- Serial killers have become pop culture icons, or what I call "celebrity monsters," since the 1970s.
- Serial killers may appeal to the most basic and powerful instinct in all of us—survival.
- There is a human tendency to empathize with all things—good and bad—including unremorseful serial killers.
When you bring up the name of an infamous, real life predator like Jack the Ripper, Dennis Rader or Ted Bundy in conversation with a group of strangers (which I often do as a criminologist), it is clear that serial killers are a hot topic. Bundy and his ilk have actually become pop culture icons, or what I call "celebrity monsters," since the 1970s. Incredibly, there is now a serial killer week (established by Oxygen TV Network) similar to the annual shark week celebrated by Discovery TV Network.
Some folks become gleeful in their demeanor when discussing serial killers. Why is that? Could it be that some of us have a macabre fascination with serial killers for the same reason(s) that many of us are morbidly drawn to stare at a catastrophic automobile accident unexpectedly encountered along a highway?
In many ways, I believe that serial killers are for adults what monster movies are for children—that is, scary fun! Serial killers have a visceral appeal for the public similar to monster movies because they provide a euphoric adrenaline rush. Consequently, their atrocity tales in the news and entertainment media are almost addictive. However, the pleasure an adult receives from watching serial killers can be difficult to admit, and may even trigger feelings of guilt. My research on this subject has revealed that many people who are fascinated with serial killers refer to their interest as a "guilty pleasure."
The average person who has been socialized to respect life, and who also possesses the normal range of emotions such as love, shame, pity and remorse cannot comprehend the workings of a pathological mind that would compel one to abduct, torture, rape, kill, engage in necrophilia, and occasionally even eat another human being. I believe that the incomprehensibility of such behavior drives people to understand why serial killers do unspeakably horrible things to others who often are complete strangers.
As such, serial killers appeal to the most basic and powerful instinct in all of us—that is, survival. The total disregard for life and the suffering of others exhibited by serial killers shocks our sense of humanity and makes us question our safety and security.
My exploration of this topic has revealed that the public loves serial killers for a number of interrelated reasons. First, they are rare in the business of murder with perhaps 25 or so operating at any given time in the U.S. in recent years. The killers and their crimes are exotic and tantalizing to people much like traffic accidents and natural disasters. Serial killers are so extreme in their brutality and so seemingly unnatural in their behavior that people are drawn to them out of intense curiosity.
Second, serial killers generally kill randomly, choosing victims based on personal attraction or random opportunities presented to them. This factor makes anyone a potential victim, even if the odds of ever encountering one are about the same as being attacked by a great white shark.
Third, serial killers are prolific and insatiable, meaning that they kill many people over a period of years rather than killing one person in a single impulsive act, which is the typical pattern of murder in the U.S.
Fourth, the public’s fascination with serial killers involves a burning desire and powerful need to understand why someone like Dahmer did such grotesque things to innocent people. Perhaps at a subconscious level, people believe that if they can somehow understand Dahmer’s motivations and desires, then he and his ilk are not so terrifying after all.
Fifth, the likes of Dahmer, Bundy and Gacy provide the public with an opportunity to look into a mirror and see its own sinister thoughts, fantasies, and desires. People might say, “I hate my boss, I want to kill him,” but they don’t really do it. Bundy, Gacy, and company, on the other hand, actually do it! This begs people to consider what they might do themselves under extreme duress.
In conclusion, serial killers represent a lurid, complex and very compelling presence on the public and media landscapes. Although their appeal to the public is complex and multifaceted, I believe there is a human tendency to identify and even empathize with all things—both good and bad—including sadistic, unrepentant and unremorseful serial killers.
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