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Law and Crime

Serial Killers vs. Arsonists: What's the Appeal?

Serial killers and arsonists commit heinous crimes. So why romanticize either?

What is the serial killer mystique? And why can't pyromaniac mystique compare?

Readers, moviegoers, or TV viewers may develop fascination with a Hannibal Lecter practically to the point of hero worship, and more than a few films such as Taking Lives (starring Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke) and TV shows depict investigators who grow sexually attracted to the serial killers whom they pursue. In real life, there are members of the public who write fan letters and develop crushes on serial murderers such as Ted Bundy. "Real-life serial killers are transformed into larger-than-life celebrity monsters through the combined efforts of law enforcement authorities," observes criminology professor Scott Bonn, "and the news and entertainment media, that feed the public’s appetite for the macabre."

He devoted an entire book to exploring the reasons behind such phenomena, Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers (2014). While not everyone will agree with the use of the word We in the title because not everyone finds serial killers to be appealing in any way, we cannot deny the fact that a great many people do.

Why no such love for arsonists? If they keep setting fires, the serial arsonists can commit a series of murders along the way. Perhaps it is because killing tends to be incidental to the crime of arson and not its primary purpose. Perhaps it is because arson tends to be impersonal in a variety of ways such as that aforementioned incidental nature of most of their murders, the indifference to human life to the point of being brutal and beyond reckless, the physical distance between themselves and their victims at the time of each crime, the fact that they are out to commit property crimes, and the randomness of who might live or die (Canter & Fritzon, 1988; Gannon, 2016; Petherick, 2014). The fact that random victims from all ages and walks of life, people not individually selected by the arsonist who kills them or leaves horrible scars, may also reduce the ease with which news consumers blame the victims. Victim blame varies by type of crime (Mancini & Pickett, 2017).

On social media, I posed the question regarding the relative difference in appeal, a question that will give students in the special topics class "Serial Crime" something to think about.

  • Question for my Serial Crime class: Why romanticize serial killers but not arsonists? (Facebook)
  • Gathering resources for my spring class, Serial Crime, it occurs to me to pose this question to the students: Why do some people romanticize serial killers but not arsonists? (Twitter)

Similarities emerged in some of the answers people provided. Even though a few refer to serial killer myths as facts, their assertions nevertheless may reflect the kinds of perceptions and opinions that influence the relative attitudes toward serial killers and firesetters.

  • RW-F: the act of violence with a serial killer is more intimate than an arsonist.
  • JBM: I think because fires kill at random and are impersonal, whereas with serial killers, the people they're killing might determine how they're perceived by the audience. People like Hannibal Lector because we've mostly seen him kill bad people or those we don't care about. I'd expect people to NOT romanticize serial killers who kill children or characters they care about, but who knows with people these days. I suspect people depersonalize the victims on film so they can care more for a charismatic killer. I suspect they'd draw the line at children or dogs.
  • RC: Serial killers are active assuming it's "hands on" and not something like bombing. I don't get it but I guess if the victims are perceived as "deserving it" in could be romanticized. Arsonists are "lurkers", not facing their victims if murder is the intent and if it isn't, arson is just another form of vandalism.
  • BSJ: Serial murderers kill people directly. Arsonists kill people peripherally. People value efficiency.

    • Soundbite aside, a lot of it has to do with media portrayal and audience viewership. Serial murderers kill people, so it’s a great story to talk not just about the person but also their victims. Arsonists burn property, but often times there isn’t a human death involved. Talking about a building is less interesting to the viewer.

  • BJL: I wish killers weren’t romanticized at all. The world will always be more obsessed with bad people than good people. Why do we make bad people famous?
  • JY: There’s more mystery and “skill” in serial murder. I think some folks are intrigued by what could go on in a mind that could plot those heinous acts against other humans. Buildings just aren’t sexy.
  • AJ: Arsonists are less relatable because the media hasn't sensationalized them nearly as much compared to serial killers.... maybe?
  • WF: Because destroying property is more evil in our society than taking a life or lives.
  • AR: Nothing confuses me more than people who romanticize vicious criminals, especially fictional ones. The amount of people I see saying they want a relationship like Joker and Harley Quinn is very disturbing.
  • EB: Yuck to serial killers, but I could kinda see arsonists. Many are portrayed as attractive, cool, or the "misunderstood" trope in media and even in reality. Pyro from X-Men comes to mind for me lol [This refers to a character with the fictional power of pyrokinesis, never shown on film to commit arson without ulterior motive.]
  • WW: If you don't mind my chiming in—we may not romanticize arsonists, serial or otherwise, but we do romanticize fire itself. Even though most fires are caused by man, we tend to think of fire as a force of nature, right up there with tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and other such disasters. And as a force of nature, we tend to think of fire as being anonymous. When we hear of a forest fire raging in the woods, we rarely, if ever, learn the name of the guy who discarded a lit cigarette, or left a campfire burning, or decided to set off some fireworks deep in the woods. We just know there's a fire burning, and we've lost several thousand acres, and the firefighters are doing their absolute heroic best to contain the catastrophe.
    And we do tend to think of fire as something special, if not actually sacred. Remember that in Greek mythology fire was Prometheus' gift to Man, stolen from the gods. And there's this passage from Ray Bradbury's "Farenheit 451" which speaks to the human fascination with fire—
  • “‘What is there about fire that’s so lovely? No matter what age we are, what draws us to it?’ Beatty blew out the flame and lit it again. ‘It’s perpetual motion; the thing man wanted to invent but never did.'”

    And we do, I believe, think of fire as enlivening an occasion. If you were to invite your hamburger-loving friends over for hamburgers fixed in a skillet on top of the stove, they might be inclined to pass. But if you were to fix them outside over an open flame—say, on a charcoal grill—they'll be there with beer and potato chips, and maybe even a cake from the supermarket bakery.

    Hope that helps.

  • HJM: Romanticising can be a form of fawning from the survival responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. (Hybristophilia reads very much like a cousin to Stockholm Syndrome.)

    A serial killer is an in-group threat. To protect the group, the threat must be recognized, isolated, and ejected from the group. Most social animals have no problem quickly and efficiently ejecting threats, because the individual's survival depends on the group's survival, and the group's survival is directly affected by the presence of a threat.

    I think humans living in small groups would be like that - more concisely remove threats, because threats are more immediately relevant to their circumstances. If the serial killer is in your neighborhood, you're probably on higher alert than if the serial killer was across town.

    When the group is so big that the serial killer is across town or in another state, the threat becomes theoretical rather than immediately relevant. "What now!?" turns into "What if..." And "what if" leaves a whole lot more room for strategizing. The threat is still there, if distant, and the work to recognize, isolate, and eject continues but in a slower more thoughtful/methodical way.

    Romanticism does that work in a way. Putting someone on a pedestal does technically separate them from the group in terms of perception. Everyone can see them and what they're doing.

    From there, what to do becomes a matter of more individual survival habits. How do we conquer or survive? The bard will charm. The rogue will sneak. The warrior will fight.

  • SH-S: I like where [HJM] is going too, but I took the opposite track.

    It's not about celebrating the serial killer, it's shunning the arsonist. Arsonists endanger the herd in a predictable way that could "burn down the whole village" where a serial killer picks victims by twisted algorithm. Much easier for a lay person to see the danger/damage in burning down the village and choose fight ... than to fight a leathal algorithm they can only understand abstractly.

    To catch a serial killer, you need to understand their profile- hence the intensity of public curiosity because each one has different motive. Arsonists love fire- most fire bugs have long history...following the ashes is easier and perpetrator's history usually gives them away and ultimately "saves the herd". The herd sees fire as the bigger threat to survival.

  • DF: An arsonist is categorized as impulsive, something we all feel when we engage in entertainment. A serial killer is determined, good at planning and following through, dedicated to their craft, and often depicted as intelligent. These are all qualities we desire in ourselves. Just a guess.

  • AMM: People get off on romanticizing stuff. Maybe more people romanticize the direct and bold, contact of the sexual aspects of serial killing and the terror of grandiose monsters heightens it. I think arson is also an attack on the ego state of it’s victims—there seems to be more shame associated with arson. Most people don’t find shame particularly exciting—it is probably sexy to degraders and degradees? By the way your Forensic Psych class was the only text book I read cover to cover and I loved that class, made me learn how to see, accept and trust humanity more, oddly.

  • JH: I think it’s because the crime is so shocking and unthinkable that it takes on the tone of something bigger than life. It’s like how people feel about actors and musicians. They are also exposed to them a lot in the media.

  • MLB: This is one reason why I find the movie "Backdraft" so interesting - it romanticizes fire in a way that explains the appeal both for the firefighter and the arsonist. Really underrated as a psychological study of those fascinated by fire.

  • T_S: Possibly: 1. Arson often destroys evidence of a distinguishable MO More difficult to gain a Moniker via media? 2. The perception that serial killers take lives while arsonists may take lives but more often ruin lives (e.g. destroying homes, businesses, etc.)? Starting over

  • AA: Because serial killers are more personal and have a bigger variety to their work which makes them more interesting.

  • KM: We can more easily see ourselves as serial killers than arsonists. It's more personal and visceral.

  • GCM: I think it has to do with the victims. We can romanticize dead victims but often arson victims tend to live and have suffered horrible burns. Come to think of it... overall, our society has hard time dealing with victims who survive... it's like we punish them gain by ostracism.

  • SP: I’d have to agree with other comments, a serial killer projects to the public a certain modus operandi. An arsonist possibly to them seems a bit random. Personally, I find that both share similar qualities.

  • JO: The only thing I would romanticize about a serial killer is what I would do to one.

Related posts:


Bonn, S. (2014). Why we love serial killers: The curious appeal of the world's most savage murderers. New York, NY: Skyhorse.

Canter, D. V., & Fritzon, K. (1988). Differentiating arsonists: A model of firesetting actions and characteristics. Legal & Criminal Psychology, 3(1), 73-96.

Gannon, T. A. (2016). Explanations of firesetting: typologies and theories. In R. M. Doley, G. L., Dickens, & T. A. Gannon (Eds)., The psychology of arson: A practical guide to understanding and managing deliberate firesetters. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mancini, C. L. D., & Pickett, J. T. (2017). Reaping what they sow: Victim-offender overlap perceptions and victim-blaming attitudes. Victims & Offenders, 12(3), 434-466.

Petherick, W. (2014). Profiling and serial crime. Waltham, MA: Elsevier, Academic Press.

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