When you think of online fandoms you tend to picture Taylor Swift’s Swifties or Lady Gaga’s Monsters passionately defending their pop idol’s latest single on Twitter. Yet, these fandoms also stretch into far darker territory. Fan communities dedicated to serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Aileen Wuornos are now commonplace on social media platforms such as Facebook.
Secret online groups provide a safe space for people to debate what drove these killers to kill, resulting in a community for fans of true crime to connect with one another. They also sometimes feature warped memes mocking murder victims, or posts (especially in the case of Bundy) gleefully admitting a sexual attraction towards a serial killer.
These fandoms tie into a climate where serial killers have become pop culture icons. Upcoming film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile sees former Disney star Zac Efron play Ted Bundy, a US serial killer who confessed to brutally murdering over 30 young women and girls across the 1970s. My Friend Dahmer, a 2018 film tracing the teenage years of Jeffrey Dahmer, an infamous cannibal from Milwaukee who murdered 17 men and boys, earned rave reviews from critics. And Aileen Wuornos, a Florida-based prostitute turned murderer, has been positioned as a feminist icon despite murdering seven men, with Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning performance in Monster casting America’s first female serial killer in a much more sympathetic light. The reality is serial killers are en vogue, with our obsession for their crimes now a multi-million business and their names likely to be referenced in rap songs.
The internet has finessed our interest in serial killers, according to David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, who notes how true crime fans can now access crime scene photos in mere seconds. He tells me: “In a neo-liberal economy, murder and human misbehaviour have become powerful commodities.
“On one hand, people might follow a serial killer because they are complex puzzles that they want to figure out, but I sense this is also driven by co-activation and the titillation of getting close to something frightening with the knowledge you won’t come to any harm.”
Wilson blames The Silence of the Lambs for creating a cultural climate where serial killers have been allowed to transition into aspirational figures, anti-heroes even, the subjects of dozens of hit podcasts and TV shows including Serial and David Fincher’s Mindhunter.
He explains: “Hannibal Lecter discussed Florentine architecture, he was a gourmet cook who knew about opera and listened to classical music. He was an aspirational figure and a real turning point in making people look at serial killers in a different light. A lot of serial killer fans are women too, which could be the Clarice effect.”
However, he insists the killers that inspire internet fandoms are a far cry from the reality: “People forget that the majority of serial killers aren’t interesting people like Lector, I’ve spoken to a few myself and they are emotionally damaged and very depressing people to be around. The Ted Bundy fans engage with isn’t real, it’s just a glamorous media conception of a real person.”
In a bid to understand what drives somebody to become part of a serial killer fandom, I joined three secret Facebook groups – Stand By Aileen, McDahmer’s, and Ted Bundy Hardcore. The following are interviews, edited for clarity, with devotees of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Aileen Wuornos.
Rebecca’ s collection of Ted Bundy memorabilia.
What made you become a follower of Ted Bundy?
“I’m from Washington, where Ted committed a lot of his crimes. I found out about his crimes in high school. I guess I had heard about other serial killers, but Ted caught my interest more than the others. I was attracted to him physically, I am not going to lie. There was something compelling about him. He was an all American boy, who seemed so normal.”
How far would you say your fandom has gone?
“I’ve visited Lake Sammamish [where Bundy abducted, raped and murdered some of his final victims in Janice Ott, 23, and Denise Naslund, 19]. I went to the Crime Museum too, where I saw the VW Bug he used to drive around and stalk victims in. I’ve got an interesting photo where there was a shadow in the car seat… I feel a spiritual connection to Ted because I’ve been following him for such a long time.”
You’re a young woman yourself, a lot like Bundy’s victims. Does that not unsettle you?
“My biggest issue is when people call Ted a sociopath or a psycho, that’s a big problem as referring to people in this way enables the larger world to distance them from everyone else. They then become a monster and there’s nothing we can do to help them or learn from them. I don’t feel guilty for liking him or having an interest, people have to have an interest in something. I don’t think the Ted Bundy who killed people is the real Ted Bundy. It was a part of who he was, but it didn’t define him.”
I sense there’s a maternal aspect to this too, that you want to help him almost?
“Maybe. I guess I don’t want him to be ostracised. He was sadistic and the crimes were brutal, but I think there’s a long path of things psychologically that made him do the things he did. If he was alive [Bundy was executed in 1989], I would have gone to his trial daily. I would have written to him too. I think I could have helped him. I am trying to find people in prison to write to at the moment.”
You’re not from America, where Jeffrey Dahmer committed his crimes, but Edinburgh, Scotland. Why’s he had such a global impact?
“I have been interested in serial killers and the psychology behind them since I was 15. I think Dahmer stood out as he was living in this normal flat, with neighbours, yet committing these horrific crimes and storing severed heads in his fridge. Dahmer came from this middle-class white bubble, he had traditional parents. I wanted to know at what point did he go down the wrong path? There’s a big leap between dissecting animals and dissecting people. He also showed empathy for his murders, he wasn’t an egotist like Bundy. Dahmer is a lot more interesting to learn from psychologically.”
Would you say you felt any similarities with Dahmer?
“He was into animal biology and dissecting animals, and so am I, it’s one of my great hobbies. I didn’t have a great childhood, I was bullied at school and left alone a lot like Jeff was. I felt like an outsider. It’s not that I agreed with what he did, but I understood the triggers. Society has a lot to answer for in terms of how people turn out. There’s a lot of emphasis on making people out to be boogeymen so we can disregard them and not look into how this actually happened from a psychological standpoint.”
The Dahmer group has a lot of memes making jokes out of his cannibalism. Is being a ‘McDahmer’ disrespectful? After all, the families of a lot of his victims are still alive.
“A lot of it is gallows humour. In Scotland, we laugh at tragedies to make it easier to accept them. My friend recently got me a human skull cake for my birthday, as I’m into biology, and I posted it on Facebook with a joke saying my fridge was just like Dahmer’s. But sometimes the jokes go too far, and I find the whole sexual element really strange. I’ve definitely encountered a fair share of serial killer groupies and it can get a little offensive. People get into competitions to post the most offensive thing. The one you are in is quite twisted. These people aren’t interested in the crimes Dahmer did, but putting him on a pedestal and making him some kind of entity we should all worship. I feel like I can’t relate to those people at all.”
When did you first hear about Aileen Wuornos?
“She was in the Daytona Beach area and I’m like two hours away. I grew up hearing about the case, people called her the Highway 75 killer. She became a bit of a local legend. I was only 11 when she was executed so there was no documentaries or films about her yet, but once I got a chance to look into her case and find out how she was allowed to deteriorate mentally in person, it became a passion of mine to defend Aileen. I don’t advocate her murders, but I do think they started out as self-defence and grew into something a lot more serious. What I find interesting is the logic behind her crimes, what happened in her childhood to make her like that.”
How deep does your love of Aileen go?
“Well, I have a tattoo of her on the back of my left thigh. I’ve also tried to get in touch with Aileen’s best friend Dawn Botkins, but some people say this might be a bad idea. I just think it would be interesting to talk to her about what Aileen went through on Death Row. It would help with my research as I am studying forensic psychology.”
Amber’s tattoo of Aileen.
So this is less about being attracted to Aileen herself, but more about social justice?
“Yes, definitely. Aileen wasn’t competent to stand trial. She was failed by all levels of our judicial system. She was punished for being mentally ill and, also, for being a woman. Our jails are like mental asylums nowadays and it’s wrong, people deserve proper treatment. I’ve talked to people in the group before and we’re united in supporting Aileen and Dawn. It’s a movement to get people to re-assess the case.”
How do you feel though when people make serial killers into memes and jokes online?
“I find dark things funnier than the average person. I think it’s just a small chuckle. Someone sent me this picture of a leg tightly squeezing into a pair of jeans and said it looked like Jeffrey Dahmer’s pot roast. I got a small chuckle out of it. If people get offended, I would say I didn’t choose this. It has been a burning passion ever since I was a kid and I mean no disrespect.”
How did your obsession with serial killers begin?
“My case is uncommon. One thing you will hear with people into true crime is they have been into it their entire lives, but for me it started with a medication change. Once I was on the right dosage of anti-depressants, something clicked and for whatever reason I started reading up about Bundy.”
What about his crimes appealed to you?
“He is just such a fascinating case. He was so close to being normal. The press called him evil, but I don’t think evil exists. I would consider myself to be a hybristophile [FYI: hybristophilia is a psychological condition where sexual arousal is driven by people who commit murder]. [Liking Ted] is a lot like being attracted to a beautiful predator hunting in the wild. The Facebook group is a cool way to talk to other people with the same condition.”
What would you say drives your hybristophilia?
“Fetishes are more often than not a coping mechanism. It makes me wonder why more women aren’t hybristophiles, especially in this climate for women. I think [the #MeToo climate] could be a reason why it’s more acceptable to be interested in serial killers, even in a non-sexual way. We feel so far removed [from historic killers like Bundy], so it’s less scary to look at these men than it is to look at contemporary men, sometimes. Ted had a better grasp of consent than most men do now*.”
You also wear a t-shirt with Bundy’s face on it. How does that make you feel?
“My attraction to Ted outweighs the guilt. I have a cognitive dissonance that people can’t really understand, but I am okay with holding contradictory views. In San Francisco, the t-shirt is either a conversation starter or a conversation ender. I don’t do it just to be a contrarian, but rather to try to find other people who might be like me.”
*[Editors note: Bundy killed more than 30 women, he would typically use his good looks to lure them into conversation and then abduct, rape and murder them. Bundy’s defence attorney John Henry Browne recently said: “Ted was the only person in my 40 years of being a lawyer that I would say that was absolutely born evil.”]
Update: This article was amended on 17 October 2018 to correct details about the murders carried out by Bundy at Lake Sammamish.
[See also: Why we should abolish true crime]