In an era where documentaries about serial killers are so palatable that people throw watch parties with snacks and bottles of wine, it’s no surprise that millennials have a morbid fascination with the gruesome aspects of existence and the perpetrators of awesome crimes. For some, this fascination extends far beyond curiosity.
Earlier this year, a slew of biopics on brutal serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer hit our screens, including “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” starring Zac Efron, a Hollywood sex symbol. Women across the country doubted their own moral aptitudes as they found themselves attracted to a prolific serial killer with at least 36 murders under his belt.
Hybristophilia is a sexual paraphilia in which an individual seeks sexual partners who have committed an outrage or crime. This attraction is symptomatic of a larger issue within our society: toxic masculinity and regressive behaviors. When women find themselves drawn to men who kill, they are unconsciously perpetuating the expectation of a hypermasculine, violent man.
This community of serial killer enthusiasts is especially active on Twitter, manifesting itself in popular accounts like (TW: graphic content) @DailyKillerFact and @TrueCrimePolls. The followers of these account are predominantly women, and many of them have the word “feminist” in their bios. There are also extensive online communities where young women self-identify as hybristophiles. On tumblr, the hybristophilia hashtag has thousands of posts and a popular fandom called the True Crime fandom allows people to fantasize about murderers. Despite claiming to be feminists, they are inexplicably drawn to figures whose objectification of women became deadly.
In an era that seems to be defined by the U.S. mass shooting, it is surprising that these criminals warrant any modicum of admiration, especially from school-age women, but even school shooters are regularly glorified. After the horrific Columbine shootings, a new fandom called Columbiners arose ripe with fan art, fiction and posts dedicated to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Furthermore, James Holmes, the perpetrator of the Aurora Theater mass shooting, was able to create a collage of dozens of suggestive pictures women sent to him in prison.
The outpouring of fetishization directed towards murderers on social media outlets is related to the way the media portrays them. By picking actors like Zac Efron or Ross Lynch from “My Friend Dahmer,” to portray killers, media organizations are making their crimes digestible. In the biopics starring these two actors, no killing is shown on screen and emphasis is placed on their perceived charisma or their bad childhoods, reducing accountability.
As we continue to push for equality for all genders and sexualities, it’s important to leave our fascination with serial killers behind us. Morbid curiosity will always be a subject of art and a part of the human experience, but we must separate fascination with murder cases from fascination with murderers.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 21, 2019 print edition. Email Ashley Wu at [email protected]