Serial killers are huge right now. From films to limited series to documentaries, streaming services seemingly can’t produce enough content about our creepiest murderers.
Since 2016, 1980s serial killer Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez has been featured in two films, two documentaries, and one television series. Ted Bundy has had three films and five documentaries made about his life in the same period of time, including a Netflix film in which Zac Efron played the 1970s serial killer who some women swooned over (seriously). Jeffrey Dahmer, the latest serial killer to be garnering attention, has had one film and six series made about him since 2017.
Netflix’s confusingly named series “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” has become the streaming service’s second most-watched English-language series of all time with more than 700 million hours viewed in just its first month.
Shortly after the release of “Dahmer”, a survey conducted by the Morning Consult found that two out of every three adults identify as fans of movies or series about serial killers. Four out of five millennials say they are.
Why in the world is this the case?
To find out, The Lion talked to LMU Prof. Kevin Wetmore about the recent serial killer boom in the media. Wetmore is an expert on all matters involving horror, having written many works detailing the evolution, progression, and generalities of horror in theater, film, and literature.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Killers, whether fictional or not, have always fascinated people. Why do you think that fascination has seemed to explode in the past several years?
Three things have shifted that have made a sort of explosion right now.
One is technology, streaming services, and podcasts, all of which are always looking for content. The technology allows for much longer stories than just a single movie.
Two, social changes. We live in much more unstable times between the Trump administration and the increase in violent crime particularly during the pandemic. You’re seeing a lot of people who are much more afraid of violence within society — socio-phobics. What we’re really seeing is what scares society. I think there is this entire vibe of fearing the neighbor and being afraid of the people in your community.
And third, sort of the most tenuous one, we look to the dark. When there’s a slowdown on the freeway, there’s going to be a car crash. And it’s already pulled over to the side. But so why is traffic slow? We’re not being blocked, but people are stopping to see the bodies, we’re slowing down to see if we can see anything that we’re all just sort of very interested in the details of it.
Especially now, what is driving so many series and films based on real-serial killers to be produced? Is the attraction based through our culture or simply rooted within human nature?
There are a couple of different answers to that, the more cynical one is attraction breeds attraction. So if a lot of people are watching “Dahmer,” there’s got to be something to it so I better watch it. The first thing you see when you turn on Netflix is what is number one in the country today. Well, you are going to want to see what all the fuss is about.
The other thing, why is it popular? Because serial killers are one that’s the attractiveness of evil. Let’s be honest, between the two, Darth Vader is much more interesting than Luke Skywalker. We’re interested in the bad boy. We’re intrigued by these figures.
Conversely, however, we also really like it when bad guys get what’s coming to them. We want that come-up. There’s this desire to see the mystery solved. I think we as human beings enjoy watching a good puzzle get done. We need to solve the mystery. All horror movies are really mystery movies at heart. And so, the serial killer film is a crossover between true crime and the mystery horror movie.
The whole point of a serial killer film is the thrill of the killer killing. But also, the thrill of who’s going to hunt the serial killer and find them. I think those are the two things that drive us. Seeing the bad character get work, then seeing the good character get them. We crave both of those.
With the amount of traction seen for this media in such a mass audience, obviously, this is going to lead to similar series and films being produced. What do you think this means going beyond that?
I think it’s actually part of a much larger cultural pattern of discovery. For lack of a better term, discovery of the bad because it’s not just murder shows. Cult shows are really big. We want the dirty laundry, we want to see the pain and the suffering. It’s also because right now, we are a traumatized species. We’re trying to pretend we’re not but we’re still in a global pandemic.
You know, the past two and a half years of human history have been, I’m going to use a technical scholarly term here, a giant dumpster fire — giant fucking dumpster fire. We spent the better part of a year not going out, hiding in our holes, wiping down our groceries as a nation. Between the national trauma of what we went through in terms of politics, radical and rapid social changes, combined with this global pandemic, we sort of bifurcated into progressive and conservative duking it out in every possible field.
We are a traumatized people, and one of the things that traumatized people like is to see other people get traumatized too, so we feel less alone. We can now relate to the whole Dahmer situation a lot better because we’ve lived through that kind of trauma of a community terrified, not knowing what’s going on. Do we not like living right now? We don’t want to die.
I’m going to use a scholarly term here. Shit’s fucked up. Watching “Dahmer” makes a lot of sense of that. Yeah, we wiped our groceries down for nine months. But this guy has human heads in his fridge.
The psychology of this is still so baffling. It’s crazy when you really think about and look into it, when you think about our COVID trauma combined with this stuff pumping out. When we start to think “better him than me.”
There it is. You just nailed it. Subconsciously hurt people hurt people and get a kind of emotional satisfaction from seeing people hurt. And we, nationally, have been hurt. It’s sort of gratifying in a weird way to watch both victims get it, and we’re scared for them. We’re also going to be glad “it’s not me.” But then when Dahmer gets arrested we’re like “yeah, fuck that guy.”
Serial killers help make the world an easier place to understand.
That is dark.
Yep, yeah, killers are great, because most of us would never dream of doing what they do. But because they exist, they make the rest of the world more comprehensible. Or at least more acceptable.