Dissecting the appeal of serial killer stories

The puzzling trend continues with 'The Ted Bundy Tapes'

Despite their morbid content, serial killer documentaries can be interesting.
Photo: 

If you are one of @queensuconfesses’ 12,000 Instagram followers, you probably saw a recent post submitted by a second-year Queen’s Engineering student: “I’d rather wet the bed than go down the hall to use the washroom after watching the Ted Bundy documentaries late at night […] big mistake.”

While the author of this confession seems to be regretting their documentary choice, it’s clear they aren’t the only one watching. The post garnered 1,183 likes, and a quick search for Netflix’s The Ted Bundy Tapes brings up almost 4,500,000 results, including thousands of reviews and tweets discussing the documentary series.

It’s not an exaggeration to assume that, since the series’ release on Jan. 24, it’s become a cultural juggernaut.

Around the same time as The Ted Bundy Tapes was released, a trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile—a Zac Efron and Lily Collins-led film about Bundy and his girlfriend—was posted to YouTube. Within one month, the trailer collected 4.3 million views and almost 50,000 likes.  

If you didn’t know any better, it’d be fair to think Bundy was some sort of celebrity— an actor or rock star featured in celebratory biopics, like Freddy Mercury in the recent Oscar nominee Bohemian Rhapsody. Ted Bundy isn’t that: he’s a prolific serial killer with over 30 victims.

If you didn’t know any better, it’d be fair to think Bundy was some sort of celebrity...Ted Bundy isn’t that: he’s a prolific serial killer with over 30 victims.

To contest Bundy’s celebrity status is an outright denial of the culture we live in. Bundy, and many other serial killers, have become household names in North America.

The Bundy tapes raise ethical concerns regarding our infatuation with often heartless, violent criminals.  They disgust and scare us, yet we demand more details and find thrill in stories of their disturbing crimes.      

Perhaps we’re drawn to serial killers because of our lack of understanding for their unusual behaviour.

It’s a natural human impulse to seek explanations for the inexplicable—and serial killing certainly falls into this category. Their behaviour is horrific and deviant to the point that it completely evades our comprehension, which we find unacceptable.

This, I think, is why we scour details of serial killers’ childhoods, looking for how they rationalize their actions and often forming theories connecting childhood trauma and mental illness. The behaviour of killers is too scary to leave misunderstood. But if we can decipher the reasons behinds their actions, we can protect ourselves and avoid future tragedies.

Interest in serial killers could also be credited to their extending of our most primal desires and emotions: fear, anger, and lust, among others.

Interest in serial killers could also be credited to their extending of our most primal desires and emotions: fear, anger, and lust,

We’re all born with these instincts—but as we develop into adults, whether by nature or nurture, we no longer express them other than in controlled, acceptable ways.

Stories of serial killers allow us to indulge in dark urges without crossing any legal or moral boundaries. The simultaneous fear and fascination we feel towards them is a result of their living outside of the polite society we’ve created to make life pleasant.      

Another explanation for the genre’s appeal is that true crime is simply fun. It makes sense that we’d enjoy non-fictional crime when it’s presented to us in a manner almost identical to beloved books, movies and TV.

The stories of Bundy and Dahmer have all the elements of a compelling story: an interesting protagonist, danger, mystery, heroes typically in the form of law enforcement, and often a satisfying conclusion when the killer is caught. Mystery novels, fictional police shows, and movies like The Silence of the Lambs are some of the most popular entertainment fare of the last half-century.

Whether our obsession over serial killers is born out of a longing to understand, live out darker desires, or simply enjoy entertainment probably varies from person to person. However, the cultural fascination with serial killers provides an interesting window into how human nature recognizes itself in others.

Our moral compasses lead us to try and humanize serial killers, painting them as people who, like us, stumbled or were pushed onto a wayward path. Yet another side of us dehumanizes them, separating ourselves from apparent monsters. Even though there seems to be a decline in American serial killing, this paradox keeps viewers coming back for more. And if the popularity of The Ted Bundy Tapes tells us anything, the phenomenon isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.