I remember my first fascination with criminal psyche when Criminal Minds first came out in the early 2000s. My Mom and I used to watch early seasons of NCIS and CSI Miami (until she stopped watching them when they got "too gory" for her and switched to more tame shows like "Blue Bloods"). Mark Caruso was a character that was frequently imitated by my family members in my elementary days, and I even told my parents I wanted to get into forensic science. Well, that dream was abruptly shattered when I failed chemistry in high school. Nonetheless, I still have a fascination for the macabre. But why?
You can talk to anyone with a Netflix or Hulu account, and I can guarantee that the shows "You", "Fargo", and "Dexter" are familiar titles, whether we like them or not. There's a strange phenomenon of true crime that is becoming a tropical storm in the social media ocean. As a matter of fact, I opened my Netflix account just for this theory, and "Killer Sally", "Clockwork Orange", "The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes", and "Sins of Our Mother" are the first ones to pop up on the home page. (This is, no doubt, the algorithm of proof).
Halfway through watching the show "You", I remember someone asked me why I was even interested in a show about a fictional psychopathic stalker, "Aren't you nervous that something like this could happen in real life?" Great question. I explained that watching this show almost gave me an unexplainable layer of protection. In the first season, Joe Goldberg stalks women and eventually kills them (I apologize for the spoiler, but if you're not interested in watching the show, that's the whole premise. If you are interested in watching it and haven't seen it yet, are you really going to be invested in something that came out four years ago?). Watching this show, and other grisly anecdotes, I can honestly say that it increases my attentiveness to my surroundings even more than a twenty-something female living in a city should have. Because I want to avoid being stalked and killed.
In watching documentaries about true crime, there's a confusing confutation for comfort. Why are people so obsessed with watching things that are so horrific in nature? With absolutely no disrespect to victims or victim's families, there's almost a level of self satisfaction knowing that we are not the victim, "This isn't happening to me, so it's okay to be entertained by this". We know they are just actors on a screen and that we are safe on our couch. We know that Joe Goldberg is played by actor Penn Badgley and will not be outside of our window at any moment.
However, the retelling of realistic stories with big name, attractive, Hollywood heartthrobs is where the pathos becomes perplexing. Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy ("Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile") and Evan Peters playing Jeffrey Dahmer ("Dahmer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story"), and even Penn Badgley playing fictional Joe Goldberg is where fascination teeters on the line of romanticizing. In fact, a good looking, big name actor such as Zac Efron was purposely cast to play Ted Bundy to show that Bundy was just a "normal" person and that even attractive people can commit nefarious acts. “By depicting serial killers as complex, intelligent and interesting, and choosing attractive actors to play them gives them a sense of appeal,” says Dr Melanie Haughton from the University of Derby. I am comfortable calling Zac Efron attractive; I draw the line at calling Ted Bundy- a murderer of more than 30 (known) women- attractive.
But there were (and are) some that do. There was a fan group of females that attended his trial and some even sent him suggestive pictures when he was in jail. He wasn't the only one: Jeffrey Dahmer who mutilated 17 (known) young boys- received marriage proposals in jail. Chris Watts who murdered his two children and pregnant wife- received nude pictures of women when he was in trial. Richard Rimerez who stalked, attacked, and murdered his neighbors- even married one of his admirers. There's even a woman in Australia who has tattoos of Dahmer and Bundy's faces.
Katherine Pier, a psychiatrist on the faculty at the University of California at San Francisco, told The Washington Post: “It’s a way of flirting with danger while risking nothing. The women writing killers are often victims of abuse and gravitate toward aggressors. Getting involved with a man behind bars puts them in positions of control. These women will most likely never have the chance to meet the man they’re pursuing. And if they did, they’d be protected by the prison system.”
Hybristophilia is the sexual attraction to someone who has committed a crime. And it doesn't even stop at serial killers. There is a subculture of young people who romanticize about Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the boys who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School, who oh-so-colloqually call themselves "Columbiners". These people, mostly young girls, write fanficion, cartoons, and photoshop hearts around Klebold and Harris. Some girls even say they "relate to them as outcasts". I believe that going this far would be a testament to mental health obstacles, maybe even being bullied, trying to fit in, or even trying to stand out. “They’re really drawn to the poor, misunderstood, tragic, shy, outsider, awkward teen who was just led astray, who ‘could be saved with my love,’” author of the New York Times bestseller “Columbine,” Dave Cullen states. This is the absolute epitome of romanticizing.
According to Merriam Webster, to "romanticize something" is to "deal with or describe in an idealized or unrealistic fashion; make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is". To "glorify" something is to "acknowledge and reveal in majesty and splendor".
Yes, I have watched every episode of "I am a Killer", "Worst Roommate Ever", and "Making a Murderer" on Netflix. I am fascinated about the mental health of the perpetrators and how they lack empathy to maraud, murder, and mutilate their victims. I am curious about the discussion of evil and the arguments of whether it is nature or nurture. I am captivated in finding out why the law system in Peru failed to keep Pedro Lopez in jail after he murdered 300+ people. I am interested in the science of the amygdala and why it is different sizes in people who commit crimes. I would never cross the line to extend my curiosity into romanticism.
I think that it is important to learn about things that fascinate us, and even more important to educate ourselves on things we do not understand. But, how do we draw the line between educating and glorifying? Does more exposure create desensitization to the point of minimizing the gravity of these crimes? Why do humans find catharsis in gruesome and gore? Are we balancing on a moral tightrope when we are entertained by the macabre?
Bonn, Scott. Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers
Commons, Jess. "Why Women Fall In Love With Serial Killers Like Ted Bundy"
Hayes, Kelley Taylor. "'Columbiners' and 'TCC': A look at the Columbine-Obsessed Subculture that Exists Online"
Holland, Sam. "Why Are We So Fascinated By Serial Killers?"
Isenberg, Sheila. Women Who Love Men Who Kill
Paul, Deanna. "He’s Locked up for Life After Murdering His Wife and Children. So Why do Women Send Him Love Letters?"
Rico, Andrew. "View of Fans of Columbine Shooters"
Rosenberg, Eli. "The Parkland Shooting Suspect has Fans, and They’re Sending Him Letters and Money"
Rosewood, Jack. The Big Book of Serial Killers (An Encyclopedia of Serial Killers)
Woollet, Laura Elizabeth. The Love of a Bad Man