Cruel and cunning murderers like Jack the Ripper and Hannibal Lecter curdle the blood, while also exciting it. Serial killer documentaries and series find instant success, from Mindhunter to The Ted Bundy Tapes. But why? Murder stories and their protagonists, whether fictional or real, are attractive to us for a number of reasons.
As if the public’s fascination wasn’t enough, news reports tend to escalate the situation. By giving killers fancy names, for instance! And bestowing them with a marketable legendary status. Which is then recycled and boosted through TV shows, news features, or museums. These are designed to satisfy varied degrees of macabre fascination.
The US has some of the best destinations. The Museum of Death in Los Angeles displays items and artworks from killers, as well as recreated crime scenes. And then you have The Villisca Axe Murder House, a renovated building where a whole family was murdered in 1912.
Coming into contact with things and places still bearing the memory of murder has a strange effect on people.
Gazing into the Abyss
Fictional murder stories are just as enthralling. Authors like Phillip Kerr, who delivered his very last Bernie Gunther novel this year, Metropolis, hit the jackpot easier than other writers as crime and thrillers are consistently popular genres. They illustrate the worst scenarios of human society, often reflecting contemporary issues that perhaps deserve more attention.
Anthony Good’s Kill [redacted], for example, involves a terrorist attack and the revenge it inspires, discussing the morality and overall point of these concepts. Mariette Lindstein’s thriller, Fog Island, dives into cult mentality, drawing on her personal experience as a former Scientologist.
So what do these books and the serial killer memorabilia above have in common? Extreme psychological behaviours that deviate from what is perceived as a normal, tranquil human existence.
They shock us out of any assumptions related to human nature and the predictability of our lives. We stare at car crashes for similar reasons: curiosity, excitement, and a strange kind of catharsis.
The Abyss Gazes Back
As we read crime books and watch films or shows about human monsters, we basically compare ourselves – as individuals or social groups – with these extraordinary human riddles.
Have you never been led to wonder what could make you snap in that way? Such questions typically emerge because of how “normal” some of the most notorious killers seemed prior to their acts. And even after. Their inner nightmares may never have shown through their sweet, even dazzling smiles.
Isn’t that scary? Or is it tragic?
This bilateral appeal tantalises as much as the sense that anyone with unresolved psychological issues could become a monster. But that’s not the case. Many people come from severely abusive backgrounds without ever turning to violence. Oh, the mystery of the human psyche!
So what makes murder stories exciting?
- Each a test case. They present circumstances that could potentially produce and trigger a killer. They can also educate as to how to identify warning signs. The risk, of course, lies in overindulging in these tales and believing everything you’re told. Being selective and inquisitive is the best way to filter through all the nonsense and get to the meaningful facts.
- Fairy tales for adults. As James Hoare, the editor of Real Crime magazine, explains on the BBC: ‘[serial killers] represent something larger than life, something truly cartoonishly monstrous, like the horror stories you’re told as a child’. Especially in the case of real murderers, their perceived unnaturalness and proximity – existing on the same planet is enough – tingles the spine. The rare activity of serial killers makes them even more of a fairy tale.
- Deeper understanding of antisocial behaviour. We learn more about what makes these human monsters tick. At the same time, scientific minds try to find ways to protect and heal vulnerable people, children in particular, before they embrace violence as an outlet. We’re entertained by real and fictional killers, but they also motivate us to look for the humanity in them.
While the study of disturbed psyches can be infinite, we can at least be sure of one thing: murder stories have a complex, visceral effect on readers and viewers. We become curious about the mentalities depicted and interested in what they signify about the human nature. An important question among many is whether they are in fact monsters or people turned wild – vicious, vengeful – by the pains inflicted by society.
Here are some thrilling reads…