Why Are We So Fascinated By Serial Killers?

John Wayne Gacey, a kid's party clown and serial murderer, is a particularly curious case that attracts lots of public interest. Des Plaines Police Department/Public Domain

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, news headlines were splashed with serial murder cases such as the Green River Killer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy Jr, Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez, the Zodiac Killer, and BTK. The FBI notes that this sparked a massive "renewed public interest" in serial killers – a similar curiosity of which had previously sprung up in the 19th century following the notorious murders of “Jack the Ripper” in Victorian London.

Now, it’s the post-Making A Murderer Internet age, when it has never been easier to indulge in your morbid curiosity. With this, too, comes a whole new bag of serial killer-infused Netflix documentaries, TV series, podcasts, Reddit threads, movies, and even the odd IFLScience article.

As much as we might be repulsed by the actions of serial killers in theory, it seems we can’t get enough of them. So what is it about these characters that capture the human imagination so strongly?

For many, it’s no different to the buzz you get from watching horror movies. Each stab, scream, or stalkery look comes with a rush of neurotransmitters and a physiological change in the body, such as an increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, and increased blood glucose levels – the same reaction we get with excitement. It also administers a dose of a dopamine into your brain, the neurotransmitter famously associated with pleasure, mainly food and sex, but also during times of fear

We get this shot of feel-good chemicals because it's often helpful for our survival. If we are simply spectating the threat from a cool distance, however, then the neurotransmitters are there but in a very different context. It's effectively a safe place for us to relish in a binge of dopamine and adrenaline.

“I would offer that we learn about serial killers through the media – documentaries, books, online sources, and films – and that these are safe ways to explore such a morbid topic,” Bridget Rubenking, assistant professor at the University of Central Florida and media psychology scholar, told IFLScience. “Exploring all the negative things – ranging from fearful or frightful, to quite depressing and melancholy – is common and quite easy to do through media, where the risks are substantially less than exploring these subjects in non-mediated environments.”

Cheerful reading on a UK shop shelf. Matt Brown/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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