Serial killers

Serial Killers: Society’s Strange Addiction

TW: Murder, physical and sexual abuse 

Serial killers have attained celebrity status in society. Dropping the name of a well-known killer in a news headline is a sure-fire way to generate clicks. In a study by Wiest (2019), it was found that many news articles include the names of serial killers irrelevant to the murders being reported. This is either as a means of comparison or simply for their notoriety.

Prey for the media

Even fictional serial killers are referenced (Wiest, 2019, 336). To cultivate further interest, headlines are embellished with memorable nicknames such as ‘Acid Bath Murderer’, ‘The Berlin Butcher’ and ‘Zodiac Killer’, which submerge real-life killers in fantasy and myth. 

Our morbid curiosity is preyed upon by a formidable number of films, books, TV series, documentaries, podcasts, and even fan pages about serial killers. An unsettling culture has developed where this content can be consumed as entertainment or a way to pass time, which puts society at risk of becoming desensitised. In many instances, the tragic stories of victims are sensationalised to make a profit, further warping our sense of reality. Dramatic music, sound effects, long moments of suspense, and theatrical visualisations are used to intensify entertainment value. 

The commercialisation of serial killers is deeply disturbing. Despite only briefly mentioning how John Wayne Gacy held a part-time job as a clown in children’s hospitals, the cover of Netflix’s The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (2022) is a forbidding picture of Gacy’s face as half clown, half-human. The intention is evident. The clown is a notoriously profitable image that benefits from the hysteria created by horror movies like IT and the 2016 clown sighting craze.

The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019) of the same franchise is advertised with a snippet in which a voice says, “He didn’t look like anybody’s notion of somebody who would tear apart young girls”, and the first episode is titled ‘Handsome Devil’. This immediately presents Ted Bundy as a sex symbol, luring viewers on account of his misleadingly attractive appearance in the same way that Bundy lured in his unsuspecting victims. 

Within cinematic contexts, serial killers have become cultural icons monetised as dress-up costumes. Highly stylised and sensationalised characters like Hannibal Lecter, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Patrick Bateman, Leather Face, and countless others distort our perception of real-life killers. Since they are often presented as deeply disturbed or flawed characters, we are induced to develop an interest in the psychology and personal lives of real killers.

Violence is also eroticised through the casting of attractive actors as brutal murderers, such as Disney channel heart-throb Ross Lynch as Jeffrey Dahmer in My Friend Dahmer (2017) and Pen Badgley as the fictional Joe Goldberg in You (2018). Whilst Ted Bundy was perceived by many as handsome and charming, in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), it is hard to view him negatively when he is played by High School Musical star Zac Efron as the film centres around the romance between Bundy and his girlfriend.

In NBC’s Hannibal (2013), the romance between Hannibal (Mads Mikkelson) and criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) has resulted in the creation of numerous fan accounts dedicated to sexualising these characters, particularly when battered and bloodied. Instead of being repelled, we are enthralled.

Serial Killers: The Myth Unmasked

The stereotype that serial killers are white males is a myth. Between 1990 and 2016 a minority of 32.8% of serial killers were white males in the US (a country with 65.78% of the world’s serial killers) (Aamodt, 2016). It is widely acknowledged that the FBI demonstrate a racial bias in failing to profile serial killers of different ethnic backgrounds (S. Hodgkinson, H. Prins, J. Stuart-Benn, 2017, 286).

This also manifests in the framing of serial killers by the media. Whilst black and POC killers are automatically seen through a brutal and dehumanising lens due to institutionalised racism, white serial killers largely escape this. They are idealised as twisted expressions of masculinity, white supremacy, and patriarchal aggression as dangerous mythical beings who prey on white women and eradicate dirty prostitutes.

As recently as 1998, Roy Hazelwood of the FBI reportedly stated, “There are no female serial killers” (Telfer, 2017). However, 11.4% of recorded worldwide serial killers were women within the last century (Aamodt, 2016). Female serial killers may not evoke so much media attention because they tend to be deathly discreet, typically using poison as their weapon of choice (Schurman-Kauflin 2000, 17 & 51). However, one female serial killer did secure press coverage.

Aileen Wuronos was sensationalised as America’s so-called ‘first female serial killer’ in the 1990s, achieving notoriety for being a lesbian prostitute who claimed to have killed aggressive clients out of self-protection. Wuornos’ controversial case fed into the stigma that homosexuals were threats to social stability and sparked debates surrounding instances where sexual harassment, rape, and domestic abuse could vindicate self-defence (Basilio 1996, 56). This reflects society’s unwillingness to acknowledge prostitutes as victims of rape and sexual violence. 

Inflating Egos

Serial murder causes a serious media frenzy. Media coverage tends to focus extensively on the killer, allowing the offender to bask in fame whilst the victims fade into obscurity. Not only is this deeply disrespectful to victims, but it is severely problematic considering that many killers are motivated by notoriety. 

If you wanna interest someone, let’s say, in — in the screenplay rights, the movie rights, film rights, news articles about me, the Rolling Stones stuff, the New Times stuff, the New York Times magazine. As a media event – to touch people throughout the country…

Bundy was immensely satisfied with the amount of attention he had received from the media; his use of a list accentuates his perceived level of fame. 

When it came to press coverage, serial killers Dennis Rader (BTK) and David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) called the shots. Rader communicated directly with the press and encouraged them to call him BTK: Bind, Torture, Kill, which they did. He also baited newspapers into reporting on him by sending them word search puzzles as well as detailed letters to the police (Catching Killers: “Blind. Torture. Kill: BTK”, 2022).

Similarly, Berkowitz sent letters to the press and after being detained, he was shockingly able to benefit financially from interviews and documentaries that he partook in (Irons 2021, 4). Society is playing directly into the hands of serial killers by gifting them with publicity. 

Love Kills

Infamy inspires fatal obsession. Notorious killers attract starstruck fans like moths to a deadly flame. Regarding the fanbase that Richard Ramirez (Night Stalker) garnered, journalist Zoey Tur remarked that “Fame generates attraction. It’s like the Hollywood Syndrome” (Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer. Manhunt: Ep. 4, 2021). 

When the life histories of killers come to light, we can find ourselves stuck in a snare of sympathy. Past abuse, trauma, and mental health battles serve to humanise murderers and separate them from their horrific actions. Notably, the Columbine school shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are idolised and romanticised on Tumblr. This is predominantly because people sympathise with the fact that they were bullied. If personal information about the lives, appearance, and motives of serial killers were not so publicised, it is hard to imagine a way in which they would generate such an appeal. 

Serial Killers - Columbine School Shooters
FILE – In this file photo combination released by Columbine High School shows 1998 yearbook photos of students Eric Harris, left, and Dylan Klebold, who killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives in what remains the deadliest school attack in U.S. history. Classes are canceled Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at Columbine High School on the anniversary of the 1999 shootings. Twelve students and a teacher died in the shootings before two teenage gunmen committed suicide. (AP Photo/Columbine High School, File) NO SALES

Sexual fantasies and romantic delusions can ensue when physical attraction makes it difficult to connect a serial killer’s actions to their appearance. Infamous killers such as Richard Ramirez and Ted Bundy had fans attending their trials and sending them love letters and suggestive photos. They are even still sexualised by fan sites and social media accounts today, along with countless other killers. This disturbing behaviour can be a recognised form of paraphilia, most common in women.

As of May 21, 2022, the American Psychology Association defines hybristophilia as the “sexual interest in and attraction to those who commit crimes”. Individuals may become immersed in sexual fantasies surrounding the idea that they will be the only one exempt from the killer’s wrath, or that they will be able to ‘tame’ or ‘improve’ them (Pitre, 2022).

The romanticisation of serial killers in the media only encourages such fantasies, as does the fact that many killers play the role of a seducer to lure their victims and win over the press. Sadly, hybristophiles have typically experienced physical or sexual abuse, which lowers their self-esteem and makes them vulnerable to violent people (Gurian 2013, 523-524). Therefore, their self-destructive attraction may stem from internalised misogyny inflicted by abuse. 

Whilst we can only speculate exactly why people become seriously attracted to murderers, such infatuation would certainly not develop if serial killers were not so publicised. We are smothered by the extensive media coverage that serial killers receive, which is numbing us to the depravity of their actions. We are devoured by our obsession with the idealised image of a killer, which is blinding us to the victims they have claimed. We are feeding the egos of society’s most dangerous people. In succumbing to our fascination, we are forgetting to fear.