True crime has been a popular genre for several decades. At this point, it’s common for people to watch a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer or to have a podcast on in the background talking about the Golden State Killer. I’ve even covered several well-known true crime cases here on my blog.
While the fascination with true crime is nothing new, crime reporting used to have a much more limited outreach. Papers and tabloids covered local cases that didn’t always make national headlines (but were still sensationalized), and even radio had a limited scope. In general, the slow pace of communication before our current rise in technology and global connection kept the coverage of crimes fairly local. It wasn’t until recently that true crime got massive attention. While bigger productions like documentaries exist for the more well-known criminals, true crime has also flourished on a smaller scale through independent online video series and podcasts.
True crime programming has been criticized for various reasons—from insensitivity to elevation. Others see it as a morbid curiosity. But there is a thin line between glorification and reporting that fans should know, particularly the group who identify as part of a serial killer fandom. While true crime content creators and fans may be fascinated by the stories of kidnappers and killers, they do not condone their actions. The serial killer fandom, however, thrives on sympathizing with and sometimes even venerating the criminals in question. As one fan of Ted Bundy said, “He was sadistic and the crimes were brutal, but I think there’s a long path of things psychologically that made him do the things he did… I think I could have helped him.”
There isn’t one definitive reason for why some people, most particularly women according to some reports, find themselves attracted to serial killers. Some admit the attraction is physical, but the idea of being able to “save” the killer in question is a recurring theme in many cases. According to David Schmid, author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, the savior complex is a key aspect for many women. Some women who sympathize with serial killers also pursue active relationships with those who are incarcerated. “Many of the women who form these attachments to serial killers have also been in abusive relationships,” says Schmid. It may seem backwards, but there is a perceived safety in knowing where your partner is at all times and that they cannot cause you any physical harm.
Not every fan is necessarily in love with or interested in pursuing a relationship with the killers they admire. Some fans see them more like celebrities or characters from a TV show— creating online communities to connect with other fans, drawing fanart or writing fanfiction, and making memes. For some examples, take a look at BuzzFeed’s coverage of the James Holmes fandom. While not a serial killer, James Holmes is responsible for the 2012 Aurora movie theatre shooting that left 12 dead. There are similar fandoms for other prominent shooters, such as the Columbine shooters, and serial killers alike. For many people, they find an aspect of community and connection with others through their shared adoration and interest, despite how appalling an interest it may be. Some connect with the killers themselves, finding catharsis in their acts of rage and “revenge.”
Most people in these fandoms are not likely to commit their own acts of violence (though it’s impossible to say none of them will). They have their own varied emotional and psychological reasons behind their attachment to these heinous figures. It is clear, though, that these fandoms are not entirely harmless. With the rise of social media making it easier for serial killer fans to find one another, it also makes their communities more visible to the general public as well. Many family members of victims are alive and often still grieving the loss of their loved one. In fact, many have criticized the recent Netflix documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer because the families of victims were not consulted or informed during its production.
For those who have lost a loved one to a prominent killer, navigating the internet is like walking on eggshells—they never know when they might come across a meme about Dahmer’s cannibalism or a post talking about how handsome the latest school shooter is. Most fans of true crime are not fans of serial killers and the rise in popularity of the genre has both normalized and distanced us from these criminals. When our culture treats serial killers like celebrities, showering them with media coverage and endless TV specials, it’s easy to see how people might come to view them like celebrities and are attracted to them. There is even a name for the psychological disorder: Hybristophilia.