Glory or gory? Since Netflix released its Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, an alarming trend has taken over TikTok, an app usually dominated by videos of clown makeup, catchy dances, and Gen Z humour. Thousands of teens are role-playing Ted Bundy and other serial killers as well as their victims. They do so by pretending to put on makeup as they get ready for a "date" with a known murderer, only to be dragged off the screen as if they have been killed. Other users pretending to be Bundy himself set up their phones to get an under-the-bed angle as if they were hunting for their victims. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated trend, and it is not just confined to TikTok. Other trends have seen young creators role-play as cult members or abuse victims, using black and white filters or filming the videos in a dark room. One teenage TikTok user even went as far as alleging that she was Ted Bundy's granddaughter.
Human beings have long been fascinated by the macabre, a fascination that the television and movie industries readily capitalise on. There has been a notable increase in the production and popularity of serial killer documentaries, true crime, crime fiction movies and podcasts, and psychological thrillers (the orphan was a masterpiece) over the last 100 years.
Serial killings account for only about 2% of all crime. If you were to calculate your fear of being murdered carefully, you should be 12 times as afraid of your family members as serial killers. Clearly, serial killers are a rare phenomenon. Why then have they become such a significant part of popular culture?
Unfortunately, tales of rape, domestic violence, lynching and the lot zoom in and out of the news so often that it rarely catches anyone's attention, and when they do, it is not held for long. On the other hand, stories of serial killers like Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Pedro Lopez are remembered even decades later; they are so prominent that they are casually referenced in popular culture. For example, in Katy Perry's song, 'Dark Horse', Juicy J raps, "She'll eat your heart out like Jeffrey Dahmer." Jeffrey Dahmer was a convicted American serial killer and sex offender who committed the murder and dismemberment of 17 boys. He admitted to eating the thighs, hearts and organs of many of his victims (he thus earned the nickname 'the Milwaukee cannibal'). While serving his prison sentence, Dahmer reportedly fashioned his food into severed limbs, complete with ketchup "blood" to shock the other inmates. Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten to death in 1994 while serving out his prison sentence. 'Dark Horse' was released nearly 20 years later. The rapper in question can drop that distasteful reference and still know that it will be understood because serial killers form a part of our culture.
A large part of the general public's knowledge is influenced by stereotypical and sensationalised depictions of the truth in entertainment media and the news. Colourful storylines are written to pique viewers' interests and not paint an accurate picture of serial killers and their murders. Media stereotypes and hyperbole create distortions regarding the actual dynamics and patterns of serial killings. By concentrating on the exaggerated media images of socially constructed "celebrity monsters", the general public gets captivated by the portrayed representation of serial killers rather than the actual extent of their crimes.
Persistent misinformation, hyperbole and stereotypes have combined with the relative rarity of serial murders to cultivate several myths about serial killers, the most common encompassing factors such as their race, IQ, gender, upbringing and similarities between their victims. They tend to fill a certain stereotype. The most prevalent myths surrounding serial killers is that they are all white males, evil geniuses or mentally ill and want to get caught. In reality, serial killers are way more varied than we can imagine.
Only about 50% of serial killers since 1910 have been white men. The racial diversification of serial killers is much like that of the entire world's population. It is not hard to see why this misconception exists, however. The media and news perpetuate the myth that all serial killers are middle class, white males. Nearly all of the serial killers who have become cultural legends are white men. Richard Ramirez, better known as the "Night Stalker", is one well known non-white serial killer. He became mainly infamous because he drew pentagrams on his hand and occasionally shouted "Hail Satan" during his trial. Another theme repeated here is the idea that there are no female serial killers. This probably stems from the societal belief that women cannot be aggressive and are not capable of murder, that males are aggressive by nature, while females are passive. Even the lethal femme fatale is often portrayed as the manipulated victim of a male. Although there have been many more documented male serial killers than there have been female, female serial killers' presence is not doubted. Women represent a more significant percent of serial murderers in the USA than all other homicide cases. Female serial killers are also more careful (they have less tendency to leave bodies behind) and thus are more challenging to catch. They are quiet killers and so have longer killing careers. They also have lesser sadistic tendencies. While they tend not to torture their victims or mutilate them, the motivation behind the killing is the same as that of a male serial killer: the need for control.
Even the popularly represented stereotype that serial killers are either geniuses or distraught individuals is also entirely untrue. There is also no evidence suggesting that serial killers have Antisocial Disorder (the probability of them not having ASD is much higher than the possibility of them having it). Most serial killers have, however, been influenced by psychosocial stressors. Serial killers are much more likely to exhibit sociopathy or psychopathy, which are not considered mental illnesses by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Very few killers suffer from mental illnesses to such a debilitating extent that they can be considered insane by the criminal justice system. The serial killer would have to be unaware while murdering that it is illegal to be legally insane. The legal classification of insanity is so narrow and stringent that only a few serial killers could be considered. The evil genius serial killer is a Hollywood creation. It is not their intelligence that has made them successful, rather meticulous planning and cold-blooded execution of their plans.
They are also not social recluses, isolated from all of reality. In most cases, they are employed, have families and homes and appear to be non-threatening members of society. They can successfully hide out in plain sight and blend in for extended periods. Because they appear so innocuous, they are often overlooked by their family, friends, neighbours, and the police. Sometimes, an unidentified serial killer will even socialise with unsuspecting police detectives investigating the murder(s) that he/she committed. The incredible story of Ed Gein is an example of this phenomenon. It is also entirely untrue that serial killers travel widely and kill people, even in other states. Ted Bundy is the only exception that did so, in 30 states at that. Most serial killers typically operate in a well defined geographical territory. They have comfort zones (areas where they are intimately familiar with where they stalk and kill their victims). Serial killers are more likely to commit their first murder close to where they live. John Wayne Gacy, for example, buried all of his victims in the crawl space beneath his house after murdering them. Serial killers sometimes murder in an area they know well from the past, such as the neighbourhood in which they were raised. Over time, serial murderers may extend their activities outside of their comfort zone but only after building their confidence by executing many successful murders and avoiding detection by law enforcement.
Another prominent myth involves three specific warning signs: bedwetting, cruelty to animals, and setting fires. The Macdonald Triad, as it's called, comes from a small 1963 study in which psychiatrist John M. Macdonald analysed 100 of his violent patients at one psychiatric hospital. Later, researchers refuted that the presence of these traits in childhood predicts violent behaviour later in life.
A serial killer is a quintessentially American figure. There have been more than 2,600 killers in the USA since 1900. While there are serial killers in other countries, the United States' high rates of violent crime may be why some serial killers become better known than others. Because serial killer violence mainly is so much higher in the USA, we see serial killers as prototypically American. The serial killers who become famous are extreme, either in their methods or their madness.
Most serial killers tend to kill within their race, and when they kill outside their race, it is sometimes motivated by racism. White victims, predominantly female white victims, get more media attention. By extension, their killers, who are probably white as well, also get more media coverage. An unfortunate possibility is that killers whose victims are minorities are less likely to be caught by the authorities. One of India's most notorious serial killers, Cyanide Mohan, used this to his advantage. All of his victims were women belonging to poor and destitute families in their 30s or 40s. Investigating serial murders is complicated, very expensive and time-consuming. While it may seem unfair, more resources are generally allocated to affluent neighbourhoods over poor ones worldwide.
We imagine serial killers to be white, middle-class, middle-aged men because that is what we would think to be normal: a person we believe could quickly assimilate into society, who could go on killing for years without being detected.
Most of these serial killers may have been psychopaths, but they chose to kill. Serial killers chose to act on their compulsions. They were very aware of what they were doing and went through with it and usually showed no remorse after the fact.