Originally published in Edition One (2023).
Content warnings: References to death, violence, suicide and misogyny
Zac Efron, Ryan Gosling, Penn Badgley, Ross Lynch and Evan Peters—what do all of these men have in common? For one, they’re all examples of wildly successful, conventionally attractive A-listers dominating the contemporary film industry. They can be found on the covers of GQ, Times and Vogue Magazine, on billboards promoting designer brands like Hugo Boss and Gucci, on red carpets of almost any major movie premiere, and, of course, in TikTok fan edits made to whatever ‘slowed+reverbed’ thirst trap song is currently trending. Essentially, these celebrities epitomise much of what society deems desirable in men, with individuals such as Efron even being heralded the “ultimate embodiment of modern masculinity”.
Yet strangely enough, what these men also share is that they have all played serial killers at some point in their careers.
The romanticisation of serial killers has become an increasing issue in contemporary culture. Words such as ‘charming’, ‘attractive’ and ‘charismatic’ have often been used to describe murderers in the media, with a recent analysis of over 120 online articles by Eastern Kentucky University revealing that such killers are widely sensationalised in the news. It doesn’t end here—many infamous murderers have even become the eponymous ‘anti-heroes’ of numerous movies, TV shows and podcasts, with advertisements projecting their faces across millions of Netflix homescreens, posters and more right alongside some of Hollywood’s most famous stars. One may argue that by telling these stories, victims and their families are given a voice. Yet, when entertainment spins solely on the axis of their trauma, are we really giving the victims a platform, or simply twisting their very real and harrowing deaths into perverse spectacles for our enjoyment? Why are we not naming these documentaries and shows after the victims, if the intention truly is to empower those affected?
It seems like society has always taken a morbid interest in homicide: for example, up until the 19th century, people could buy tickets to public executions. However, this fascination has only worsened over time, with the extreme obsession, and sometimes even sexual attraction towards serial killers now even having its own name: hybristophilia (the most famous example of which resulted in large groups of so-called ‘groupies’ turning up to a 1970s serial killer’s trial having dressed up like his victims). Currently, more than 52% of Americans enjoy true crime content, with the proportion of Australian consumers expected to be even higher. A 2022 Netflix series ‘Monster: The *insert name of serial killer not worth mentioning* Story’ has even recently surpassed over a billion views.
There are a couple potential explanations for this unnerving societal fixation with crime and death. Forensic psychologists posit that it could be a way to satisfy our inner adrenaline junkie without having to put ourselves in any tangible danger. Additionally, they have also claimed that the disproportionately female demographic targeted by true crime content could also be linked back to issues such as internalised misogyny and trauma, with their interest in true crime functioning as a socially acceptable way for them to indulge in their darkest fears.
Yet, this growing interest in serial killers and true crime could feed into the already narcissistic tendencies of these criminals and incentivise their horrendous behaviour. While the intention of these true crime shows may be to denounce them, studies of serial killers convey that the majority of them are driven, at least in part, by infamy and their desire to shoot from anonymity to public headlines by any means necessary. One particular murderer in the 1970s even notoriously wrote to his local TV station asking, “How many people do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national attention?”
With violent crime on the rise, can we really risk glorifying murderers and entertaining their desire for widespread infamy? By encouraging audiences to view the world from the skewed lens of a serial murderer, we are inherently inclined to sympathise with them and even justify their actions. A University of Texas study in 2013 run by more than 164 undergraduate students showed that participants who watched true crime content involving murderers and/or criminal activity were less punitive in nature and much less likely to support capital punishment.
Where do we go from here?
After the tragic Christchurch shootings in in 2019, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern vowed never to speak the name of the perpetrator, urging the public to instead “speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them … we, in New Zealand, will give [him] nothing—not even his name”. Essentially, she proposes that the country make him “nameless”. I firmly believe that this is the way forward.
While the names of serial killers will inevitably still be traceable if people search hard enough, by refusing to mention the names of these criminals, we strip them of their infamy and re-centre the narrative around victims.
While the United Nations Human Rights Charter states that every human being has a right to a name, identity and nationality, the actions of these individuals indeed push the boundaries of humanity and raise the question: do they still get to be human, or are they simply monsters at this point? Is it fair to grant someone the same rights they so callously stripped from others? Indeed, it is arguably more just to treat them like the monsters they are, like blank and empty creatures lacking both name and identity.
For those killers whose names are already ingrained in the zeitgeist, the narrative should be altered so that the victims’ names are the ones we uphold. Over time, these killers will fade into nothing more than an irrelevant side character in a still tragic, yet much more empowering and hopeful story. Gradually, we will make serial killers nameless.