Criminal Madness: Cultural Iconography and Insanity

55 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2009 Last revised: 16 Dec 2009

See all articles by Russell D. Covey

Russell D. Covey

Georgia State University College of Law

Date Written: July 8, 2009


Law relies on a well-developed and constantly evolving iconography to tell its stories. Like lawyers and judges, legal scholars typically rely upon official legal sources to flesh out the implicit meaning of the law’s language. But “official law,” with its stress on statutory language, legislative intent, and case precedent, is quite plainly an insufficient source for understanding the texture and nuance of legal language. To better understand law’s implicit meaning, readers of law need to mine unofficial as well as official sources of law. These unofficial sources often provide insight into, and occasionally substance for, law’s official meaning. Popular culture is one important source of legal meaning. In a myriad of ways, popular culture influences the making, interpretation, and application of law. By illuminating and contextualizing problems, creating certain types of narrative, or favoring some narrative constructions over others, popular culture frequently determines what kind of law is made.

My primary interest in this paper revolves around the iconography of crime, mental illness, and insanity. These concepts not only go to the heart of the legal understanding of human responsibility, they also have long provided an unending well of narratives to feed the human hunger for meaning-making stories. This Article attempts to trace the iconography of criminal madness in popular cinema and to link it with the law’s development over the same span. Part I provides some prefatory observations about the relation of film and culture to law. Part II explores the depiction of criminal madness in the 1930s, primarily through the monster movies of the era. Part III describes the growing embrace of psychological and psychiatric theories in midcentury cinema, which occurred precisely during a period in which the insanity defense was liberalized and constitutional checks on the state’s power to institutionalize mad criminals were recognized. Finally, Part IV examines dramatic post-1970s changes in cinematic portrayals of criminals, the criminal justice system, and mad criminals, and explores ways in which the new iconography of criminal madness contributed to a dramatic shrinkage of the rights of mentally ill offenders.

Keywords: Law and society, criminal law, law and film, insanity

Suggested Citation

Covey, Russell D., Criminal Madness: Cultural Iconography and Insanity (July 8, 2009). Stanford Law Review, Vol. 61, No. 6, 2009; Georgia State University College of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-17. Available at SSRN:

Russell D. Covey (Contact Author)

Georgia State University College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 4037
Atlanta, GA 30302-4037
United States
404-4413-9182 (Phone)
404-413-9225 (Fax)

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