Why Serial Killers & True Crime Stories Are So Fascinating, According To A Psychologist

Getting to the bottom of the true crime obsession.

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Do you spend hours watching TV shows and documentaries about serial killers and true crime?

As a child, I was always fascinated by serial killers and crime stories. There was something about the thought that most serial killers appeared quite charming, intelligent, attractive, and engaging.

Needless to say, some people are fascinated by serial killers for the exact same reason.

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Here's why serial killers and true crime stories are so fascinating, according to a psychologist:

Serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wuornos, Rodney Alcala, and many others add to our fascination because of the heinousness of their crimes and how they were presented to the public.


Serial killers are responsible for less than 1 percent of murders in the U.S. each year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and no more than two dozen are "active" at any given time.

However, our fascination with serial killers and the crimes they commit far exceeds our concern about more pressing dangers.

Serial killers seem normal — even charismatic.

The crimes of serial killers are frequently monstrous. Yet, they are not "monsters" and may not appear strange.

Often, serial killers are able to blend in with everyone else. Some of them can be so charismatic that we secretly desire to be just like them — before we realize they are serial killers.


People gravitate to them, and they are usually the life of the party.

Serial murderers often have families, friends, and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community.

Most serial killers are convincing, skilled at roleplaying, and experts at appearing normal. They have the ability to make others want to get to know them, want to be like them, or be liked by them.

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Unfortunately, this is part of their appeal and it's also what makes them terrifying to onlookers.

That brings me to Rodney Alcala, a convicted rapist and serial killer who was sentenced to death in California for five murders committed in that state between 1977 and 1979.


Alcala is sometimes called "The Dating Game Killer," because of his 1978 appearance on the television show The Dating Game in the midst of his murder spree.

He looked like the boy next door. That's frightening because if the boy next door is a serial killer, it means anyone could potentially be a victim.

Jeffrey Dahmer was considered by local police to be so non-threatening that they returned one of his victims to his home after encountering the handcuffed male on the street.

Police didn’t detain Dahmer until photos of dismembered men were observed in a drawer that he had left open.

John Wayne Gacy was an American serial killer and sex offender coined the "Killer Clown" who assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men and boys.


Gacy regularly performed at children's hospitals and charitable events as "Pogo the Clown" or "Patches the Clown," personas he had devised. He used the image of clowns to gain the trust of others via laughter, silly antics, and magic.

Gacy, in addition to being welcomed as a clown at children’s parties, won recognition for his fundraising work. Behaving as a clown is particularly jarring as he portrayed a character of innocence while he committed both rape and murder.

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Ted Bundy, another serial killer that fascinated the public, was characterized by many as very good-looking, successful, and appealing to women.


And because of his charm and good looks, he was able to get 36 women into his car willingly before holding them against their will and killing them.

Interestingly, male serial killers tend to hunt and kill strangers, while female serial killers are more likely to kill someone that they know.

The public fascination with serial killers is not new.


Most people love to be outraged together, discovering a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and observing a battle between good and evil. We question ourselves about why we didn’t see the evil in person before they committed multiple crimes.

The public is typically stumped by the notion that serial killers look like everyday people. They act like everyday people — like you and me.

Many of them are nice, regular people who don't draw negative attention to themselves. We want to know all about them in hopes of identifying what created the monsters that would take the lives of others.

By learning about them, their history, and their childhood, we often think that we can pinpoint what led to their deviancies.


We want to find out "what made them who they are," so we can somehow prevent others from becoming serial killers. The truth is, becoming a serial killer is more complicated than that — and may even be impossible in some cases. 

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Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford is a psychologist who has engaged in extensive work and research on familial relationships, family trauma, and dysfunctions.