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April 22, 2021

True Crime Taboo: How Far Will Our Love of Serial Killers Go?

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From BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime to the growing popularity of youtubers like Bailey Sarian and Eleanor Neale, to Hollywood movies like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile with Zac Efron and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and even to Criminal Minds, which bases many of it’s episodes on real stories, “true crime” has become an increasingly popular genre in entertainment media. I would compare it to something like Drunk History, only the narrators are sober and the stories are hardly humorous. 

Some may think of true crime as a subgenre of horror, but that’s not entirely accurate. Sure, hearing stories about psychopathic serial killers on the loose would scare any listener, but is that why we explore true crime? To be scared? Do we listen to crime stories for the same reason we enjoy stories about ghosts, or is there more at play? Is it possible that there’s something sensational in hearing people talk about real murder, the single worst crime imaginable in our society? 

Back in the 1970s, when serial killers first made their debut on national television with Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy, among others, it wasn’t a new season of NCIS — people were terrified. And when the media churned out information on victims and suspects, rather than grabbing a bowl of popcorn and gathering the family in front of the TV, people locked their doors, plotted with their neighbors and for good reason, jumpstarted a feminist movement for women’s self-defense

Yet, despite this, today we look back on these murder stories from a more comfortable distance. We wonder how such monsters could have been born and we search for the details to piece together a picture of the enigmatic serial killer. We become fascinated with those details, not out of a disregard for human life, but from a distant curiosity

This is not to preach to you about the desensitization of the media or to tell you that watching true crime will somehow make you a bad person. What I do intend to reveal, however, is a secret that we don’t consciously notice — the inherent interest we all share for the taboo.

Taboo is something forbidden, something that is expressly prohibited in society. And as individuals bending to discrete rules and guidelines day after day, we naturally become drawn to things we can’t or shouldn’t do. To experience these forbidden freedoms in a way that is not destructive to ourselves and our communities, we use media as an outlet. Especially with COVID restrictions, media consumption has increasingly become an outlet for experiencing freedom. And the COVID-media parallel can be extended to other kinds of forbidden themes, as we search out what our culture has prohibited.

Violence and sex in movies, forbidden love, social outcasts, dark humor and the supernatural are all examples of initially taboo topics that we have normalized as entertainment media over the decades — no, centuries. From Frankenstein to The Catcher in the Rye and beyond, creators have continually found new ways to shock audiences by challenging what society considers normal. True crime, although a rather new addition to the list, is no different. 

While such stories are not fiction, they affect us much in the same way. In fact, with true crime there is a middle ground between a semblance of fiction and the reality of truth which makes the stories all the more enthralling and unpredictable. This is because the creative freedom over how to tell the stories has a large effect on its impact and enjoyability. In true crime stories like the ones you see on Youtube, narrators typically omit victims’ names to preserve that sense of distance where entertainment can comfortably exist.

However, for most of true crime’s genesis, people have effectively been able to distinguish between the fascination and interest of the entertaining side, and the solemnity and horror of the realistic side. But now, those lines seem to be blurring.

Through numerous edits on Tik Tok, such as the tags #tedbundy and #serialkiller, among others, which have racked up hundreds of millions of views, people are beginning to romanticize certain killers

This is especially blatant with Ted Bundy, who was remarked to be charismatic and charming. Numerous edits on Tik Tok strive to bring out these qualities in the convicted murderer. The issue has also been given fuel by the movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), in which Zac Efron played the notorious serial killer. Thanks to Efron’s universally accepted good looks, many have become strung out by the attractiveness of the actor in the role of Ted Bundy. There has also been an uptick in attention for Richard Ramirez following Netflix’s short docuseries, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. Such a romantic portrayal of a serial killer is dangerous. Both the danger of the enigmatic killer as well as the portrayal of their actions are what make the subject so taboo. 

But a question remains: Is this problematic? True crime may now be an established form of entertainment, but is romanticizing true crime a problem? The topic of serial killers has been getting so much traction on social media — TikTok especially — due to the coverage by Hollywood, Netflix, YouTube and more. And so, speaking about Ted Bundy in a video has become effortless for many. As a result, people are beginning to push the taboo even further because talking about serial killers doesn’t feel dangerous or “edgy” anymore. 

My gut tells me that we can’t take murder lightly, but maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe it’s not about taking murder lightly, but about stepping into the absurd. Maybe for those who make Ted Bundy edits, expressing love for a serial killer is a way to show discontent for certain aspects of modern society, like political alienation or perhaps the pressure we feel to succeed. But either way, it’s not up to me — it’s up to you. Only the flow of our collective mindsets can determine the limits of taboo, not the words of a college journalist. 

Matthew Kassorla is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mk928@cornell.edu.