by Ayesha Azeem, March 25, 2022
People have always been interested in learning about influential people’s lives — through both gossip and the media. Whether we’re learning about Jennifer Aniston’s new fling, Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy, or Harry Styles’s secret vacation, we often interest ourselves with other people’s lifestyles, namely celebrities, because we feel as if we personally know them through our powerful admiration and devotion. We see celebrities as heroes; people we aspire to be like. But why are we so drawn to the lives of villains as well?
Recently, women have developed a strong obsession with true crime, a literary and film genre in which the author examines an actual crime and exposes the actions committed by real people; specifically, there has been a sudden fascination with serial killer crimes. This infatuation with evil reveals our desire to uncover the secrets and truth behind those who commit the horrific acts we abhor. Perhaps it fascinates us that these famous perpetrators hold such obvious disregard for morality and societal values; we feel obligated to witness the dramatic scenes unfold as a means of “preparation” for any real-life danger.
From Ted Bundy to Charles Manson, women often find themselves deluded into romanticizing famous serial killers. We find it hard to accept that attractive people are just as capable of committing grotesque crimes as ordinary people. Recently, the Joker movie played by Joaquin Phoenix, though fictional, has captured the attention of young girls infatuated with his depressing life story and motivation to commit heinous crimes that are similar to real killers. Though women are more likely to be victims of a major crime, for some reason they feel increasingly attracted to the vile and twisted side of history, intrigued to learn about the ways in which they can face danger.
Psychologists conducted a 2010 study at the University of Illinois to investigate the relationship between gender and the true-crime audience. Psychologist R. Chris Fraley and their team discovered that women wrote 70% of the true-crime book reviews on Amazon, while men felt a greater connection to war books, writing 82% of reviews (Yates). The researchers hypothesized why women may feel an increased inclination to read more true crime and suggested that such stories can provide useful information that may help readers avoid or escape potential attacks such as murder or rape. To investigate this claim, the psychologists reviewed the summaries of the books most often reviewed by women. Further study revealed that women were more likely to read a true crime book if the victim used a clever ‘psychological trick’ to deceive and escape from their perpetrator. Unsurprisingly, women also felt attracted to true crime books with female victims. Thus, evidence strongly suggests that women tend to read more true crime books with clever female survivors because they provide a ‘guide’ of instructions as to how to avoid deadly encounters in real life. If women consume as much violence as they can in art, maybe they can escape the true violence that unfortunately lingers in our reality.
Recently, the producers of All Killa No Filla, a British podcast dedicated to exploring the lives of serial killers, found that roughly 85% of listeners are female (Woman’s Hour). BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour considered why their listeners consisted mostly of women, and invited Dr. Gemma Flynn, a criminologist at Edinburgh University, and Rachel Fairburn, co-host of the famous podcast, to explain their theories. Dr. Flynn believes that a major explanation for female true crime listeners includes women retaining an extensive fear of crime. According to Fairburn, “women love true crime because pretty much from the time that we’re very small, we’re told to be careful, look after ourselves, watch out for bad people, make sure we get home safely” (Woman’s Hour). The host suggests that society constantly attempts to protect women from danger, instilling in their minds that as long as they’re alone, they can be attacked. Thus, women tend to leave their house with a constant target on their back and safety on their minds, attracting them to true crime out of self-preservation. With the stereotype and widely held belief that women cannot walk alone at night because of possible attacks, women feel the need to protect themselves as much as possible, consuming true crime stories at the top of their list.
The constant fear society holds regarding women as potential victims of brutal crimes stems from the media’s infatuation with blood and murder. According to a 1992 study conducted at SUNY Oswego, mass media “serves as the primary source of information about crime for up to 95% of the general public,” with approximately 50% of news coverage devoted exclusively to crime stories (Mann). With this extensive reporting on crime and violence, Americans fall victim to their availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a person’s mind when thinking of an idea or event. Because of the increased attention presented towards crime on-air, Americans may not believe that the crime rate has actually decreased over the years since all they hear about is murder, rape, and violence when they turn on their televisions. While murder rates decreased by 20% from 1993 to 1996, reporting on murder on television rose by 721%. (Mann). This affects women especially as the constant fear perpetrated by the media regarding crime and murder may be a key reason in females’ attraction towards true crime media.
Now that we understand why women tend to reach for books labeled with the true crime genre, the compelling question needed to be answered is why women romanticize these vile human beings. After the release of Extreme Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a film on the life of Ted Bundy based on the perspective of his girlfriend, viewers went to Twitter to express their newfound admiration for the ‘misunderstood’ villain. Ted Bundy was portrayed by attractive and talented Zac Efron, only attracting more fans to the Ted Bundy “fandom,” a group of teenage girls infatuated with the killer (Donaldson). Some tweets include: “Love that conservative masculinity #TedBundy,” and “Ted Bundy is so hot… wish he killed me” (via Twitter). The women who romanticize serial killers like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson can be described as having hybristophilia, or sexual arousal “over someone committing an offensive or violent act,” as described by Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychology professor at DeSales University. These women admire the idea of being the ‘exception’ for a damaged person; they feel the need to ‘nurture’ and ‘protect’ their powerful and evil lovers. These women fantasize about “changing” the broken part of serial killers; they want to “fix” them; usually, women who admire such behaviors have trouble with conventional relationships due to insecurities. If she dates a serial killer in jail, at least she’ll know where he is all the time (Psychology Today). Additional research indicates that women feel attracted to masculinity and may interpret serial killers’ unchecked aggression as ‘protective’ or ‘manly.’ Women may feel that these attributes will keep them safe and secure, and thus may prefer more violent mates (Perrett).
Whatever may be the reason behind women’s fascination with serial killers, this infatuation proves fatal. When Charles Manson and Ted Bundy awaited death, thousands of female fans lined up, expecting to marry these vicious men, refusing to believe their crimes simply because of their attractiveness (Sutton). The never-ending fame of attractive serial killers depicts the true danger: our inclination as human beings to automatically trust and like attractive people, simply because of their looks. Many women fell prey to Bundy and Manson’s traps simply because they might’ve misjudged them for being kind, respectable people because of their beautiful smiles or bright eyes. Though Netflix and other entertainment providers may attempt to raise awareness of real tragedies, it is important to also consider the danger of awareness. Today’s generation may be too infatuated with Zac Efron’s looks and appearance in Extreme Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile to realize that his charm was what allowed many to overlook his apparent misogyny and objectification of women: “Women are possessions… Beings which are subservient, more often than not, to males. Women are merchandise” (Wyman). The tales of these serial killers should serve as a warning to many women, rather than favorable romantic heroes; we really don’t know what people are like behind closed doors. We need to remind ourselves who these serial killers actually are: vile, immoral men disguised as educated, charismatic professionals; they are not compassionate or need protection – they do not feel. We must not grieve or sympathize with men that never existed.
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Mann, Stephen, et al. “Crime and the Media in America.” OUPblog, 3 Apr. 2018, blog.oup.com/2018/04/crime-news-media-america/.
Perrett, David I., et al. “Effects of Sexual Dimorphism on Facial Attractiveness.” Nature, vol. 394, no. 6696, 1998, pp. 884–887. doi:10.1038/29772.
Ramsland, Katherine M. Confession of a Serial Killer: the Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer. ForeEdge, 2016.
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Sutton, Candace. “Inside Serial Killer Charles Manson’s Deluded Fan Club.” NewsComAu, News.com.au, 9 Jan. 2017, http://www.news.com.au/world/north-america/inside-the-deluded-world-of-serial-killer-charles-mansons-fan-club-and-the-fiancee-who-says-hes-innocent/news-story/364fe75d235055d38186b3e84347d035.
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Yates, Diana. “Women, More than Men, Choose True Crime over Other Violent Nonfiction.” ILLINOIS, 15 Feb. 2010, news.illinois.edu/view/6367/205718.