Why Are We Obsessed With Serial Killers?

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With the series premiere of the new NBC show Aquarius and the heavily advertised return of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, I have to ask, what is society’s fascination with serial killers?

And I’m not being judgemental here in the least. I’m addicted to crime procedurals and am constantly re-marathoning The Fall and Dexter on Netflix. When I was younger I even used to Google crime scene photos or scroll through Rotten.com when my  CSI computer games seemed too mundane.

I used to be concerned by my Wednesday Adams nature. Maybe I was too morbid. Perhaps I shouldn’t have snuck downstairs when my parents were watching scary movies. Eventually, like any normal nerd-child, I did research to make myself feel better. I read through my mom’s psychology books and scoured the internet to find out what was causing my obsession with the macabre.

Unsurprisingly, there are many articles on the subject. Criminology professor Scott Bonn even wrote a book about it entitled  Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.

Ultimately, there are many reasons why we enjoy watching television shows and movies about serial killers and murder. One of which is the same reason we watch horror films in general, fear-based excitement. Some people go bungee jumping to get that rush, while others who may be terrified of heights or against going outside in general would rather watch something that makes them jump out of their skin. It’s the same thrill provided by roller coasters, haunted houses, or using an oculus rift.

But there’s an additional aspect to it — we’re just really curious, horrible people. Listening to  Serial or binge-watching The Jinx isn’t much different than rubbernecking a car accident. But there’s also a puzzle aspect to it – we want to figure out what happened. Why do these killers do the things they do and why are they driven to do it?

It’s nothing new, the trend started to really pick up in the 1970’s, but the adaptation of these horrible figures has blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Real life serial killer Ed Gein was the inspiration for not one, but two famous horror films: Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. Gein’s traits were blended with other serial killers to create Buffalo Bill, but Silence of the Lambs mostly focuses on Hannibal Lecter, and was part of a series of films based on the fictional killer before Fuller took a go at the property. The real life crimes of both The Zodiac Killer and Jack The Ripper have been turned into multiple films. Hawkeye himself even starred in an independent bio pic about Jeffrey Dahmer, you know, the other guy who ate people.

(The trailer for the 2002 film Dahmer starring Jeremy Renner. Don’t watch if squeamish.)

This muddling of truth and fantasy is also a factor in why we’re so obsessed: a heinous crime turns into a scary campfire story. These sociopaths who were at best seen as average during their time on Earth, have turned into myths and legends. They may be infamous, but they’ve made their mark.

A perfect example of this is the killer John Wayne Gacy. He worked as a clown entertaining children at parties and visiting hospitals and just so happened to murder and sexually assault young boys in his off hours. Despite probably never having donned a clown suit while committing his murders, the Killer Clown trope is alive and well. In fact, American Horror Story: Freakshow‘s Twisty was clearly inspired by Gacy’s alter-ego, Pogo.

Not to burst anyone’s bubble here – but the odds of actually being murdered by a serial killer are extremely rare. There’s usually no more than 25 operating (in the United States) at any given moment, plus it’s 12x more likely that you’d be murdered by a family member or close acquaintance in the heat of the moment. In fact, there’s probably more serial killers currently on television than there are walking around actually murdering people. So you can sleep well knowing that there are other things to worry about, like global warming or California’s massive drought.

Let us know your favorite serial killer – fictional or real – in the comments below! (Or figure out which one you should date by taking this BuzzFeed quiz)

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