“You feel the last bit of breath leaving their body. You’re looking into their eyes. A person in that situation is God.”
This quote, often attributed to notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, have been spoken of for decades, as people discuss the horror of Bundy’s murders.
The problem is, there’s no record of Bundy actually saying these words. He was infamous for protesting his innocence, all while basking in the glory of his crimes through mere suggestions of what could have been.
Bundy was executed by electric chair on January 24, 1989. It’s been thirty years, and yet we’re still obsessed with every detail of his horrific crimes. So obsessed, that we’ll happily share quotes from the man who killed more than 30 women, without any assurance that they are real. Any insight into the mind of a notorious murderer is better than nothing, and the more graphic, the better.
Historically, we’ve always been fascinated by atrocity. Thousands of years ago, people would pay good money to watch gladiators fight to the death. Centuries ago, public beheadings would accumulate mass crowds. Currently, it seems as though true crime is becoming a front-runner for satisfying our society’s thirst for depravity.
A quick look at any streaming site or TV guide will offer you a list of shows focusing on true crime. Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes became a phenomenon when it was released in January 2019, sparking worldwide discussion both online and offline. This was quickly followed by Abducted in Plain Sight, a 2017 documentary which was made available on Netflix in February 2019.
Linda Harris, MSc, explains the success of these shows. “I feel people may believe it gives them an opportunity to understand themselves. People watching these documentaries may be curious as to what drives offenders into these crimes, and feel tempted to analyse themselves in comparison.”
Alongside comparisons amongst friends, it was not uncommon to hear conversations such as, ‘Who’s your favourite serial killer?’ after the release of these shows. Casual discussion and unhidden excitement surround material focusing on mankind’s acts of perversion, even in an age which prides itself on social justice.
Having a favourite serial killer may sound strange on the surface, but with the cult-status, many of these individuals achieve, their infamy is often impossible to ignore. The definition of a ‘favourite’ serial killer varies from person to person. Some may choose their favourite by the severity of the crime, the obscurity of the crime, the personality of the perpetrator, or even their looks.
While the attractiveness of a murderer is rarely a factor in people’s interest in certain cases, countless social media pages dedicated to the likes of Ted Bundy showcase a more unusual side to the true crime community.
“Just because he did a bad thing doesn’t mean he’s not pretty,” says Savannah, a 19-year-old student from North Carolina, who otherwise wishes to remain anonymous. She runs a social media page focusing on true crime, but the slightly unusual element to her posts is her adoration of Dylan Klebold. He became infamous alongside Eric Harris in 1999 as the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre.Savannah first began paying attention to the massacre when she was 15 years old. She’d heard of it before, but only became invested after stumbling across a Youtube documentary when she was bored. Unlike most, who focus on the victims of the bloodbath, Savannah felt “sorrow” for 17-year-old Klebold. “I looked at him and thought, he’s really young, he didn’t know what he was doing. He was bullied and angry – if someone did what he and Eric [Harris] did, then they need help. It’s devastating neither of them got the help they needed,” she explains.
A further look at Savannah’s blog, and you can see there’s more to her infatuation than sorrow. Love notes and tales of yearning litter her posts – for all of her followers to see. She admits to feeling attracted to Klebold, saying: “At first I tried to ignore it because I knew people would find it weird. But, at the end of the day, I can’t help having a crush on someone. He was cute – and I’m not the only one who can see it, I’m just one of the few who admits it.”
Professor John Money, for Psychology Today, defined hybristophilia as: “A sexual paraphilia in which an individual derives sexual arousal and pleasure from having a sexual partner who is known to have committed an outrage or crime.” It’s perhaps more common than you think, with both aggressive and passive hybristophilia.
Some aggressive types are recognisable in their own right. Rose West, Karla Holmoka, and Sara Packer all gained media attention for their involvement in brutal crimes with their significant other. However, not all hybristophilia involves murder. Instead, it takes the form of love letters to incarcerated individuals, marriages to those on death row, and social media fan accounts.
“Don’t get me wrong, I know what he did was horrible, but it’s not like I’m excusing him. We’re complex creatures and we can’t be judged on a single day. Once you get past what he did, you can see he was an interesting person with his own traits – good and bad,” explains Savannah.
Anything goes in the world of social media. It allows people worldwide to connect with others who share the same interests. Not only does this make certain subcultures and communities more prominent, but it allows them to broadcast their views to the world. While the true crime community has always been prominent in its own form (sensation surrounded the Jack the Ripper case), the new phenomenon of dedicated fan accounts has changed our relationship with serial killers.
Due to the large volume of true crime content the media produces, interest in murder has become socially acceptable. Owing to the community, on the likes of Twitter and Tumblr, being a ‘fan’ of certain criminals has become almost socially acceptable. Savannah doesn’t see a problem with her account.
“People have come across my account before and called me disgusting. They’ve said I’m hero-worshipping Dylan and being disrespectful to the victims, which isn’t true. I post about Columbine because I find how the day unfolded interesting – the planning was immaculate.”
“That doesn’t mean that I’m happy people died. I never actually post about the victims, because I think that’s disrespectful. I just focus on Dylan,” she continues. Her critics are quick to point out that divulging in any aspect of the massacre is disrespectful to the victims. She discloses a message sent to her which reads: “Nothing about that day was impressive, they were idiots and your worshipping of them [primarily Klebold] makes you an idiot.”
With the emergence of fan accounts over recent years, it would appear that the celebritisation of murderers is a result of the internet. However, actual fans (rather than simple hysteria surrounding certain cases) were first notable during the golden age of serial killers. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the world was rocked by killing sprees by the likes of Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Dennis Rader.
Some gained such a high profile, they were given nicknames during their murder sprees. Ramirez, who killed at least 14 people, was salaciously dubbed ‘The Night Stalker’ whilst Californians were too terrified to go to sleep.
“I find how the day unfolded interesting – the planning was immaculate.”
Rader, appropriately named the BTK (bind, torture, kill) Killer, carved a legacy through the modus operandi of his crimes alone. All four have had feature films made about them and their heinous crimes, and with another Bundy film due to be released in Autumn 2019, it’s clear that the media’s obsession with serial killers remains intact.
Ted Bundy is arguably the most infamous serial killer of all time. Of 65 people surveyed by Artefact, 39 named Bundy as their ‘favourite’ serial killer. Definitions of favourite varied, with some basing their choice on how violent the offences were, while others focused on the perpetrator themselves.
Bundy not only has a resume full of horrendous crimes but a disposition that fooled the law for decades, allowing him to reach a level of undeniable celebrity. Unlike others, Ted Bundy doesn’t have (or really need) a nickname, he’s simply a household name.
Bundy’s charm and charisma is still a much-debated cultural phenomenon. During his trial, hundreds of young women would line the streets to catch a glimpse of the accused. Nowadays, his adoring fans can be found on social media, still swooning over his alleged intelligence and good looks. While the platform has changed, the audience hasn’t. Out of the ten social media accounts Artefact approached, which are dedicated to Bundy, eight were run by young women between the ages of 15-21.
Linda Harris, a registered counsellor and psychotherapist, offered rebellion as a possible explanation for this particular demographic being invested in killers. After all, she asks, “What better way to shock your parents than to be idolising a serial killer?”
Ava*, 18, is a current student. From the outside, she appears to be your typical teenager. She spends her time at college, doing homework, or socialising with friends. However, behind closed doors, things take a dark turn. Unbeknownst by her peers, Ava runs a popular blog dedicated to Bundy. It’s important to note that Ava is not her real name, it’s simply the name she uses in association with her online presence.
“I don’t want anyone to find my blog, so I have to remain anonymous. It’s a personal thing, I only share it here so I can meet like-minded people who won’t judge me for me.” The ‘personal thing’ Ava is referring to here, is her “love” for Ted Bundy. Unlike Savannah, Ava isn’t necessarily impressed by Bundy’s crimes. “I’m not interested in him for anything other than who he is.”
“We can’t help who we fall in love with. It doesn’t matter that he’s not here anymore – I still miss him terribly.”
Ava has watched countless hours of footage from Bundy’s trials and media coverage but says she has no interest in the actual murders. “I watched them because I am fascinated by him; the way he talks, the way he holds himself, his humour, and his intelligence – it’s mesmerising,” she explains. To her, there’s no question that she’s in love with him. “People think I’m ridiculous, but we can’t help who we fall in love with. It doesn’t matter that he’s not here anymore. I still miss him terribly.”
Claiming to be in love with one of the most dangerous men in modern history, whilst simultaneously insisting they have no interest in murder is quite the juxtaposition. After all, we’d have no knowledge of Bundy without his crimes – would he have caused a second glance on the street in mundane life?
Of course, he was likeable, his ability to charm others is what helped him kill so many. However, do we know enough about Bundy to judge his personality? For Ava, it’s clear: “I know enough. Actually, I probably know more about him than most. I’ve spent years obsessed with everything [about] him.”
The ability society has to separate itself from acts of depravity is fascinating. Ava was not alive at the same time as Bundy, and Savannah was a baby when the Columbine Massacre took place. They both admit this is likely to have played a part in their attitude towards Bundy and Klebold, respectively. After all, as Ava notes and the saying goes, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
The relationship we have with true crime is as fascinating as ever and is always changing in modern society. Knowledge about crimes, criminals, and their victims is more accessible than ever before. Harris explains: “I feel the general public as a whole are less empathetic and have become more detached from each other. Social media and the internet has created a different way in relating to others, and this can be seen in local neighbourhoods where residents are more isolated from each other, not even knowing the names of their neighbours, for example.”
Not all true crime content exclusively focuses on the worship of murderers. The true crime community on social media is broad and is becoming increasingly popular. A recent trend on social media is the popularity of threads. These usually originate on Twitter and are a 21st century way of telling a story. In an age where our attention spans are as short as ever, gruesome information split up into 280 characters is a millennial dream.
These threads are even more popular when transferred to Instagram, with accounts accumulating up to tens of thousands of followers. Artefact spoke to Brandy, 16, who runs threadswbrandy on Instagram. She started the account in March 2018 and has gained over 61,000 followers since.
It only took around 3-4 months for Brandy to notice she was gaining a “substantial following,” showing the popularity of true crime content on social media. However, threadswbrandy is host to several other topics, including “conspiracy theories and urban legends.”Taking this into account, it appears that our obsession with true crime goes deeper than what is simply on the surface. Perhaps it’s our fascination with the unknown, or simply things we cannot understand, but true crime and urban legends are more frequently being discussed together. If stories of murders act as entertainment online, they’re essentially beginning to serve the same function as urban legends.
This begins to take away the human element of the crime. Harris agrees that social media has changed our relationship with crime. “I believe the media commercialises these crimes, and this causes a detachment from being able to empathise with the victims.”
Unsolved cases are another element of the true crime which people become fascinated with. Many try their hand at becoming amateur sleuths after researching cold cases which interest them. More than 143,000 people are members of Reddit’s UnsolvedMysteries threads, which features deep dives into cases such as the murder of Jonbenét Ramsey.
Kayla, a 20-year-old restaurant hostess, runs the Instagram account, unsolvedthreads. She started the page in August 2018 and has already gained over 22,000 followers. She explains she made the account because she wanted to bring attention to unsolved cases on behalf of the families of the victims. “If I were the mother, husband, daughter, sister, or friend of someone who was murdered or never seen again, I would want answers.
“Awareness is such a big thing in my life, whether it’s awareness about murder or domestic violence. I want people to read these stories and learn something from it. I feel like, in all cases, there’s a lesson.”
Awareness is exactly what is needed to solve a lot of missing persons cases or murders. The increased public interest is likely to jog people’s memories and unearth new evidence, so social media alongside our fascination with murder is incredibly helpful in this aspect.
As Kayla explains: “Social media can be really helpful – think about all these Jane and John Doe cases that are being solved because of it.” Not only has social media given us the power to solve cold-cases like never before, but it has also, once more, influenced our relationship with true crime. People are not just interested in the gory details, but they are becoming dedicated to solving cases themselves.
Of course, there is another side to the true crime community that doesn’t involve liaising with serial killers or becoming an armchair detective, and it simply focuses on the mere inhumanity of certain crimes. Accounts such as morbidtruth and crimescenecleaning provide insights into the more graphic side of crime.
Morbidtruth, in particular, is an incredibly popular account which posts a variety of graphic material, including a lot of true crime. It was established by Alan, 24, who originally posted about dark content found on the deep web, but moved to crime due to Instagram’s strict censoring policies. He says that “If a topic is shocking, for example, a crazy murder that you don’t hear about often, [it] will definitely gain a lot of attention.“People are intrigued even though murder is something we tend to shy away from as a society. [I’m] here to show death is very real and can happen at any time. I think that’s why it’s so interesting, it’s almost like a taboo.”
When Alan gets requests for certain topics, they tend to be rather brutal murder posts. Fans send them as a story alongside pictures, but frequently, he has to reject them. “It’ll be too violent, and even [a post] describing a heinous crime might get taken down by Instagram. There’s really a line, and you can’t cross it,” he says.
It is difficult to tell where the line is. In a society where we are obsessed with murderers, moral boundaries are often unclear. A quick look at Kayla’s most popular post, “Photos taken before death, part two” shows how public interest surrounds both tragedy and the unknown. Perhaps it’s a case of Schadenfreude – where society takes pleasure in the pain of others.
Nonetheless, nothing has sparked the debate of morality surrounding serial killers quite like Joe Berlinger’s ‘Extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile,’ which is due to be released later this year. The biopic – based on Bundy’s crime spree from the perspective of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, has been met with waves of both controversy and excitement.
Some branded it “tasteless” and claim that it glorified Bundy and showed disregard towards his victims and their families. However, others claim it is “factual” and so shouldn’t be met with criticism – as true crime stories are adapted into screenplays all the time.
Ava, who is counting down the days until the film, doesn’t see the problem with it. “It’s based on true events, I don’t see what’s wrong. I’ve seen people complaining about them casting Zac Efron to play Ted, but isn’t that the point? Ted was attractive, and smart, and charming, that’s what made him stand out.”
On the other hand, Harris believes material depicting Bundy as charming and charismatic is not the way to go in educating individuals about serial killers. “I think it is irresponsible and dangerous. I believe there are things we can learn by reflecting on such crimes, but that this needs to be done with a more responsible and moral approach.”
With our fascination with serial killers and dangerous criminals only growing stronger, it’s clear to see why Harris would take this view. We should be careful not to overstep the mark and glorify murderers – no matter how fascinating they may be.
Featured image by Donn Dughi via State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.