There’s a cultural fascination with serial killers. It makes sense, too, because America has more of them than just about any country on Earth. Why we have so many, I can’t say. But I can talk about the fascination because it’s something that tends to not get talked about. I mean, of course, if you go on Facebook or Tumblr, fans are talking about serial killers all the time. Almost as much as they talk about movies. Some days, maybe more. Yet we never really seem to discuss why that is, except the occasional person who may read a biography on someone like Ed Gein and wonder if there’s something wrong with themselves for taking an interest in this subject matter.
Of course there isn’t. Morbid fascination is something everyone has to some degree, whether they like it or not. There’s nothing wrong with taking an interest in reading about the disturbing things that have really happened in the world. Nothing wrong in trying to understand why someone would do something like this, or even just in reading the details.
I myself have taken an interest in the subject, more in the past than the present, primarily because of how much the stories disturbed me. I would hear about one thing that either Bundy or Dahmer or Gein did and I would be so unsettled that I would have to learn more. I think that’s just a natural part of the way we are wired. Wanting to know and to understand is pretty much what drives human nature.
Taking an interest in these people and wanting to know what they did is a very different notion than supporting them. I always cite Ted Bundy because he’s the scariest to me, as he appears to be the most complex. There was an upsetting cockiness to this man in that he always chose his victims from public—but not overcrowded—places in broad daylight. Almost daring people to try to catch him, as if he just wanted to see if he could get away with it, and for many years, he did. He wrote an application letter to law school that stated “a full and complete knowledge of the law is crucial for the life I have chosen for myself.” Already a lawyer at heart, he didn’t outright lie in that but instead just hid the truth.
I’m fascinated by aspects of this man’s life because I want to know how one of the most prolific serial killers in American history also worked at a suicide hotline where he saved lives, night after night. Many would say that he was using it to hone his skills of preying on the week, that he simply thought it was good cover, but there’s no evidence of that. All the evidence seems to suggest that while he was there, sitting in that seat, he wanted to help people and apparently did it very well. When he went home, thinking about what to do with his evening, he clearly thought differently.
Humans are at times disturbingly and sometimes even disgustingly complex. That’s the fundamental appeal with true crime and acts of real horror. But there’s a large group of people who spin that fascination into something different.
I think reading about these killers is a very different thing from sharing their pictures all over Facebook and declaring them your ‘boyfriend’. It’s a completely different thing to wonder why they did what they did than it is to fundamentally empathize with them and believe that they really “stuck it to society” with the crimes they committed. That’s a completely different and incredibly uncomfortable thing. If you ever find yourself falling into that line of thinking, you should stop to consider if you would feel the same way if a serial killer victimized a member of your family? Hopefully, you would not.
Even buying their memorabilia, owning the things they used to kill their victims, all of this is really borderline because it’s right on the edge of endorsing what they did. It’s uncomfortable and seems to show a degree of support for the killers. But that’s obviously not as pressing an issue as the people who outright and wholeheartedly state that they completely agree with everything that, say, Richard Ramirez did.
These people are nothing new, either. Serial killer fandom seems to be one of the oldest traceable fandoms out there. As soon as Jack the Ripper made the papers and became a phenomenon, he had groupies. Serial killers in prison, especially during the boom in the ’70s and ‘80s, were constantly getting letters from women who wanted to bear their children and many were even married to their fans while they were on death row. Much of that has to do with attention-seeking and getting swept up in the fame, but there are plenty of people who are just legitimately attracted to them and what they believe these killers to represent.
I’m really not saying that supporting or even loving these killers, even admiring what they did, means that someone would ever seek to do the same in their own lives. Again, humans are complicated. You can be in love with the idea of murder and still never murder someone, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re in love with the idea of murder. At the end of the day, supporting them doesn’t mean you’ll wind up doing any of the same things, but it’s still not a very healthy practice.
Read serial killer biographies if you can handle them, because they’re interesting, especially in how contradictory they can be. Watch all the true crime TV shows you can, because they’re huge right now and they’ll help you learn never to get into the back of someone’s van when he claims he can’t move furniture because his arm’s in a cast. These are perfectly safe ways to take an interest in the subject. But be careful navigating the serial killer fandom, because even if you’re absolutely obsessed with killers and know you would never harm someone in real life, you could still run into someone who absolutely knows that they would.