Kianna Young

Romanticizing serial killers is nothing new, but with the rise of social media it has become a more prominent issue.

Dial R for romanticization: our obsession with serial killers

March 2, 2023

Sharks and serial killers. Both are dangerous, feared, and rare. 

In reality, you have a 0.75 in 1 million chance of being killed by a serial killer, according to the FBI, and a 0.23 in 1 million chance of being killed by a shark, according to the Florida Museum.  

The chance of being killed by either is slim, yet people seem to have an innate fear of both. 

According to criminologists, loaded adjectives, edited photos, and unsupported theories drive the public into characterizing these dangers as modes of entertainment and, in the case of serial killers, an object of romantic desire.

Reasons for romanticization

They’re rare. They’re exotic, and they’re deadly,” said Dr. Scott Bonn, a criminologist, when theorizing about causes for romanticization.

There has also been an extreme increase in serial killer media since the 1960s, bringing this subject into the public’s consciousness. According to Emma Ann Verlinden at Michigan State University, there is an annual 23% increase in TV shows and movies involving serial killers in the U.S.

With such increasing numbers per year, many serial killers have been getting almost celebrity status. This is television shows and movies alone, not accounting for other media sources such as YouTube or podcasts, but reflects greater media trends.

They’re rare. They’re exotic, and they’re deadly.

— Dr. Scott Bonn, criminologist

However, the discussion is not limited to electronic media. 

“I think romanticization of serial killers is a bad thing because it can affect how they are seen by the public because of how many people are on social media and how they can be influenced into forgiving serial killers for everything they did because they only see one point of view,” said Anyada Mele, a sophomore at Carlmont.

A study about serial killers in popular media explains that while only “80 total references to theories of causation occurred across all 120 analyzed articles, loaded terminology occurred a total of 286 times, and explicit support for a killer’s death occurred 43 times.” The study spanned decades and analyzed print newspapers to encompass how different generations perceive serial killers. It shows how this behavior is not exclusive to internet forums and how bias is intrinsic to serial killer controversy.

While people may have a severe adverse reaction to serial killers and violent criminals, a small percentage are sexually attracted to them. This is called hybristophilia. There is not much empirical research into this topic, but the American Psychological Association acknowledges it.

In an article for Psychology Today, Mark D. Griffiths, Ph.D., described how it may be caused by low-self esteem, a need for attention, and seeing serial killers, usually males, as more masculine. As there is very little empirical evidence on this topic, the discussion remains highly theoretical.

Ramifications for romanticization

While there will always be a market for this topic, there has been a surge in popular media that portrays serial killers in this way. This gives people an easy pathway to this content without actively seeking it out. Being more conscious about what an ordinary person would see, rather than the intention, even if it is good. 

In a survey conducted by Morning Consult, the majority of U.S. adults reported that they have seen, read, or heard about Jeffrey Dahmer, while a quarter “said they have watched Netflix’s Dahmer series and enjoyed it.”

A Twitter thread uses the term “boyfriend material” to describe a serial killer. (Kianna Young)

“There are people who like watching for the story rather than watching for the psychological or serious aspect,” said Addie Rozenzon, a sophomore at Niwot High School who plans to study criminology. 

The line also blurs between real-life serial killers and fictional serial killers. 

Different types of shows are more appealing than others, like a documentary with reliable sources, compared to a more dramatized version of events with shorter episodes. 

Documentaries only account for 7.4% of the U.S. popular demand, while drama and action account for 28.3% and 5.3%, respectively, according to a 2021 report.

According to Bonn, how the media portrays these serial killers is significant.

“There is a myth that most serial killers are young white males, who are kind of dysfunctional life by themselves, sort of loners, isolationists, and rather awkward and antisocial. And that’s just not the case. You have serial killers of every shape, size, variety, race, sexual orientation, religion, gender, that there is, but rarely are they portrayed that way,” Bonn said.

There are people who like watching for the story, rather than watching for the psychological or serious aspect.

— Addie Rozenzon

Rozenzon also mentioned that some media outlets, such as the Dahmer series, produce content irresponsibly. 

“Some people try to get it right, while some don’t,” Rozenzon said, describing how it can be hard not to romanticize a killer because of how they are depicted.

This situation may not be a problem in itself. But it can reflect the broader implications of the consumption of media.

“Here’s something that I often ask my students: do you know who Ted Bundy is? Oh, well, he killed 36 women. Can you name one of them? You know, name one of the 36 women that he killed, and nobody can, so we have done a great job of sensationalizing and promoting Ted Bundy, but we have not done a very good job of telling the stories of the individuals that he killed, and all the lives he destroyed along the way,” Bonn said.

About the Contributor
Photo of Kianna Young
Kianna Young, Staff Writer
Kianna is a sophomore at Carlmont and this is her first year as a writer for the Scot Scoop. This year, she hopes that she can inform people about a variety of topics and loves interacting with her community. She plays for the JV volleyball team and enjoys listening to music, cooking, and playing video games.

Twitter: @kianna_young_

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