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What Drives Our Curious Fascination With Serial Killers?

Why we are captivated by “celebrity monsters” in fact and fiction.

Milwaukee Police 1991 Mugshot
Jeffrey Dahmer
Source: Milwaukee Police 1991 Mugshot

With all of the attention given to serial killers these days by the media, it is a good time to examine our curious fascination with these predators in both factual and fictional accounts of them.

Serial killers have been part of our popular culture since the mid-1970's. Their great prevalence in our news and entertainment indicates that I am not alone in my fascination with them.

Real-life serial killers are transformed into larger-than-life celebrity monsters through the combined efforts of law enforcement authorities, and the news and entertainment media, that feed the public’s appetite for the macabre.

When you bring up the name of an infamous real-life predator such as such as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer in conversation with a group of people, it is clear that serial killers are a popular topic. Some people actually become gleeful while discussing them. 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?

Exaggerated depictions of serial killers in the mass media have blurred fact and fiction. As a result, real-life killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional ones like Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter have become interchangeable in the minds of many people.

Highly stylized and pervasive news media coverage of real-life serial killers and their horrible deeds transforms them into what I refer to as celebrity monsters. In order to understand why so many people in society are captivated by serial killers, it is necessary to examine the social agents and processes that promote them.

In many ways, serial killers are for adults what monster movies are for children—that is, scary fun! However, the pleasure an adult receives from watching serial killers can be difficult to admit, and may even trigger feelings of guilt. In fact, my research has revealed that many people refer to their fascination with serial killers 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. The incomprehensibility of such actions drives society to understand why serial killers do incredibly horrible things to other people 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.

I believe 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. They 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, they 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, their behavior is seemingly inexplicable and without a coherent motive such as jealousy or rage. They are driven by inner demons that even they may not comprehend. Many people are morbidly drawn to the violence of serial killers because they cannot understand it and feel compelled to.

Fifth, they 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 addictive. Finally, they provide a conduit for the public’s most primal feelings such as fear, lust, and anger.

The serial killer represents a lurid, complex and compelling presence on the social landscape. There appears to be an innate human tendency to identify or empathize with all things—whether good or bad—including serial killers.

I believe that we try to humanize the serial killer to make him less scary but we also try to dehumanize him to create a moral boundary between good and evil. Arguably, the serial killer identity is a mirror reflection of society itself. As such, there are things the rest of us can learn about ourselves from the serial killer if we look beyond the superficial “monster” image depicted in the mass media.

Like it or not, the serial killer is one of us. From a sociological perspective, he offers a safe and secure outlet for our darkest thoughts, feelings, and urges. He excites and tantalizes us. He also reminds us that despite all of our faults, the rest of us are just fine. Why are we fascinated with serial killers? Because, oddly enough, we need them.

I examine the public’s intense fascination with notorious and deadly serial killers, including David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) and Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) with whom I personally corresponded, in my bestselling book, Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.​

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