Serial Killers: Fascination or Fear?

Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Once that you’ve decided on a killing
First you make a stone of your heart
And if you find that your hands are still willing
Then you can turn a murder into art

—“Murder by Numbers,” The Police

Why are we so fascinated by serial killers? I’ll be the first to admit it; I am, and I have been for as long as I can remember. While attending university, my first major (before I dropped it) was psychology, but I wasn’t interested in just any old psychoanalysis. I wanted to study the truly twisted, the spree killers, the mass murderers. I wanted to crawl inside the heads of monsters, pick apart their childhoods, piece together how an ordinary human being could become so, well, extraordinary.

We’re so rapt by serial killers that we spend billions of dollars per year to watch them do their bidding on the big screen. Movies like Silence of the Lambs and Seven are considered classics, and Dexter is currently one of the most popular shows on television—a show about a normal guy who considers murder little more than overtime. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho was so gory it made me physically ill when I read it, but I paid my admission and went to see it in the theatre when they turned it into a movie anyway. And let’s not forget Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s brainchild, who made us hold our breath as we waited to see if he’d pulled the trigger, waiting to see if the kid would snap and go insane.

So what’s with us? Where does this morbid fascination come from? Why are we so intrigued by the horror of killing? Why do we so often catch ourselves rooting for the bad guy? The majority of us had happy childhoods and live relatively happy lives. We put in our forty hours a week, savor our weekly Friday night visit to Applebee’s as a reward for getting through another five days of workweek hell, secretly watch too much television and surf the Internet for far too long. We’re normal, hard-working, everyday people. And that’s exactly what gives us a taste for blood.

Collectively, we consider serial killers abnormal, evil, soulless subhumans. We’re left asking ourselves “how?” How does a person become so twisted; how does someone who exists in our world, on our streets, lose all sense of conscience and guilt? But those very questions stem from the fact that we know, despite what we want to believe, these killers are still people. Regardless of how many victims they take or what their modus operandi is, they wake up every morning, they go to work, they do their grocery shopping and fill their gas tank. They are monsters hidden in plain sight, murderers who push shopping carts and haunt the local bar. They’re the people we least expect; the nice, quiet men and women who never bothered anyone; the handsome, charismatic men who are far too charming to be vicious.

Ted Bundy in court.
Even in court, Ted Bundy looked charming.
And then they caught Ted Bundy.

Bundy is one of the most notorious chameleons of all, using his attractiveness and disarming smile to lure his victims to their deaths. He was described as “kind, solicitous, and empathetic,” utilizing those very traits to approach and win over attractive women in public places before luring them to secluded locations, where he would rape, kill, and sexually assault their dead bodies. Confessing to thirty murders just before being put to death in 1989, Bundy decapitated at least twelve of his victims, keeping some of the severed heads in his apartment as mementos of the crimes he’d committed. All of this from an honor student who worked as a grocery bagger and shelf-stocker, and who volunteered at a suicide crisis hotline.

John Wayne Gacy was married, managed three Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Iowa, and was the vice-president of the United States Junior Chamber, a civic organization that focused on community service and developing business management skills. He later owned his own construction company, hosted annual summer parties, and became a member of the “Jolly Joker” clown club, where he would dress up as a clown, perform at local charity events, and voluntarily visit sick kids at the local hospital. This upstanding citizen raped and murdered thirty-three teenage boys and young men within a span of six years, burying twenty-six of them in the crawl space of his home.

While awaiting the death penalty, Gacy began to paint to fill his time, and while he painted a variety of subjects, many of his works were of clowns—specifically of Gacy himself dressed up as “Pogo” the clown. If anyone could put a price tag on our morbid fascination, it was Gacy, because some of his paintings were sold at auction for upward of $200,000 each. We’re so intrigued by serial killers that our obsession has given birth to “murderabelia” auctions that are solely dedicated to collectables related to murders, violent crimes, and the people who commit them.

But the question remains: Why? Where does this dark allure come from?

There is no one universal answer. The reasons are as unique as we are. Perhaps it’s because we’re obsessed with our own mortality and those who kill seem to transcend that too-human fear of death. Maybe we all harbor some deep seed of darkness, every so often wishing terrible things on our boss, our co-workers, our best friends. We might be jealous that serial killers can act with no remorse, living out what can only be our fantasy. Or maybe we just want to be able to see them coming. Bundy was charming and Gacy was a saint, both committing unspeakable crimes beneath everyone’s nose. Surely, if they can do it, so could our friendly neighbor. There may be a monster living just beyond the picket fence.


Born in Ciechanow, Poland, Ania Ahlborn has always been drawn to the darker, mysterious, and sometimes morbid side of life. As a child, she’d spend hours among the headstones of the large wooded cemetery next door, breaking up bouquets of silk flowers so that everyone had their equal share. Her new novel, The Neighbors, will be out on November 27th. A cross between Blue Velvet and Basic Instinct, it goes beyond Norman Rockwell's white picket fence to discover the true horror of those whose lawns meet ours.

Read other posts by Ania Ahlborn on Criminal Element.


  1. Joni Johnston

    Great post! I agree that there are many, complex motives as to why so many people are drawn to serial killers. I just wrote an article about serial killer groupies that you might find interesting (

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