Why Americans Are So Fascinated by Serial Killers

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At the 1992 Academy Awards, The Silence of the Lambs achieved something only previously accomplished by It Happened One Night in 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975; it won Oscars in all five major categories: best adapted screenplay, best director, best actor, best actress and best film.

An adaptation of Thomas Harris’ best-selling 1988 novel directed by Jonathan Demme, Silence tells the story of the FBI’s search for one serial killer, Buffalo Bill, by using information provided to them by another serial killer, Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter.

Hannibal Lector from the film 'Silence of the Lambs'. (Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo)
Hannibal Lector from the film ‘Silence of the Lambs’. (Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo)

This plot summary, along with the extraordinary success of the film, suggests why Silence is a bellwether for the popularity of serial murder in American culture, but there is more to the story. Silence not only won all the major awards, but it also dominated the Oscars television broadcast. From the moment that Oscars host Billy Crystal, straitjacketed and wheeled out on a hand truck to resemble Hannibal Lecter, first appeared on stage, it became clear that the entire evening was to be a celebration of Silence, of Anthony Hopkins (the actor who played Lecter), and of serial murder itself.

Without wanting to minimize the difference between celebrating fictional and real-life serial killers, the impact of Silence demonstrates vividly the American obsession with serial murder, which by the 1990s had developed to a point where the serial killer had become a dominant presence in our popular culture, a figure that inspired not only fear and disgust, but also a mixture of fascination and even a twisted kind of identification.

How did this extraordinary situation come to pass? As with the history of serial murder as a whole, American engagement with the subject was in many ways inaugurated by the Jack the Ripper murders that took place in the Whitechapel district of London, England in 1888. Interest in the murders was intense, and there was even speculation in both newspapers and popular cultural genres such as dime novels and crime fiction that the Ripper could be American. When the crimes of H.H. Holmes, who had murdered an unknown number of people in a “Murder Castle” that he had built in Chicago, came to light in 1894, it seemed that America had its very own version of Jack the Ripper. The fact that Hearst newspapers paid Holmes $ 10,000, an extraordinary sum at the time, for his confession testifies to the immense public interest in the case.

Anthony Perkins on the set of "Psycho," directed by Alfred Hitchcock. (Credit: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Anthony Perkins on the set of “Psycho,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock. (Credit: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

A number of other high profile American serial murder cases followed in the first half of the 20th century, including the terrible crimes perpetrated by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein in the 1950s. Gein provided the inspiration for Robert Bloch’s famous novel Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock’s influential film adaptation of Bloch’s novel, which both contributed to making serial murder a staple of American popular culture by the 1960s. Even so, the dominant reaction to such crimes among members of the American public continued to be horror and incomprehension, rather than fascination. Why? Partly because the American public lacked an adequate framework with which to make sense of such crimes but thanks to the FBI, such a framework would emerge in the 1980s and that’s when the American fascination with serial killers exploded.

Although the term “serial murder” had been around since the 1960s, it was not used with any regularity until the FBI took it up in the 1970s, and even then the term was used primarily in law enforcement circles rather than in the mass media. This would all change in October 1983, when the Justice Department held a news conference to discuss research that the FBI had been conducting into serial murder for several years. According to the FBI, at any given moment there were dozens of active serial killers at large in the United States who were responsible for thousands of deaths a year.

This information sparked a panic among the American public and suddenly serial killers were headline news coast to coast in a way they had never been before. Both law enforcement agencies and the mass media recognized they had an opportunity to capitalize on public anxiety: the FBI was able to acquire huge amounts of funding from Congress to fight serial murder, while a wide variety of popular cultural genres, including true crime books, film, television and even trading card companies quickly flooded the market with serial killer merchandise.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the scale and incidence of serial murder were grossly exaggerated during this period (it was, and remains, a statistically insignificant crime), but why exactly was the American public so receptive to what they were being told about serial murder? Because now they had a term to describe the crime, and a face to put to the crime: Ted Bundy.

Serial Murderer Theodore "Ted" Bundy walks forward and waves to TV camera as his indictment for the January murders of Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman is read at the Leon County Jail. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)
Serial Murderer Theodore “Ted” Bundy walks forward and waves to TV camera as his indictment for the January murders of Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman is read at the Leon County Jail. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Bundy, who had been convicted and sentenced to death in Florida in 1979, quickly became the poster boy for serial murder, not only because of the number and severity of his crimes (he confessed to 30 murders but was suspected of killing more than 100 women in several states over a number of years) but also because, on the surface, he seemed to personify the American ideal: he was handsome, charming, educated and even had political aspirations. The disconnect between appearance and reality came to be seen as a defining trait of serial killers and is one of the main reasons Americans find them so fascinating.

But another reason why serial killers such as Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Aileen Wuornos inspired fascination rather than simply fear and disgust is because of the frame within which they were presented to the public. From the beginning of the serial murder panic of the 1980s, law enforcement in general and the FBI in particular were presented as being in control of the problem. Alongside the iconic figure of the serial killer emerged the equally influential figure of the FBI profiler or”‘mind hunter,” uniquely equipped to deal with the threat posed by these vicious and mysterious criminals.

Today, the most well-known examples of the profiler figure can be found in TV shows such as Criminal Minds, but in the 1980s, Thomas Harris was largely responsible for popularizing the iconic mind hunter. The character of Jack Crawford, Clarice Starling’s boss in The Silence of the Lambs, was inspired by John Douglas and Robert Ressler, real-life members of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. Moreover, it was well-known that Harris worked closely with the FBI while writing his best-selling novels, which meant that popular culture and law enforcement were effectively working hand-in-hand to provide the American public with information about serial murder that was simultaneously thrilling, authentic, and educational. In other words, if audiences were inclined to feel guilty about their interest in serial murder, the mass media reassured them that being fascinated by serial killers was acceptable because in the process of consuming serial killer pop culture they learned about psychology and law enforcement procedure while also participating vicariously in the apprehension and conviction of these criminals.

American serial killer and sex offender Jeffrey Dahmer, aka The Butcher of Milwaukee, is indicted on 17 murder charges between 1978 and 1991. (Credit: Marny Malin/Sygma via Getty Images)
American serial killer and sex offender Jeffrey Dahmer, aka The Butcher of Milwaukee, is indicted on 17 murder charges between 1978 and 1991. (Credit: Marny Malin/Sygma via Getty Images)

With this background in mind, it is easier to understand why some serial killers could be presented as sympathetic figures by the media, including the cultured and urbane Hannibal Lecter, who escapes by the end of Silence, unlike the crude and unsophisticated Buffalo Bill. In the same vein, the eponymous star of the long-running series Dexter justifies his homicidal tendencies by only killing other serial killers, and in doing so makes it safe for the viewer to identify with him.

Even so, it is difficult to explain some of the more extreme examples of our fascination with serial murder, such as “murderabilia,” which refers to the online sale of artwork, letters, and a range of other items from incarcerated serial killers. If you go to the website Supernaught.com, for example, you can buy one of the many paintings of Disney characters produced by John Wayne Gacy while he awaited execution on Illinois’ Death Row, a brick from Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment building in which he killed and cannibalized young men and even a lock of Charles Manson’s hair.

Although the sale of murderabilia is the most bizarre and apparently inexplicable example of our collective fascination with serial murder, the items available on murderabilia websites differ only in degree rather than kind from the constant stream of movies, books, magazines, television shows, calendars, action figures, websites, t-shirts and a plethora of ephemera that has given the figure of the serial murderer an unparalleled degree of visibility and fame in the contemporary American public sphere. In a culture defined by an understanding of celebrity that emphasizes visibility rather than meritocracy as the precondition for fame, serial killers like Bundy, Lecter and Dexter have become the biggest stars of all, instantly recognized by the vast majority of Americans. Our fascination with serial murder provides us with a funhouse mirror through which we can glimpse distorted but still accurate reflections of our fears, dreams and values.

David Schmid is an Associate Professor of English at The University at Buffalo.

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H.H. Holmes was America’s first serial killer—but was he also Jack the Ripper? Watch the series premiere of American Ripper, Tuesday, July 11 at 10/9c HISTORY.

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