The hubbub around the recent documentary on Jeffrey Dahmer reminded us of a very peculiar phenomenon: serial killers becoming (in)famous. Why are so many people interested in the lives of individuals who committed severe crimes? Why are we interested in the details of horrible crimes that perhaps only apparently, leave most of us appalled and shocked? Is it okay to be interested in the lives of serial killers?
Today we’ll attempt to answer these questions. We’ll try to understand why people are so intrigued to learn more about individuals such as Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and, most recently, Jeffrey Dahmer. Moreover, we’ll look at the potentially unconscious bases of this apparently strange allure so characteristic of serial killers, alongside a few more ways to understand our interest. Finally, we’ll also discuss why it usually isn’t that big of a deal if you’re interested in the lives of serial killers.
It’s important to understand that this isn’t a modern phenomenon; after all, Jack the Ripper became quite famous in the 19th century.
Back in the day, public executions gathered massive crowds who watched things like “hang, draw, and quarter” and all kinds of torture fairly frequently. From the dawn of humanity, violence was much more present across gladiator games such as the ones presented in the Colosseum, up to public executions of the early modern age. Back then, these public manifestations of violence served as a source of entertainment (and often as a warning). But there’s more to it than simple entertainment, and we’ll see what.
Although actual violence isn’t fortunately as present in our modern lives, modern technology makes it much easier for us to gain access to horrible spectacles. It’s not just serial killers. Horror and thriller movies also fall within the same spectrum of shocked, ghastly interest in things that frighten and disgust us. But is there something perhaps unique about our interest in serial killer stories? Why are we so intrigued by serial killers?
Releasing Unconscious Destructive Drives
People frequently watch shows about serial killers without getting invested; in this case, movies and TV series on serial killers act more like any other source of entertainment. But there may be a more profound and less conscious cause of the mysterious “allure” of serial killers.
We all hold aggressive, hateful, vengeful, nasty, envious, ‘evil’ parts of ourselves, at least to a certain extent. Living in a civilised society, we learned how to control these negative drives; we’re also good, loving, and caring, so in the end it usually evens out. However, some people, like serial killers, break the rules and give free reins to these usually contained destructive tendencies. They do it so drastically that we cannot help but be (unpleasantly) fascinated by their actions. Nonetheless, like all parts of ourselves, even the most destructive and unwanted ones push to be released, which does not mean that they’ll drive us to enact violent or criminal acts. More often than not, as humans, we utilise other, more acceptable ways to ‘sublimate’ such drives.
Thus, one psychological interpretation of the celebrity status of serial killers is that it’s possible that some parts of us, buried deep within the unconscious, identify with serial killers and, through their stories, vicariously experience the sort of things we would never be able to carry out in reality.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean all humans have a serial killer lurking deep within their personalities. Just because some parts of us can identify with serial killers doesn’t mean we are likely to emulate their actions. Quite the contrary, unconscious identification with serial killers and vicarious expression of our repressed, destructive drives helps us to remain within the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable. In fact, sublimating such drives is just another way of expressing or releasing emotions and, as such, is considered a healthy mechanism.
The Enigma, The Prey Brain & Controlled Fear
There are many other explanations for why serial killer stories can attract so much of our interest:
We may be attracted to serial killers and their deeds because they represent such an extreme form of human behaviour that they become an enigma. How is it possible for a human being to carry out such unthinkable acts? We see their actions as so incredibly far from what we deem as normal that we cannot help but feel a desire to find answers. Attempting to solve the serial killer ‘enigma’ and trying to make sense of their actions can be a compelling magnet, keeping us hours researching them online and talking about this with friends and family. Our minds are wired to make sense of things, and serial killers may just be one of the most challenging mysteries to solve.
The Prey Brain (aka Preparing for the unpredictable)
Serial killers usually attack randomly, so theoretically, if fitting a particular serial killer’s set of individual variables, anyone can be a victim of a serial killer. Although the likelihood of being targeted by a serial killer is extremely low, the perils of actually being attacked without being prepared are horrifying. Although, as humans, we’re no longer prey, our brains have evolved with one critical mission: to strive to survive in the face of threats. It’s possible, thus, that by learning more about serial killers, we’re better prepared to face potential future threats and, in turn, feel just a bit more secure. This is likely the same reason why we’re generally attracted to watching thriller and horror movies.
Controlled Release of Fear
Much like horror or thriller movies, shows on serial killers allow us to experience fear without exposure to real danger. Watching serial killer stories on tv may enable us to feel a rollercoaster of emotions similar to that caused by other mystery or crime stories: what these shows are feeding is our thirst for emotional experiences, which often will include fear, but that eventually will land on a more calming resolution.
Is it okay to like “true crime” shows?
Yes, our human nature, our curiosity, and our unconscious human drives may predispose us to be intrigued by serial killers. It’s a way to get acquainted with human nature’s darker side and assert the boundaries of what’s good, acceptable, normal, and sane. This, in turn, can make us feel good, acceptable, normal, and sane. The enigma surrounding these extreme characters creates a strong gravitational pull alongside a desire to solve the mystery. It’s also the emotional thrill that these stories evoke in us which keeps us glued to the screen
Moreover, watching serial killers and other true crime shows is also a way to learn more about human psychology (and psychopathology) and help us ‘prepare’ for potential real-world threats, even if very unlikely.
So, you really shouldn’t worry if you’re interested in the lives and minds of serial killers. It’s, in all likelihood, just our normal reaction to something drastically deviating from societal norms.
Can you be too much into serial killers?
Obsessions of any kind usually hamper normal functioning, and being obsessed with serial killers is no exception. Spending an excessive amount of time watching TV shows about serial killers, researching them online and thinking about them simply means that you’ll have less time for other things. In this sense, being obsessed with serial killers can negatively affect your well-being, just like being obsessed with a particular celebrity.
Although some may contend that TV shows about serial killers might motivate some people to mimic what they’ve seen on TV, it is unlikely that such shows actually make us more violent in practice. There’s simply no evidence that this is true. It’s a bit like violent video games, played by millions of people, without evidence that they actually increase aggressive tendencies .
From pure entertainment to unconscious identification and vicarious experience of negative drives, there are many ways to “consume” content on serial killers; hopefully, we were able to provide a fresh insight into this peculiar phenomenon and maybe even give a nice consolation if you worry you watch too much true crime shows and believe you might turn into serial killers yourself.