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When Murderers Become Memes

by Madison Wheatley about a year ago in investigation
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Looking back on 2020's disturbing trend of "murderer fandoms."

A TikTok user imitates Isabella Guzman's courtroom behavior. (YouTube)

Let’s face it: It’s hard not to love a good villain. From Hannibal Lecter to Dexter Morgan, murderers and serial killers have captured the attention of people throughout centuries. True crime enthusiasts are fascinated by the minds of some of the most heinous criminals in history; it’s only human to want to get a peek into the man or woman behind the monster.

But what happens when fascination with killers turns into fetishization, and what role does social media play in this phenomenon?

2020 saw the rise of some notable fandoms surrounding alleged murderers and serial killers. While this trend was definitely disturbing, it was far from the first time a killer attracted an adoring following, and it probably won’t be the last. It spoke volumes about how many have become desensitized to violence—especially when it is committed by people we find conventionally attractive.

"Sweet But Psycho"

One person who went viral in 2020 due to her crime was Colorado woman Isabella Guzman. In 2013, 18-year-old Guzman allegedly stabbed her mother Yun Mi Hoy 79 times, killing her. Despite this, Guzman was found not guilty. In a 2020 interview, the woman revealed that her mother had been abusive toward her in the years leading up to the incident. This, in combination with Guzman's schizophrenia, seems to have led to this grisly outcome.

Enter TikTok.

In 2020, a video telling Guzman's story began to circulate on the app. This viral video contained footage of Guzman's trial, in which Guzman makes faces at the camera, pointing to both of her eyes. This resulted in a TikTok challenge, where users would imitate Guzman's gestures and facial expressions while songs like "Sweet But Psycho" by Ava Max or "Criminal" by Britney Spears played in the background.

These videos often emphasized Guzman's physical appearance, with users questioning how such a "beautiful girl" could commit such a horrific crime. Guzman was dubbed the "Sweet But Psycho Killer," a reference to the Ava Max song used in most of her videos. Just like that, the true story of a woman whose trauma and severe mental health issues led her to commit a violent crime became an Internet meme.

"In Love With a Criminal"

Isabella Guzman is far from the first example of a murderer gaining a following due to her perceived attractiveness. During Ted Bundy's trials, the courtrooms were often packed with adoring female fans. Jeffery Dahmer is said to have received love letters and gifts during his imprisonment. Years later, the Bundy and Dahmer fandoms still exist. True crime communities on Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok have found themselves inundated with Bundy and Dahmer "stans," along with fans of killers like Charles Manson, Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof, and the Columbine shooters. Members of these fandoms express their devotion through art, fanfiction, and memes.

A post from the True Crime Community tag on Tumblr. (Source: Tumblr.)

There is a common denominator connecting many of the murderers who have garnered a fandom: perceived physical attractiveness. In 2020, 23-year-old UConn student Peter Manfredonia was suspected of murdering two people. When this came to light, Manfredonia's Instagram account was flooded with thirst comments, some genuine and some making light of the situation. TikTok and Instagram users expressed their love for Manfredonia, with some even offering to be his next victim.

Left: Peter Manfredonia (Source: ABC News). Right: Comments on Peter Manfredonia's Instagram account (Source: Twitter).

Manfredoia's Instagram account was soon deleted, and following his arrest, many of the fan accounts died down. Still, the bizarre fandom surrounding Manfredonia and his alleged crimes is an example of mass desensitization to violence. Whether Manfredonia's "stans" were genuine or ironic, the result is the same: Two people were murdered, and the alleged perpetrator was showered in praise. All because people found him sexually attractive.

"Too Beautiful"

With some true crime cases, life seems to reflect art; people might look at a real crime and find parallels between it and the fiction they consume. Such is the case of Yuka Takaoka, the 21-year-old Japanese woman who attempted to murder her boyfriend and was dubbed the "too beautiful murder suspect" by users of social media. In May 2019, Takaoka stabbed her boyfriend, a 20-year-old bar host. Takaoka was arrested, and soon crime scene photos were released online, which showed Takaoka smiling at the camera or calmly smoking a cigarette while soaked in the victim's blood.

Left: Yuka Takaoka smiling in the back of a police car (Source: Tokyo Reporter). Right: Takaoka smokes a cigarette while being interviewed by police. (Source: The Mirror).

Soon after these images were released, social media users began to draw parallels between the Takaoka incident and the "yandere" trope. In anime, a yandere is a beautiful woman whose obsession with a man leads her to commit gruesome, violent actions. Takaoka was soon declared a "real-life yandere"; social media sites were soon flooded with anime-style fanart and cosplays idolizing Takaoka and her grisly crime.

Fortunately, Takaoka's victim survived the attack and, in fact, "holds no grudge" toward Takaoka. Still, his life will be forever changed due to Takaoka's actions, and yet people on the Internet responded by idolizing her.

The Bigger Picture

Of course, when looking at these and other examples of killers who garner an online following, one could easily say that these people are simply "trolling." Indeed, the Internet is no stranger to dark, edgy humor, and it's easy to imagine that many of the comments and posts surrounding people like Guzman, Manfredonia, and Takaoka could have been ironic.

On the other hand, when one considers the historical accounts of how people gravitated to Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer, despite—or even because of—their horrific crimes, it seems unlikely that none of the participants in this trend held genuine affection for these alleged murderers and attempted murderers. Hybristophilia is a very real psychological phenomenon, and it is likely that some hybristophiliacs gravitated to Guzman, Manfredonia, and Takaoka due to this mental condition. Sexual attraction is a complicated thing, after all; we can't always control who we are attracted to.

We can, however, control what we post online. The "meme-ification" of real murders is a gross trend that minimizes the crime and negatively affects the victim's family and loved ones. I hope that no one connected to the victims of any of the above-mentioned crimes had the displeasure of coming across the comments, fan art, and other displays of adoration mentioned in this article.

By John Tuesday on Unsplash

In the age of social media and 24-hour news networks, many have become desensitized to violence. Such desensitization makes it easy for some to participate in communities like those that center on people like Guzman, Manfredonia, and Takaoka; it turns people into characters, their pain into drama, their lives into entertainment. Worst of all, it turns brutal killers into sexy bad boys and femme fatales. It makes it all too easy to forget about the effects of violent crime.

I hope that in 2021, we don't see a resurgence of this trend. As someone who is interested in true crime, I hope that members of the community recognize the fine line between interest in killers and the fetishization of them, remembering that one person's fun Internet challenge might be a gross reminder of someone else's trauma.

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About the author

Madison Wheatley

Madison Wheatley is a poet and fiction writer in Jackson, Tenn., where she works as a residential youth counselor. She is the author of the paranormal thriller AMBROSIA and several short stories and poems.

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