The danger of romanticising serial killers

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Tragic murders have long garnered attention from across the globe, so much so that criminals like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Jack The Ripper have become household names. It is natural to be intrigued by these individuals, to ponder nature or nurture, and to be curious about what went wrong. Because of this innate interest, it is no wonder that the films and documentaries inspired by these criminals are so widely watched. It is in our nature to be drawn in, and to try to understand these murderers on a human level. That said, where must we draw the line between curiosity and obsession? 

While series and films about the world’s most notorious serial killers are principally intended to inform, often they end up romanticising these real-life monsters. True crime audiences are largely comprised of women, and platforms like Netflix have geared their marketing around this statistic. The summary of American Psycho (2000) immediately describes the murderer’s ‘chiselled good looks’, and the first episode of The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019) is entitled ‘Handsome Devil’. These lexical choices are intentional ploys to draw in an audience, humanising and glamourising the murderers that their plots centre around. 

Beyond semantics, the casting choices made by directors are intended to inspire this sense of hybristophilia (a love of criminals) in their audiences

Beyond semantics, the casting choices made by directors are intended to inspire this sense of hybristophilia (a love of criminals) in their audiences. In the 2019 film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Zac Efron is cast as Ted Bundy. The screenplay is immensely sexually charged and depicts Bundy as a charismatic enigma that oozes sex appeal. This tone entirely juxtaposes the horrific nature of his crimes and wrongly portrays his character. Not long after the film was released, a TikTok trend went viral in which young girls would tape themselves as Bundy’s victims, using makeup to create the illusion of blood, bruising and bite marks on their skin. This illustrates that there are severe consequences of depicting serial killers as sex symbols. By distorting people’s perceptions of the crimes committed, they become normalised and romanticised, all in exchange for Hollywood profit. 

Unfortunately, in recent years, the media has continued to glorify serial killers. By casting attractive actors who are already adored by fans in the role of a murderer, audiences begin to fantasise about being victims of their crimes. The effects of this have become increasingly apparent across several social media platforms. There are growing fan bases not only for the actors who portray these criminals, but for the criminals themselves. There is a growing presence of Ted Bundy fan pages on Twitter and Instagram, and thousands of fanfiction accounts across the world regularly publishing prose that indulges in fantasies of being the victim of an infamous killer. The intensity of media attention on these crimes has resulted in their glamourisation and ultimately casts murderers in a flattering light.

Actors such as Matt Damon, Jamie Dorian and Leonardo DiCaprio have all been cast to fulfil roles that are part of the ‘hot serial killer’ trope that is so popular. Their performances are powerful and provocative, but they should be making our skin crawl, rather than ignite some sadistic, sexual spark. Due to the adverse response of fans to the release of The Ted Bundy Tapes, Netflix US made a public statement via Twitter, regarding how they have “seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service – almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers”

It is essential that audiences become aware that this should in no way deify the criminals that these plots are based on

Indeed, it is hard to see where the public sources their attraction to serial killers. Regardless of appearance, these are people who have raped, tortured and murdered their victims. Even if they are conventionally attractive, this does nothing to undermine the violent, unforgivable crimes that they have committed. The industry will undoubtedly continue to churn out films and series that feature Hollywood heartthrobs as the faces of serial killers, although it is essential that audiences become aware that this should in no way deify the criminals that these plots are based on. 

Image: Alex Litvin via Unsplash

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