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The Serial Killer Trope | Empathy for the Devil

Why are people so obsessed with stories about serial killers? We often turn to the serial killer story to make us feel better—by humanizing these monsters, letting us comprehend what made them this way, or perhaps helping us figure out how to avoid them. But at its best, this kind of story confronts us with how there may not be any good explanation or asks what it says about us that we would ever want to empathize with this agent of evil. Here’s our Take on the Serial Killer trope and why we’re drawn to stories that just might expose the monster in us.

TRANSCRIPT

Why are people so obsessed with stories about serial killers? The “serial killer” character on screen comes in a number of different types: They can be a charming, charismatic genius, luring their victims in with skill, cunning, and manipulation. They can be a deranged, Halloween-esque monster — almost supernaturally inhuman, with a whole mythology built around them. Or, they can be a perfectly ordinary person, fueling our fears that the worst killer can be hiding in plain sight. We can also classify killers by the kinds of motivations that drive them. There’s the power and control serial killer — a sociopath who is motivated by dominating and humiliating their victims, and takes pleasure in toying with the cops trying to catch them; the visionary serial killer, who claims to be motivated by a higher purpose; the mission serial killer, who selects victims only from a certain class or group of people; and the hedonistic serial killer, a thrill-seeker who gets pleasure from the intimacy of their crimes.

Hannibal Lecter: “A Census Taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans, and a nice Chianti.” Silence of the Lambs (1991)

While stories about other kinds of monsters tell audiences how to defeat those beasts, serial killer narratives are more often concerned with understanding the figure — uncovering the mystery of what makes them tick and getting us inside their heads. But at its best, this kind of story confronts us with how there may not be any good explanation or asks what it says about us that we would ever want to empathize with this agent of evil. Here’s our Take on the serial killer trope and why we’re drawn to stories that just might expose the monster in us.

Joe Berlinger: “That instinct, to wanna look at something terrible so that you’re safe from it, is still part of our… biology.” – America Is Obsessed With Serial Killers


Empathy For The Killer

The most surprising thing about the serial killer trope onscreen is how much empathy they tend to engender. Viewers’ capacity to feel for remorseless murderers is so powerful that this has even been satirized lately through crossovers between the serial killer trope and the comedy genre like Barry and Trial & Error, dubbed murder-coms.

Barry: “Hey man, I’m the guy that was in your house. Listen, I think we got off on the wrong foot, ok?” – Barry, 2x05

Part of this empathetic response stems from the widely believed theory that serial killers are a product of their upbringing, and evidence shows that high percentages of serial killers have suffered some form of abuse in childhood. Mental health specialist Abigail Strubel told Vice that it’s easier to romanticize someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, otherwise known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, “because he genuinely wanted love and closeness.” And narratives often choose to focus on these questions of what motivates the serial killer and why they became this way, thus building our sympathy for the damaged human being within them and making us feel they’re not really (just) a monster. My Friend Dahmer presents an account of Dahmer before he killed, showing how he didn’t fit in, and how he struggled to cope with his mother’s mental illness.

Nancy Glass: “That’s why you killed them?”

Jeffrey Dahmer: “Not because I hated them, not because I was angry with them, but because I wanted to keep them with me.” – Inside the Mind of Jeffrey Dahmer: Serial Killer’s Chilling Jailhouse Interview

Silence of the Lambs even goes so far as to glamorize its iconic killer Hannibal Lecter through a persona that’s dripping with charm and intellect. By contrasting Lecter with more deranged, out-of-control killers in his cell block, the film makes us feel immediately safer with Hannibal because he’s self-possessed, brilliant, and cultured — even though, rationally, we know this only makes him more dangerous. We also see Lecter through the point of view of Clarice, who’s seduced by his intellect and assistance and (increasingly in the sequel, Hannibal) comes to see him as a quasi-romantic figure. This portrait works because the victims of Hannibal’s crimes are largely offscreen or written off as the unlikable punchlines of witty jokes.

Hannibal Lecter: “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” – Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Dexter carries on these tropes of the helpful serial killer and the empathy-building origin story by showing us that Dexter’s urge to kill was ingrained in him, again due to a tragic early childhood event. But Dexter goes even further by letting us potentially justify our empathy for the murderer thanks to Dexter’s moral code: he only targets society’s worst criminals (the really bad ones who seem to deserve it).

Dexter: “The best deed I can do is rid the world of you.” – Dexter, 4x08

In stories where a woman is the culprit — statistically unlikely, given that in real life they make up less than 15% of all serial killers — the audience is likewise often encouraged to feel swept up in her cause. In Takashi Miike’s Audition and Patty Jenkin’s Monster, the female killers (who only target men) were former victims of male abuse. We might empathize with both Asami and Aileen because their revenge alludes to a righteous, feminist anger.

Asami: “My stepfather, he just hated me. Every day after school I hid in a dark room until my mother came home.” – Audition (1999)

In serial killer stories where we’re invited to empathize with the monster, there’s a constant tension between the narrative comforting us, on one hand, by humanizing the killer and erasing their monstrosity, and on the other hand, forcing us to face that the monster is what we really came for. Even if we might feel okay about silently endorsing Dexter’s vigilante justice, we’re also being challenged to question if this means that some part of us is secretly sociopathic, too. In these narratives, our ability to, at least to a degree, “side with” the killer is an extension of our desire to figure out what kind of a society creates them — and even what part we may have had to play in that. And some of the most challenging or insightful serial killer stories draw us in with these techniques, only to throw our fascination back in our faces and make us feel complicit in the character’s crimes.

This phenomenon is satirized in the faux-documentary Man Bites Dog, in which a student film crew follows a serial killer committing crimes, becoming more and more involved with the murders themselves as the story goes on. Lars Von Trier also invokes this complicity in The House That Jack Built, drip-feeding the audience the more horrific elements of Jack’s character in an almost comedic manner.

Jack: “I’ve always taken ethical hunting rules very seriously. On that point, I think of myself as a bit of a gentleman.” The House That Jack Built (2018)

Promising Young Woman takes a different angle by applying the signifiers of the serial killer trope to a woman who’s “hunting” guys, but not to kill them — just to expose them (to themselves) as the predators they are. And with this set-up, the movie accuses us of another kind of complicity: whether we’ve participated in an establishment that systematically protects men at the expense of women’s safety and mental health.

Dean Walker: “Because what would you have me do? Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?” – Promising Young Woman (2020)


Empathy For The Victim

Research shows that women tend to be more fascinated with reading about true crime than men. A 2010 study from Amanda M. Vicary and R. Chris Fraley proved that women are more likely than men to choose true crime books over other violent topics such as war or gang violence, and noted that part of the attraction was an empathy with the victims of these serial killers; quote: “Overall, women were more likely than men to select the true-crime book that featured female victims.”

Partners in Crime: “Women are so often portrayed as victims in the media, and women, in particular, like to think about something and understand it in order to overcome anxieties based around that.” – CBS This Morning

The image of the young, beautiful, innocent victim is a common thread in serial killer narratives. This fear on behalf of the innocent victim, in contrast to the quote-unquote deserving victims of a killer like Dexter, is at the center of much of our interest in biographical serial killer narratives too. In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the biopic of Ted Bundy investigates how the ‘70s predator lured women in with his handsome, charming persona, as well as how skillful Bundy was at manipulating his image in the media. The film still doesn’t focus much on the women he preyed on, though. Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes goes further in building empathy with the victims by positioning Bundy’s killing spree in relation to the growing women’s liberation movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The series uses Bundy’s misogynistic screeds to undercut the more romantic media-driven myths around him with the reality of who he was.

Ted Bundy: “Women are merchandise, possessions — beings which are subservient, more often than not to males.” – Conversations with A Killer, 1x02

Today’s focus on making sure viewers feel empathy for the victims rather than the killers can be seen as a corrective measure, countering the media’s longstanding tendency to fixate on and sometimes sensationalize or glamorize the lurid details of a serial killer’s crimes. Danish drama The Investigation, about the journalist Kim Wall who was murdered by a man she went to profile, makes the deliberate choice never to name the killer, or show his face, with the show’s director Tobias Lindholm saying this was “not just another tale of a ‘fascinating’ man who killed a woman..” Hallie Rubenhold’s recent true crime book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack The Ripper likewise refuses to partake in any of the mythmaking or speculation around the infamous killer’s identity and instead celebrates the lives that he took.

Hallie Rubenhold: “Each of the five women had very different stories and very different trajectories in their narrative.” – Interview with HistFest, 2020

You plays both sides of the coin, by creating a textbook Ted Bundy-esque charming serial killer in Joe Goldberg — the kind the media would have a field day with — but underlining from the start how creepy, narcissistic and dangerous he is. Penn Badgley, the actor portraying Joe, actively tweeted his disapproval of any viewers lusting after him.

Elle’s Emma Dibdin argues that caring about the victims is one of the reasons for the huge popularity of true-crime podcast My Favorite Murder, saying, “Many of the most beloved episodes focus on survivor stories, while others add dimension to the lives of victims, exploring the layers of trauma a violent crime leaves on individuals, families, and whole communities.” This discussion underlines that, while it may be innate for us to be fascinated by killers, stories have a responsibility not to cater to that drive at the expense of giving voice and reality to the precious lives they destroy.

My Favorite Murder: “This is not something that only happens on TV, and it’s not fiction. This happens to real people and it happens every single day.” – Interview with The Feed, 2016


The Philosophy of Evil

At its core, our fascination with serial killer narratives is rooted in a desire to understand the nature of evil and learn something deeper about the human condition. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung once wrote: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

David Fincher’s Se7en explores this idea through its creation of a deliberately anonymous serial killer, literally called John Doe, whose murders reflect the seven deadly sins. Rather than going to lengths to pathologize or understand Doe, instead, the film makes him deliberately absent for the majority of screen time, and we learn very little about him. When we do meet him, his distinct normalcy confuses our assumptions of what evil looks like. And in his final action — turning the previously hopeful, optimistic Detective Mills into a killer himself, via the sin of wrath — he’s in a sense proved right in his thesis that there are no innocent people. The idea here is that evil is not a person, but an ever-present force in society, a low-level ambiance that we have become desensitized toward.

John Doe: “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common.” – Se7en (1995)

Werner Herzog invokes this philosophical approach to the serial killer genre with his documentary Into The Abyss. The title is a reference to Nietzsche’s aphorism, “And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee,” and intended as a direction to the audience to, as Herzog says, look into the “deepest recesses of the human soul.” Herzog strategically doesn’t pass judgment on the film’s subject — the killer Michael Perry, interviewed while awaiting execution for triple homicide — or use the documentary to investigate or potentially exonerate him (like in Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line or recent series such as Serial or Making a Murderer). Instead, the killer on death row becomes an opportunity to investigate everything from the nature of murder to capital punishment at large and its psychological effects on the people who carry it out.

Herzog: “When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you, but I respect you and you’re a human being and I think human beings should not be executed.” – Into the Abyss (2011)

The problem many of these narratives end up exposing is that the nature of evil isn’t always black and white. Perhaps the most chilling and honest realization of all is that, sometimes, there is no explanation that could satisfy our desire to understand the serial killer. Criminologist Scott Bonn likens our instinctive fascination with killers to looking at traffic accidents, or natural disasters; quote: “people don’t want to look, but they can’t look away.” Consuming this kind of media can provide a catharsis. It’s a way to confront our fear of death in a safe environment, providing both an adrenaline rush and a sense of relief. American true-crime writer Harold Schechter describes our fascination with the figure as “a kind of cultural hysteria,” given that in reality, they represent less than 1% of murders in the US each year. And he portrays these stories as, quote,” “fairytales for grownups. There’s something in our psyche where we have this need to tell stories about being pursued by monsters.”

But maybe our willingness to empathize with serial killers says more about the nature of humanity than their actions ever could. Author and serial killer expert Peter Vronsky says that humanity’s capacity to kill is “intrinsic to the human survival mechanism,” adding “Perhaps it’s not that serial killers are made, but that the majority of us are unmade, by good parenting and socialization.” The serial killer trope affects us so deeply because it reminds us how thin the line that we’re all walking is. Serial killers contain both monsters and human beings within them, with the potential to be drawn out — just like us.