There’s a telling, insightful moment about halfway through the recently released trailer for Netflix’s Mind Hunter, David Fincher’s most recent foray (following Se7en and Zodiac) into illustrating (or at least attempting to illustrate) what makes serial killers tick. The moment is a quiet conversation between FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) in a conversation with his wife. Quietly tense, referring to the sociopathic serial killers he’s profiling, Ford says, “I can’t let these guys rub off on me.” It’s a brave faced edict, sure, but also a nervous plea for help. The comment raises a question that the trailer continuously probes at further-why are we subjecting ourselves to these offenders to begin with-and is their behavior contagious?
Fincher isn’t the only director with an attraction to the criminally insane. Movies like The Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector, and Copycat, and popular TV shows like Criminal Minds and The Mentalist all attempt to get us viewers inside the head of a serial killer. It’s an immensely popular genre despite the immensely uncomfortable subject matter. With literally thousands of different ways to entertain ourselves at our disposal, we always seem to approach serial killing like a moth approaches light. Why are we so fascinated with the grisly dealings of individuals who have taken up homicide as a hobby?
.44 Killer Hits Again, Wounds 2: Jimmy Breslin’s Exclusive Interview with Victim
—Daily News Headline, Monday, June 27, 1977
The headline above came at the peak of the hysteria surrounding David Berkowitz, later known as “Son of Sam,” a serial killer in New York City who murdered six people and wounded seven more. In the 1970’s, as a resident of one of the most famous cities in the world, home to a half dozen professional sports teams, Broadway, and the celebrity allure of Studio 54, Berkowitz was, indisputably, one of its most famous residents. Maybe the most (in)famous. The below fold headline in the Daily News that same day?
42 Die in Tennessee Jail Fire
—Daily News, Monday, June 27, 1977
What was it about Berkowitz that took public precedence over the deaths of forty-two individuals in Tennessee? Why was an event that took the lives of seven times as many people than Sam Berkowitz did a relative after-thought? Like Robert Downey Jr’s Paul Avery says in Fincher’s Zodiac, “Do you know more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed? He offed a few citizens, wrote a few letters, then faded into footnote.” So why do we care? If it’s not about death, or the type of violence, or the amount of violence, why the attention?
Part of our captivation with serial killers is, due to our obsession with celebrity. Macabre as it may sound, serial killers are the A-listers of the criminal underground. People like Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy get movies, magazine covers, books, documentaries, and exclusive interviews. Serial killers are the Kardashians on the pyramid of illicit evil-no one really likes them, yet we’re collectively obsessed with their upbringing, their cultural influence, the self-obsession. The metaphor grows legs when you consider that the Kardashians owe a great deal of their omnipresence because of their family’s relationship with OJ Simpson, but we’re already well beside the point.
There is a sort of gross, inverse relationship at play between public interest and violence-the more brutal things get-the more we can’t seem to look away. Ask a friend to give you a list of famous white collar criminals or drug dealers or arsonists and you may come up completely empty. Ask that same friend to rattle off a list of famous serial killers and there’s a good chance you become uncomfortable with how long that conversation goes on for. We’re drawn to the attention that serial killers receive in the media and in public domain, just as we’re drawn to athletes, movie stars, and musicians. We can’t get past the headlines. If you’re to believe the movies, the serial killers themselves are just as attracted to that attention. It’s an unusual and unsettling bit of common ground between the bystanders and the depraved.
“Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one.”
—Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs
That exchange between Clarice and Lecter in Silence of the Lambs brings us back to the moment in Fincher’s trailer-an FBI agent afraid that he’ll “catch” whatever wickedness lies within the individuals he’s tasked with profiling. Much of our collective fixation with celebrity is about escape. It’s fun to fantasize about a life of luxury-to imagine ourselves as the ones being dreamed about. It’s mostly harmlessly unrealistic-most of us are incapable of acting or singing or dancing or hitting a home run out of Fenway. Part of the fun is knowing that it won’t ever happen. The possibilities are endless that way.
The ugly truth about crime, however heinous or brutal, is the prospect that we’re all fully capable of committing one. It’s possible that the evil lives inside of us. It’s possible that it can be brought to us. In The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Lecter tells Clarice that the killer she’s after was transformed into a monster. At risk of outing myself as a potential lunatic, who hasn’t let thoughts of evil and violence creep into our psyche, however fleeting or unrealistic? Does the thought of somebody carrying out the more disgusting ideas that live in the cobwebbed recess of our brain turn us off? Does it excite us? Does it scare us? Typically, people tend to fear things that they can’t understand. It’s fair to say we understand, or at least accept, the idea of dying. I’m not all the way sure that the fear surrounding a serial killer is entirely connected to dying. The fear comes in seeing part of ourselves as the killer.
For every new movie, book, or documentary that’s released, we are forced to confront our own fascination. We become possessed by that horror. We begin to romanticize the despicable. We need to know what makes these people tick. That’s why these criminal profiling procedurals are so popular-it’s a free diagnoses; the therapists couch is in our living room. Maybe we’re so drawn to these stories to reassure ourselves that there’s a disconnect between an offenders capability and our own personal threshold of violence-though maybe we’re sucked in for the same reason we slow down when we pass a bad car accident-not because of any sudden inspiration to drive safer, no, but rather to get a closer look at the damage. Sometimes the uglier things get, the more impossible it becomes to look away. Those people behind the wheel could have been us.
The Terrifying True Story of Montana’s Baby-Faced Serial Sex Murderer
—Intro, TO KILL AND KILL AGAIN by John Coston
There is of course, an entertainment aspect to all of this. Serial killer and criminal profiling content is, strangely enough, something revolting for us to consume, and to enjoy the consumption, like Dr. Lecter, liver, fava beans, and a nice Chianti. People that enjoy horror enjoy being scared. They like the adrenaline rush of it all. They like the idea of living in a temporary nightmare. “It’s only a movie,” you can reassure yourself, but what if it isn’t? What if you take off those emotional training wheels and continue to immerse yourself? It certainly ups the scare quotient-it adds to our experience.
We may toss and turn over The Babadook or nervously scan the sky for Aliens, but we know deep down that the odds of us getting eaten by a Gremlin or ripped apart by a Werewolf are relatively slim. (I’m not going to say it’s impossible-because that’s exactly the type of thing someone says right before they get ripped apart by a werewolf). It is, however, entirely possible to fall victim to the baby-faced serial sex murderer next door. We see it the news every day: “He was so quiet. We didn’t suspect a thing. Nicest guy in the world.” It’s plausible that we may be players in the game already. It’s horror. It’s non-fiction. Each one of us is fully capable of being cat or mouse.
As long as we willfully sign up to be terrified, these types of movies will continue to churn themselves out. In allowing the truth that any one of us could be Norman Bates or Marion Crane to seep into our world of entertainment, these serial killer stories are much harder to shake than a run-of-the mill monster mash. It’s thrilling.