Why do we love Serial Killers?

For as long as I can remember, I was staying up past my bedtime on Friday nights to watch Dateline, and spending a fair portion of my downtime watching Forensic Files, 20/20, and 48 Hours. I can recall when I was just eight years old watching every minute of the Casey Anthony trial unravel on TV. My more recent addiction is bingeing the plethora of crime documentaries available to stream on Netflix such as “Making a Murderer,” “The Innocent Man,” and “The Ted Bundy Tapes.” I have also found myself enamored with dramas based on real events including “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” on FX and “The Act” on Hulu. I am not alone in enjoying this genre, and it is clear show producers got the memo. The serial killer has become Hollywood’s new favorite antihero, a subject of fascination and awe. The courtroom has become over dramatized and fantasized. I am led to wonder what causes America’s (and my own) obsession with murder? And is this love of violent crime bad for our society?

Perhaps the answer to why we love crime shows lies in our own volunerbility, our knowledge of our own capability to commit act of violence. As explained physiatrist Dr. Sharon Parker; “there’s this sense of relief that it wasn’t you who did it. We all get angry at people, and many people say ‘I could kill them’ but almost no one does that, thankfully. But then when you see it on screen, you say, ‘Oh someone had to kill someone, it wasn’t me, thank God.’ And so there’s once again that same sense of relief that whatever kinds of aggression and impulses one has, we didn’t act on them, someone else did.”

There is also a defensive element to our investment in learning about real murderers. I can attest that for myself, watching episodes of “Dateline” involving a kidnapping always convinced me that I knew how to avoid being kidnapped. I think we all hope that by learning about crimes that happened to other people helps us be better equipped to prevent ourselves from being the victim.

As human beings we are inclined to have an obsession with good and evil. It makes sense, whether we are a member of a religious faith or not we are introduced to the ideas of good and bad very early on in life. Forensic psychologist Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi stated that murder is “a most fundamental taboo and also, perhaps, a most fundamental human impulse..In every case there is an assessment to be made about the enormity of evil involved.”

What is problematic about our cult following of hardened killers is the fame that it gives to people who have done terrible things. As Diane Diamond brings up in the foreword of the novel “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers,” “We readily remember these killer’s names: Albert DeSalvo, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Aileen Wuornos, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz. Their hapless and innocent victims go unremembered, except by their loved ones.” This ill deserved fame serves as a motive for copycat killers, after all, there is a television show bearing that very name. The term copycat killer is far older than the invention of the television, coined to describe killings mimicking Jack the Ripper during his reign of terror, however these killings were sparked by media coverage.

This lead me to ponder my second question, how is society’s intent following of violence and love for the serial killer affecting us? I found that perhaps it is not a solely negative affect, some good might come out of it, as it leads to a better understanding and appreciation for our legal system. Dr Diane Sivasubramaniam, a lecturer in psychological sciences at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, stated in an interview with ABC News that “it's a great thing that people start attending to the legal system because we know that wrongful convictions happen, we know that mistakes are made in the legal system.”

I think that it is a part of the human spirit to be simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by crime. While the glorification of serial killers is in my mind a serious issue, the existence of shows and movies about true crime is not as long as they are accurate and informative about our  legal system.