Serial killers! We’re interested! Why? I’ve been meaning to write this post for a little over a week now, but I’m a writer so … procrastination is part of the job. Luckily, I’ve got Dave here to keep me on track. Sometimes. Well, when he feels like being a productive member of society.
So, serial killers—a topic that never goes out of style. In fact, we tend to make celebrities of serial killers. You want proof? Look no further than the numerous podcasts, books, documentaries, and movies that discuss the lives and works of these murderous bastards.
In his 2017 article, Why Americans are so Fascinated with Serial Killers, David Schmid says:
Without wanting to minimize the difference between celebrating fictional and real-life serial killers, the impact of Silence [of the Lambs] demonstrates vividly the American obsession with serial murder, which by the 1990s had developed to a point where the serial killer had become a dominant presence in our popular culture, a figure that inspired not only fear and disgust, but also a mixture of fascination and even a twisted kind of identification.
Consider the fact that Charlize Theron played the homely Aileen Wuornos, that Jeremy Renner played Jeffrey Dahmer, that former teen heartthrob Zac Efron is set to play Ted Bundy. That attractive A-listers are playing such loathsome characters is a Hollywood gimmick to capitalize on people’s interest in serial killers. People tend to like—and are better able to sympathize with—attractive people. On top of that, we’re juxtaposing the character onto the actor and if we like the actor, that only makes us more receptive to sympathizing with the character—you know, the serial killer.
But, what sparks that initial interest? Why do we all recognize the names John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and H. H. Holmes, the noms de guerre Son of Sam, Jack the Ripper, and Boston Strangler? Why are these boogeymen so prominent in our culture?
Society’s interest in serial killers is not recent and, in fact, started well before the term ‘serial killer’ was coined. “When the crimes of H.H. Holmes […] came to light in 1894, it seemed that America had its very own version of Jack the Ripper. The fact that Hearst newspapers paid Holmes $10,000, an extraordinary sum at the time, for his confession testifies to the immense public interest in the case,” says Schmid. The mystery serial killers present forces us to ask our favorite question: Why?
This is a question media platforms were only too happy to answer. In his 2017 article, Our Curious Fascination with Serial Killers, Scott A. Bonn, Ph.D. explains, “Highly stylized and pervasive news media coverage of real-life serial killers and their horrible deeds transforms them into […] celebrity monsters.” Add in the fact that fictional serial killers are now just as pervasive in pop culture as actual serial killers and things start getting, dare I say, catawampus. “Exaggerated depictions of serial killers in the mass media have blurred fact and fiction. As a result, real-life killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional ones like Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter have become interchangeable in the minds of many people.”
This mingling of fact and fiction helps us distance ourselves from feeling threatened, as we can now place this larger-than-life monster in an entertainment context and forget that there’s around a dozen distinctly not-Hannibal-Lecter-type serial killers operating in the US at any given time. Much like going through a haunted house during Halloween, we can watch movies about serial killers and enjoy the thrill of fear, but ultimately that fear is removable, it’s distanced. It’s only entertainment.
One theory regarding our interest in serial killers is that the topic tickles our survival instinct. That instinct, when it comes to serial killers, revolves around that pesky question again: Why? According to Bonn:
The average person who has been socialized to respect life, and who also possesses the normal range of emotions such as love, shame, pity, and remorse cannot comprehend the workings of a pathological mind that would compel one to abduct, torture, rape, kill, engage in necrophilia, and occasionally even eat another human being. The incomprehensibility of such actions drives society to understand why serial killers do incredibly horrible things to other people who often are complete strangers. As such, serial killers appeal to the most basic and powerful instinct in all of us—that is, survival. The total disregard for life and the suffering of others exhibited by serial killers shocks our sense of humanity and makes us question our safety and security.
Another theory is that, well, we’re kind of morbid. In Andrew Hankinson’s article, This is Why We are All so Obsessed with Serial Killers, criminologist Elizabeth Yardley explains: “It’s that train wreck, car crash sort of thing, where you don’t want to look but you do anyway. It’s something we call ‘wound culture’. We’re drawn to the trauma and suffering of other people and there’s an awful lot of that around serial murder.”
The idea that we want to see something gruesome—as long as it involves someone else—can be repugnant, but the evidence is there to support it. There are myriad videos of beheadings, automobile accidents, extreme sports accidents, and websites like Documenting Reality. Just Googling a serial killer will pull up images of crime scenes and victims. Media, survival instinct, and wound culture may play roles in our interest in serial killers, but my own theory is that our interest strikes a little closer to home.
There but for a Head Injury go I
It’s estimated that about one percent of the general population suffers from psychopathy and four percent from sociopathy. Sounds small, but that’s over seven million people and over 300 million respectively, worldwide. That’s a lot of goddamn crazy. Not all psychopaths and sociopaths are violent and—specifically in the case of sociopaths—violent tendencies have a lot to do with upbringing. I don’t want to dwell on the nature vs nurture aspect—because Jesus Christ that would last a while—but many serial killers have the common thread of shitty, sad, abusive, and in some cases downright horrific childhoods. Another common thread? Head wounds.
An abusive childhood and a head injury … Things that could happen to anyone. We tend to see these commonalities and dismiss the neurochemical or neurophysiological aspects of psychopathy and sociopathy. According to Bonn, “The serial killer represents a lurid, complex and compelling presence on the social landscape. There appears to be an innate human tendency to identify or empathize with all things—whether good or bad—including serial killers.” The more similar we are to an individual—whether real or perceived similarities—the easier empathy becomes.
This empathy leads us to question our own capabilities. Professor Alexandra Warwick states: “Being interested in why other people do things is always being interested in what we’re like ourselves. The projection onto others and the consideration of what that is, it’s absolutely about what we’re like. Are we capable of those things?” There’s something about tapping those dark thoughts that’s enticing. Everyone gets angry at one point or another and many people have reached the point of rage. For the most part, we shake it off and move on. But what if we didn’t? What if we couldn’t?
Our interest in serial killers is a mirror of our interest in our own darkness. “Could I murder someone?” “Do I have what it takes?” “Are my own morals keeping me from this behavior or is it the law?” “Could whatever drove that other person to murder also drive me to murder?” They are questions you don’t want ask out loud, and yet it’s a curiosity that bubbles up. “Arguably, the serial killer identity is a mirror reflection of society itself,” says Bonn. “As such, there are things the rest of us can learn about ourselves from the serial killer if we look beyond the superficial ‘monster’ image depicted in the mass media.”
Since the question “why?” isn’t likely to be answered anytime soon, society’s interest in serial killers probably won’t be on the wane for quite a while.