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Apologia for an Obsession with Serial Killers

There's a method to your mad interest in serial killers.

Twisted sexual fantasies, gruesome crimes scenes, evil incarnate...there are few interests more seemingly prurient than a healthy person's obsession with serial killers. Yet these violent tableaux are the least of it. The tactics, not the torture, make serial killer lit a thriving cottage industry. These killers are aberrant, to be sure. But they also exhibit extreme versions of the arrogance and charm that we encounter in routine dealings with others, and it is these traits that open a window onto our morbid fascination with them.

I just devoured an excellent book about a killer, reminding me how powerful this obsessive pull can be. Entering Hades by John Leake tells the true tale of Jack Unterweger, arguably among the most cunning (known) predators of the twentieth century. This chameleon of a killer cut a swath of terror across Central Europe in the early 1990s, shortly after he charmed the Austrian elite into releasing him from prison, where he was already serving time for a murder conviction. A celebrity journalist, media darling and poster boy for rehabilitation, Unterweger published reports about the murders in the Austrian press; on "assignment" to Los Angeles he patrolled with the LAPD by day and strangled prostitutes by night.

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To read this book is to recoil, even as you're roped in.

Evolutionary theorists describe sociopathic behavior as a strategy for getting one's way through cheating, violence and coercion; sociopaths harness their victims' trust and innocence, capitalizing on the perverse fact that their tactics are so far outside society's norms that their actions will be deemed incredible (as in, unbelievable) by the average person, and they will therefore evade detection.

Nowhere is this more evident than among serial killers. Few believed that the childish, dapper, engaging Unterweger could be the prostitute-slaying monster of the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods); no one could fathom that Dennis Rader, a demure church councilman and father of two, was the BTK killer. Sociopaths' ability to hide in plain sight is so well-honed that they constitute about four percent of any given

population, or one in 25, according to Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door. (Among this group, only a fraction commits serial murder, which requires a level or organization and intelligence that many sociopaths lack).

So to be drawn to a killer is to indulge our natural curiosity about anyone who behaves audaciously, who radically deviates from the norm, because it is in our interests to monitor such people at all times. The killers' personalities are hardly the draw, in fact the more profiles you read, the more similar they become; the heavy watermark of narcissism blots out the quirky, random variations in personality that characterize most normal people.

You may think that I, in a state of serial killer-induced-sleep deprivation, having finished the book in one long tear last night, do protest too heartily about my tactical interest in the dregs of humanity. If so, consider this: Who gets more attention in your office: The brazen manager who's rumored to have bedded half his assistants, or his mousy counterpart with whom you struggle to make small talk? The cocky and outré command our focus not because we fall for their act, but because we know they're conducting a high stakes gambit: they'll either win big or lose big. We'll give a humble person a second, third or fourth chance, but a cocky bastard has one shot at winning us over––or alienating us forever.

 

Kaja Perina is the Editor in Chief of Psychology Today.

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