I mean, I’m just a normal individual.
Those were the frighteningly ordinary words of Ted Bundy, the American serial killer, kidnapper, and rapist who confessed to murdering 30 people—though he may have claimed additional lives.
Bundy and his crimes are the focus of the new Netflix true crime special Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, the biopic treatment starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins. The four-part docuseries combines present-day interviews with archival footage and intimate audio recordings to produce a chilling portrait of one of the most notorious killers in recent memory, while the biopic focuses on Bundy's trial and his long-lasting relationship with Elizabeth Kendall.
Bundy sits on a long, grim list of murderers whose names are known the world over: John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Kemper, and Ed Gein to name but a few. The cases of these killers have inspired everything from bestselling true crime books to iconic horror movie villains. But what fuels the allure? Is it morbid curiosity—or something much deeper?
In Why We Love Serial Killers, leading criminology professor Dr. Scott Bonn examines our insatiable appetite for true crime. Drawing on years of research in the field, Dr. Bonn dissects the criminal profiling techniques that bring killers to justice and the many ways in which the most ruthless among us transform into macabre pop culture figures, feeding our fascination as well as our fears. The result is an absorbing exploration of a serial killer's mind and “an excellent source of myth-busting information for laymen and professionals alike.” (Burl Barer, Edgar Award–winning author).
In the excerpt below, Dr. Bonn scrutinizes the false narrative of the unhinged psychopathic killer. In reality, many serial murderers appeared utterly normal to the outside world, even charming. Case in point? Ted Bundy himself.
Read on for an excerpt of Why We Love Serial Killers, and then download the book.
The entertainment industry has provided many inaccurate examples of psychopathic killers in film, television, and books. Psychopaths are often incorrectly presented in the media as scary people who look frightening and easily stand out in a crowd. They are frequently presented in the media as ghoulish monsters. In reality, a psychopath, including a psychopathic serial killer like Ted Bundy, can be anyone—a neighbor, co-worker, lover, or homeless person on the street. Any one of these seemingly harmless people may in reality be a violent psychopath who preys on others. Psychopaths rarely stand out in a crowd and that is what can make them particularly dangerous criminals and very difficult to apprehend.
Many of the most infamous and prolific serial killers in U.S. history, including John Wayne Gacy, Dennis Rader, Ed Kemper, Joel Rifkin, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Gary Ridgway, have exhibited the key traits of psychopathy and many of them have been diagnosed as psychopaths by forensic psychologists following their capture. A cool and unemotional demeanor combined with keen intellect and charming personality makes the psychopath a very effective predator. A lack of interpersonal empathy and an inability to feel pity or remorse characterize psychopathic serial killers. They do not value human life and they do not care about the consequences of their crimes. They are callous, indifferent, and extremely brutal in their interactions with victims. This is particularly evident in so-called power/control serial killers who will kidnap, torture, rape, and murder their prey without any outward signs of remorse.
As previously noted, psychopathic serial killers know right from wrong and they are able to comprehend the criminal law. In particular, they know that murder violates the laws of society. Psychopathic killers understand that they are subject to society’s rules, yet they disregard them in order to pursue their own selfish interests and desires. Contrary to popular mythology, psychopathic serial killers are not out of touch with reality and, as such, are not mentally ill in either a clinical or a legal sense. They rarely suffer from delusions unless they also have a separate mental illness such as psychosis or use powerful drugs such as amphetamines. In the criminal courts, psychotic delusions are occasionally presented as a defense by the attorney of a psychopathic serial killer. Normally, such defense claims are successfully challenged by prosecutors. As explained in chapter two, psychopathic serial killers are rarely found not guilty by reason of insanity in court simply because psychopathy does not qualify as insanity in the criminal justice system.
A lack of interpersonal empathy and disregard for the suffering of their victims are key characteristics of psychopathic serial killers. They generally do not feel anger toward their victims. Instead, they are more likely to feel cool indifference toward them. Many serial killers seem to go into a trance when they are stalking and killing their victims. The violence they commit often has a dissociative effect on them emotionally. As explained by Dr. J. Reid Meloy, author of The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment, psychopathic serial killers are emotionally disconnected from their actions and, therefore, are indifferent to the suffering of their victims. Their ability to dissociate themselves emotionally from their actions and their denial of responsibility effectively neutralizes any guilt or remorse that a normal person would feel in similar circumstances.
Psychopathic serial killers often view their victims as symbolic objects, according to Dr. Meloy. Ted Bundy described his victims in non-human terms and he referred to himself in the third person. Bundy said, for example:
Since this girl in front of him [Bundy] represented not a person, but again the image, or something desirable, the last thing we would expect him to want to do would be to personalize this person . . . Chattering and flattering and entertaining, as if seen through a motion picture screen.
Bundy went on to explain how he viewed women more as a category or group rather than as unique individuals. In essence, he dehumanized them and turned them into a homogeneous commodity in his mind. Bundy further said:
They wouldn’t be stereotypes necessarily. But they would be reasonable facsimiles to women as a class—a class not of women per se but a class that has almost been created through the mythology of women and how they are used as objects.
When Bundy got to know something too personal about a particular victim, it ruined his illusion of her as an object. Therefore, he deliberately avoided that possibility. By maintaining an image of their victims as inanimate objects, Bundy and other psychopathic serial killers are able to avoid any emotional bond to them or feelings of pity or remorse for what they do to them.
Psychopathic serial killers do not value human life and they are insensitive and brutal while interacting with their victims. This is particularly evident in sexually motivated serial killers who stalk, assault, and kill their victims without any sign of remorse. Some derive great pleasure from spending time with and torturing their victims for lengthy periods before killing them. Such behavior extends and heightens the excitement and gratification for a psychopathic serial killer.
Want to keep reading? Download Why We Love Serial Killers now.
Ted Bundy was born in 1946. By the age of 25, it is believed that he had killed at least two women. His earliest confirmed killings, in 1974, were that of Karen Sparks, Lynda Ann Healy, Donna Gail Manson, Susan Elanie Rancourt, Roberta Kathleen Parks, Brenda Carol Ball, Georgann Hawkins, Janice Ann Ott, and Denise Marie Naslund. Bundy confessed to 30 killings, but is suspected of many more. The charisma Bundy used to gain his victims' trust before brutally assaulting and murdering them has made him one of the most terrifying and most discussed serial killers of all time. Bundy was captured first in 1975 for his crimes. He escaped that prison and remained on the lam for three years, before being re-arrested. He received three death sentences and was executed by electric chair in 1989, at Florida State Prison.
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