My senior year of high school consisted of way too many coffee runs. Don’t get me wrong- each and every individual coffee venture has enriched my life by blessing that particular day with extra flavor and caffeine. However, one particular Starbucks run had a rather large influence in shaping what is now a pretty big passion of mine.
My friend and I were catching up in Starbucks after our weekly mentoring session when she asked me if I had ever seen the Ted Bundy Tapes, the new Netflix documentary series everyone was talking about. Before that day, I was already very much interested in the legal side of crime, but I knew very little about the serial killing sector of crime. I told her I hadn’t seen the series, and that I didn’t even know who Ted Bundy was. She gave me a brief synopsis of the documentary and told me I absolutely HAD to watch it. So I did- I watched the whole documentary in one weekend, and as horrible as it initially sounds, I couldn’t get enough.
I was so excited to tell all my other friends that they too had to watch this series, but often when I would recommend it to people, I would be met with the classic “Oh, so you’re another white girl that’s in love with Ted Bundy” stereotype. I was initially really confused when I got this response, for I couldn’t comprehend that there are actually fandoms of girls who swoon over a man who so brutally and mercilessly killed over 30 women. I genuinely believe my interest in this man and the crimes he represents stems from a psychological and sociological approach (those are literally my college majors…and also even if he wasn’t a serial killer, Bundy physically is just not.my.type). Nonetheless, if someone wants to psychoanalyze me and tell me I’m lying to myself, feel free.
Anyways, I still wanted to understand why there is a world out there full of women who fall for men like Bundy, and why so many women are interested in true crime in general. Is this fascination, and in extreme cases, obsessive adoration, innate or learned? If it’s just a matter of curiosity, why don’t men dedicate as much time as women to understanding killers? Is there something wrong with these women, or is something wrong with society for looking down on them? Though there’s not one clear theory that explains it all, my Google venture led me to some really interesting perspectives.
First of all, I feel like it’s vital to put out there that most women interested in true crime do not actually find serial killers attractive in any way. It seems like common sense, and I really shouldn’t have to clarify it, but alas, many people wrongfully assume otherwise. Anyways, let’s talk about why the majority of true crime fans, the ones that enjoy it but still find the act of killing repulsively cruel, like the genre.
If there’s anything that true crime can create, it’s fear. Watching a serial killer plot and elicit his (or her- women can be killers too) attacks instills a feeling of terror within anyone reading about it or watching it happen on tv. Your heart starts to beat faster, your fight or flight kicks in a little bit, and you develop a type of welcomed anxiety. You get to sit behind the book or tv, knowing that you yourself are safe, but you still experience the whole rush of the crime. That’s an excitement a lot of people crave. As New York Times writer Kate Tuttle explains in a post, “Seeing the truth of the world laid bare — all its potential for violence and suffering, but also the wild leaps of survival, the close calls that turned out O.K. — this was what I craved. I loved it but it scared me. Or I loved it because it scared me” (Tuttle). It’s natural for people, especially young people, to crave this adrenaline rush, and true crime provides just that. Consequently, it makes perfect sense that so many young women who feel lethargic in their fortunately safe but nonetheless mundane routines crave the rush of learning about the crimes these serial killers commit. Logically, they know that these murders had very real, very painful consequences that they themselves would never want to experience, but these women are able to overlook them because they crave the fear and excitement.
This fear is further supported by a natural curiosity that many women have about how such heinous murderers function. For a lot of people, there is something so fascinating about learning about individuals who are not like them, whether it’s those from other cultures, those with certain biological or mental differences, or those with completely different worldviews. When you have such limited experience with one way of life, it’s human instinct to want to understand others as best you can, and this logic pertains to understanding serial killers too. As writer Megan Nolan explains, “Serial killers behave in a way which is so removed from our understanding of ourselves that it seems entirely inevitable that we feel the need to learn about them” (Nolan). Most people could confidently say that they wouldn’t find joy or arousal in taking people’s lives, so they want to fully comprehend how people who do find pleasure in it exist. This curiosity is what I attribute my passion for true crime to, for I find it really interesting to put together the puzzle pieces of what had to happen in the individuals’ lives for them to eventually become killers. It’s genuinely fascinating to make sense of how their past traumas or inherited traits manifest in the way they execute their crimes.
The curiosity sentiment carries a lot of weight with it, for curiosity is something that is so valued in our society. We encourage our kids to have a thirst for knowledge from the time they are born. We want them to be curious about history, which often includes gruesome wars and horrible atrocities like genocide. We tell our kids to work hard in their biology classes, which often includes participating in dissections of dead animal bodies. Why then, is it wrong for us to support them in being interested in the atrocities of serial killing and in the visual manifestations of it? Maybe this is just yet another subject that people are naturally interested in. In her piece, Tuttle explains that she used to love using sticks to poke at the dead fish she found at the edge of nearby ponds when she was a child. No one condemned her for it, instead praising her for her curiosity (Tuttle). If this is celebrated, why is wanting to look at true crime looked down on? Maybe we’re conditioned to believe that because the morality of serial killers is so low, there’s something wrong and immoral about being curious about them. This seems wrong though, and perhaps the women who openly admit their fascination with serial killers are the only ones honest enough to acknowledge this innate curiosity.
Sadly, wanting to learn more about serial killers and the crimes they commit may not always come from a place of genuine desire to understand, but instead from wanting to face the evils of the world indirectly in case you find yourself facing them directly one day: “Perhaps our fascination with these stories stems in part from wanting to learn from them. If a woman escaped her attacker in this particular way, we think, perhaps I could too” (Tuttle). Many true crime fans want to see everything, whether they have faced previous abuse or not, so that they can feel mentally and emotionally prepared if they face such a danger, even though they logically understand that nothing can prepare anyone for such pain: This reasoning for being interested in true crime is just one of the many reasons why women are much more obsessed with the topic than men are. In a 2010 study, women made up 70 percent of Amazon reviews of true crime books (Tuttle), and these numbers are likely a reflection of women simply wanting to be prepared. Though 48.6% of serial victims are men (Vox), meaning that men are just as likely to be murdered as women, women feel a bigger need to prepare themselves, for they often feel the need to overcompensate for the physical advantages that male offenders biologically have. Though serial killers target men and women at equal percentages, rates of domestic violence, rape, and day-to-day discrimination are not at all equal for men and women, giving women more impetus based on such “smaller-scale” offenses to be as prepared as possible, and true crime is often the way for them to do so.
Whether it’s the fear factor, genuine curiosity, or for a sense of safety, there are very understandable reasons why many women are genuinely interested in true crime. However, there are undeniably some women who take it a little…or way…too far and fall in love with serial killers. And though the concept itself is very hard to wrap a mind around, these women too have relatively understandable reasons for feeling the way they do about the Bundys of the world.
The scientific term for it is Hybristophilia, and it means “a type of paraphilia in which a person “gets sexually aroused over someone else committing an offensive or violent act” (Thompson). Put simply, people with hybristophilia are the ones who take the true crime fascination a little too far. They are the women (Men can have it too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s much more common in women) who set up Facebook fan pages about, write romantic love letters to, and even sometimes enter into relationships with their favorite killers. Some famous examples are Carole Boone, the woman who maintained Bundy’s innocence throughout all of his trials, married him in the middle of one of his trials proceedings, and even fathered a child with him while he was on death row. Bundy also had many other female admirers who would put on a full face of makeup and bat eyes at him in the courtroom (Nolan). Other killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, who raped and killed primarily African American men, have very large, white, female fandoms. In the documentary series, Making A Murderer, Steven Avery has multiple romantic relationships while he serves his prison sentence for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Clearly, there’s a good amount of these women out there, and there are even more unique reasons why these women end up the way they are.
Not surprisingly, the media has largely contributed to this phenomenon. In Huffington Post writer Sarah Burton’s interview with author Sheila Isenberg, Isenberg explains that the Wild West movies that started getting popular in the 1930’s created the appeal of a bad boy with a gun (Burton). The kind of masculinity that a cowboy exhibits when he shoots someone he doesn’t like is celebrated in these movies, and women are pretty much encouraged to swoon over these men. Though this encouragement isn’t as strong in films that portray serial killers, it is undeniable that killers are romanticized and sexualized in many media portrayals. The Bundy film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile capitalizes on every ounce of Zac Efron’s good looks to portray Bundy as equally attractive and cruel, and it’s no surprise that a small fraction of female viewers zero in on the attraction element more than the cruelty element. Obviously, the media cannot create a hybristophiliac without any other aiding influence, but it does fill a major role in guiding the process. The role of the media also contributes to some women falling for killers simply to have their fifteen minutes of fame (Seltzer). They see how much attention women like Carole Boone received from the media, and they too want to be known for something that pop culture apparently values so much.
There’s also definitely an innate evolutionary component to this kind of attraction. In prehistoric times, women gravitated toward aggressive men, for aggressive abilities signaled to the woman that she would always be protected from harm and that she would be provided for (Seltzer). Women can logically understand that dating a serial killer is dangerous since he can easily channel his aggression toward the woman herself, but the evolutionary history lets these women look past this fear. The desire to be provided for is thus innate, and supports the idea that maybe all women have a little natural predisposition to be attracted to such figures. Additionally, talent and skill have been characteristics that have been praised and deemed attractive since the dawn of time. There’s just something really enticing about someone who knows what they’re doing, and this sentiment manages to apply to killers too: “As repeatedly demonstrated in romance novels, heroes aren’t simply strong but competent also — the best at what they do. And, however ironically, serial killers seem to fit the bill in this respect, too. They may not be corporate CEOs or Hollywood movie stars, but they’re extraordinarily skilled at annihilating people.” (Seltzer). Whether it’s the protection that they can seemingly provide or the skill that they undoubtedly have, there is something innate about being attracted to killers, as awful as it may sound.
Moreover, women with hybristophilia often see these serial killers as ideal partners and as means of attaining what they lacked in past relationships. In her book, “Women Who Love Men Who Kill,” Sheila Isenberg explains that many of these women are extremely successful in their personal and professional lives, some even having families and kids before they fall for the killer. The only commonality between all these women is that they have all been abused in the past (Burton). Abuse can strongly impact a person’s future relationship desires, but I would argue that negative relationships that were not necessarily abusive can just as likely contribute to the development of a hybristophiliac. If a woman was deeply hurt by past relationships in which she felt she had no control, a love affair with a killer might be a means of reversing the roles. These women get to decide when they visit their lover, how much money to let him borrow, and whether or not to give him attention in the first place (Burton). Thus, they feel like the killer becomes dependent on them, and this reverses the feelings of dependency that they have felt and resented in their past. Serial killers can also be seen as ideal partners in that the woman never has to worry about him cheating or being too busy to talk to her (“Hybristophilia”). If these women have been cheated on, neglected, or even if they’re simply anxious ambivalent lovers, there’s a clear likelihood that they will be drawn to men who can provide them with such devotion and attention. Finally, serial killers like Bundy knew exactly what to say to win women over, making themselves look exceedingly desirable: “He had an intuitive grasp of what they desired, deciphering in an instant whether he was required to give romantic attention, or friendship, or perhaps enable a mothering feeling” (Nolan). Though most other killers aren’t as manipulatively smooth as good old Ted Bundy, many do have a strong understanding of what they need to do to draw in a prospect. Thus, even if they’re already behind bars, these killers are still able to use those same strategies to further attract their female following and make themselves look like the ideal partner that can pursue women the way they want to be pursued.
On a similar psychological line of thought, some women who fall for these malicious murderers do so because they believe they can change them. These women reason that their love is strong enough to transform even the cruelest of men (Seltzer). This gives them the ego boost to know that if they can change a serial killer, they can do anything. It becomes a way for these women to work towards a goal and prove to themselves how powerful they are. To me, it seems this stems from these women either having a high self-image and thinking they’re genuinely capable of transforming him or from having a low self-image and needing to prove their worth to themselves. Either way, this unrealistic goal is often the reason behind hybristophilia. It’s a Beauty and the Beast kind of dream….but like 500 times more intense.
Finally, and in my opinion, most impactfully, is the fact that these women experience genuine sympathy for and connection with the killers they fall for. Hybristophiliacs often “see the little boy that the killer once was and seek to nurture him” (“Hybristophilia”). They recognize that the killer has likely experienced something traumatic that has led to their violent development, and this creates a true sense of sympathy. These women harness certain maternal instincts and decide to protect the killer from any further harm, turning a blind eye to all the hurt he has caused (Seltzer). Additionally, women with hybristophilia may connect in certain ways to the isolation and loneliness that the killer often expresses. If these women do not have strong connections in their regular lives, they may easily turn to these killers for a sense of understanding, as messed up as it sounds.
It’s easy to point fingers and laugh at these women for having a mindset that seems so abnormal and misguided. After all, such women seem to completely overlook the brutality of these murderers and the suffering that their victims endured. They also overlook the fact that many of these killers truly cannot provide them with the love they want back. Even though all of the aforementioned reasons behind hybristophilia make some kind of logical sense, the basic core idea of wanting to give love to someone who took so much love away from the world seems like a completely irrational desire. However, when has love ever been a logical thing? I thoroughly believe that we don’t control who we fall in love with, for if we could, relationships would be a whole lot easier. And if love isn’t logical, then who are we to judge these women? Don’t get me wrong, the whole concept still blows my mind and rubs me the wrong way, but if there are legitimate evolutionary, sociological, and psychological reasons as to why hybristophiliacs operate the way they do, and if we don’t have full agency in terms of who we fall for, then we cannot fully condemn these women. If this is something that we as a society want to limit, then we need to stop romanticizing killers in the media, put more emphasis on the victims, and educate everyday people on how to build stronger connections in their relationships. We shouldn’t by any means encourage people to fall for killers, and there’s steps we can take collectively to make it naturally happen less, but at the end of the day, we cannot fully stop people from falling in love. We might not be able to understand it, we might rightfully not agree with it, but having grace for others is all that ultimately matters.
My sources below: