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Our Obsession with Serial Killers

Why are we so intrigued by stories of and about serial killers? Is this fascination, or obsession even normal? Vatsa explores how delving into some of the darkest and most gruesome stories of humanity may help us better understand the human psyche.

Nov 9, 2019

I spent a good part of my last summer watching televised trials of serial killers and listening to true crime podcasts; these were some of the darkest and most gruesome stories of humanity made accessible to the public. As I delved deep with a macabre sense of fascination into the twisted lives of Ted Bundy, the Menendez brothers and Jeffery Dahmer, my family feared for my sanity, and occasionally, so did I. Putting aside my questionable entertainment choices or what many would dismissively call “deviant teenage preoccupations”, there is a larger picture here: the eternal fascination our society has for serial killers. This fascination has become mainstream enough for it to not be considered macabre. Books, television shows and movies barrage us with more than a healthy dosage of quality true crime content, and what was once a niche category has now become pop culture. Where does this fascination stem from? Why are we so drawn to these stories? Is this fixation normal?
My impulse to dive deep into the things that I despised and feared was hardly a unique one. Humans are by nature morbidly curious beings: we are unable to overcome the urge to rubberneck at accident scenes and we willingly pore over the biographies of serial killers. For some reason, it’s the bad guys that hold our interest – from infamous villains like The Joker, to world leaders that spout racist rhetoric. This is a natural instinct, one strengthened by the adrenaline rush. But the question is: what purpose does this instinct serve? Jordan Peterson, a renowned clinical psychologist, says: “To understand evil, is to also understand good.” He argues that one of the primary reasons we are infatuated with serial killers and true crime is because they weave the fundamental narrative of good versus evil, allowing us to understand “good” through observing “evil”.
However, it must be noted that our obsession with true crime gives us more than a simple adrenaline rush. Many argue this fascination for serial killers stems for an evolutionary subconscious desire to identify potential threats. It helps us explore and engage with the darker side of the human psyche while still enjoying the warmth and safety of our cozy living room. It’s not too close to danger, but just close enough to attempt to understand it. Watching and reading about true crime could act as the dress rehearsal. Historically, those tribes and communities that have paid attention to threatening circumstances have left behind more descendants simply because they were able to escape or fight the harmful stimuli. Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, wrote extensively about the need to explore the dark side of the human psyche, or what he called “the shadow”. He wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” From an entirely evolutionary perspective, this instinctive fascination makes complete sense and probably pays survival dividends as well.
Furthermore, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that an intimate knowledge and understanding of evil offers us more than simply greater survival chances, it could possibly also allow us to resist our own darker and baser instincts. Stanford’s infamous prison experiment of 1971 – which involved setting up a mock prison and randomly assigning participants a “prisoner” or “guard” status – goes a long way to show that when people are thrust into toxic and corrupting environments, a condition called “situational evil” arises. The study exhibits beyond a shadow of a doubt that evil is an inherent part of human nature. It is perhaps in the quest of understanding this part of our nature that we fuel this seemingly unnatural fascination of true crime.
Critics of this rising fascination often voice their concerns regarding media representations that glamorize serial killers, as they could, in turn, inspire impressionable minds. When Zac Efron played Ted Bundy in the controversial Netflix movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile”, there were many critiques about how it was morally obtuse to portray Bundy as a charismatic and handsome young man. There is nothing glamorous about this portrayal. Ted Bundy was all of those things, and the movie is immensely successful in recreating the dissonance that exists between Bundy’s crimes and his personality. Media representations of true crime serve the necessary role of breaking down the existing perceptions and stereotypical notions of what a serial killer looks like.
Many people view the rise of true crime as a toxic culture that could potentially hold the power to inspire copycat killers. This could not be further from the truth. While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive, understanding and observing evil has an inoculating effect. There have been countless instances of wisdom attained from true crime stories saving lives. Furthermore, a study conducted in 2002 revealed that college students who took a 15-week course about the Holocaust and its terrifying realities were inspired to fight against discrimination and felt empowered to make change in the world. While I acknowledge that this isn’t exactly the same scenario, parallels can certainly be drawn and it seems reasonable to say that understanding evil doesn’t make you evil, instead, it allows you to better identify and resist it. Therefore, while many people would dismissively call this a fad, this fascination with serial killers and true crime stories not only have biological and evolutionary roots but in fact, offer both greater survival chances and a better understanding of self.
Vatsa Singh is Deputy Features Editor. Email him at
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