Look down at me and you see a fool. Look up at me and you see a god. Look straight at me and you see yourself… – Charles Manson
Serial killers are absolutely fascinating to your average person…
Which, of course, I find rather fascinating.
Think about it for a minute. Most people aren’t enthralled by spiders and snakes, and the only people I know who keep them as pets are incorrigible weirdoes. Spiders and snakes are grotesque, sure, but they are so dissimilar to humans (and mammals in general) that most of us are simply repulsed by them. There’s no ‘fascination’ there whatsoever; we just don’t even wanna think about spiders and snakes!
Serial killers, on the other hand, may repulse us but they nevertheless tend to linger indefinitely in our collective imagination. We make movies, sing songs, and write books about them. We watch their interviews on TV and digital media, and most of us can list at least a few by name… which is ironic, since being killed is at the top of almost everyone’s list of fears. (The more popular phobia, however, is public speaking. So if you happen to croak, don’t sweat it because the guy giving your eulogy will be feeling more anxiety than you are. Plus he doesn’t get to enjoy a long, relaxing ‘dirt nap’ afterwards, the poor fellow…)
But I digress.
I think serial killers fascinate humanity because they’re the predators who come from our own ranks; they often hold jobs, get married, and even raise families. Many of them are very charismatic. But despite the fact that they may appear harmless, they’re MONSTERS, plain and simple! If their outsides matched their insides, they’d all look like characters from a Wes Craven film… but they don’t, and that’s what makes them so unnerving and thus perversely riveting.
At any given time, it is estimated that there are at least a hundred active ‘recreational killers’ in the United States alone. Now let’s be clear here: You are exponentially more likely to be murdered by someone you know than by some random serial killer, but a hundred of those guys? Statistics aside, it’s insane that there are that many crazies out there stalking people like deer!
I have identified two key principles that I think make serial killers such eerily mesmerizing entities, and the first is this: They are just like us.
The second is this: We have no idea what causes their existence.
I’ll address the second principle first.
First of all, let me be blunt here. I hold a very, very dim view of ‘forensic psychology’. I have read all of the famed FBI ‘profiler’ John Douglas’ published writings, and as far as I’m concerned he’s trying to make a ‘science’ out of what most people would rightly label ‘guesswork’. He’s wrong as often as he is right. He reminds me of the detective from Mark Twain’s iconic story ‘The Stolen White Elephant’, forever searching for a ‘clew’ while his long-sought elephant rampages gleefully through his ‘clew-ridden’ town. (And yes, I am TOTALLY in the camp that says the FBI’s ‘Behavioral Science’ division was created for no other reason than to pad their bloated budget. I’ve done my research, and it seems that the FBI was an un-salvageable clown show way before James Comey.)
So that being said…
John Douglas thinks that the mind of a violent psychopath can be figured out, that his motives can be understood and his actions anticipated. I call ‘hogwash’ on Douglas! I think violent psychopaths are God’s way of reminding us that the human mind is His creation, not ours. For all we think we ‘know’ about predatory psychopaths, there’s always at least one who blows our theory du jour out of the water. For instance, they’re often reclusive, and isolated… but Charlie Manson wasn’t, and neither was Ted Bundy; both were outgoing and charming. Serial killers are almost always white males… but Wayne Williams wasn’t, and neither was Aileen Wuornos. Serial killers usually love to taunt the police, even seeking public notoriety for their crimes… but Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t. Serial killers often torture their victims, and usually prefer ‘contact’ methods of killing, such as knives or ligatures… but the Son of Sam didn’t; he used a gun.
See my point? John Douglas has spent decades trying to get this ‘serial killer thing’ licked. And yet any one of us can point towards Stage Left saying, ‘yeah, but what about that guy over there? He doesn’t fit your ‘profile’!’
It’s been said that serial killers are the product of abuse. And that’s often true, as in the case of Charlie Manson, whose mother sold him to a sexual predator for a pitcher of beer. It’s also true in the case of Ed Gein, whose mother was completely insane.
But Jeffrey Dahmer had a fairly normal childhood, as did Richard Ramirez. Richard Ramirez’s parents were so appalled by his childhood anti-social tendencies that they sent him to Catholic School, where he promptly became fascinated with Devil worship. I can also think of a handful of people I’ve known over the years whose respective childhoods were the stuff that serial killers are made of, and yet none of them would hurt a fly. Some of ‘em even went to Catholic schools.
You can look at the brutal childhood of Charlie Manson and say, ‘man, how could that guy ever not have ended up as a nut case?’ Yeah, Charlie was a nut but there are millions of functioning people with childhoods similar to Manson’s. Why aren’t they running around waving a meat cleaver? Ted Bundy blamed childhood exposure to pornography for his rapacious nature, but millions of people struggle daily with pornography, even Christians. Why aren’t they snatching up every pretty college girl that walks by?
What MAKES the serial killer? Is it nature? We can, after all, quantify psychopathy. You can wire a serial killer’s brain, and then spend hours showing him pictures of mutilated kittens and tortured puppies; the ‘empathy’ section of his brain will register no response whatsoever! It’s kind of like cutting the wires to your car’s air conditioner. The A/C is still a part of your car, but it doesn’t work because it’s disconnected from the vehicle’s power supply. (Side note: Autopsies have also shown that serial killers are more likely to have brain lesions than a ‘normal’ person, but the causes/effects of this phenomenon are inconclusive. Forget about the shrinks; it doesn’t even look like the doctors can figure this mess out!)
Serial killers just happen, and no one knows why! (Having said that, may I please have some of the ‘Behavioral Science’ division’s payroll money now? I mean, my theory makes more sense than most of John Douglas’ ideas…)
So yeah, we have no idea what causes serial killers. Now on to my second assertion…
They are just like us, and I think this is what fascinates us most of all.
Wait, you say! I ain’t Jeffrey Dahmer! He ATE people!!!
Okay, hopefully most of us wouldn’t stoop to cannibalism. (Would elderly people be like stew beef? Would kids become the new veal? Would people with a healthy diet be more prized for their meat than say, some overweight guy who lived on junk food? Inquiring minds wanna know…)
But yes, Jeffrey Dahmer did eat people. But it’s not what he did, so much as why he did it that’s interesting: He had MAJOR ‘abandonment issues’. Granted, most of us wouldn’t chop people up and store them in the freezer to keep them from leaving us… but how many people suffer from ‘abandonment issues’?
Ted Kaczynski (the ‘Unabomber’) was characterized by his deep distrust of academia and government, as well as his mad lust for power. Now granted, I’d like to think that I’d never mail bombs to people, ‘cuz that just seems kinda mean. But I do have low opinions of both academia AND the ‘gub’ment’, and I’d sure love to be the dictator for a day! Am I a different animal altogether from ol’ Ted, or is it simply a matter of degree?Am I a better person than he is, or was he just pushed a little harder by society than I was?
Charlie Manson – the son of a prostitute, ‘raised’ by the penal system – was characterized by a burning desire for a family of his own, despite the fact that he hadn’t a clue how to fit into a real family. Is anyone out there feeling short-changed by your own childhood? Are you still looking for a replacement family?
Yeah, that’s a lot of us!
Ted Bundy was jilted by his pretty girlfriend, and a disturbing number of his rape/murder victims bore at least a passing resemblance to his ‘ex’…
Is anyone out there still feeling bitter over being dumped?
I’m not saying that murder is an acceptable response to a terrible childhood, fear of government, or romantic rejection. I’m just saying that those are a few of the stimuli that motivate everyone, not just serial killers. As Winona Ryder’s character said in the film Girl: Interrupted, ‘crazy’ people are just you and me amplified. They have the same motivators that everyone else does; it’s just that their lack of empathy prompts them to take their fear and rage way too far. But the extreme nature of their actions doesn’t nullify the fact that they are driven by the same basic needs as every else walking down the street.
And perhaps that’s the most terrifying reality of all…
That’s why we stay up at night watching movies about serial killers, because we instinctively understand that we will NEVER know who the true lunatics are until it’s too late; turning psychos into entertainment somehow makes them seem less real. John Douglas can blow all the hot air he wants, but that won’t change reality; he’s just as clueless as everyone else when it comes to his area of ‘expertise’, and I’m sure he stays up late watching twisted movies just like the rest of us. It’s a sick pursuit, for sure, turning remorseless murderers into the evening movie…
But it’s a heluva lot less scary than lying awake worrying about them! Watching a harmless movie is, perhaps, just enough stimulation to distract us from the truth so prophetically spoken by Richard Ramirez: ‘We’ve all got the power in our hands to kill, but most people are afraid to use it. The ones who aren’t afraid, control life itself.’
I can’t wrap my head around that statement, despite the fact that I know it to be the brutal, devastating, traumatic truth… So rather than thinking about that, I’ma go watch me a movie.