Life&Style writer Lauren Hayward explores the phenomenon behind the fascination of serial killers in media
‘We all love a bad boy, though don’t we?’
‘Yeah, not a f*****g terrorist though, Chris! There’s a bad boy, and then there’s evil’.
This excerpt from Gogglebox has been viewed millions of times on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. It has developed into a popular meme, with some hailing it as one of the greatest moments on British television. But it seems it’s not just Chris who confuses the charm of a ‘bad boy’ with disturbing and terrifying evil.
Various popular movies and television series today focus on depicting an evil figure in the form of a psychopathic serial killer. Yet, instead of terrifying its audiences, we often encounter viewers becoming fascinated with them, despite watching them commit brutal and bloody murders. A recent example of this phenomenon where a lethal combination of sadism and charm earned the adoration for thousands is in the character of Joe from Netflix’s You, played by Penn Badgley.
The internet is littered with theories as to why we find ourselves rooting for a character who, over the three seasons, commits a total of nine murders himself, leads one man to commit suicide, hides several of his wife murders and also commits other unsavoury acts such as stalking and public indecency.
One Reddit user suggests that it is because we as an audience have been trained to identify with protagonists. especially since much of the series is narrated by Joe’s inner thoughts. Another Reddit User suggests many of the people that Joe kills are ‘assholes’ such as an unpleasant cocaine addict (Henderson), a domestic abuser (Ron), another murderer (Benji). Surely these are the kind of people who deserve to die? Perhaps it could be because Joe constantly reminds us that he is killing for love. Even if we cannot understand his actions, we can at least acknowledge that he has a reason. This reason of love has driven people to the extremes of behaviour throughout history.
Perhaps it is simply that many of us grew up watching Penn Badgley play Dan ‘lonely boy’ Humphrey on Gossip Girl, and sometimes it can be challenging to separate actors from their previous roles. Badgley himself described Joe as ‘the same role‘ as Dan, but with ‘blood dripping down his face’. Or perhaps it’s simply that tall, dark, and handsome Badgley, with his smooth voice and capturing smoulder, making viewers forget that this ‘evil’ character should produce hate instead of fascination. For example, I don’t imagine Hannibal Lecter and his horrifying mask had many viewers swooning.
There is no doubt that Badgley’s depiction of Joe is charming and enticing. The entire series is, after all, based on his various relationships and his persona as a ‘ladies man’. Yet, perhaps we should realistically and morally find this charm all the more sinister and sadistic. Joe understands his ability to capture the attention of women. His violently misogynistic and obnoxious monologues make that all too clear – but why is the horror of murder and violence, and the fact that he keeps a plexiglass cage in his basement, not enough to mar his character in the eyes of viewers? Even Badgley himself felt the need to remind viewers of the horror of his character, replying to their tweets of adoration by stating that he sees Joe as someone beyond redemption as ‘he is a murderer’.
Joe is just one of many serial killers whose charm has captured the heart (and eyes) of audiences, despite their terrifying actions. For example, Zac Efron’s portrayal of Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is criticised by journalist Olive Pometsey as an attempt in transforming serial killers into ‘Hollywood Heartthrobs’. Pometsey questioned how the flash of Zac Efron’s ‘bare bum’ added to the portrayal of this psychopathic killer. Meanwhile, I found myself somewhat mesmerised by Jamie Dornan’s portrayal of serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall, despite feeling terrified by the character and the thought that he had such power over women. But what are the psychological mechanisms behind the lust that viewers feel towards these murderous men? And is it something that should concern us?
In 2014, Scott Bonn published his book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Killers. Although he primarily focuses on obsessions with real-world killers, he also discusses how Hollywood has ‘glamorised’ serial killers, for example, the various portrayals of Ed Gein in movies such as Psycho and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Bonn states that ‘sex and violence sell’, so it is no wonder that shows and films that center around serial killers, who often embody both, are so successful.
This obsession with fictional killers is much less frightening than the attraction to real-life cases of serial killers. This phenomenon has been named ‘hybristophilia’ and ranges from convicted serial killers, rapists, child molesters, to kidnappers such as Richard Ramirez. Ramirez received hundreds of love letters from fans while incarcerated and eventually married one of his admirers. Various women also showed up to Ted Bundy’s trial dressed like his victims. Often these obsessions are based on attractiveness. However, there is no doubt a captivating appeal to the monstrous character and mindset of a serial killer.
Other explanations for this creepy phenomenon include the biological factor– that some women are attracted to larger, more aggressive, dominant males who may offer status and protection. On the other hand, Bonn suggested that we are obsessed with serial killers in the same way we might be fascinated by disasters such as train wrecks. Despite their grotesqueness and the fact that we should want to look away, we simply cannot. These types of experiences can create a rush of adrenaline that simultaneously stimulates the brain and is addictive. Why do people jump out of a parachute or ride thrilling rollercoasters if it doesn’t feel good?
Humans have a deep desire to make sense of the world around us. The actions of serial killers are so incomprehensible to the non-serial killer that we become drawn to them as we try to fathom their actions and how any human could brutally kill not just one but multiple other humans.
So, whilst the lure of a serial killer such as Joe from You may seem bizarre and even sinister, psychologists recognise this attraction as fairly ordinary and harmless to the healthy adult, who can separate good from bad and fiction from reality. However, I might suggest developing an attraction to Badgley’s Dan from Gossip Girl instead of Joe, lest you find yourself tempted to start writing love letters to a serial killer.
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