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Why are we all so obsessed with serial killers?

Andrew Hankinson ventures into the dark heart of our obsession with the macabre

He was a happy man who spent his days chatting with colleagues and checking his Twitter feed, but by night he was a curator of horror. Each evening, under the cover of darkness, he would tuck himself up, tap on his phone and head down the rabbit hole of serial-killer Wikipedia pages.

An examination of his web history revealed the depth of his obsession: ‘the Killer Clown’, ‘Zodiac killer’, ‘Doodler’, ‘Moors murders’, ‘Jack the Ripper’, ‘Camden Ripper’, ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, ‘Suffolk Strangler’, ‘house of horrors’, ‘Muswell Hill Murderer’, ‘Doctor Death’.

As well as disturbing internet material, he’s also known to have watched serial-killer films and read serial-killer books, showing particular interest in the worst of the deviants, such as multiple murderer Edmund Kemper, who told a reporter that upon seeing a pretty woman he wondered what it would be like to date her and what her head would look like on a stick.

His friends and family wonder why a seemingly nice man is fascinated by such depravity. The question on everyone’s lips is: what’s wrong with him? 

Thrill of the chase

“Serial killers are for adults what monster films are for children,” says criminologist Elizabeth Yardley of Birmingham City University. “It’s this scary fun. It’s something that’s grisly and horrible and engenders fear in you, but you can observe it from a safe distance.”

As a result, just as an industry provides monster films for children, so an industry provides serial killers for adult consumption. There are documentaries (Aileen), books (Helter Skelter), films (Zodiac), TV dramas (See No Evil) and, very occasionally, 24-hour news coverage to feed us the essentials: victim count, method and hints at motivation, though we love it most when our serial killers are incomprehensible.

“People like a little madness in their lives,” says Yardley.

The template for this pastime was Jack the Ripper. The 19th-century East End murders had all the elements of contemporary serial killer fascination: huge press coverage (fuelled by campaigners who wanted to raise awareness of poverty in London’s East End); gruesome details; speculation; a focus on the murderer rather than the victims; a nickname for the killer (the name Jack the Ripper came from a letter which was supposedly sent to a news agency by the killer); and the dynamic of a mysterious, clever murderer who was supposedly toying with the public and the police.

Thomas Neill Cream, a suspect of the Jack the Ripper murders

Professor Alexandra Warwick, an expert in Jack the Ripper at the University of Westminster, mocks the latter in particular: “A titanic struggle between two individuals – the clever serial killer and his mirror image in the police officer.” She continues: “I think that’s entirely the product of fiction. Serial killers in fiction are immensely more baroque and planned and organised, with thematic patterns based on the Book of Revelation and stuff like that, than is ever the case with killers in real life.”

The mythology has clouded reality. There have only been a few dozen serial killers in the UK since Jack the Ripper, according to a book by criminologist David Wilson, while US criminologist Scott Bonn says only about 150 people are killed by serial killers in the US each year (less than one per cent of the total number of murders in the country). Instead we have drawn our impression of serial killers from fiction (Psycho, Se7en etc), and it is their elaborate ways on which we are hooked. The real killers are far less intriguing.

As criminologist Yardley says, “I’m pretty much like everybody else, I first got introduced to the topic of serial murder through films such as The Silence Of The Lambs, and this idea of these people who are like monsters, and once I started to look at them from an academic point of view – they’re not. They’re boring, dull individuals, who aren’t really anything like the movie figures that come out of it.”

Warwick’s thoughts? “They’re not interesting at all.”

Wound culture

If the serial killers themselves aren’t interesting, what is it that we’re interested in? Are we just after grisly details? Are we after the macabre? Are we motivated by the same impulse that drives people to watch videos of plane crashes (I confess, I watch) or beheadings (I don’t watch)? What is it about other people’s terror that gives us a thrill? Are we sickos?

“It’s something that goes back to time immemorial,” says Yardley. “It’s that train wreck, car crash sort of thing, where you don’t want to look but you do anyway. It’s something we call ‘wound culture’. We’re drawn to the trauma and suffering of other people and there’s an awful lot of that around serial murder.” 

It was something that concerned author Gordon Burn, who wrote about Fred and Rose West in his book Happy Like Murderers: “Once I found out it was going to be this most appalling, terrible stuff,” he told Esquire in 2008, “I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to put everything into this book.’ But when it came to it, there were certain things I left out, because a) I couldn’t face writing about them, and b) I thought, ‘Why would anybody want to read this stuff?’”

Fred and Rose West who killed 12 people

It’s a question many of us ask ourselves. Part of the compulsion is due to our attempt to imagine the unimaginable – a person is dismembered in a house, the killer goes shopping, how close did other people come to torture and death? It gives us a queer feeling.

As Yardley puts it, “Serial killers are like chameleons in that they can blend into normal everyday life, they look like average guys and some of them are even quite charming. They don’t look like the predatory monsters that we see in the movies, so there’s this idea that they could be your neighbour, they could be anybody and you wouldn’t know, and so there’s that undercurrent of fear.”

Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and lecturer in psychiatry at Cardiff University, has several theories to explain why we crave the macabre, like desperate addicts of human misery. According to him, one possibility is that reading about serial killers may cause the release of cortisol, a pre-cursor to adrenaline, into the body, which stimulates us more than anything nice would, such as a chat with a friend or a video of a cat. Or, perhaps we are getting a reward from our ‘mesolimbic pathway’ for our habit (just as it rewards other addicts).

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“If you’re really tense and feel threatened,” says Burnett, “and then you stop feeling threatened, the brain recognises that and says, ‘Well, you were scared a minute ago and now you’re not, so whatever you did was good, so have some pleasure.’ When you read a scary book and then you stop, you have a come down and your brain goes, ‘OK, that was good, whatever you did, that was good.’ That’s why we end up being so hooked on scares and thrills.”

Or it could be due to the fact that our brain, according to Burnett, is a “paranoid organ” that is always trying to minimise perceived threats. As he explains, curiosity is simply our brain trying to remove uncertainty, so when we are exposed to people who flaunt society’s norms we want to know more: “Knowing what happens to humans when they are at their most damaged is arguably a survival trait, if it’s clinical, in the sense that you aren’t involved in it. 

“Because if you walked into a room and someone’s being dismembered in there, you wouldn’t just stand and watch fascinated, you’d turn and run and call the police. You’d be vomiting copiously for hours, because it’s real, it’s in front of you, it’s a genuine danger. However, this way round you can distance yourself from it while still looking at it. You get all the benefits of knowing and finding out these weird things without actually putting yourself in any danger.”

We want to know why. The perfect excuse.

A terror within

“I think our interest has shifted a little bit,” says Yardley. “We used to be quite obsessed with the whodunit question – who is it that committed all of these murders? But now we’re much more preoccupied with whydunit – why would somebody do this?” We want to know what happened in their life? What caused this? Is their brain kaput? Are they different?

Perhaps the most incomprehensible example of serial killing in modern British history is that of Fred and Rose West. The pair carried out the most unimaginable brutality and cruelty in their home in Gloucester, and for some reason some of us wanted to know more. Predicting that, a publisher asked author Gordon Burn, who had written a book about Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper), to write about the case. He agreed to go to Rose West’s remand hearing and was horrified.

His widow, Carol Gorner, tells ShortList that Burn decided he didn’t want to write the book as he couldn’t face the “psychological burden”, but other journalists persuaded him to do it. In 2008, Burn said, “I did have terrible nightmares in the time I was writing. I would come back from Gloucester, fall asleep in front of the television and wake up screaming. Once it was done, I went through three or four nights where I went to bed and just couldn’t stop shaking.”

Peter Sutcliffe AKA The Yorkshire Ripper

Gorner explains further: “He wanted to do it really well and he tried to do it really well and I think he did, but he said himself, ‘It was such a killer to do, I feel like I’ll never be the same again after that. It’s really taken something away from me that I can’t get back.’ He said, ‘I’m never going into those areas again, it’s too much for one person to have to bear all that.’”

Despite it being a subject that left the author waking up screaming, people bought the book and loved it, even if some people found parts unreadable (author David Peace said he had to skip sections of the book). What they are looking for, in the horror, are answers from what Professor Warwick describes as the “extremity of experience”, answers which she believes are about ourselves:

“Being interested in why other people do things is always being interested in what we’re like ourselves. The projection on to others and the consideration of what that is, it’s absolutely about what we’re like. Are we capable of those things?” 

We are fascinated by serial killers because we want to be scared by monsters, but what we find is far scarier, and it is what we keep trying to understand but never will: we find people, just like us.

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