Stranger than fiction: Why we love serial killers


Illustration by Joey McGrellis

Madison Patterson

Ever since junior fashion design major Jillian Begre was 10 years old, she was hooked on serial killers. She started by watching movies like “Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven,” and evolved into researching killers with peculiar practices, like Ed Gein who confessed to killing two women in the 1950s and used his victim’s skin and skulls to fashion household objects like chairs and bowls.

And she is not alone in this fascination.

Serial killers’ stories are saturated all over present day streaming services and Hollywood studios. Infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to the murders of over 30 women and received the death penalty in 1989, is still just as if not more popular now than he was in the late 20th century, as seen with Netflix’s 2019 documentary series, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and the highly anticipated film, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” starring Zac Efron as the killer.

But why are consumers still so engrossed with these killers? Why are true crime podcasts like “Murder Babes,” documentaries like “Making a Murderer” and serial killer fanfiction widely popular even given their gruesome nature? The answer is actually quite complex, said Melissa Hamilton, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom.

Humans are fascinated by deviance, actions that divert from socially acceptable behavior, Hamilton said. Shy people, introverts and those who lack courage can sometimes feel an unlikely admiration toward serial killers even if they condemn their actions.

“These serial killers are just about the most deviant things we could imagine,” Hamilton said. “ … Neurochemical parts of our brain can respond in positive ways to deviance.”

She also said that the peculiarity of crimes like the ones serial killers commit can spur fascination among some.

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” she said. “Those of us who work in the criminal justice system see that what people actually do in real life is weirder, stranger, also more awful than any writer can create.”

Despite this potential entertainment, she noted that interest in deviants can be highly individual and not everyone has the same reactions to people who act outside of accepted social constructs. That’s why some people are more intrigued by serial killers than others.

Begre frequently listens to true crime podcasts, streams crime shows and reads up on historical serial killers, but while she is particularly fascinated with Ed Gein and Ted Bundy, she avoids saying she actually likes any killers.

“I like hearing about all of them,” she said. “I don’t know if I could call any of them my favorite because … it’s not something to aspire to.”

Some of her interest in older serial killer cases sprouts from her perception that there is less news media coverage of serial killers than there was in the past. Mike Aamodt, creator of a comprehensive database of serial killers,said in an article in the Guardian that there has been a decline in the number of identified serial killers since the 1980s, but emphasized there could be unidentified killers, or that law enforcement might be doing a better job of stopping killers earlier in their careers.

After the release of the trailer for “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” went online, there was backlash on Twitter against, primarily, the women who love and romanticize serial killers.

Hamilton said there may be gendered distinctions within the cultural fascination with serial killers. For example, women are sometimes brought up to believe it is their job to change men for the better, she said, which is why some may feel almost maternal towards serial killers.

“Women do this as mothers a lot of the time where children often misbehave, and that doesn’t turn off a mother. A mother simply says ‘I need to correct my young child,’” she said. “It’s kind of innate (in women), in some sense, to see the good in people.”

Women may also learn of the abuse many killers suffer as children and empathize with it more than men, she said. Those who have experienced abuse themselves within romantic relationships may also subconsciously seek out relationships behind bars, because the physical limitations of the relationship may protect them from physical harm.

Because of the large number of variables that could draw someone to a serial killer, Hamilton sees few commonalities between enthusiasts.

“For some women it’s a coping mechanism, for others it’s representative of a disturbed nature,” she said.  

Although some may suggest females have a greater interest in serial killers, there are plenty of men who share the fascination.

Spenser Ford, 33, bartends at the Tavern of Stow and considers himself to have an interest in the subject. In high school he learned about Jack the Ripper, the infamous London murderer from the late 19th century, and has continued to research historical serial killers.

Ford’s personal experiences have led him to believe the idea that more women love serial killers than men is a myth.

“Most of my guy friends have a passing interest,” he said. “…I find it strange that women would be fascinated, because generally speaking you’re the target.”

However, he doesn’t believe it is as socially acceptable for men to express their interest in the subject.

“There’s a strong stigma where when a female (is fascinated). Nobody thinks it’s weird or creepy,” he said. “But when I do, it comes off that way because generally, we’re the serial killers.”

The glorification of male serial killers is another gendered aspect of serial killer infatuation. Begre observed that while male celebrity killers get flooded with love letters and propositions, female killers rarely have the same effect on the public. For example, although considered America’s first female serial killer and having an academy award-winning movie made of her life, Berge says, “Aileen Wuornos didn’t have a real big following.”

For Ford, the gender of the serial killer is less important than the sociological and criminal aspects of a case.

“From female poisoners to (killings) of a more sexual nature … they’re all interesting to me,” he said.

Although there are many reasons one could find themselves captivated with serial killers, Hamilton said sometimes people fall for the same tricks as those who engage in romantic relationships with these predators.

“Not one size fits all,” she said. “But they tend to be very manipulative but they can turn on the charm– that same charm, that same manipulation the offenders are using on these women.”

Madison Patterson is a features writer. Contact her at [email protected].