Since the mid-1970s, American popular culture has been fascinated with the modern monster role played by serial killers. Hollywood films such as The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho fed into this phenomenon by delving into the disturbed psyche of the mass murderer. Meanwhile, America became obsessed with trying to understand what caused a person to commit the kinds of atrocities they were reading about in the news. For many, this fascination quickly became an unhealthy obsession that the film and television industry needs to stop playing into; after all, these stories concern real people who inflicted so much pain to victims and their families, not just fictional villains.
Hollywood’s macabre fascination with the white male serial killer is once again having a cultural moment, most recently with Netflix’s release of Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. The four-part docuseries tells the story of the Bundy sex killings by drawing from monologues with infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, recorded while he was on death row. The problem with the show, as well as other new biopics featuring famous serial killers, is that the murderer is memorialized in a way that dilutes the abhorrence and monstrosity of his crimes. In addition, it tends to ignore the impacts of the serial killer's atrocities, namely the many victims and their families.
There is a definitive line between loving horror and gore in movies and glorifying the monsters who commit mass murder in real life. This line has been blurred by recent Hollywood blockbusters that feature popular young actors portraying criminals such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. Released in the fall of 2017 and based on the graphic novel by John Backderf, the biographical drama, My Friend Dahmer, follows a year in the life of Dahmer back when he was a high school outcast in Wisconsin. Played by Ross Lynch, a popular actor and musician, the film dissects the mind of Dahmer during his teenage years in a way that is deceivingly humanizing. He is painted as a misunderstood teenage outcast, which almost forces the audience to sympathize with a man who would go on to rape, mutilate, and murder.
In a similar manner, the recently released biographical crime thriller Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile tells the story of Ted Bundy from the perspective of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer. Just from watching the trailer, it is unclear whether or not Zac Efron, who plays Bundy, is supposed to be the villain Bundy actually was or some sort of disturbed but debonair rock star. Efron as the infamous killer has sparked a social media frenzy that again blurs the line between reviling Bundy for what he did and glorifying him as “a handsome genius.” In addition, it sparked a disturbing new trend of fan accounts on Instagram and Twitter posting pictures of Efron playing Bundy and selling anything from necklaces to t-shirts with the names of other notorious serial killers.
It is easy for Hollywood to ignore the statistics as they capitalize off of America’s fascination with the mind of a murderer. It is important to remember the truth of who these psychopaths were. Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 men between the ages of 14 and 32 before he was finally arrested. 14 of his victims were ethnic minorities. Nine of them were young black men. Ted Bundy assaulted, murdered, and raped at least 36 women, most of whom were abducted from college campuses or public parks. One of his victims was only 8 years old. Jeffrey Dahmer should not be pitied. He should be vilified. Ted Bundy should not be admired. He should be abhorred. It is disrespectful to the memories of their victims, and, frankly, disgusting to glorify them in any way.
The bottom line is that nothing about these men is spectacular or worthy of analysis. Why are we looking for the humanity in those who raped, tortured, and murdered in cold blood? Why are we casting them as outliers when statistics overwhelmingly show that serial killers are most likely to be white males? Why do we need to unpack their psyche in the form of a two-hour Hollywood blockbuster starring young, attractive actors? Continually resurrecting and reexamining their lives only glorifies their crimes in a wildly inappropriate manner. In addition, it forces the families of the victims not only to relive the trauma of losing a loved one but to endure having it blasted on a Hollywood screen for the whole world to see.