An article was posted today to Jezebel, a feminist site, ruminating on the female fascination with serial killers, and with crime fiction generally.
The author of the piece briefly entertains a series of three different hypotheses to explain the phenomenon. Two were taken from a debate-on-paper in Psychology Today, and the third was his own contribution.
The first notion is attributed to Katherine Ramsland, who believes that women have a “biological imperative” which attracts them to men who show markers of “maleness”— citing “primate research finds that females prefer the larger, louder, more aggressive males who show clear markers of their maleness.”
I have nothing much to offer in response other than a chuckle. Successful serial killers are so often described after the fact as “quiet” types who conveyed a non-threatening exterior that “He was a quiet boy” has now become a joke and a cliché. But this doesn’t appear to have entered into Ramsland’s ruminations.
Perhaps she was too busy fantasizing about being beaten by a big guy who was yelling in a manly fashion? I dunno.
The second hypothesis is to a Dr. Leon Seltzer, who apparently believes that women seek romantic relationships with killers because of a “Bad Boy” fantasy…the belief that inside the heart of every murderous sociopath lurks a healthy dollop of sweet, sensitive “inner goo.” By this argument, a serial killer obsession is simply “bad boy syndrome” taken to its logical conclusion.
The argument here would be that women who fall for bad boys have a tendency to delude themselves that they are witness to a “concealed goodness” that eludes every other observer. Women who fall in love with murderers are doing so because they flatter themselves that they are uniquely insightful, the only ones able to find the hidden diamond of kindness in these predators. So the problem is less about biological attraction and more about self-aggrandizement: these women want to believe that they are special, and can see what no one else can see.
Seltzer’s hypothesis may have some merit in some cases, but I think he is deliberately ignoring another possible source of attraction to homicidal felons: women often live vicariously through their romantic entanglements with men. The Groupie Syndrome is just as often motivated by frustrated ambition as it is by sexual desire; women pick a target for sex or love because that man has achieved something she would like to achieve.
By this logic, by sleeping with a star, the woman vicariously becomes a star. It is far easier to sleep with a musician than to become a musician. Far easier to sleep with a writer than to become a writer. And far easier to sleep with a butcher than to become a homicidal maniac yourself…although historically speaking, it’s evident that some women DO end up coming along for the ride.
Many of the better known female killers in history were actually the partners of an enthusiastic male sociopath at some point in their careers, including Elizabeth Bathory.
At the end of the article, author Hugo Schwyzer extends the argument himself and addresses the female appetite for serial killer fiction and crime shows like CSI, Law and Order and Bones. The author is a teacher and has noted that many of his female students over the years have had a strange appetite for stories and shows about murderers and the scientists and police who analyze their crimes and hunt them down.
He offers the hypothesis that female students who have a fascination with sociopaths, many of whom major in abnormal psychology or become forensic pathologists, are drawn to these killers because opposites attract. They want to study serial killers because they “envy” their lack of empathy, their position on the opposite end of the female psychological spectrum.
I think he’s wrong, however, especially when he makes reference to a real life example. He quotes one female student who told him: “I’m disgusted by them but I’m drawn to them. I want to find out what makes them tick.”
This young woman said these words just before she ended up at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, pursuing a dream of pursuing serial killers herself. And after reading this article, I feel that I recognized this young woman. I spent time in the classroom as a peer of several young women who were very much like this one, while they were studying forensic anthropology in Tennessee. Even after knowing them for such a brief period of time, I’m fairly confident that they did not “envy” the men that they were about to devote their lives to catching and putting behind bars.
So I would like to offer an additional hypothesis.
I would suggest that modern women, particularly powerful women, are attracted to sociopathic men because every hunter is naturally fascinated by her natural prey…and every prey is naturally fascinated by the predator who dogs her steps.
Modern women are unique, in that they have the option of becoming both the victims and the prosecutors of serial murderers.
I have observed that many of the rising generation of forensic anthropologists are tough, smart young women. I’ve seen them pursue their studies with grim determination, mastering osteology, anatomy and archaeological excavation methods so that they can go into law enforcement. Once they graduate, these same women often travel abroad digging up death pits and nailing war criminals around the planet, not just on the domestic scene. They spend their lives excavating bodies of evidence and seeking justice for victims everywhere. They look this darkness right in the eye…and then they knee it, hard, in the balls.
For these women, to watch a forensic science show is no different from a future police officer watching other cop shows, a soldier watching war movies, or a cowboy watching Westerns. They are studying for a heroic social role, and learning their part.
Even women without that heroic bent, however, may still have a motive for their fascination with serial killers other than “envy”. Because just as the hunter studies the prey, so the prey is fascinated by the hunter. Women and girls are the most frequent victims of serial killers, by a very significant margin. 60% of all the skeletons that you work with as a forensic anthropologist are people whose bodies were deliberately concealed after a violent act, and in the USA, the majority of the bones you find hidden in the deep woods belong to women or children who were left there by men who abducted and disposed of them after satisfying some predatory appetite.
The fascination that some women have for tales of the killer is thus the fascination that drives all horror: a throbbing, passionate desire to live…which compels you to study all possible ways that you could die.
Perhaps these women are subconsciously driven to seek stories of all the women who made a mistake and lost their lives, so that they can someday be the woman who survived. The woman who escaped her would-be attacker, and in case after case after recorded case, ended up being the key witness that allowed police to track him down, and put an end to his killing forever.
I don’t think it’s envy.
I think it’s a mental rehearsal for victory.