song ‘Nightclubbing’.) These sorts of intertextual practices are widespread within contemporary culture. Se7en, like the texts that draw on it, borrows from a range of influences.

Despite its intertextual (or “derivative”) qualities, there is also something undeniably fresh, distinctive or individual about the opening titles of Se7en. How, then, can the transmission of this not quite (an) origin-al identity, the manner in which it is circulated and repeated, be interpreted? Seltzer categorises primary mediation as a viral or infectious process. The identifications with place, media technologies, and crime discourse that constitute the serial killer’s identity happen through “imitation, simulation and identity-contagion”. [25] The serial killer’s identity eventually becomes the murders he commits. In the serial killer film and television series, these crimes often form a pattern that is labelled the killer’s signature. While John Doe kills people in different ways in Se7en, his murders are a carefully designed and implemented tirade. His signature is evident in and performed through the form and content of the title sequence. The opening credit sequence of Se7en functions to sign the text individually and collectively in a familiar manner. [26] However, it can also be read as the film’s (artistic) signature, the thing that distinguishes it or makes it exceptional. [27]

There is a parallel between replication of the credit sequence and the lethal repetition (to borrow Richard Dyer’s phrase) of the serial killer’s signature. Both are somehow singular, yet collective, unique, yet repeated. Each entails a claim to identity that conceals or extinguishes the identities of others. [28] Jacques Derrida contends that in order “to be readable” the “signature must have a repeatable, iterable, imitable form”. [29] Thus, the signature entails the possibility of quotation and repetition. While it denotes a specific presence, it functions in and highlights the author’s absence, thereby becoming different to itself. What creates the distinctiveness and influence of the title sequence of Se7en is its citationality. It is the loss, theft, or multiplicity of that which is was never truly unique that makes it singular, yet imitative.

Let me conclude playfully by citing an example of this creative plagiarism: Kyle Cooper’s title sequence for Mimic (Guillermo del Toro, 1997). Although it is not a serial killer film, Mimic explores imitation, replication and death: supposedly sterile, insects that have been genetically modified to prevent transmission of a deadly virus subsequently develop the capacity to reproduce and emulate other creatures, including people, whom they devour. The opening credits include several techniques used in Se7en: flickering light, extreme close ups (of insect specimens pinned to a board), shots of photographs and written texts, rapid movement in the frame, fast cutting, and layered imagery. By copying and varying his previous work, Cooper shows in Mimic that the title sequence forms a signature that simultaneously indicates that mimetic “identification is itself an act of serial killing” [30] and supports Helen Hudson’s claim in Copycat about serial killers: “There’s always some new mutation”.

[1] See Robert Cettl, Serial Killer Cinema: An Analytical Filmography with an Introduction, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2007) and Richard Dyer, Lethal Repetition: Serial Killing in European Cinema (London, BFI, 2015).
[2] Philip L. Simpson, “Copycat, Serial Murder, and the (De) Terministic Screen Narrative”, The Terministic Screen: Rhetorical Perspectives on Film, edited by David Blakesley (Carbondale and Edwardsville: University of Southern Illinois Press, 2003), p. 146.
[3] For an overview of Cooper’s work, see Andrea Codrington, Kyle Cooper (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2003).
[4] Richard Burt contends that the two library sequences in the film create a paratextual relay between the title sequence and the exploration of Doe’s apartment. See Burt, Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 40-45.
[5] Steffen Hantke claims that, following the conventions of detective fiction, Doe and Somerset contribute to a shared narrative, but ultimately Doe’s version prevails. See Hantke, “Authorship in Serial Killer Narratives: David Fincher’s Se7en”, Sun Yat-Sen Journal of Humanities, 12 (April 2001), pp. 78-79.
[6] Jean-Luc Godard claims that, “‘Cooper’s titles for Se7en transformed the written word into a performer. Cooper brought a new sensibility into the language of cinema – a taste for subtly deranged typographic details over large-scale special effects’” quoted in Jon Kasner, Motion Graphic Design: Applied History and Aesthetics (Burlington, Mass: Focal Press, 2013), p. 23.
[7] Kyle Cooper, “Exploration of the Title Sequence”, Commentary, Se7en: DVD Deluxe Special Edition. New Line Cinema, 2000.
[8] See Eleftheria Thanouli “Postclassical Narration: A New Paradigm in Contemporary Cinema”, New Review of Film and Television Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2006), p. 193. While the sequence may be post-classical, the remainder of Se7en is fairly classical.
[9] Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (Routledge: New York, 1998), pp. 6, 1.
[10] Seltzer, p. 267.
[11] Seltzer, p. 43, emphasis in the original. Seltzer’s concept of primary mediation is based on Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s analysis of Freud’s difficulties with the concept of primary identification. See Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, Trans. Catherine Porter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).
[12] “To identity with the object is to put oneself in its or place or place it within oneself, to kill it and live off its death.” Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, p. 181.
[13] Seltzer, p. 20.
[14] Seltzer, p. 20.
[15] See Seltzer, p. 47. The term ‘non-place’ is drawn from Marc Auge’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super Modernity, Trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 2009).
[16] Seltzer, p. 5.
[17] Seltzer, p. 107.
[18] Philip L. Simpson, “Copycat”, pp. 146-147.
[19] See Philip L. Simpson, Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction (Carbondale and Edwardsville: University of Southern Illinois Press, 2000), pp. 70-73.
[20] The opening credit sequence of the new Netflix series Mindhunter(Joe Penhall, 2017) literalizes this looping effect through shots of somebody setting up a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The program, which is based on the early work of John Douglas and Robert Ressler, involves FBI agents interviewing incarcerated serial killers for research purposes.
[21] Seltzer, p. 16.
[22] Burt, p. 46.
[23] Simpson, “Copycat”, p. 146.
[24] Maria Demopolous, “Plagiarism”, Film Comment, Vol. 32, no. 3 (1996), p. 33.
[25] Seltzer, p. 43.
[26] For more on the different functions of the title sequence, see George Stanitzek, “Reading the Title Sequence (Vorspann, Générique)”, Cinema Journal, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Summer 2009), pp. 44-58.
[27] One reason for this, of course, is its experimental qualities. As Stanitzek points out, “That which seems too risky – whether too far ahead of its time or too old-fashioned – for ready-made or mainstream movies is reserved for their title sequence”. See Stanitzek, p. 50.
[28] The opening title sequence of Se7en necessarily omits a large number of the people who worked on the film, including Kyle Cooper. In turn, attributing the authorship of the title sequence solely to Cooper overlooks the contributions to it of his collaborators.
[29] Jacques Derrida, “Signature, Event, Context”, Trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, Limited Inc (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1988). p. 20.
[30] Diana Fuss, Identification Papers: Readings on Psychoanalysis, Sexuality, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 93.

About the Author

Tim Groves

About the Author

Tim Groves

Dr Tim Groves is Senior Lecturer in Film at Victoria University of Wellington. His research interests include horror and serial killer films, and post-classical film aesthetics.View all posts by Tim Groves →