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Thriller Thursday: Serial Killer Fascination

Serial killer. Those two words send chills down our collective spines and yet many of us, including myself, are fascinated by them. We want to understand WHY they do what they do, if their actions are driven by base instinct or shaped by environment, or if there is some sort of genetic flaw that renders them incapable of caring.

In my opinion, all of the above are true. Most serial killers are shaped by some sort of trauma in their past, and most are sociopaths. And while many of these murderers are driven by similar issues and instinct, no two are the same.

Ted Bundy was a sociopath who murdered at least thirty young girls and women, yet he captivated a nation during his arrest and trial. His good looks and charm scored him hundreds of groupies.

The Zodiac Killer is believed to have killed dozens of people, but only seven have been formerly attributed to him. His crimes became national news after he began communicating to a California newspaper. He’s never been caught, and the case – and fascination with him – rolls on.

Richard Ramirez, known as The Nightstalker, killed at least 14 people and is currently on Death Row. Even before his 1988 trial, Ramirez received fan letters in prison. Freelance magazine editor Doreen Lioy wrote him over 70 letters, and in 1996, they were married in San Quentin State Prison. Lioy claims she will commit suicide when Ramirez is executed.

There are many more serial killers who’ve spawned national attention: BTK, The Green River Killer, John Wayne Gacy, Wayne Williams … the list goes on. Each and everyone has been the subject of massive media attention and study.

Serial killers show us the worst of humanity. And yet, we remain fascinated. Dexter is a perfect example of this. Is it the writing? Michael C. Hall’s amazing portrayal of the sociopath? Or is it something more?

What makes seemingly normal people want to get close with a killer the likes of Ramerez or Bundy?

I think it’s a combination of things. As humans, we are often fascinated with the dark things in life, things we can’t fathom. Part of it is the need to find something good in someone. And, in the case of Lioy and the Bundy groupies, there is likely a need to be noticed, to be admired, and to be close to someone they envisioned as all powerful.

I’m no psychologist. I can’t begin to understand the decision process of killers or the people who support them long after their crimes are proven. But the study makes for some incredible character analysis and is great research for a writer.

What do you think? Why are we so fascinated with serial killers?


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19 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: Serial Killer Fascination”

  1. Great question. Maybe we want to understand what scares us. Or maybe knowing there is someone THAT disturbed out there helps people overlook their own ‘wrong’ behaviors. People have always been both drawn and repelled by “things that go bump in the night.” I was just working on a blog post this morning about my thoughts on “The Following.” I had read a few reviews that said the storyline wasn’t plausible because it is based on a jailed murderer cultivating a following of killers who do his bidding. I didn’t find it that far-fetched at all … prison groupies and people who are obsessed with and try to communicate with high-profile killers have been around forever. While like you I am fascinated by the stories, I find obsession that leads people to want some groupie-like relationship with a serial killer almost as freaky and scary as the killers themselves.

    • That is a really interesting point, Pam. I think we do want to understand what scares us because it’s a form of control. I watched The Following as well and felt the same. It is no different than Manson or the religious cults. It’s all a matter of mindset, and so many people are looking for some form of guidance to latch on to.


  2. My next book is about a serial killer and I have to tell you the research sickened and scared me. You’re right, no two are alike. I think we read and write about them for the scare factor and to say, thank goodness we’re normal.

    • They are terrifying, and to me, the worst of it is the sociopathic lack of empathy, or the ones who get a kick out of watching people suffer. I’m actually working on a series for the future that involves a serial killer and like you, have done a lot of research. It’s awful stuff, and I can’t imagine the law enforcement officials who deal with these people regularly.


  3. My interest in serial killers and true crimes lies in the “why”? I am interested in the abnormal psychology – – why someone would choose to do what these killers have done. Are these killers born or made? I wrote a paper on that topic back in college and there are excellent points for either argument. I still don’t have a conclusive answer! And I do agree with you – – the sadomasochistic killers are the ones that scare me the most.

    As far as the groupies go, I think those women have serious issues themselves. Self-esteem. Co-dependency. Maybe even fear of abandonment. By forming a relationship with someone who is in prison (and especially one who is not likely to ever get out), they never worry about the man leaving them for another woman. They become the anchor in the relationship. They can become mother, savior, martyr. And for some, they could enjoy the spotlight (however brief it is). What a depressing, depressing existence.

    Great post and great topic!

    • MIne too. I always say if I’d really understood myself when I went to college, I would have gone into abnormal psychology. I think there are a very select few that are born, but I’ve talked to several psychologists, and the (current) prevailing theory is a mix of nature/nurture.

      Absolutely agree about the women and the idea of self-esteem and co-dependency. These people have serious inner issues they need to address. And yes, very depressing. Thanks so much for the great reply!

  4. I’ve recently been hearing about how certain types of killings go in trends. For instance, the rise of the serial killer and now the mass shootings in gun-free zones like schools and theaters. We do ponder what triggers these events, and I’m starting to wonder if the attention and notoriety these murderers receive motivates them as much as their personal psychological disturbances. Have we unwittingly encouraged serial killers by our fascination with them? I don’t know. But I find it an interesting question. Because let’s face it: You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, and others.

    • That’s interesting. Spree killers, according to John Douglas, are the most frightening because they have no self preservation. They intend to go out in a blaze of glory.

      I absolutely think the notoriety motivates them, especially in a day and age where so much value is placed on your station in life. And the idea of that is terrifying, because there will no doubt be more.


  5. We are attracted/repulsed by evil. Jack the Ripper can grab my attention, so can Lizzie Borden. I want in some part of my psche to talk to them and probe. Another part says that they’re real bad news. I believe we all hold the germ of a serial killer. It shows when we wish the driver who cut us off in the supermarket parking lot dies horribly on the spot. The blessing is we don’t, at least a majority, don’t fertilize this seed. Some do. We eventually hear about them on the six o’clock news.

    • Agree, although I find Lizzie much less interesting than Jack. I believe she is guilty and was very slick. Jack is such an enigma and will never be solved. Interesting idea about holding the germ – that is entirely plausible.


      • I agree. I think Lizzie is less interesting because there is no mystery there. She appears to have been abused and then acted out on that and killed her parents. Sadly, not always an unusual story.

        Jack, on the other hand, is a topic that never ceases to interest me. Partly because it was never officially solved and also because of the time period the crimes took place in.

  6. Oooh, lots of interesting comments today. I loved this topic. Just having finished a blog post in which I talk about Henry Lee Lucas’s groupie who posed as one of his victims to prove the girl was still alive, I can believe serial killer groupies would do ANYTHING.

    Have you ever watched that show Prison Wives? I was surprised at the women who had hooked up with the guy AFTER he was incarcerated. I wondered if they did it because, on some level, he was the perfect man. Sure, he committed a horrible crime, but he’s never going to leave the toilet lid up, take you for granted, or come home late. Think about it.

    Serial killers fascinate me because it is simply a mindset I cannot fathom. I usually understand why people do things. Not with serial killers. So it’s always interesting to me to try to figure them out.

    • I need to catch up on your blog post. Is that post for tomorrow? That is really fascinating, and I agree, they would do anything and that is morbidly fascinating.

      I have watched that show a few times, and yes, it is amazing how they hook up afterwards. I think they do it for that reason, but I also think there are those who think they can fix, or save.

      You’re right, serial killers are impossible to understand, and that is another reason they are so interesting.

  7. I am a serial killer fanatic. I love reading about them and trying to figure out what makes them tick. It would be a huge breakthrough if someone discovered what caused a person to become a serial killer. That’s the crazy thing about serial killers, you can put two people in the same situation but you can’t predict which one will become a killer.

    I think what people are fascinated by is that mystery. How can someone do that to another person? What caused it? The answers are clear cut.

    • I’m fascinated by them as well. I think trying to figure out what makes them tick is both fascinating and terrifying. It would be a huge breakthrough if they could be understood, but I’m not sure that would ever happen. I think there is too much variation in their motivation and life experiences, but I do also think there are some genetic issues involved.

  8. For someone who doesn’t watch horror movies because I’m such a wimp, I’m always surprised how fascinated I am with serial killers. I think it’s the psychological factor and exactly what you mentioned – the WHY of it all. Ann Rule is one of my favorite authors for this genre. Probably because she humanizes the killers not necessarily in a compassionate manner, but in a way that we can get a glimpse of what makes them do what they do. And like it. That’s the creepiest part for me. They like killing.

    I’ve never seen an episode of Dexter because my husband said it would give me nightmares for weeks, but I’m intrigued by the popularity of the show. We are complex creatures, us humans.

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