If you ever find yourself looking on the Wikipedia page of American serial killers, you are not alone. That morbid feeling of captivation mingled with disgust is familiar to us all. Though there are people quick to judge this eery fascination, being interested in serial killers is actually normal.
Research shows that our obsession is partly neurological. Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and lecturer in psychiatry at Cardiff University, has multiple theories to explain why our brain latches onto details of crimes and the serial killers that commit them. The neuroscientist coined the act of obsession as “desperate addicts of human misery.” According to him, one possibility is that reading about serial killers may cause the release of cortisol, a precursor to adrenaline, into the body, which gives us a sort of rush.
Another reason for the obsession in infamous crimes is that serial killers often look no different than the average person. The only difference is their murderous intent. Sometimes hot, charming people do terrible things. Though the phrase “serial killer” conjures up images of a faceless, twisted or dark individual, the real men behind these crimes don’t always look like we expect them to.
“He just doesn’t look like the type to kill somebody,” one woman said during the original 1979 Ted Bundy trial. This mindset may be responsible for why people are intrigued with serial killers.
As criminologist Elizabeth Yardley puts it, “Serial killers are like chameleons in that they can blend into normal everyday life, they look like average guys and some of them are even quite charming. They don’t look like the predatory monsters that we see in the movies, so there’s this idea that they could be your neighbor, they could be anybody and you wouldn’t know, and so there’s that undercurrent of fear.”
Additionally, this interest in the stories surrounding serial killers are thrilling and entertaining to divulge in. “Serial killers are for adults what monster films are for children,” Yardley said in an interview with Shortlist. “It’s this scary fun. It’s something that’s grisly and horrible and engenders fear in you, but you can observe it from a safe distance.”
Cults of personality surrounding serial killers have existed for some time now. According to research conducted by Ryan Bergeron at CNN, the 1970s had a bizarre boom in murderers, prompting FBI agent Robert Ressler to coin the term “serial killer” to articulate the nature of the crimes. Along with Bundy, famous names such as John Wayne Gacy or the Zodiac Killer made waves in the media during this decade.
Scott Bonn of Psychology Today believes that the serial killer “represents a lurid, complex and compelling presence on the social landscape.” If you find yourself in a deep rabbit hole of Dahmer research, you can chalk it up to regular human curiosity, but as interesting as the killers may be, it’s important to remember there are families and friends who’ve lost loved ones to the actions of these men.
Pursue your interest, but do so with discretion. Keep in mind that the horrific crimes perpetrated by these murderers are more than scary tales; their actions have caused unknowable grief and desolation. A healthy balance of curiosity with respect never hurt anyone.