I grew up in a household of adults who where forever watching thrillers on TV and discussing “who dunnits”. I watched Hitchcock’s Psycho, at what would now be thought too young an age, and recall going to see Jack Nicholson’s terrifying performance in Stanley Kubrick’s direction of The Shining. I was in a Los Angeles Cinema and about 11 years old, left with imprinted images of the scary twins and Red Rum written in lipstick – Murder in the Mirror.
These experiences were no doubt contributory factors to my fascination in the human psyche, raising the question: How can development go so terribly wrong and lead people to cause harm to others and also themselves? In search of an answer, in my adolescent years, I subscribed to true crime magazines and read books. I then went on to study Counselling, Hypnotherapy, Psychology, Forensic Psychology and Clinical Psychology. Over a period of 23 years I’ve worked in prisons, low secure, medium secure and high secure settings (training in Broadmoor Hospital). Now I work as an Expert Witness in Criminal Courts assessing defendants and their culpability for crimes commited, considering motive and mitigation and capacity to stand trial. My view is that by understanding how things go wrong we can also develop strategies to not only manage risk of harm but we can learn how to optimise development and help people reach their potential – by knowing either what to avoid or how to manage whst we cannot change.
Fascination for many has been raised with the recent release of the Netflix series Dahmer. This tells the story of the ‘Milwaukee Cannibal’ Jeffrey Dahmer who killed 17 known victims, dismembering and eating parts of them. He was known to present with Necrophilia (sexual attraction to a dead body). All of which evokes disgust, fear, anger and sadness. But like the phenomenon of the wobbly tooth, that we continue to move despite the pain, people expose themselves to ongoing viewing.
Many collect crime memorabilia, others write to prolific offenders – Hybristophilia is a sexual interest in and attraction to those who commit crimes. Their sexual arousal is contingent upon being with a partner known to have committed a crime. The locations of crimes even become tourist attractions. We have the Jack The Ripper tours in the East End of London. Broadmoor Hospital itself, where I trained, holds fascination for many. It is the subject of numerous documentaries,having housed many of the UKs more notorious offenders such as the Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe) and Ronnie Kray.
We want to believe that those that harm others are identifiable, that they stand out. This is not the case. Even the Police have struggled to identify offenders. Peter Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times before he was arrested. Ted Bundy escaped from custody, twice, allowing him to kill or injure at least another six women before his final arrest. Konerak Sinthasomphone, one of Dahmer’s victims escaped naked with acid injected into his brain. Policemen saw him on the street, yet they still allowed Dahmer to take him back home where he was killed. The lack of distinguishable observable traits of would be killers, can contribute to beliefs that the world is an unsafe place.
So how do humans jump from anxiety about crime to fascination with murder and especially serial killers? The psyche needs to make sense of the self, the world and others. Serial killers afford us a chance to attempt to see patterns and thus feel we can understand something that falls outside of the rational comprehension of the majority of the world.
This need to understand, has an evolutionary driver. We are hardwired to avoid predators and to continue to develop strategies for predators we don’t understand and actions we can’t predict. Watching documentaries, dramas, films and reading material on heinous crimes allows a safe exposure to attempt to attain understanding of who we may be at risk from, how to prevent this and how to manage the fallout should it enter our life experience.
In the wild animals have to learn to identify predators. They do this by staying at a safe distance and learning behaviours that signify the predator is hungry or hunting. We are not at risk from wild animals but we are from people who may behave dangerously towards us. We can’t identify predators just by sight as we see that many serial offenders were known and liked by many. It is only after exposure that people begin to say “oh yes I did always think there was something odd about them”. Maybe the more knowledge we expose ourselves to about would be predators of others, the more resources we may have in a situation that places us directly at risk. It may seem a morbid curiosity but this fascination is part of our essential human survival drive.
Humans can imagine events and experience things through mirror neurons (cells that respond the same if we witness something or do something) creating a mental simulation when we watch or read things. Therefore, the learning benefit is actually potentially high. Exposure to morbid material can calm anxious minds.
With evolution in mind, it seems that fascination with murder and serial killers can be just as ‘black and white’ as the average savannah zebra. To live or not to live? That is the question where most hope for an answer that is far removed from a Shakespearean tragedy.