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Glorification of serial killers in media

Flowing dark hair. Alluring sparkling eyes. A charismatic smile. These are not typically traits associated with a serial killer. However, with movies and television series nowadays that seek to portray serial killers in this way, it is important to ask — are we glamorizing ruthless killers?

Stories about serial killers have become increasingly mainstream in media. With movies such as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and its Netflix counterpart Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes coming out, it appears that there is something to these murder stories that we just gravitate toward, whether it’s the curiosity of finding out what goes behind the mind of a serial killer or the morbid thrill of watching how these people commit their atrocious crimes. While movies in their very nature are often dramatized and exaggerated, movies featuring serial killers have the risk of glamorizing these individuals, making them appear likable. It is often easy to forget that these sadistic killers brutally murdered people through despicable means, ruining the lives of many of the victims’ family members in the process. What’s worse is that some movies paint serial killers as tragic figures, a victim of their environment around them, indirectly justifying their evil acts.

In the movie My Friend Dahmer, actor Ross Lynch portrays Jeffrey Dahmer, an American serial killer known for the rape, murder and dismemberment of 17 men and boys. Dahmer is characterized in the film as an anti-social, troubled boy living in a dysfunctional family and a rough school environment. When I was watching this movie, I found that I could somewhat sympathize with Jeffrey Dahmer. His struggles with his family and trying to fit in at school were relatable teenage problems, humanizing him as person. The underlying message of the movie was that, as a result of Dahmer’s rough upbringing and circumstance, he turned out the way he did, almost as if he could not help it. The problem with this, however, is that it portrays serial killers as normal people molded by their environment. There is even a scene of Jeffrey Dahmer talking to his friends claiming that he’s “just like any other person.”

However, is this an accurate representation of how serial killers are like? If we portray serial killers as “human” tragic figures, then are we misrepresenting how they truly are, that is, as unforgivable monsters? After all, there is no justification for killing people, regardless of a rough upbringing or a tragic past. Furthermore, there are many people with similar problems as Dahmer that did not end up becoming serial killers, so the idea that Dahmer was merely any regular person victimized by his environment is flawed.This is the problem with portraying serial killers as sympathetic people since it humanizes the very people that many agree to be despicable monsters.

For example, according to psychologytoday.com, many serial killers have what is known as antisocial personality disorder, or psychopathy, which is characterized as lacking conscience and empathy. According to a study at University of Wisconsin, Madison, brain scans show that psychopathy is associated with decreased connectivity between the amygdala, which processes emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, which interprets the response from the amygdala. This shows that serial killers are biologically hardwired differently than humans. Given this, movies should not portray serial killers as humans victimized by their environment.

Some serial killers are also portrayed in media as incredibly attractive people. In the movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the handsome Zac Efron plays one of the most infamous serial killers in American history, Ted Bundy, who was convicted of murdering and raping over 30 women in his lifetime. There is something deeply unsettling about kids obsessing over the good looks of serial killers in movies, albeit even if they’re obsessing over the actor himself playing that role. The fact of the matter is that Ted Bundy was a ruthless person, never caring for the many women that he murdered. Although he might have been attractive in real life, the portrayal of him by such a charismatic, charming actor, especially an A-list celebrity like Zac Efron, might lead to people starting to romanticize or exaggerate particular positive aspects of Ted Bundy’s character while neglecting his clearly negative attributes, such as his desire to kill people.

In addition, movies like Extremely Evil, Shockingly Evil and Vile place a lot of emphasis on the serial killer, bringing publicity and fame to a person that definitely does not deserve it. In fact, the movie and the subsequent audience that watches may even be fulfilling a goal of the killer: to be remembered in our society. A way to fix this would be to focus more on the victims instead of bringing more attention to and glorifying the serial killer.

Some people argue that movies do not have to resemble reality. Many movies bend and twist reality to make it more appealing to the audience; so given that it’s just entertainment, is it okay to portray serial killers as attractive individuals or tragic figures? While I do agree that movies have the leeway to exaggerate certain aspects of reality, it is also important to remember that they can affect how we view life. If we portray Ted Bundy as a charismatic, mesmerizing individual, might we subconsciously associate this evil person with positive traits? Might we feel that this person might not be as evil despite their heinous crimes? Movies can have the ability to subtly alter our perceptions, hence why it is important that we portray serial killers correctly and accurately.

But where is the line between informing people about serial killers and glorifying them? Movies about serial killers can educate people in positive ways, such as teaching us about the psychological thoughts of a killer. It is also important to educate the public on the warning signs of a deeply troubled person, so that we can possibly prevent it. I do concede that movies about serial killers can have merits, if executed properly. However, I do not believe that movies should give qualities to serial killers that cause the audience to sympathize or to like the character in some way. After all, the serial killers are not the victims in the movie. Instead, these serial killer movies should evoke disgust and repulsion in the audience. They should focus not only on the killer but on the victims, and they should reflect the true character of the serial killer without glorifying any aspects of his or her character. Ted Bundy was considered attractive, but he was not Zac Efron attractive. Jeffrey Dahmer was a troubled individual who had family and school issues, but he also had deep psychological issues with how he viewed the world and other people.

So while it may be exhilarating to binge-watch on a Netflix show about a serial killer, it is also important to remember that these people are evil. There is no justification for what they did, and nothing should be admired about them.

By Raymond Dunn, Arts editor
Editorial cartoon by Amy Lo


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