What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Serial Killers

Earlier this year, Netflix released a documentary about the serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to the murders of 30 people — but what do we lose when we discuss the criminal instead of the victims? Photo: Netlix

A few months ago, Facebook started serving me ads for a subscription box called “Hunt a Killer.” There was a photo of a bunch of a papers and an old-timey pocket watch and a cackling line of copy: “Do you have what it takes to catch a killer?”

On the site I learned that “if I qualified,” I could see what it would be like to “have a serial killer deliver a package to [my] doorstep each month” for the low, low price of $30, or I could upgrade and get wine included and make it a #datenight or a party where we all worked together to decipher letters and “creepy” clues. “A fun and unique game for my husband and I!” said one user review.

Last weekend, I turned on Netflix to watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and was confronted with a massive homepage ad for The Ted Bundy Tapes. A few days later, while flipping channels, I caught ABC News’ teaser for its interview with the daughter of the “BTK” killer.

Apparently serial killers are having a moment. Or maybe the moment they were having last year just never ended. Maybe the moment has been on a slow simmer since 1977. Or 1888.

But despite all the hype, I’ve never been less interested. Which might seem strange considering I’ve been following a serial killer of my own for the past decade.

I’ve been to his home. I’ve written him letters. I’ve chatted with his high school friends and surveyed hundreds of pages of data about his psychological makeup and the pattern of violence he’s inflicted upon women. I’ve watched him from across a courtroom too many times to count, and at the end of it all, I’ve come away with only one clear conclusion: he’s a waste of my time.

When my childhood best friend was found murdered in her home in 2001, I had no idea that seven years later, an alleged serial killer would be the one to be charged with it. I have to say “alleged” because he still hasn’t been convicted, although he’s been in jail awaiting trial since 2008. DNA evidence connects him to three of his four victims, however, and if he goes to trial next month as he’s currently scheduled to, chances are, by the end of year we should be able to drop the “alleged.”

I’ve watched this man get thinner and more angular over the past ten years. More fidgety and more cocky. I’ve seen him dismiss attorney after attorney, and stare stone-faced at the wall while the mother of one of his victims tearfully read her statement to the judge. I’ve seen person after person — reporters, prosecutors, obsessives — regard him with fascination, vitriol, and a compulsion to get closer to him, as if he somehow held all the answers. And I understand the compulsion, because I once shared it.

But after ten years of researching my friend’s murder, and almost 20 since her death, I can definitively say that her killer is the least compelling thing about her story. Her killer is simply a man. A boring, attention-hungry, deeply misogynistic cipher.

When we talk about serial killers, as we have been so frequently lately, we’re really talking about power and gender and fear. We’re talking about revolting, inhuman, outrageous, thunderous violence. We’re talking about the things men can do to women and the way they do them. (Obviously, serial killers also target men, but it seems most of the media attention goes to the ones who kill white women.) We’re talking about that sinking feeling that we can never truly know another person, and that tragedy can strike anyone at any time. We’re talking about loss, and the ripple effects it can create throughout life.

The problem is, most crime storytelling and media is formulaic and male-driven and gets at none of these ideas. When crime shows aren’t eclipsing the stories of female victims, they’re objectifying them. When they’re not staging corny reenactments, they’re dishing out graphic visuals and calling it entertainment. The male killer and his complicated, devious brain is always the focus, at the expense of everyone else. Inside the Mind of a Whatever, To Catch a Blah, Blah — it’s all the same. And we, the viewers, seem to fall for it every time. We’re titillated by gore and extreme violence. We’re blushing over our attraction to a criminal. We’re elevating the monster.

There’s an opportunity cost to this. When we exalt the killer, we’re diverting our focus from people and ideas more worthy of our attention. We could be considering the victims and the people they left behind. Or examining how it is that women’s bodies are selected as an outlet for violence, both extreme and quotidian, again and again.

But something does feel a little different about this particular serial killer moment. Maybe it’s because we’re different now. Maybe it’s because some of what’s going on in the world — school shootings, hate crimes, climate apocalypse — feels scarier and more urgent than the ravenous murderer next door whom the media is trying to gin up our fear of.

Just last week, Netflix issued a much-pilloried tweet cheekily chastising viewers for crushing on Bundy.

Then the platform turned around and purchased another Bundy film, this one starring Zac Efron, which feels a bit like they baked the cake, served it to you, shamed you for eating it, and then put another one right in front of you. And so the cycle continues: the cooks know we aren’t ready to make better food choices, even when they — and we — can see they’re making us sick.

Carolyn Murnick is the author of The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Serial Killers