What Is Our Weird Obsession With On-Screen Serial Killers?
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Featured Image Credit: Netflix
Ok, I'm just going to come out and say it: I've got a massive crush on Joe from You.
It's not a new crush. I've been harbouring it for years. I was about halfway through Season 1 of the Netflix creep-fest when I realised that I just couldn't deny it any longer - and it's been playing on my mind ever since.
Sure, Penn Badgley is a certified heartthrob; he has been since his Gossip Girl days. But what about all the women his character Joe persistently stalks? The countless murders he commits? Not to mention the little box of mementos including human teeth which he kept above a slab of ceiling in his bathroom?!
Can it really be normal to lust over someone like that? A cursory scroll through social media shows me I'm far from the only woman out there with a questionable crush.
"I'd let Joe from You kidnap me any day," wrote a fellow fan in an alarmingly lighthearted manner.
While another added: "The fact I still fancy Joe from you even though he's a bloody SERIAL KILLER really shows how high my standards are lately."
I feel you girl, honestly I do. Because Joe isn't the only Bad Guy who producers have decided to make seriously hot. When Zac Efron was cast as real-life serial killer Ted Bundy, in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, he created a new wave of unashamed fans who were left pining after him and even, in extreme cases, excusing his crimes.
BBC's adaptation of Dracula in 2020 had left heaps of women weak at the knees, despite the fact he's a bloodthirsty vampire; and playing brooding killer Paul Spector in The Fall arguably launched Jamie Dornan's status as a sex symbol long before he was cast in Fifty Shades Of Grey.
But what does it say about me, and so many other women, that men so blatantly predatory and dangerous could ever appeal to us sexually - even within the realms of fiction?
Well, according to TV psychologist Emma Kenny, lusting after a sordid or twisted on-screen character is far more common than you'd think.
"There are a lot of reasons why people find someone who does deplorable things appealing," she tells Tyla. "Sadly, if somebody is physically attractive, we find it very, very difficult to put their negative traits into perspective.
"We have an instinct that says, 'If it looks good it must be good' and so we seek to kind of rationalise why they acted that way, instead of contextualising them as evil."
It gets darker. Emma adds: "We all like a little bit of the macabre and dark. The voyeurs in us that don't ever feel like we could do something as disgusting as kill somebody are almost titillated by being close to something that can cause it and see it as exciting."
Emma's theory is one that Badgley has acknowledged himself. While he doesn't shy away from the fact that viewers outspokenly crushing on his character disturbs him, he recently admitted: "The whole point is he's meant to garner a conflicted reaction.
"I see him as a representation of the part of us that identifies with him. The part of us that is a troll; that part of us that is victim blaming; the part of us that is privileged and blind. We're meant to identify with him."
Obviously, in exceptional cases, this sense of excitement and identification can cause some women to develop infatuations with real-life serial killers.
Josef Fritzl, who kidnapped and raped his own daughter, was famously sent hundreds of love letters after his arrest in 2008.
In 1979, Carol Anne Boone married Ted Bundy despite the fact he was on trial for multiple homicide, and in 1996 the 'Night Stalker', Richard Ramirez, married female 'fan' Doreen Lioy in California's San Quentin prison even though she was fully aware of his crimes.
But if it's the evil within on-screen bad guys that draws us in, then why, for most of us, does this not translate into this same sense of hybristophilia - aka a desire for real-life criminals?
"There's definitely a difference between being in love with a serial killer on screen and a serial killer in prison," Emma explains. "Because there are clear boundaries. One is real and can tangibly hurt us, and one is fictional.
"It's always okay if it's in our control. Within the realms of fiction, the idea of being dominated, and even of being ravished aggressively, is something that is high on the sexual fantasy scale for some women. In our heads, it's a really common fantasy, but we'd obviously hate it in reality."
She adds: "There are a small proportion of women who actually seek to fulfil these fantasies, but they have vulnerability levels that need to be explored, or likely have their own sadistic tendencies. Either way they have issues to address".
While Emma insists that fantasising about the dark and twisted is common, and something that is embedded into many of our psyches, London Dating Coach Hayley Quinn makes the very valid point that continuing to glamorise such toxic traits in protagonists on-screen doesn't help us make the right choices within our real life relationships.
Despite agreeing that women are often conditioned to lust after the wrong kind of men, she warns: "Portraying these problematic men as romantic heroes does nothing for women's self-worth. We have to be really careful about accidentally normalising abusive behaviour."
Hayley explains: "Seeing and fancying men like this on-screen perpetuates a stereotype of what is desirable for women, and misleads them when it comes to the criteria they should be looking for in a partner.
"I see this coming up a lot as a dating coach. Women prioritise a man who comes on really strong, has the red flags, when in fact, moderation, seeking consent and having respect for a women are better qualities to look for, even if you don't have that initial blast of excitement".
Of course, the problem is that in real life, many psychopaths are charming, charismatic and alluring - just take Joe Goldberg, Paul Spector and Zac Efron's Ted Bundy. So, how can TV production companies avoid portraying them this way?
Emma Kenny argues that there might be a very good reason why TV and films don't shy away from such imagery.
"While I do think Hollywood glamorise serial killers, in a fascinating way their portrayal is important" she says. "Because it reminds us why people like that succeed.
"Serial killers are our friends, they're good human beings 99 per cent of the time, and that's the bit that's scary. Most of them are your ex boyfriend, they are your best mate, or your next door neighbour, and I suppose that what they're doing on screen is they're allow you to see the humanity, and more than just the killing".
This got me thinking, maybe the point of us falling for the Bad Guy isn't that their actions are meant to be somehow justified. As much as we may identify with their dark side, maybe we're also supposed to identify with the victim, sucked in and blinded by their appeal.
Feeling that pull of attraction to a villain can be downright uncomfortable, but in turn it can make you question your own ethical boundaries, and allow you to understand just how dangerous they are through a brand new lens.