What’s the Deal With Serial Killers in Pop Culture?

GravestoneSo my girlfriend and I tried watching American Horror Story this season.

…And we didn’t get very far.

Without spoiling anything, the pilot begins with an L.A.P.D detective investigating a string of grisly murders, ostensibly committed by the same person. A serial killer.

Of course it’s a serial killer. Of course the crime involves gratuitous brutality that no one would actually have time for, plus some artificial ritualistic element. I don’t think the killer leaves a note, but hell, what self-respecting serial killer doesn’t taunt the cops a little?

This is nothing new, of course. Here’s a short list of serial killer stories off the top of my head: The Silence of the Lambs (plus a sequel, a prequel, a sort-of sequel, a spin-off TV series, and the original Hannibal Lector movie no one’s ever heard of), Psycho (plus a remake and a spin-off TV series), American Psycho, Dahmer, The Following, American Horror Story, From Hell, Zodiac…and the list goes on.

Oh, and they’ve announced they’re making a film adaptation of The Devil in the White City starring Leonardo DiCaprio as serial killa H.H. Holmes.

So yeah. People seem to like serial killers a whole lot for some reason. We seem to feel an innate magnetism toward some pretty bad dudes.

But why are we so interested in this stuff, even when it’s so unpleasant?

My first impression is that we consume fiction in order to immerse ourselves in worlds we’ve never been to before. When we watch movies or read books, we often expect to see that which we haven’t seen, to encounter people who are different than us. And if you’re looking for, uh, different characters, why not try people who kill other people in their spare time?

Furthermore, with any serial killer, the question of “why?” always comes up. Some part of us wants to understand why someone would kill others compulsively. Is it something in their past? Or is it something they were just born to do? Maybe the best part of those questions is that we never really get answers.

And another questions goes along with that: “what if?” If serial killers kill people for more or less no reason, then what’s to stop them from killing me or you? Your audience might ask themselves that very question: What if that could happen to me?

Perfect. When your audience wonders how they would react within your world, they’re becoming a participant in your story. Which means they’re probably enjoying it.

Lastly, fiction serves as a buffer between audience and subject matter, allowing us to watch and even root for the killer. We follow these people who only pretend to feel emotion, who use their charm in order to kill those around them—but we don’t want to get too close. I think that’s why it’s so unpleasant to hear news stories about mass murders, yet a story about a mass murderer under the guise of fictional film can draw millions to the box office. Strange, isn’t it?

People talk about serial killers all the time. They talk about them in books, on TV, in movies, even on podcasts. Even after writing this blog, I’m still not sure I understand the fascination.

But one thing’s for sure: this subject is going to continue killin’ it for years to come.

Sorry. Bad pun…


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