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Dr. Melanie Haughton, a psychology professor at University of Derby,  explains that “depicting serial killers as complex, intelligent and interesting, and choosing attractive actors to play them gives them a sense of appeal.” 

Photo: Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in the 2019 Netflix film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”

Photo courtesy: Netflix

The Lure of True Crime: Why Are We So Obsessed With Serial Killers?

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The thrilling chase of trying to find a killer, investigating an evil mind, and learning how a murder came to be sounds like good TV. A hit show to watch. Until you think about how these real-life serial killers at the focus of these shows have ruined lives and the victims’ loved ones who have to relive it. So we have to ask ourselves, when has serial killer-themed entertainment gone too far? 

As a true crime fan, I haven’t watched any of the six documentaries or retellings about Jeffery Dahmer that have been released in the past 20 years. Personally, his story hasn’t been something I wanted to understand because I didn’t want to give such a gruesome killer the attention. Even with my love for the actor Ross Lynch, who played Jeffery Dahmer in the version released by Hulu  “My Friend Dahmer,” I couldn’t get behind feeding into his story. It was just too gruesome. Why produce content focusing on such a horrible person six times over? 

The TV Appeal of Dahmer

If you weren’t aware of the murders of Jeffery Dahmer, he sadly lured gay men of color to his apartment and would brutally murder them. One of his victims, Konerak Sinthasomphone, was just 14 years old. After these torturous killings he would store the body pieces in the fridge to eat. In his confessions to these murders, he said there was no one or nothing to blame. He just wanted to do it. Your grade A serial killer. However, I am not here to write about the inside of Jeffery Dahmer’s mind, but to get inside the mind of society and what seems to be an obsession with serial killers. The constant retellings and productions on notorious serial killers. People sending fan mail to the prisons where these murderers reside. The chilling attraction to these devious people. What’s the catch? 

Increasing Awareness

As a true crime fan, I have watched my fair share of true crime documentaries. One of those being “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” a series detailing the hunt to uncover the identity of the Night Stalker and the lives of the detectives in charge of the investigation and his victims. Richard Ramirez, also known as the Night Stalker, committed a series of heinous crimes from 1984 to 1985 including: rape, murder, and kidnappings. As I was watching the show, I was shocked to learn that in the late 80s, many people still left their doors unlocked at night and some even left the door open. 

Today, it seems crazy that there was a time people would leave their doors unlocked, hitchhike, and not be suspicious of someone on the side of the road with car troubles. There is now a fear of these things and people are no longer willing to put themselves in that vulnerable position. This is in huge part thanks to media coverage and public service announcements focusing on different tactics criminals have used. 

Intrigue Gone Too Far

Shockingly, leaving doors unlocked wasn’t the most absurd thing in the series. It was the influx of love letters that Richard Ramirez received from fan girls after being arrested. One fangirl even went as far as marrying Ramirez while he was behind bars. Doreen Lioy spent 11 years writing letters to Ramirez while he was in prison after realizing she was attracted to him when his arrest was publicized. Lioy wrote a total of 75 letters to Ramirez and stood out among  all of his fan mail. In an interview with CNN, she said, “I think he’s a really great person. He’s my best friend.” When he was sentenced to death, Lioy began visiting him frequently. She became his most dedicated visitor, meeting him four times a week. On October 3, 1993, the two were married in San Quentin State Prison, an idea which was horrid to Ramirez’s victims’ families. As a new wife, Lioy continued to defend Ramirez’s character while she was disowned by relatives. 

After 13 years of marriage, Lioy allegedly cut communication with Ramirez after DNA evidence connected her husband to the rape and murder of a 9 year old girl. Although Lioy finally ended the marriage, her reputation and image remained tarnished. 

Unfortunately, Richard Ramirez is not the only serial killer who was met with fangirls and a new wife. Ted Bundy, another one of the most notorious American serial killers, wed Carole Ann Boone after his arrest on February 9, 1980. While Bundy was on trial for the murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, the two were able to have a child, Rose Bundy. 

Both Lioy and Boone took a fascination and turned it into love, psychologists refer to this attraction and love for a person who commits crimes as hybristophilia.  Hybristophilia, also known as the Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome, is clinically defined as a form of paraphilia where sexual attraction is responsive to people who have committed cruel gruesome crimes.  

Evan Peters in the Netflix mini series “Dahmer: Monster The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” Photo courtesy: Netflix

Romanticization of a Villain

 Often, the media plays a role in romanticizing these serial killers. With the casting of attractive actors, such as Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”  and Evan Peters in “Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story,” the true crime genre contributes to the glamorization of these murderers. A psychology professor at University of Derby, Dr. Melanie Haughton explains that “depicting serial killers as complex, intelligent and interesting, and choosing attractive actors to play them gives them a sense of appeal.” 

The true crime genre is typically geared towards young females. According to Melissa Hamilton, a professor in law and criminal justice, attributes this to young women embracing the societal message, “that it is up to us to tame and civilize errant men and will be rewarded by doing so with a loyal partner.” Although some find a romanticization with the “taming” of a serial killer, another reason for fascination is with the idea of an “anti-hero.” An anti-hero being a main character who lacks the traditional “hero” characteristics, like Penn Badgley’s character, Joe, in Netflix’s trending show “You,” where Joe is a murderer.   

Although it is easy to get caught up in the romanticization and fascination of true crime, it is important to remember that for every crime there is a victim and their pained loved ones. So as you’re watching that documentary on a serial killer or listening to a unsolved murder podcast, just remember that a killer is not someone to be obsessed with.

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