Mug Shots of Famous Serial Killers
Top row, left to right: Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Ramirez. Bottom row, left to right: John Wayne Gacy, Dennis Rader, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgway. Credit: New York Post

It’s totally normal to be fascinated by serial killers…right?

With the recent release of the Netflix original docuseries “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and the dramatized crime narrative “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” serial killers seem to be one of the hottest media topics these days. These are only the latest contributions to countless TV shows and movies about serial killers, but what causes this widespread fascination with true crime and is it wrong to be interested in true occurrences of gruesome depravity? 

Poster for "Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes"
Credit: Netflix

While the recent films have sparked a significant amount of conversation about the killer himself as well as the genre, our fascination with true crime is not new. Criminologist Dr. Scott Bonn says the appeal of consuming true crime media is simple: “[s]erial killers excite and enthrall people, much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters. People don’t want to look, but they can’t look away.” Dr. Bonn likens true crime to the horror genre; they can be considered adult scary stories. Many of us like to be scared. We experience an adrenaline and endorphin rush as a result of our fear, but we want to obtain that fear in a controlled way that is not actually dangerous. Catharsis is the main draw of these genres and many people refer to their obsession with true crime as a “guilty pleasure.” The formulaic programming of true crime media aides in this mechanism: typically details of the crime draw us in and engage us in fear but a resolution comes at the end of the program, making us all feel safe again.

Part of the specific appeal of serial killers over other types of true crime, however, has to do with how unfathomable their actions are to the general public. In his Psychology Today blog, Dr. Bonn says “[s]erial killers are so extreme in their brutality and so seemingly unnatural in their behavior that society is riveted by them. Many people are morbidly drawn to the violence of serial killers, because they cannot comprehend their actions, but feel compelled to. The incomprehensibility of their crimes makes serial killers seem enigmatic in the minds of the public. The fascination with serial killers is based in part on a need to understand why anyone would do such horrible things to other people who generally are complete strangers to them.” Humans naturally try to make sense of and understand their world, but serial killers fall outside of our logical understandings of motivation.

We may not necessarily desire it, but we can conceptualize criminal acts motivated by emotions such as fear, rage, or jealousy. The circumstantial nature of emotion-driven crimes makes more sense to us than someone motivated to kill strangers. 

We find it difficult to conceptualize the darkness driving serial killers, and sometimes they do not even understand it themselves. Women, in particular, are riveted by serial killers. While there are no age or generational differences, women in general tend to have a greater fear of becoming the victim of a motivation-less crime but also are typically better at understanding the motivations, emotions, and actions of other people — making these senseless crimes all the more confusing and therefore alluring.

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy compared to Ted Bundy himself
Zac Efron's mugshot from "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile" compared to Ted Bundy's mugshot. Credit: @ZacEfronFF

Differences in entertainment preferences may drive one’s preference for the factual and straightforward documentary versus the Hollywood dramatization, but it can be tricky to cast the serial killer in a film version of events. Media outlets were quick to disparage the casting of Hollywood heartthrob Zac Efron for the role of Ted Bundy in the film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” However, not only is the depiction of the prolific serial killer as attractive and enticing accurate, it speaks to how serial killers further fuel our fascination. As an unassuming and attractive man, it was inconceivable that Ted Bundy was capable of the atrocities he committed. This made him even better at executing and concealing his depravity. Women found Ted’s demeanor non-threatening and he would even do things to make himself more approachable (i.e. he is known for wearing a leg cast or an arm sling) in order to draw in his victims. Just like we cannot fathom his motivations as spectators, the women he abducted couldn’t imagine such a normal-looking, unknown man to be such a threat to their safety.

So although a preoccupation with true crime and serial killers may be a normal and an emotionally appropriate response to our fears and desire for catharsis, is there anything at all to worry about? While there is little to no empirical evidence specifically regarding true crime media (as opposed to consumption of the classic horror genre), clinical practitioners caution against exposure to any type of violent media for children, adolescents, and anyone who may be mentally ill. There is evidence that exposure to violence as a child encourages violent behaviors, but this does not apply any more to true crime than other violent subgenres. Perhaps the exposure to true crimes elicits a catharsis that outweighs the potential negative impact of violent media.

One podcast, titled “My Favorite Murder” tries to encourage just that. Creators Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff present their podcast as a comedy while also diving into the atrocities of true crimes. The women openly discuss the fears these murders instill in them. The process of talking through these fears has helped Hardstark and Kilgariff, as well as putting their listeners at ease after listening to the discussion. Just like the experience of catharsis we receive from watching horror movies and knowing we are ultimately safe, candidly discussing our fears (or listening to others do so) contributes to the greater feeling of cathartic engagement and release of our fears.

Overall, it seems like this particular guilty pleasure is a normal response to our fears and anxieties. Healthy adults can safely engage in our true crime obsessions as long as we are cognizant of their effects on our emotional well-being. Therefore our “guilty pleasure” true crime and serial killer fascination may not be so guilty after all.

We thank Dr. Scott Bonn for his time and insight. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website

Lindsey Mooney is a psychology graduate student at UC Davis in the Memory and Development Lab at the Center for Mind and Brain. Follow her on Twitter @Linz_Mooney. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group "Science Says", follow us on twitter @SciSays.

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