To Kill A Fascination: Why Do We Watch Killers?

Cora-Laine Moynihan

Over the past few years, spine-chilling tales of killers lurking in woodlands, waiting in the shadows, have dominated TV and streaming sites. Documentaries, horrors, and tv dramas have all depicted these monsters hidden in human skin. And we, without a second-thought, have consumed each and every one, quenching our unblinking intrigue. Cora-Laine questions why this is.

Dear Boss,

I keep on hearing that Netflix caught me, but it won’t fix me yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. Those two words from Joe’s lips, “Hello, you”, hooked me. The revelations of an unsuspicious Nottingham couple shook me. I am down on shows and I shan’t quit wanting them till I do get buckled. Grand work with the latest seasons. They gave me no time to squeal.

How can I stop now? I love these shows and can’t break away…

For any true fanatic, lover of the gruesome, and detective of unsolved crimes, you may recognise that little extract from somewhere – minus my fun little twist. It’s from one of the greats, the subject of a mystery forever unsolvable. The killer long gone a century ago. Yet, London never forgot him – his footsteps remain an echo in its alleyways. Jack the Ripper was a 19th century murderer of many, but lives on in a 21st century fascination. And he is not alone.

You.  Slasher.  The Fall.

TV shows and films follow fictional killers throughout their horrifying yet captivating murder sprees, either from their perspective, a detective’s, or their victim’s.

Catching Killers.  My Lover My Killer.  Night Stalker.

Docuseries investigate real-life killings and the criminals behind them.

why is the media so enraptured with the stories of killers and their victims?

But the fascination doesn’t manifest itself in these forms alone. Although the Netflix hit You received 994 million minutes of watch time on the platform (according to The Hollywood Reporter) and Catching Killers received an IMDB rating of 7.0, the obsession with killers has presented itself in podcasts, immense art collections, museum collections, and even in people who become pen pals with murderers. I could go on and on about all the different ways we display our fascination with these crimes, but what I truly want to know is WHY.

Why is the media so enraptured with the stories of killers and their victims?

Serial killers, in particular, are responsible for less than 1% of murders in the US each year, and no more than two dozen are “active” at any given time, estimated Scott Bonn – a sociologist and criminologist at Drew University, Madison. The subjects of this odd interest are very few at any given time…so why are we obsessed?

personification of the deep, dark emotions every human experiences

Criminologist Dr. Scott Bonn explains it simply ; “in many ways, serial killers are for adults what monster movies are for children—that is, scary fun!”. He adds that watching serial killers has become a guilty pleasure for adults, one many don’t want to admit.

We’re captivated by the incomprehensibility of their actions, their complete lack of guilt, shame, and sympathy, and the violence they display to other humans beings. He suggests that killers act as “a conduit for the public’s most primal feelings such as fear, lust, and anger”, a personification of the deep, dark emotions every human experiences.

Perhaps more importantly and more interestingly, after the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit conducted an investigation into serial murder in 2005, they concluded that “[serial killers] are not monsters and may not appear strange. Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community.” And this humanness is terrifying.


Let me explain.

this paradox of horror and humanity is arguably where our fascination stems from

On the level of notoriety of Jack the Ripper, we have Ted Bundy. A killer of at least 20 women. But, before he was caught, he was just a normal, charming man. Successful. Good-looking. An expert at role-playing as described by Dr. Bonn: “He looked like the boy next door, and that is frightening because if the boy next door is a serial killer, it means anyone is potentially a victim.” This paradox of horror and humanity is arguably where our fascination stems from.

However, for those more scientifically-inclined, there is another explanation.

Watching serial killers and true crime documentaries has been likened to watching horrors. We watch horrors to feel scared, to experience an adrenaline and endorphin rush as a result of our fear. Horrors, and in this case, watching serial killers, is the safer option to get this experience. We want to obtain that specific rush of fear in a controlled way without being in actual danger.

So, the next time you sit down on your sofa or bed and start up the next episode of You or Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes take a moment to stop and think. Ask yourself, why am I watching this?

Cora-Laine Moynihan

Featured Image courtesy of Le Salon de la Mappemonde via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article video 1 courtesy of The Infographics Show via @youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

In-article video 2 courtesy of younetflix via @instagram.com. No changes were made to this video.

In-article trailer 1 courtesy of Netflix via @youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

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