Some light spoilers for Mindhunter and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace to follow, along with a content warning for extreme violence.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/evmqje/serial-killer-tv-mindhunter-american-crime-story-versace
I’ve got the opposite problem in that I don’t particularly enjoy true crime, and yet everyone around me seems to love the genre. My wife avidly listens to My Favorite Murder and Serial, my friends constantly ask if I’m caught up on American Crime Story or True Detective, and I can’t for the life of me give a shit. Life’s tough enough, I’d rather take in media that doesn’t make me give up on humanity. I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but I feel particularly left out of this cultural moment.
I’m not a big fan of true crime, but I binged the whole season of the Onion’s A Very Fatal Murder which I highly recommend. It’d be about an hour of listening, all told, and it’s a great subversion of true crime media and plays with its worst excesses in fun ways.
I can’t really handle it either. I like mystery stories, especially British ones like Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple, but those are more about the puzzle and about getting to know a new group of people than they are about terror and violence.
There was a time in my life where I did like stuff like SVU, and my belief was always that the outlandish evil of the characters therein was so unfathomable that I could separate it from myself in a way that I could not separate more banal or everyday evil, or evil rooted in my cultural history. It’s why, even though I loved the one episode of Uncivil I listened to, it reminds me too much of the Confederate whitewashing happening all the time where I live and it feels too real.
Serial killers are not individuals who are basically broken. They also aren’t people who have just wandered off the righteous path.
I think we wish it was so, because then we could draw a hard line between what is normal and what is “serial killer behavior.” I think serial killers and mass murderers are canaries in the coal mine, subject to the same environment we are but just breaking first. Or confronting it first, which is maybe why we find them attractive. They are like us, just more so. They’re motivations are less arcane and more mind-boggling in their banality.
That’s what I liked about Mindhunter. Once they start seriously examining these “disturbed” individuals, they lose track of the divide between what is social and what is anti-social.
I actually have a lot of interest in the True Crime genre as well. Documentaries, My Favorite Murder, some of the grittier deep dives into criminals like Last Podcast on the Left. As a kid I had an interest in horror movies and would watch Cold Case Files past my bedtime.
Being a queer woman in my 20s with big anxiety issues since childhood I probably seem like the person least likely to enjoy True Crime, but researching horrible crimes actually makes me feel more in control. You recognize behaviors, learn red flags, start saying (paraphrasing My Favorite Murder) “Fuck politeness”. Its helped me come to grips with a world that is very hostile to people like me.
Of course I can’t speak for everyone, especially those who aren’t in particularly vulnerable positions who still take a shine to the genre. That’s just how I’ve learned to accept my interest in the frightening.
I also can’t stop reading/watching/learning about serial killers. I also binged on Mindhunter with my partner, and I read Helter Skelter about a year ago, and I was fascinated by everything that happened in those horrific Manson murders. Why? I’m not totally sure. I think it might have something to do with having a perpetual urge to understand why and how things work? Like, after seeing Annihilation this past weekend, and mostly loving it, all my mind can think about is trying to come up with a definitive explanation for everything (which I know is just never going to happen, but I still JUST WANT TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING).
So I guess I just really like to explore the rationale of why people do terrible things? Maybe it also has to do with having grown up in the Milwaukee area, and having the specter of Dahmer hanging over things…heck, the concert venue I’d most often go to is basically across the street from where he committed the murders.
Anyways, I think wanting to understand why people do horrific things is a normal human response, but it’s still a little unsettling how fixated I’ve become on serial killers.
I feel exactly the same way, @OOIOO . I must say in my case it’s partly because of a (kind of morbid) curiosity I have in understanding what goes on in the mind of the criminals–which is why I adored Mindhunter, both the book and the series–but it’s also about being in control and being prepared for something if that something ever happens. My Favorite Murder helped me a lot with that. I remember reading The Stranger Beside Me for the first time and going like “I would probably have helped a man in an arm sling or a cast without even thinking twice about it and analyzing the surroundings and etc.” and it freaked me out.
I watched a video essay just the other day that asks the same question and I found it to be pretty good, if anyone’s interested. It talks about basically the same things @KingCaliban touched on
Have you ever read Naoki Urasawa’s manga Pluto? Do you like Hannibal & True Detective? Do you like Ghost in the Shell & Blade Runner? SMASH EM ALL TOGETHER, and make it an Astro Boy series for big kids. It’s like Hannibal w/ robots. Hell, there is even a Hannibal robot.
Highly recommended. The author also wrote 20th Century Boys, Monster, Billy Bat, & other greats.
I just finished reading Devil in the White City which talks about Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition interspersed with H.H. Holmes, who is considered to be the first “modern” American serial killer. The author talks a lot about how once his story broke, it became a national fascination and the detectives that caught him became prominent celebrities. It’s interesting to me because despite the fact that it is before modern media, there’s still an obsession with both the gruesomeness of the murders and the idea that something went “wrong” with his brain. He turns down several requests to donate his brain to science and even asks that his body be entombed in concrete so nobody can dig him up.
Overall, I like true crimes as well, with the exception of some podcasts. I live in Georgia, and have worked my way through both Up and Vanished and now Atlanta Monster. They’re both a bit uncomfortable because you have the feeling that the creators are exploiting tragedies in order to promote their investigative abilties. I definitely like learning about how investigations uncovered serial killers and figured out how their minds worked, but it can definitely go a bit too far.
The extremely awful documentary, Serial Killer Culture, focuses on several men who obsess over serial killers throughout history. One of them collects objects pertaining to serial killers, coldly assessing their monetary value, explaining his collection and detailing the mementos he wants most, all with a twisted sneer that never fully leaves his face. The other men the documentary follows are equally excited about serial killers, describing their favorites throughout history with big childlike grins and a hint of lasciviousness that is extremely fuckin gross.
Just as I was about to shut it off, not wanting to hear anything else from these creeps, the movie shifted focus to a walking tour of an historical serial killer. One of the men points out that there is a large number of women who attend these walking tours, and coincidentally, the tour guide herself is a woman. The documentary briefly interviews her and I think a couple of the attendees, and for a moment, flashes a glimpse of who this movie should have been about. The women are bright and enthusiastic, but have none of the animalistic energy roiling just below the surface that the men very obviously do. They are historians, not admirers. Unfortunately, this segment is all of 10 minutes long. I shut the movie off when we returned to the stars of the show.
I don’t think it’s always wrong for cis men to be interested in serial killers, but I think that the reasons women are interested in serial killers are a lot more complex and fascinating.
Also, frankly, I’ve never read about, listened to, watched, or met a cis man who is obsessed with serial killers who I was not concerned about in some way.
Yeah, I think there’s a distinction between people who like reading/hearing/learning about serial killers and those who are fans of serial killers. There’s two drives that I can identify within myself as to why I enjoy stuff like this. There’s the historical perspective of true crime that is fascinating, and from the fiction side (also some in the non-fiction) is trying to wrap my head around their motivations, especially from a perspective of knowing that there actually isn’t that much difference between a serial killer and anyone else, aside from the murders they committed.
Maybe part of it is they are the closest thing to real life monsters that exist in the rational era. We love a monster, especially storytellers or people drawn to stories.
I remember an issue of Neil Gaimans Sandman called Ceral convention, which took place in this hotel in the middle of nowhere where serial killers from around the world gather in for a twisted convention. Complete with panels, events, book signings, etc.
A little backstory: the Sandman is a deity like figure who is in charge of dreams and stories. He’s there tracking down a runaway nightmare, who decided to become a serial killer in the waking world. In the end, he confronts everyone at the convention and says something along the lines of “I take away your personal narratives, that you are gods, hunters, superior beings. You are just humans, these are your choices.”
I always feel weird/gross about true crime (specifically serial killer) stuff, but I do get drawn in really easily.
Having watched 2-4 Mindhunters (I can’t remember where I stopped), I actually like that it’s pretty low-key and clinical throughout. Through the interview structure, I felt like I was getting the intrigue of a serial killer story without sensationalizing the acts with gory visuals. From what I’ve heard, things ramp up a little, and there are still events like the series opening, but it made me feel a little better about rubbernecking.
I definitely feel like True Crime stuff needs to walk an extremely fine line, especially when it comes to things in the recent past. I feel like Serial mostly did a good job in its reporting (though there were definitely some capital p Problems) but the biggest issue was that this ongoing case had built a fandom around it. I was in college at the time and I wrote an op-ed for the student paper regarding the podcast those lawyers started afterward that was touting to be “THE TRUE STORY” where I was like “Hey, can we not? Haven’t we dragged these families’ trauma out for the whole world to gawk at enough?” and it ended up with Serial fans and eventually Rabia Chaudry blowing up my mentions on Twitter for a week. That was pretty fun.
I think there’s an important distinction between media like Mindhunter, which examines serial killers externally, grappling with the neurodivergences and philosophies that drive them to kill, and media like Maniac, or Killer on the Road, or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which follow serial killers more intimately with little to no presence of a critical eye, or a mystery to unravel at the core of which is the serial killer’s identity/location/next victim.
I see a lot of people validating their interests in crime, and I don’t think that we need to do that. Everyone finds crime fascinating for a variety of obvious reasons. But, serial killers specifically exemplify something more sinister and base than the motivations that drive virtually any other crime. To that end, I think it’s valuable to allow for that distinction. Danielle speaks to an interest in crime that, to one degree or another, we all basically share, and I think she might be a little too hard on herself about it. American Crime Story and Mindhunter have a lot to offer beyond the serial killers they involve, and fascination with crime is as old as the written word.
As for True Crime shit: the biggest problem I have with it is its existence alongside endlessly compelling Fictional Crime. Most purveyors of true crime seem to have learned their storytelling from fictional crime, which employs predictable (but effective) techniques in pacing and the use of tropes that sometimes don’t conveniently exist in real-life. It’s possible to edit true crime stories and highlight their elements in ways that mimic fictional crime so as to make the audience’s experience more exciting, but sometimes this sensationalism can feel gross.
S-Town comes to mind. It’s positioned as a mystery, but it really isn’t. The denouement acknowledges this, like it’s some lesson to learn, but it feels like a lesson the storytellers learned in trying to tell this story in a way that compares to Fictional Crime, not something we all need to be taught about True Crime. In this way, True Crime is often self-indulgent. Seeking enjoyment out of history is different than finding history fascinating. Though there’s a balance there that can be found in moments across time, sometimes history is just dry and unpleasant, and mischaracterizing it as anything else can be a disservice to those who participated in it.
I think that what makes True Crime compelling is the same thing that probably led early humans to keep an eye on potential predators to learn their behaviors. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that fascination, especially considering how widely shared it seems to be by so many–particularly, in my experience, by women, whose reasons are (usually) completely valid and understandable. I, too, find myself interested in the genre from time to time, most particularly when there is some element of mystery involved.
I don’t know if it’s fair to characterize all True Crime as broken or prone to misrepresentation of history. Certainly there are folks out there who are writing in the genre exploitatively and just hoping to make a buck, but there are also a ton of really moving True Crime stories where the author is genuinely engaged in helping families of victims find closure and in unpacking the psychological landscape of a person willing to commit such heinous acts (which I do believe is important work to some extent). The best True Crime is not sensational at all, but more interested in examining the societal and personal causes and effects of things like serial murder, and is really more simply about interrogating the human condition than trying to cash in on a trend.
All this to say that I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with being interested in stories about serial killers as long as–like with most things–one doesn’t allow it to become an unhealthy obsession; sometimes we enjoy a video game that is gruesome and violent, and that’s fine as long as we don’t then become focused solely on gore and violence for its own sake.
Nothing. You like them because they are interesting.
Criminals and psychopaths can be incredibly interesting to watch when properly deconstructed because they can show us the worse of humanity, and give commentary on certain aspects of ourselves and our society. I know that sounds depressing but this should be something that should allways keep in mind when moving forward in life, to improve ourselves and to defend ourselves.
That and there is something about misery and tragedy that is inherently attractive to human beings. So no, there is nothing wrong with you, and you happen to have a good taste in the genre.
I think true crime as an entire genre of entertainment is a semiotic exercise for the reader/viewer more than anything else. When it comes to serial killer narratives in particular, it’s comforting to us that their motives and actions can be stripped down to patterns of behaviour and past experience. I think an affinity for it is just an indication of one’s desire to understand how people derive meaning and purpose from violence, because it helps us better understand how we derive meaning ourselves having such a bizarre model to contrast ourselves with.
I also think it’s a product of secular society’s obsession with the self. If you’re not particularly spiritual, your highest calling is to live your life how you choose. Maximise your happiness, feel fulfilled. In this environment, the individual who maximises their happiness and achieves emotional fulfillment from murder presents a huge emotional and psychological threat. We want to understand it because death is final, certain and the idea that someone would cut our brief time on this earth short purely to live their own “best life” must be unpacked and categorised to make it feel less terrifying and unknowable.
It’s much more comforting feeling like our death at the hands of a killer could be explained with reasoning and deduction than by circumstance.
A lot of women our age (although I’m in my 30s) with similar “pathologies” and life experiences are way into serial killer and true crime media because we’re actually the most likely to like it - I feel it super soothing to engage with as someone who has PTSD and trauma. It is extremely controlled, the bad guys often meet justice or at least examination and that feels ameliorating on some level. But as I’ve discussed with other women, it’s often “learning who men are” that’s the biggest draw. A lot of people with trauma or violence in their past are drawn to this stuff for precisely this reason, it gives you insight into why people do this stuff, even on such a lurid level.