For the average person, fascination and repulsion often go hand in hand when it comes to serial killers. The idea of murder, rape, torture and necrophilia as a source of enjoyment is so incomprehensible to civilised society, that we are filled with an intense but natural curiosity to understand the motivations behind these crimes. Psychologist Scott Bonn suggests that society’s morbid intrigue is due to the fact serial killers “offer a safe and secure outlet for our darkest thoughts, feelings, and urges” while “also remind[ing] us that despite all of our faults, the rest of us are just fine.”
The media’s sensationalist coverage of serial killers has cemented their place in popular culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that Netflix and other entertainment platforms have jumped onto the true crime drama bandwagon to profit off society’s guilty pleasure. From the glamorous drama miniseries, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, to the in-depth true crime story, My Friend Dahmer, dramas consistently place the perpetrator in the foreground, obscuring their victims. The effect of this on the families of victims can be distressing. The parents of murdered two-year-old James Bulger released poignant statements last month regarding the Oscar nomination of Detainment, the upcoming film about their son’s killers. Ralph Bulger pointed out the hypocrisy of filmmakers in turning their “living nightmare” into money-making entertainment: “We’ve been very public about how devastating it is to see such a sympathetic portrayal of James’s killers … will [Hollywood] remember that on Oscar night in their fancy dresses and tuxedos?”
Similar complaints have been lodged against newly-released Netflix Docuseries Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and the soon to be released film adaptation of the same events, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The former centres on the well-known crimes of the serial killer, Ted Bundy, but with the addition of previously unheard interview tapes with Bundy and investigative journalists. The documentary insists that it is Bundy’s good looks, charm, and intelligence which allowed him to operate in plain sight. However, the series perpetuates the persona that Bundy crafted by giving voice to a narcissist. The ‘conversations’ are one-sided, allowing Ted to bathe in his own lies and narrative. His victims are reduced to a catalogue of photographs and archival newspaper clippings, almost as if Bundy had curated a list of personal achievements himself.
Many people, including the mother of Debra Jean Kent, one of Bundy’s victim, have criticised the film and documentary for glamourising Bundy. The fact that the documentary repeatedly hails Bundy as a mastermind capable of mass deception is problematic. It would be more accurate to say that he is not exceptional, not a freak of nature, but one of thousands of sexually motivated perpetrators of femicide. In the US, eighty per cent of serial killers are male and are far more likely to involve sexual violence in their attacks. In Conversations With a Killer, Bundy admits to having been driven by the desire for “sexual release”, and that “killing [became] a way of destroying evidence.”
Joe Berlinger, director of the upcoming film adaptation, has denied that the drama glamourises Bundy, instead suggesting that it offers “a very valid lesson” on the workings of psychopathic minds. This statement, coupled with Bundy survivor Kathy Kleiner Rubin’s suggestion that “hopefully [the film] will make women more aware of their surroundings and be cautious”, puts the onus onto women to prepare for sexual violence rather than society to tackle the issue as a whole. It is unsettling that Hollywood is profiting from sexually motivated murder when only last year the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s study found that the US is the third most dangerous country in the world for women in terms of risk of sexual violence.
It seems unlikely that the trend for true crime dramas will disappear any time soon given our natural curiosity for morbid stories. However, a line must be drawn to prevent our intrigue for killers from overshadowing wider societal issues that allow them to perpetrate such crimes. When the murders are only recent history, we have to question whether an adrenaline rush is worth the pain of those involved.