Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, sweepstakes, and more!
Why we're fascinated by serial killers: The science behind 'Dahmer'
Netflix's new series about the serial killer is a huge hit, but you have to wonder: What is it about the human mind that finds such morbid topics so interesting?
Fascination with serial killers is nothing new. We know about them today because they made national and international headlines during their time, spawning countless news reports, investigations, and speculation. However, it does feel as though serial killers have reached a new level of fame as of late, inspiring a seemingly endless deluge of true crime podcasts and TV shows, receiving fictionalized treatments in shows like American Horror Story, and ostensibly true to life biopic series with bankable stars on streaming platforms.
The latest example, Netflix’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, stars Evan Peters as the titular killer. Much has been made in the public discourse about whether it's healthy for us to hold serial killers up to the lens at the risk of putting them on a pedestal. Putting aside the gruesome groupies which seem to orbit around these individuals, most of us recognize that serial killers aren’t to be admired or emulated. Yet, there’s a certain separation that occurs when we continue to tell their stories, which ultimately transforms them into fictional supervillains in our minds. We start to talk about them the same way we talk about the Green Goblin or Sauron. They’re all evil, sure… but which one is your favorite? It’s easy to forget that they — and more importantly, their victims — were real people, many of whom have living relatives forced to relive the horrors of their actions each time we trot them out onscreen. This all demands some introspection. Why are we so endlessly fascinated with the worst among us?
If you’ve ever had occasion to be truly scared, you know it’s a feeling you’d do just about anything to avoid. Yet, we often court fear for the fun of it. Finding yourself face to face with a lion in the wild is a short trip to terror and teeth, but we’ll spend money and an afternoon at the zoo in hopes of seeing a lion close up.
We watch horror movies, go to haunted houses, ride rollercoasters, and jump out of airplanes. We’ve carefully crafted experiences intended to put us on edge and simulate fear. We seemingly run headfirst toward things that, under different circumstances, would lead to our swift end. It’s that behavior that probably ultimately leads to a fascination with violence.
Coltan Scrivner, a research fellow at the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark studies morbid curiosity and has found that it tends to center around four main experiences: supernatural danger, body violations, violence, and the minds of dangerous people. Serial killers neatly tick more than one of those boxes.
Scrivner ties morbid curiosity back to the evolutionary advantage of predator avoidance. Before the advent of modern civilization, avoiding predators was a necessary component of ensuring you made it back to the family fire at night. If predators were always on the hunt and always snatching up prey equitably, we wouldn’t need to look at them. It would be enough to run every time. But that isn’t the case.
Predators aren’t always on the hunt and running is energetically expensive. So, it makes sense for us — or other animals — to pay attention to predators in hopes of understanding what drives them and using that information to save our own skin. While we’re no longer running from lions, tigers, and bears (at least for the most part), there are predators in our midst. The largest threat to human lives these days is other humans, so it makes sense for us to treat dangerous people the same way we would treat any other predator. There’s an evolutionary drive to view them from a safe distance, like through our headphones or TV screen. From a certain point of view, shows like Dahmer are an exercise in self-preservation. Whether the benefits of continuing to put eyes on people like Dahmer outweigh the costs is another question entirely.
SOMETHING DEEPER AND DARKER
Threat avoidance partially explains our particular cultural fascination with serial killers, but there’s something more at play here. If it were purely about risk avoidance, we might spend more time examining the things which are actually likely to be a threat in our daily lives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, documentaries about heart disease and car accidents don’t pull the same numbers as the Bundys and Dahmers of the world.
The statistical likelihood that any one of us will be the victim of a serial killer is so low as to be almost negligible. Globally, there are about 415 thousand homicides per year, according to data from 2019. It’s worth noting that some places are riskier than others, but even taking that into account, your individual risk is incredibly low. Those nearly half a million homicide deaths from 2019 account for a little more than half of one percent of the global population at the time. All things being equal, there was a roughly one in 200 chance of an individual being the victim of a murder in 2019. Of course, serial killers were a small subset of the total.
According to World Population Review, it’s estimated that serial killings account for less than one percent of total homicides, putting your total risk at less than one in 20,000, and those numbers are declining.
We’re not fascinated with serial killers because they present a real threat, but because they operate so far outside the bounds of ordinary human activity that they almost demand attention. Putting them into the predator avoidance framework, they are predators which don’t show up often but cause incredible damage when they do.
When we encounter other instances of violence, we’re able to contextualize it. We can imagine a set of circumstances under which we might do the same thing, even though we know it’s wrong. When it comes to serial killers, however, our understanding of their motives, and the sequence of events that led to their actions, breaks down. We can’t imagine how they could do what they did, so we scrutinize them, compelled to try and understand how they happened and how we might avoid them.
Our innate desire to look carnage in the face has historically served us well but we might do well to look inside ourselves as well and ask if our fascination with serial killers, especially those within living memory, is costing us more than we’re gaining.
Indulge your morbid curiosity by streaming documentaries about serial killers on Peacock.