Why is society so fascinated with serial killers?

Despite their brutal crimes, serial killers have always engendered widespread fascination in the public eye. This mysterious interest was somewhat reignited last week when, on the 19th of November 2017, it was announced that Charles Manson had died in prison aged 83.

In 1967, Manson was released from prison and started a quasi-commune in California, referred to as the “Manson Family”. This group of people were to go on and commit seven murders in 1969, all orchestrated by Manson himself. According to Californian law, individuals who order a murder to be committed are just as accountable as the murderer themselves; consequently, Manson spent his whole life in prison. Today, many people have a fascination with serial killers, yet few are able to describe exactly what interests them about the perpetrators of these atrocious crimes.

The actions of serial killers contrast with values that are held by the majority of the public. In almost all regions of the world, people are taught principles that emphasise the value of human life. Crimes that involve extreme violence are therefore incomprehensible to the vast majority of people. Dr Scott Bonn, criminologist at Drew University, proposes that it is this inability to understand the motive behind the crimes that result in the public’s fascination with serial killers. He argues that the absence of a clear motive compels people to attempt to explore the killers’ irrational reasoning.

Moreover, these extremely violent and sadistic crimes are often committed by individuals who appear to be normal, functioning members of society. It is common for serial killers to own a house, maintain a job and even have a family, while simultaneously carrying out brutal murders. This raises the possibility that almost anybody could be a serial killer, and nobody would be able to tell: lecturers, neighbours, friends, even family.

In most cases there is often no clear motive behind the killings, and the group of victims is totally random and opportunistic. Anybody can, therefore, become a victim and there is usually little that can be done to prevent the offence taking place. One example of this is the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, the ‘Milwaukee Cannibal’, whom the police considered harmless, returning one of his victims to his care whom he later killed and dismembered.

Popular culture has also fully embraced the widespread fascination with serial killers, publishing novels and producing films on the subject. In fiction, serial killers are worryingly glamorised for entertainment purposed The criminologist, Dr Elizabeth Yardley of Birmingham City University, stated that, “Serial killers are for adults what monster films are for children”. She argues that, by watching or reading about serial killers, we are able to experience exhilarating feelings of fear and terror from a safe distance. The killers are often characterised as predatory and strange, giving them that similarity with monsters and demons in horror novels and films.

The death of Manson is a reminder of the atrocious reality of the crimes that serial killers commit. Our fascination with individuals who are capable of such violence is difficult to comprehend. It might stem from how these crimes contradict everything we are taught and so through understanding the mentality of a serial killer we are provided with an insight into an unconventional and disturbed mind, which we would never have access to otherwise.

Serial killers are a unique phenomenon which appear to be almost impossible to understand. No doubt people will always attempt to comprehend the thoughts of these peculiar individuals and so our fascination with serial killers will continue persist long into the future.

Image: Laura Spence

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