by Mackenzie Arnolds
photography courtesy of Pexels
Hollywood loves a good trend. It seems like every other weekend a new superhero is welcomed in theaters by devoted fans, or another nostalgic, live-action remake of a childhood classic like Cinderella or The Lion King is broadcast on the big screen. Biopics of iconic musicians from Queen to Elton John have started to make their rounds as well, but recently, a new, more disturbing Hollywood trend has begun to carve a spot alongside these largely well-received subgenres: serial killers.
The film My Friend Dahmer, directed by Marc Meyers, arguably kicked off this trend when it was released in 2017. The movie traces an adolescent Jeffrey Dahmer through high school—just a few years before he began to rape, dissect and kill 17 male victims within a span of 13 years. The movie received favorable reviews from critics, but largely flew under the radar.
Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, however, is greatly anticipated, and it uses the murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers in 1969 to underscore the film’s larger narrative.
Netflix garnered a similar buzz when it released Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes this January, on trend with its slew of popular true crime docuseries like Making a Murderer. The streaming service recently announced its acquisition of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile as well, a biopic about Ted Bundy. The movie’s upbeat trailer generated controversy earlier this year, serenading Bundy as a sort of charismatic anti-hero with a soundtrack of upbeat rock music, which raised questions about the glorification of serial killers in the media.
Society’s fascination with true crime is not a new phenomenon. A plethora of popular TV channels, podcasts and miniseries exist solely to comb over unsolved murders, police investigations and scorned lovers-turned-killers. Additionally, every other news story highlights a grisly crime scene that viewers gobble up with an addictive sort of revulsion. We’re all guilty of it. Still, the emphasis of movies like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile seems to be on the killers themselves—as quotidian people—as opposed to their crimes.
My Friend Dahmer doesn’t even detail Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes or their resounding effects; it simply paints him as a sympathetic, almost tragic outcast in high school with a dysfunctional family life. “Jeff could’ve been a normal kid,” it seems to say, even as it reveals a perpetually slouched Dahmer dissecting animal corpses and stalking unsuspecting men. I don’t buy the “cautionary tale” card that movies like this play to make up for the sympathetic edge they give these figures—lots of people have difficult childhoods, and most of them don’t end up becoming serial killers. Still, the tone of My Friend Dahmer is perhaps more appropriate to the nature of his crimes than the tone that glimpses of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile express. According to the description of the movie, it details Ted Bundy’s crimes, but centers upon the relationship between him and his longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer. Now, I’m not sure that a romantic relationship should be the focus of a movie about a man who killed at least 30 women. Audiences don’t seem to mind these increasingly frequent perspectives, though. In fact, if the current magnitude and popularity of serial killer content is any indication, they seem to enjoy it.
“People might follow a serial killer because they are complex puzzles that they want to figure out,” David Wilson, a professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, told the New Statesman in an attempt to explain the appeal of serial killers.
Criminologist Scott Bonn, author of Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Savage Murderers, agrees. “Serial killers are so extreme in their brutality and so seemingly unnatural in their behavior that people are drawn to them out of intense curiosity,” Bonn elaborated in an article he wrote for Psychology Today. “They provide a conduit for the public’s most primal feelings such as fear, lust, and anger.”
Still, if our draw to these decrepit human beings was simply the result of harmless curiosity or a morbid search for an adrenaline rush, then the serial killers we decide to give the time of day wouldn’t just be young, white men that make people shake their heads and think, “Aw, he seemed like such a normal guy.” In fact, according to a 2016 study from the Serial Killer Information Center, 45.1% of serial killers studied from 1900–2010 were white males, but only 12.2% of them were white males in their mid-to-late twenties. Yet, this is the profile of a serial killer that occupies nearly 100% of our attention.
Movies like My Friend Dahmer and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile take advantage of this. They try and fit figures like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy—young, white, men, murderers—into a good-guy-gone-bad narrative, teasing audiences to fill in the gaps of “what went wrong.” And we eat it up. We seem to want to give these men credit where credit is due—or at least we imbue them with a sort of grotesque glorification, a flattering sense of power by characterizing them as apex predators, masterminds to be poured over and unlocked, even through feelings of disgust.
And for what? We’re fooling ourselves if we think that an hour and a half movie will reveal any substantial conclusions about what exactly makes a serial killer a serial killer. If we really want something to quench our thirst for the morbid, then there are plenty of fictional serial killers out there that can do the trick—ones that never preyed on real victims with real families.
I think that’s what rubs me the wrong way about this trend. Everyone knows who Ted Bundy is, but I’d be hard pressed to find someone that can name one of the countless girls that he murdered. Good fiction about violence extends beyond glorification and titillation, it sends a message about the pain that it causes and sheds light on what we can do to stop it from happening again. Many of these stories don’t have endings yet—some killers are in jail, some are dead and some have yet to be caught—but the families of their victims live on as we gorge ourselves on glamorized tales of the people that ruined their lives.