From Euripides to Shakespeare to Hitchcock, criminal madness has played a central role in the most popular and influential media of the day. This is, perhaps, not surprising. Not only is criminal madness an intrinsically powerful melodramatic plot device, it touches upon fundamental social and psychological issues central to cultural conceptions of justice, proper social organization, and the self. Criminal madness also has posed a hard problem for law, evidenced by the timeless controversy over the boundaries of criminal responsibility, the basic meaning of the insanity defense, and the broader problem of what to do with people whose mental, intellectual, or psychological attributes diminish their ability to abide by the law.
There is a vast literature tracing, debating, and analyzing the legal tests brought to bear by judges and juries to determine if a criminal defendant is legally insane and hence not responsible for his or her criminal conduct. Far less has been written, however, about the cultural iconography of criminal madness—that is, the array of images, narratives, and symbols that popular culture deploys to enable it to tell stories about the kinds of disturbances to the social order that result from "madness" (however that concept is defined). That omission deserves redress. One of the assumptions of this Article—and one shared by those working in the growing field of law and culture studies—is that the development and transformation of cultural iconography does not play out in a vacuum any more than the development and transformation of "law." Obviously, neither popular culture nor law would make any sense understood as a purely autonomous phenomenon. What is perhaps less obvious is the possibility that important insights about the law—specifically, the law of criminal madness—can be gleaned from the evolution of its cultural iconography. What follows is an effort to trace the iconography of criminal madness by reference to popular cinema and an attempt 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.