According to Dr. Scott Bonn of Drew University, author of Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers, public fascination with fictional serial killers and real-life serial killers, has boomed since the 1970’s – and says as much about society as it does about the “celebrity serial killers” themselves.
We don’t care whether the monster du jour is the real life cannibal and serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer or the Hannibal Lecter character, we still want to watch them in classic thriller movies, read about them in psychological thrillers and talk about their psychopathic personality traits. But why?
According to the article “Here’s Why We Love Serial Killers” in Psychology Today, serial killers appeal to us in five ways:
- They are rare, extreme, and arouse our curiosity. We are about 12 times more likely to be killed by a family member than a serial killer. They are the great white sharks of murderers, a safe obsession. We are fascinated by what turns a person into a serial killer.
- They satisfy our cravings for horror. The sheer randomness of their evil deeds compels us. We generally don’t stroll through high-crime neighborhoods (given a choice), or play in traffic, but the idea that a monster like might pop out of a doorway in broad daylight brings delicious shivers. (Remember the scene in Hitchcock’s film, Frenzy, where the killer attacks the girl in his apartment and the camera backs out of the room, cutting to the sunny, bustling city street outside? That senseless violence could happen anywhere, there’s the chill factor.)
- Their psychopathic personality traits are prolific and insatiable. Serial killers personify our notion of pure evil. Some of us identify with their victims, savoring the terror. Others identify with the killer protagonist, drawn to the dark appeal of living outside the bounds of civilized behavior – and getting away with it.
- They are inexplicable. It’s not the what, but the why of serial killers that mesmerizes us. How did they get that way? Again, what turns a person into a serial killer? We crave the solution to their puzzle. (Consider the suspense thriller film Red Dragon, about the most famous character, Hannibal Lecter with its disturbing flashbacks to the killer’s abuse at the hands of his crazy grandmother. Who could blame the guy for butchering families?)
- They feed our addiction to the Adrenalin rush. Even if we don’t walk those dangerous streets, many of us ride roller coasters, seek out haunted house tours and watch scary movies. Have we become desensitized to violence? Does it take more to frighten us? The iconic film Silence of the Lambs featured both a serial killer who harvested women’s skin (Buffalo Bill, who may have been based in part on real-life killer stories Ed Gein, and his collection of female human art who inspired such horror thriller movies as “Silence of the Lambs” and a cannibal killer (Hannibal Lecter, who shared his dietary propensities with Jeffrey Dahmer, apprehended the same year as the film came out). We don’t mind at all if the line between reality and fantasy is blurred, so long as the horrors keep on coming.
So go ahead and curl up with that creepy book or movie. You’re not alone. You hope.