The new bad boy: why the romanticization of serial killers must end

America and the rise of the mini-Manson girl


Akhila Johny/Talon

Cartoon depiction of infamous serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Leila Kohn explores the portrayal of serial killers in Hollywood.

It seems that serial killers are the new protagonists of the silver screen. Why else would our eyes light up when a horror movie is released, and for what other reason would the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences sit around discussing the beautiful cinematography in films about some of the worst atrocities of mankind? 

Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson: it doesn’t matter who it is and what they did. Their stories, and their victims’ stories, seem fair game for any glorification or spin-off series a director desires. 

With each passing month, some new Hollywood hunk signs on to play one of these atrocious human beings, and every month people lap it up like dogs. Just recently, it was released that Evan Peters (of “American Horror Story” fame) will be playing Jeffrey Dahmer in Ryan Murphy’s upcoming series on the serial murderer’s life. Peters isn’t even the first teen dream to portray Dahmer, who is infamous for his mutilation of young boys, in recent years. In 2017, Ross Lynch (known from the Disney Channel “Teen Beach Movie” franchise) played the killer in the film “My Friend Dahmer.”

If Zac Efron can play Ted Bundy, none of this should be surprising. Apparently, viewers love a sexy killer — the blood on the wildly attractive face and the misunderstood eyes of someone with no remorse. It doesn’t matter if the story is in the horror genre. Christian Slater can play J.D. — one of the first media-portrayed school shooters — in “Heathers” and become a heartthrob, and Penn Badgely can play Joe Goldberg — a murderer, stalker and generally terrible person in Netflix’s hit TV show “You” — and become a Twitter sex symbol.

Sylvia Plath once wrote, “Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute Brute heart of a brute like you.” A fascist: a person or group who exerts dictatorial control over someone and their life. Is that where the attraction to serial killers comes from, some weird masochistic desire to be controlled, to be stalked by Joe Goldberg, to be told what to do, so we never have to make hard decisions or take responsibility for the turns our lives take again? Is our adoration of and attraction to serial killers some sort of sick self-hatred? 

When I initially arrived at Oak Park, I met one of my first friends in my walking class. One day, with that hot Conejo Valley air blowing over the swarm of teenagers walking the pavement, we discovered our mutual love of the aforementioned film, “Heathers.” Happily surprised, I asked her what she liked about the movie.

“Well, I mean, Christian Slater,” she responded.

“Oh, I know what you mean,” I nodded.

“Yeah,” she smiled, “there’s nothing sexier than a serial murderer.”

Judge us all you want, but we’re not alone. There are mini-Manson Girls all over the world, foaming at the mouths over their own particular “fascists,” whether it be Efron’s Bundy or Michael C. Hall’s “Dexter.” Sick, right?

Is this just a natural extension of the bad boy syndrome for the 21st century? We got bored of motorcycles, so now we need mutilation and guns? This past decade was the era of mass violence; it would make sense that the new bad boy is a gun-wielding maniac since rock n’ roll and leather jackets aren’t sufficient to get our blood pumping anymore. 

There’s more to murderers’ appeal than their danger, however. Fictionalized serial killers all share one trait in common: obsession with their love interests. This makes sense considering they are, for the most part, insane. But this obsession, this overprotectiveness and total focus on their paramours, is somehow appealing. In a world where we all seem to feel like no one cares about us, where some men have been trained not to display their emotions to women and where it is increasingly hard to connect to those around us without screens, don’t we all just want someone who will love us to the end of time, who can think about nothing except us? Everyone wants to be special. Everyone wants to be adored, lusted after and the star in someone else’s mind. Isn’t it a little horrifying that these desires are, for some reason, being projected onto cinematic serial killers?

Perhaps this is because we believe that only an insane person could love someone so fully, that only someone with a mental disorder could profess undying devotion? Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not normal for that sort of all-consuming love to exist. Humans are flighty creatures and, in the 21st century, we all have so many “options.” What if the next date is “the one?” What if I haven’t swiped far enough? There could be someone better, always someone better. Deep inside of all of us, though, is the desire, whether natural or media-implanted, to have an everlasting romance, to find the person who lights you up inside and who you connect to the most you will ever connect to anyone, to find the Romeo to your Juliet, the final man or woman, “the one.”

People want romance, and romance inherently comes with a bit of obsession. It’s the nature of the mood-state. With these romanticized cinema psycho killers, I see a desire to extremify this romance, to reach the highest level of love. We’re desensitized, and, therefore, we’re bored. Romantic comedies are trite. Marriage dramas are passionless. Classic romances seem outdated. But psycho killers? Oh, there’s plenty of psychos around, at least more psychos than there are Jack Dawsons. And psychos are exciting. Psychos are mysterious. Psychos can give you the highest level of passion possible because, well, they’re not normal. And who wants to be normal anymore?

We all want more, more, more: more love, more devotion and more passion. We don’t want to think that our partners could ever have the desire to cheat on us, to find something better. We want to be the end, the high point and the best. In the case of these fictionalized psycho killers, their lovers are the high point and the best (whether they end up murdering them or not).

It’s true: there are serial killers who were known to be attractive in real life and who, as a result, were able to lure their victims with their good looks, Ted Bundy being the most obvious example. Cult leaders notably have a hefty amount of charisma; it comes with the territory. However, these killers were not that attractive, at least not as attractive as Zac Efron or Ross Lynch. More importantly, they didn’t have close shots, pans and wide lenses to make them the star of the show, to glorify their every move through film and deify them by making them immortal on the screen, just as they wanted to be in real life. 

I’m not denying that there’s something sickly appealing about these psychopathic characters, but we’re taking this too far. 

We’re glorifying murder, adulating the horrific, and encouraging toxicity as a form of romance. Most high schoolers want a boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe we shouldn’t make the sublime form of this a relationship with a murderer. It’s all a fantasy, though, isn’t it?

Murder is sick. We all know this, yet many of us are happy to sit down and watch our own particular fascists mutilate and beat, so long as it’s on a screen. Is this enjoyment of suffering okay because it’s on a television? Sometimes art is even more real than life, representing our own secret, inner desires and the darkest parts of ourselves. 

I don’t believe that we need to stop making movies about murder; the psychological exploration of the debased is one of the most interesting facets of art and media in the modern age. This adulation, however, this glorification, is making us all into mini-Manson Girls, excited to see our favorite on-screen murderer take center stage. When does the teen adulation end and the sick obsession begin? When do we stop watching and begin wishing? I don’t know. I don’t know what we should do about our media’s glorification of serial murderers. I don’t know what to do about our own attraction to them. 

At another time, when I was another person with different milieus of people surrounding me, I once declared that I wanted to marry someone just like Jason Dean in “Heathers.”

My friend gave me a look: “You want to marry a psychopath?”

“You don’t?” I responded.