Dec. 13, 2020
Our Interest in Serial Killers
Tell me again why we love fictional serial killers?
You might be sat in coffee shop right now, or perhaps it’s late and you’re snuggled in bed. Whatever your situation, chances are you are part-way enjoying a story that contains death, deceit, and more red herrings than the North Sea. Maybe, like me, you’re reading a story that features a serial killer. But how many of us have stopped to think about why we find them so interesting? Because let’s be clear, fictional murder is big business and fictional multiple murder is fast-becoming top of the pile!
As an example, one of my favorites – Jeffery Deaver – has reportedly sold over fifty-million copies of his books. If you then think of sixty-six detective novels written by Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller (we know her better as Agatha Christie), it’s not surprising her books have reportedly sold over two billion copies! So, what is it that attracts us to the depraved characters that authors create? Are we perhaps all overdue an appointment with a shrink?
When you research the psychology behind reading this sort of book, there are four common reasons given (and I’ve added one of my own thoughts, too):
- We all love a whodunnit – We buy the book even though we know that people are going die at the hands of a killer. We know (in most books) that the baddie gets caught. What we like is to try to either work out either who the killer is or how the clues will lead to him or her.
- Nearly everyone loves to see good overcome evil – Ever since we were small children, we sat in front of the television a little frightened when the bad man or woman was winning (I always recall my children watching Cruella De Vil). I can’t think of a single children’s movie where good didn’t overcome evil and, even as we get older, that basic instinct still means we know we’ll enjoy the outcome. Of course, there are exception where the criminal gets away (Hannibal Lecter is a great example).
- It’s good old-fashioned scary fun – The pounding heart, the racing pulse and the eager turning of pages at whatever time it is in the night, before we finally get to sigh in relief and can close the book; happy with the thrill-ride but also happy the rollercoaster of a ride we’ve just been on has finally pulled into the station.
- Escapism – Hopefully none of us will be either the victim of or the savior against a serial killer. Can you imagine the pressure of knowing you and your sidekicks are the only thing likely to bring down the monster?
- Does it help maintain boundaries? This last one is one of my own thoughts. Real-life is often imitated in art. The author, Thomas Harris, said of the murders in his books, he didn’t have to make any of it up, because it had all actually happened. As a reader, I’m okay reading the Silence of the Lambs because I know it’s a fictional story, despite also knowing that history is littered with horrific real-life monsters like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Fred & Rosemary West.
Right, so we all have our own reasons why we love to read the stories, but what makes a great fictional serial killer? Is it because we hate them? Is it because some of them are just downright charming in their own twisted way? Is it because the serial killer is often the writers equivalent of the ‘super-villain’ in movies? Or, if you don’t have a particular type you like to read about, is it anyone who can scare us in the comfort of our own home?
If you try to do research on ‘favorite fictional serial killers’ on Google, it hits you with 1.64m entries and it is a truly varied list; from Annie Wilkes, Dexter Morgan, Gary Soneji, and Pennywise the clown, through to unexpected characters like Dracula and Voldemort (yes, he who must not be named actually meets the criteria of a serial killer, as defined by the FBI).
I’d love to know who your favorite serial killer is and why – see the link at the bottom of this article if you’d liked to get involved in the debate – but let me start the debate by taking you through a list of my own:
Firstly, it has to be Hannibal Lecter. He makes my stomach churn and horrifies me, and yet he has a charm that is tangible. Softly spoken and well educated, he’s the sort of person you could have a very pleasant conversation with on a long-haul flight, without realising he was deciding on whether you’d be an excellent main course before bedtime. Admittedly, the written character has taken on a new depth after Sir Anthony Hopkins put everyone off fava beans, but Thomas Harris still wrote a fantastic yet deplorable monster who I can see why he was able to draw in his victims.
At this point, my wife would interject and make her pitch for Voldemort, but I’ve told her I’m writing this article’ not her.
My second favorite is responsible for many deaths, although he actually rarely pulled a trigger or set-off a bomb: that’s Macklin Hayes from the David Baldacci series, The Camel Club. He is a character you simply can’t wait for him to get comeuppance. He is cold-hearted, calculating and the person I see as responsible; more so than the assassins and misguided military folk he commands.
As you might expect, my wife still isn’t talking to me right now.
And the third ‘character’ I’d choose is whoever Lincoln Rhyme is trying to catch. My favorite author, Jeffery Deaver, has invented this quadriplegic Forensic Consultant who faces any number of different serial killers. For me, these books are more about the chase than the evil character themselves and with The Bone Collector, The Coffin Dancer, The Skin Collector and The Delivery Man amongst them, it’s easy to feel the thrill of being a virtual part of Rhyme’s team. Oh, the satisfaction of finding that all-important clue, of saving the next victim and solving the case.
By the way, my wife had left the room but has returned and flopped heavily onto the chair next to me, with a glare that suggests she’s bought me a one-way ticket to Azkaban Prison.
Actually, that previous point (the one about the satisfaction of solving the case); it’s true that working out the ‘who’ can be a very important part of a great reading experience, but what about working out the ‘why’? Why is someone killing so many people who don’t appear to have any common link, and why are they killing them at all with seemingly well-planned and perfectly implemented acts of violence? I love to sink into a book that makes me try to join the dots and, again from personal experience, it’s the ones where you triumphantly think “A-hah, I know who it is!” or “Of course they’re not random; it’s because ….”, only to turn the page and follow those up with a dejected “Oh” that I remember the most.
In summary, my interest in books with serial killers is rarely about the serial killers themselves: they’re about all the reasons I mentioned at the start of this article, because in the books I read, the author has never created any empathy for the killer. And that’s just how I like it.
About the Author
Geoff Major lives in England, with his wife and their dog. Nearly 20 years ago, he had the idea for a book but his girls, work and ‘life’ took the majority of his time. Once the girls were grown-up, he spent 9 years completing unusual fundraising activities for charity (including cycling across Cuba, ski-trekking to the North Pole, and persuading friends and his eldest daughter to trek across the Sahara Desert for 5 days).
In late 2018, he hung up his boots and decided to try and get his idea out of his head and into print.
He currently works full-time for a charity, whilst trying to get his second novel out of his head and into print.
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The Continuing Influence of Giallo on Modern Crime Thrillers
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Why we love crime thrillers and psychological thrillers