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What the hype over Netflix’s Ted Bundy documentary reveals about our obsession with serial killers

6 minutes to read

“I had no idea what I was doing. And I had no idea who I was dealing with. But I knew it was a hell of a story so I went into the prison with my tape recorder and I asked him, ‘what sort of person could have done these things?’ ”

These words are spoken by prolific criminal journalist Stephen Michaud and serve as a chilling introduction to Netflix’s latest crime documentary, Conversations With a Killer: Ted Bundy, a blood-curdling recount of the Ted Bundy murders.

Michaud’s narration continues, overlapped by trial recordings and news bulletins with hard-hitting words like ‘skeletal remains’, ‘molested’, ‘strangled’, ‘raped’ and ‘sex killings’ spoken as a photo reel of Bundy’s victims crawls across the screen.

By now, the running time has hit a little under two minutes, but Conversations With a Serial Killer has wasted no time in showing (and reminding) us of the cruel depravity of Ted Bundy’s crimes.

Ted Bundy cassette tape
Image source

And yet, why can’t we look away? Why is it that we, mostly decent and well-intended people, find ourselves entranced by these terrible crimes and the person who committed them? Why are people so fascinated by serial killers?

Jack the Ripper, Ed Gein, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacey and Ted Bundy – all twisted people with crimes each more heinous than the last and all men who have been likened to the Devil. But when did this moniker shift from the Biblical creature of darkness to the handsome, misunderstood figure of Paradise Lost? When did serial killers stop being fearsome to us and start becoming fascinating?

If you’re a person who finds yourself drawn in by these macabre misdeeds and suddenly find yourself questioning whether or not you’re a psychopath in the making, then know that there’s no shortage of scientific hypotheses and findings as to why this fascination exists.

Spoiler alert – it’s totally normal.

The website Psychology Today assesses this from a psychological standpoint, citing that our interest in serial killers is because “their behaviour is seemingly inexplicable and without coherent motive” and furthermore that “people are morbidly drawn to the violence of serial killers because they cannot understand (their motives) and feel compelled to (understand).”

So is it the ‘why’ that makes serial killers so interesting? This does make sense, considering humanity’s inherent desire for knowledge, not to mention that the ‘why’ is the driving force behind criminal psychology. This is especially prevalent in Ted Bundy’s case, as many have tried and failed to understand the reasons behind his motives, despite claims that we may never fully know.

Ted Bundy victims
Ted Bundy pictured with his victims (Image source: Daily Mail)

Are you still unsure about society’s morbid serial killer fascination? Well, IFLScience takes a more scientific stab (no pun intended) at the topic, claiming that our fascination with serial killers is simply a flurry of brain activity. The article likens our fixation with murderers to the physiological reactions we get from watching horror movies; the rise in neurotransmitter activity is attributed to increased breathing, heart rates and doses of the ‘pleasure’ chemical, dopamine – a chemical which is also released during states of fear.

So why is a ‘pleasure’ chemical being released when we’re frightened? Well, as IFLScience explains, fear-based dopamine releases are latent survival mechanism. However, since we’re only witnessing and assessing the threatening scenario (like contact with a serial killer) in a second-hand way (we aren’t directly threatened, merely reading or hearing about their crimes), the dopamine dosage is applied in a more mediated way.

Basically, regardless of whether you’re in a life or death scenario with a serial killer or you’re just hearing about one, the dopamine release will occur. But because the latter scenario is far less frightening and stressful, you are able to enjoy the release more – hence why you find yourself so drawn to such a normally gruesome subject.

So, one could say that it’s not the serial killers like Ted Bundy that draw us in, but the innate ‘pleasure’ we feel from learning about them and our physiological desire for more of this – for more dopamine. It’s disturbing to think that our brains derive pleasure from this, isn’t it? Well, the article doesn’t stop there, referencing a journal article on the brain’s perceptions of ‘disgust and revulsion’.

Media psychology scholar Bridget Rubenking breaks down these perceptions into three types – death, gore and socio-moral disgust – and gauged people’s reactions to each. She concludes that although the reactions to death and gore were the most negative, they provoked the strongest signs of ‘arousal and attention’.

Yikes.

“It’s easy to think that human behaviour is simply guided by a desire to pursue pleasure, avoid pain, and survive”, the article states. “Yet paradoxically, we’re attracted by the repulsive. It’s the same reason why you rubberneck at car crashes, search for graphic videos on LiveLeak, or enjoy watching a celebrity meltdown on Twitter.”

But our fascination for serial killers? Well, according to Rubenking, our reasons for this fascination are of a more Darwinist and Nietzschean nature. It turns out we’re drawn to serial killers because of their complete unwillingness to conform to conventional morality and the rules that bind society together. As people who have lived with these laws our entire lives, we’re innately curious to understand what it is to live a life unbound by these laws. Serial killers have very little regard for their fellow humans, but even less regard for the rules of the world. This disregard is what makes them so dangerous and horrifying, but at the same time it’s what makes them so interesting.

Ted Bundy_face
Image source: CBS News

So, in closing, we must ask ourselves about why these documentaries and stories are so widely circulated, and ask ourselves why shows like Conversations With A Killer: Ted Bundy are produced, despite the ethical arguments that are made against their existence. Is it that the showrunners are enamoured with people like Bundy? Or is it that they have recognized our darker interests and are simply kowtowing to what the audience wants – no matter how deeply suppressed and dark they may be?

Conversations With a Killer: Ted Bundy is now streaming on Netflix.