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Special Issue Articles

Vol. 5 No. 2 (2024): Narrative, Environment, Social Justice

Violent Landscapes: James Benning's Landscape Suicide (1986)

May 17, 2023


While serial killings, murders, and other violent deaths are traumatic incidents for the communities in which they occur, they also attract a great deal of media attention and form the basis for numerous cinematic adaptations in US-American cinema and beyond. Many of these movies employ a sensationalist approach and focus on the social environments of the killings: the perpetrator's upbringing, triggering experiences, or a generally troubled personality. There are only a limited number of cinematic treatments of violent killings that focus on the natural environment or the landscapes where these incidents occurred.

This article is concerned with filmmakers using (cinematic) landscapes as a mode of cultural expression for violence and trauma. It seeks to show that James Benning's Landscape Suicide (1986) calls for a different understanding of landscape that goes beyond a mere setting for narrative, as it gives landscape active agency in its mediation of two seemingly unconnected murder cases. The film compares and juxtaposes the murder of Kirsten Costas by Bernadette Protti in a suburb of San Francisco in 1984 with the killings of Ed Gein in Plainfield, Wisconsin, in the 1950s. In doing so, the film presents viewers with two distinct functions of landscape in mediating violence and trauma: as a spatialization of time and as socio-political surroundings. Analyzing these aspects of the film helps us to better understand the link between landscape, violence, and trauma in cinematic treatments of violent incidents and also sheds light on the broader connection between landscape and trauma culture.


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