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Let’s Stop Romanticizing Serial Killers

by Caroline Renas

“Manipulation/Blood and Gore/Murder/Cannibalism/Head Injury/Possible Consent”

These are the tags on the fanfiction Something in the Way, chronicling the relationship between the given reader and Jeffrey Dahmer.

In the notes, it reads, “I [the author] am not trying to romanticize Dahmer, I merely thought it’d be interesting to see what it would be like to date him - from your own personal perspective.”

And this is where I stopped reading. I mean, I didn’t even want to be on that site to begin with, but I was fully intent on starting off this article with the horrifying concept of Dahmer fanfiction. And that’s before the content of the fanfiction even started.

I’ve noticed a trend in the past few years of serial killers being looked at as angelic figures that just deserved love and attention, rather than as mass murderers. “I could change them,” teenagers say.

There’s a lot of different reasons this could be the case. I feel that one of the most likely candidates for this conundrum is put as being the fault of the people idolizing them; rather, it’s the romanticization of killers that comes through pop culture.

Since the podcast Serial first debuted, America has grasped onto any interesting real cult, murder, or other criminal investigation that they can, turning it into Hollywood profit. I’ll admit, I listen to my true crime podcasts every week, and I turn on Netflix documentaries for something to aimlessly watch in the background. Hell, I’m majoring in criminology in college - I find this stuff fascinating. However, I’m not consuming true crime or crime shows because I idolize these atrocities and the people behind it - I take this stuff in because I want to learn how to protect the victim, I take this stuff in because it’s a psychologically natural process.

There’s several concrete reasons why so many people consume these serial killer documentaries or cult podcasts at the rate that we do. For one, personal security. The phrase “we fear what we don’t understand” could be applied here; it isn’t necessarily about finding their stories interesting as it is that the subconscious and conscious need to know the worst possible scenarios, and how to prevent ourselves from being the victims of them. This factor plays such a large part in my interest in criminology, as I am sure it is the same for many people interested in the field. This possible reason could potentially tie into hybristophilia, the sexual attraction to criminals. What starts off as fear can evolve into a sadistic attraction towards the criminal who is “willing” to protect oneself or to the killer who will hurt the victim despite the “unconditional love” they show to them. Often known as the “Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome,” those with hybristophilia have the sad reality of having no control over this attraction - it often stems from their own stories of abuse and the feeling as though that is the normal way to be loved, therefore continuing the cycle of abuse. It’s even sadder when we realize that the majority of the people seeing serial killers as these angelic figures are women or young girls.

It’s important to understand that I’m not strictly blaming the people who romanticize the killers, as it’s so much out of their control and as noted, stems from past abuse and hurt. However, the media feeds it to us like candy, accelerating what we can consume of it.

I don’t fully believe that this is just a psychological tendency following the blatant or neutral distribution of crime in the media, but also, because of the plasticity and shallow tendencies of Hollywood.

To sum it up, I’m talking about casting.

Set aside your Dorothea Puentes and your John Wayne Gacys, but the majority of serial killers (in reality) are fairly normal looking folk; sometimes you can tell by the look in their eyes or their facial expression that they’re really not that normal.

Take a look at Jeffrey Dahmer - I don’t think that the nightmarish fanfiction I started the article off with is just because of that psychological tendency, no, I blame it on the film adaptation of Dahmer’s story and upbringing. In the 2017 drama My Friend Dahmer, the titular role is portrayed by the attractive (by societal standards) actor Ross Lynch. I hate that I’m even thinking about whether or not Jeffrey Dahmer is attractive or not, but it’s fairly obvious that if you asked most of America, they’d say Lynch is significantly more attractive than the actual murderer.

Ted Bundy was already a charismatic and known-to-be handsome man who used those traits to lure women in, however, he was just a guy. But then you make Zac Efron into Bundy, as they did in Shockingly Evil, Wicked and Vile, and you’ve got yourself a semi-realistic serial killer within the Troy Bolton-portraying actor every young girl wanted to date.

Following the movie’s release, teen girls jumped to social media (TikTok), turned their LED lights on to set the right tone, and pulled out makeup to create fake bruises and gashes in their attempt to portray one of Bundy’s victims, all for likes or the so-called “Bundy Girl Look.”

Horrible, isn’t it?

It should be questioned why two of the most notable examples of Hollywood romanticizing these criminals decided to cast Disney actors - Lynch from Austin and Ally, and Efron from High School Musical, people whose faces I’ve grown up around and feel comfortable with. Children might’ve had crushes on them back on the Disney Channel; a few years later, and these little kid hearthrobs are suddenly playing serial rapists and killers.

This is only the start. Richard Ramirez was portrayed by Zach Villa - a model - in American Horror Story: 1984; the anthology series also cast Evan Peters (a loveable, handsome actor) as Charlie Manson. While I’m not willing to delve into researching this again, I’m quite confident that after both of these seasons dropped, dozens of fanfictions were made not necessarily with “Evan Peters as Manson '' - but with just Charles Manson alone.

Regardless of the criminal at hand, there is this mentality many possess to find excuses for a serial killers’ actions. The thing is, I feel that I’ve heard this justification-of-murder argument made only for the more attractive serial killers. The Menendez brothers for example - take them out of the court setting most photos of them are found in, and they’re fairly attractive men! The issue is people who justify them killing their parents, treating the duo in a mixture between a relationship with them, and serving as their defense attorneys.

I’ve never once heard the same deal made for Gary Ridgeway, or Andrei Chikatilo, or David Berkowitz.

I’ve noted earlier how upsetting it is that this demographic of idolizers are primarily young girls and women. By heteronormative standards, it’s sad that we live in a society in which the bar is so low for men that we’ve resorted to justifying their actions as a way to continue to feel loved or deserved. It’s even sadder that the emergence of trends such as the “Bundy Girl Look” on Tiktok paint an unrealistic portrayal of what a woman needs, as teenage boys - not men - but your middle school son believes that a Ted Bundy personality and mindset is what attracts a girl.

We can’t idolize the atrocities of serial killers. With the way Hollywood is increasingly retelling crime cases, there are just more and more fandoms to get obsessed with the criminals at hand - often on social media. Before we know it, we’re forming a virtual cycle of abuse that allows these actions and people to be justified, and it’s up to the next decade or two in the media to turn this around.

Serial killers aren’t teen heartthrobs. Stop acting like they are.


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