The problematic adoration of serial killers
Idolizing criminals will only make violence worse
A few weeks ago, I went to a writing camp just outside of Jasper, Alberta. The small ranch we were staying in was nestled in the midst of mountains and, I thought, was going to be the perfect place to get writing work done, attend workshops, and communicate with other writers.
I was right, to a certain extent.
It was during one of the workshops where one of the women attending began detailing the current project she was working on: a serial killer’s coming of age story, attempting to understand how people turn to a life of violence and crime. It was after she explained this, and after she read us a scene for our workshop, that one of the other women in the room spoke up.
She began talking about how violence is what “empowers” serial killers, and claimed that, while she didn’t agree with their violence, she understood them. She even went as far as referencing some of her “favourite serial killers” while engaging in this discussion – while discussing why this woman’s novel would be such an interesting read.
I remember feeling uncomfortable while this situation was going on. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of watching true crime videos or podcasts as much as the next morbid university student, but I wouldn’t necessarily refer to these criminals as favourites, and I don’t even think I would go as far as saying that I enjoy reading about true crime, because to be frank, I don’t.
What I do enjoy is being able to understand. To try to wrap my head around how these people – people like you and me – can somehow turn to a life of such brutality and see it as normal. How someone can grow up and view taking a human life as insignificant as buying groceries at the local Safeway has always terrified and disturbed me. So, by learning about true crime, by learning about these criminals, and about learning how we got here, I find a sense of understanding. It feels as though I can understand the unexplainable.
However, I also believe that this is part of the problem.
There is an ongoing movement, specifically in the United States in relation to gun violence culture that revolves around hiding the names of those who enact violence. There’s even an organization called Don’t Name Them whose goal is exactly that.
They claim that by withholding the names of criminals (as long as they’d been caught and are in custody or are deceased), it may decrease incentive for copycat crimes in the future. Don’t Name Them states that “some suspects are motivated by a desire for fame, notoriety, and/or recognition” and that by focusing on the perpetrator, we are actively avoiding the victims and heroes who deserve more media air time.
This is why I find myself feeling uncomfortable when it comes to people discussing their “favourite serial killers,” such as Ted Bundy or Charles Manson. What’s even more horrifying is that many of these “famous” serial killers have active fanbases online. Bundy and Manson in specific have hoards of fan blogs and fan accounts dedicated to them on websites like Tumblr and Twitter.
The notoriety and fame we attach to criminals, and specifically serial killers and mass shooters, is alarming. Even more alarming is how it is a factor in creating copy-cat shooter and criminals, wanting to make a name for themselves in the same way others have.
The Hill reported that since the Columbine shooting in 1999, it has inspired “more than 100 copycat plots and attacks have happened in the nearly 20 years since the Columbine shooting.” One of these occurred earlier this year, April 2019, when a woman who was planning a copy-cat strike in the Colorado area abandoned her plans and instead committed suicide.
Before her body had been discovered, and during the time she was seen as a threat, “Denver-area schools closed as a precaution, with classes and extracurricular activities canceled for a half-million students” according to the Chicago Tribune.
There is no denying that glorifying serial killers and mass shooters is only causing a rise in these crimes, and yet still, we do it. But why? Why do so many, myself included, find true crime as interesting as we do?
Maybe it’s for the same reasons I do: an attempt to understand a thought process that’s so foreign to my own, one that takes human life and sees it as disposable as garbage. Maybe there will never be an answer for why so many people are fascinated by the true crime community, and maybe there isn’t anything wrong with being fascinated by true crime.
What is wrong, however, is taking real criminals and idolizing them. Picking your “favourites” and making them famous by spreading their name and sharing their pictures. As soon as we can understand that making these criminals famous is only going to smart more violence, maybe we’ll start making some progress.