Dark obsessions: Why we're culturally obsessed with serial killers

8th August 2019

We’re obsessed with true crime. Documentaries, podcasts, films, TV series — in whatever format, we are gripped by the grim details of grisly murders and seemingly fascinated by the dark, sadistic minds of serial killers. But why?

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you can take a walking tour of the streets where Jeffery Dahmer picked up his victims before taking them back to his apartment for dinner.

In LA, Serial Killer Speed Dating invites you to find the fake serial killer in a crowd of potential matches.

The UK’s very first true crime museum, where you can see the actual containers in which George Haigh dissolved his victims, recently opened in Hastings.

But with so many serial killers displaying traits of narcissism, with an excessive need for admiration, are we just giving them exactly what they would have wanted?

Obsession

Ted Bundy would have loved to know there are people out there interested in every microscopic detail of his life and crimes.

Are movies like Sky Cinema’s Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile simply glorifying serial killers in the name of entertainment?

“The public’s obsession with true crime is difficult to explain,” says psychologist Dr David Holmes.

“There might be a touch of the element of boredom behind it. People are seeking out those individuals because they feel like they’re much more interesting than your regular ‘good guy’ is.”

Good documentaries focus on the victims, rather than the details of the killer’s crimes

The media has definitely played a huge part in making serial killers famous, and fame can be a means of transcending death. Bundy was executed in 1989, yet he is the subject of a very recent movie and documentary.

“Documentaries have in some ways increased the curiosity in [serial killers], but good documentaries focus on the victims, rather than the details of the killer’s crimes,” says Dr Holmes.

“Films have a completely different approach. They need to sell the product on the basis of it being a good story.”

Infamy

The 2017 movie My Friend Dahmer chronicled the teen years of one of the world’s most infamous serial killers.

Write-director Marc Meyers says: “I was initially thinking of a fictional tale about a young boy who later in life becomes a serial killer. I didn’t think I was going to base it on real events at first.

“But then a publisher gave me a very early copy of a book that was going to come out the following year. It was a graphic novel written by John Backderf — one of the few friends Jeffrey Dahmer had in high school.”

I knew because Dahmer is so infamous, I had to find someone that could carry his likeness

Meyers’s aim was simply to tell an authentic story about what a serial killer would have been like as a teenager, something director Joe Berlinger also claims he attempted to do in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

Many have compared the two films, particularly for the choice to cast former Disney stars as vicious serial killers.

“I spent about a year, on and off, meeting with all kinds of young actors,” explains Meyers. “I knew because Dahmer is so infamous, I had to find someone that could carry his likeness.”

“I never even thought I could get as close as I did, but when I was introduced to Ross [Lynch], I instantly knew it was going to be him. And he’s obviously an incredibly talented performer.”

He was human, just like the rest of us. He was not a monster yet — not at 17

Movies about serial killers often attract backlash. When the killers, crimes and victims are real, it’s hard to separate the story from the real-life outcome. But Meyers is unapologetic about his decision.

“There are movies out there that do sensationalise the characters, so I understand the criticism,” he says. “But I don’t necessarily think that can be applied to what we did.”

“I know some might think our storytelling made the audience empathise with him. But he was human, just like the rest of us. He was not a monster yet — not at 17.”

It is a natural part of human nature to be curious about the facts surrounding death

But why are so many naturally inclined towards these stories. Why do we find them so gripping?

Psychology

Psychologist Sally Baker explains: “As long as it is is far enough removed from people’s sense of reality, curiosity can take precedence over any natural feelings of grief or sadness

“It is a natural part of human nature to be curious about the facts surrounding death.

“We are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the intimate, salacious details exposed in these stories.”

Meyers, as a director, believes that when a story is worth telling, it just is.

“A narrative film based on non-fiction material doesn’t necessarily celebrate the person it is about,” he says.

“Movies are empathy machines. The purpose is for us to care about our main character. It just happens to be that this main character doesn’t have a moral fabric.”

8th August 2019