I remember talking to a friend about an interview I watched where Ted Bundy, a serial killer who had kidnapped, abused and murdered 30 women was talking about his crimes. My friend’s immediate response was “Oh, is there any movie about him?” It was surprising but not unusual – so many of us are deeply fascinated by serial killers. And to answer my friend’s question – yes, there were more than 25 movies/shows made about the life of Ted Bundy.
This brings us to the first reason why we watch serial killers with such compelled horror – it’s the Media’s highly stylized, detailed and gruesome depiction of these killers. It all started in 1983 when the Justice Department of the United States announced that according to the FBI, at any given moment there were dozens of active serial killers at large in the United States who were responsible for thousands of deaths a year. This led to widespread panic among citizens for their safety which was then capitalized by media outlets and trading card companies. Together they pushed serial killers into the realm of American Popular Culture – which is watched and followed by the world.
We can also argue that the Media churns out content that the audience demands – so what is it about us that attracts us to this content? We feel a mix of captivation and disgust towards these killers because they partake in such gruesome violence they push the boundaries of the most primal human emotions – fear, lust and anger. So while these are feelings we all experience to some degree, we watch with awe, confusion and curiosity as they are magnified in such cruel acts.
These human emotions become inhuman and so do the people that engage in them. But research shows that because they are humans experiencing these human emotions to an abnormal degree we also feel a sense of empathy towards them. We may find ourselves rooting for them. This simultaneous process of humanization and dehumanization leaves us feeling puzzled and pushes us to know more about them so we can solve this dilemma. It’s human nature to be curious and try to understand the inexplicable by trying to relate it to what we already know.
Emile Durkheim, a famous sociologist believed that every member of our society has a function. The function of crime, according to Durkheim, is ‘to clarify the boundaries between good and evil in society. This is exactly the function serial killers serve in our society – they lie at the extreme end of evil. Their actions are incomprehensible – beyond reason – not within the limits of how humans behave. We can clearly see the boundary between good and evil – and that can be somewhat comforting.
Our fascination with serial killers comes from several sources: from the media, the rules society makes for us and even from our own emotions. We can detest something but still be captivated by it, it’s baffling. So the next time you’re watching something about a serial killer with rapt attention – ask yourself where’s this interest coming from?
Sanjana has recently graduated with a degree in Psychology and is interning at The Thought Company to gain more knowledge and experience on her path to becoming a mental health professional. She is interested in understanding what makes people resilient in the face of adversity. She has a knack for cooking, origami and re-reading Khaled Hosseini books. Her favourite way to de-stress is watching a Pixar movie curled up next to her dogs. If she could be any Pixar character, she’d be Remy from Ratatouille!