Over the years, society has become more and more fascinated with the concept of evil. From popular documentaries to true crime podcasts — my personal favorite being “Crime Junkie” — criminal evil is highly discussed in mainstream media. Sometimes, this evil manifests itself in the tropes of people who are shunned by society, who kill sporadically and for seemingly no reason at all, who are abnormal and villainous — serial killers. As a population, we are obsessed with these alarming individuals whose thoughts and actions are incomprehensible, inconceivable even. It’s true — the public loves an engaging mystery or news story. However, it’s more than that. Our obsession with murder and evil seems deeper than surface-level.
Though serial killers excite us in film, they more so challenge our sense of empathy. We give them tons of media attention, sometimes so much to the point in which we get lost between condemning them and celebrating them, blaming society and a tough childhood for their criminal actions. I do believe that many people are attracted to the challenge of finding remorse under the killer’s murderous exterior, hence why the film and TV industry have been so successful with true crime stories and serial killer documentaries. However, I do have to wonder if there is a line to be crossed when it comes to blaming the serial killer versus blaming society, and if so, what television and film have to do with it.
Serial killers are interesting characters, to say the least. We as humans want to make sense of unfathomable events. David Green, teaching fellow at University of Law, believes that “we have a morbid fascination with events that can have such an impact on the lives of others.” The fact that serial killers kill randomly, and that it can happen to anyone, draws us in. These stories show us the deepest, darkest parts of humanity, and that in itself sparks curiosity. It’s also shocking to say the least. People like Ted Bundy, who was supposedly charming, have committed grisly murders, but why? We attempt to understand their actions in order to make sense of it and in doing so, we sometimes empathize with their past and feel sorry for these awful murderers. According to Raymond A. Mar, assistant professor of psychology at York University, humans are “driven by an innate and spontaneous tendency to empathize with everything around us in order to try to understand and predict it all.” This, as well as our innate fascination with disaster, is exactly what the media takes advantage of.
Shows and films about serial killers are interesting, yes, but television programs and platforms are taking advantage of the public’s infatuation with evil, and this is a problem. These shows tend to glorify these killers. Zac Efron for example, an incredibly attractive person, was cast as the notorious killer Ted Bundy in the 2019 Netflix film, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” One writer for Lynbrook High School’s student newspaper wrote that “viewers no longer see a hostile serial killer; they see the cute, charming actor they know and love.” The film shows scenes of Bundy during his everyday life. You see scenes of him and his wife, played by Lily Collins, falling in love. Through these scenes, you begin to see Bundy as a real person, forgetting about his actions behind the scenes. You rarely witness stories of the victims, and this pattern in television is a problem.
When you really think about it, should a handsome, well-known and beloved actor really be cast as a monstrous serial killer? Films should instead be focusing on the victims instead of the killer. As Kaviya Vijayakumar writes for hercampus.com, the public should “make it a priority to mourn the losses that our society has faced.” If the media focuses on the victims, it evokes remorse for victims, rather than remorse for the serial killer who is going to jail for life. These people have been found guilty for a reason. Yes, they may have had a troubling past, or a seemingly charismatic personality, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that they’ve purposefully taken a life and have devastated others. Public infatuation has gone so far that websites have been created in which a serial murderer’s artwork, letters or other items can be sold to buyers while they are in jail. David Schmid, an associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo, refers to this example as “murderabilia.” This is simply bizarre, and can be attributed to the glamorization of serial killers in the media who have reached celebrity status.
Overall, I would say society, in some ways, is inherently attracted to evil. I think it’s interesting to reflect on because it’s controversial, and honestly, a little weird. The film industry warps our perception of serial killers, trying to transform them into tragic, misunderstood figures, or charming, normal people. It’s very dangerous, as this glamorization can desensitize the public and lessen their sense of empathy toward victims as a whole. Films and television must make an effort to stop glorifying these figures in order to prevent similar crimes from happening in the future. Hiring celebrities we love to act in these horrid roles and profit off of murders is a cheap move. Come on, Hollywood. Do better.
Alexandra Medina is a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law.