Whilst searching the definition of serial killers, the first two recommended searches are ‘famous’ and ‘attractive’ both terms which are usually associated with people who should be celebrated. This is indicative of the recent surge in popularity of serial killer documentaries and TV shows where criminals are often glamorised and even, in extreme cases romanticised.
There are hundreds of true crime documentaries and podcasts available at the click of a button, not to mention the thousands of videos on YouTube discussing the intimate details of murder cases. This provokes the question about why there is a widespread obsession with serial killers and true crime? Is this a dangerous phenomenon? Researcher and author Coltan Scrivner states that the popularity of true crime suggests that, “morbid curiosity is a common phycological trait” implying that it’s simply human nature and that it’s perfectly normal to want to get a glimpse into the mind of someone who has committed heinous acts. Other theorists suggest that we are fascinated by serial killers and other forms of true crime because it can us help face some of our deepest anxieties: if we know the horrible tragedies of others we can learn from them and be better equipped if placed in that scenario.
If it is just human nature or simple morbid curiosity where does the problem lie? Maybe it lies with the documentary makers themselves. Aspects including the casting are often the decision of the corporations who produce them. When casting the role of serial killers, they are played by attractive and well-known actors adding to the glamorous appeal. This is a common theme across a number of Netflix documentaries and TV shows with Zac Effron starring as Ted Bundy in ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ is an example. Bundy confessed to 30 murders between 1974 and 1978, though his true victim total is still unknown. Critics believe Effron did a great job in the role and audiences described his version of Bundy as having an “oozing sex appeal”. This may be down to scripting or it could be argued that Effron’s brand of being a ‘heart throb’ was a factor given Effron was named the ‘sexiest man alive’ in 2017 by People Magazine.
Bundy is not the only serial killer that Netflix has portrayed in this way; a new Jeffrey Dahmer TV show ‘Dahmer-Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer story’ was launched by the streaming network in which Evan Peters plays Dahmer. This casting draws similarities with Effron’s and raises the same issues as Evan Peters is another stereotypically attractive man with a huge fan base of young women much like Zac Effron. Casting Bundy and Dahmer this way can add to the romanticisation of them as both people and serial killers. Some defend the casting of Effron and Peters as they have similarities in looks with Bundy and Dahmer. Bundy was also known to attract flocks of women to his trials; most of whom tried to make themselves look like his victims, going as far as changing their hair colour and length. These are possible examples of Hybristophillia (a condition where a person experiences sexual interest in and attraction to those who commit crimes) which can be seen with other serial killers.
However, history repeats itself. Following the release of ‘Extremely Wicked, shockingly evil and vile’ many young women posted pictures and videos of themselves online mimicking the victims. They also changed their appearance except this time people used SFX makeup to mimic the victims.
This highlights the main issue with these documentaries: the disrespect to the victims and the failure to give them a voice. The victims of these hideous crimes are an afterthought, many just a number rather than a real person, who, just like the viewers, had friends, family, hopes and aspirations that were ripped away from them far too soon. Georgeann Hawkins will not be remembered for the person she was, her story won’t be told but repeatedly her murderer’s will. The same applies for many women who have been forced into silence not only during their time on earth but also in death.
Many have consumed some of the thousands of hours of available serial killer content in the media which can be put down to gruesome curiosity or anxiety surrounding wanting to know how to protect yourself. It’s up to you to decide if it’s morally or ethically right to do this, but please take a moment to think of their victims.