by | Oct 14, 2022 | Alex Kava | 26 comments

by Alex Kava

Last month, Netflix’s DAHMER—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was the streaming platform’s most watched new show ever in its first week. At a time when violent crime makes the daily news, what is it about serial killers that we can’t stop watching?

Netflix's series on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer

Harold Schechter, author of The Serial Killer Files, calls our fascination, “fairytales for grownups.” It’s our way of dealing with chaos in our lives. Confronting the monsters under our beds. By reading about or watching them, we can deal with our basic fears. 

Serial killers are responsible for only one percent of murders each year in the United States. No more than two dozen killers are thought to be “active” at any given time. Criminologist Scott Bonn, author of Why We Love Serial Killers, believes that deep down we know the chance of meeting a real serial killer is slim, and therefore, it’s safe to pull back the covers and examine.

I have my own theory. I think we’re fascinated because these killers are so normal, and they hide in plain sight. 

Jeffrey Dahmer convinced Milwaukee police officers to bring back one of his victims. Neighbors reported the fourteen-year-old boy running from Dahmer’s apartment. Despite being naked and bleeding, Dahmer told the officers the boy was his adult partner. Later, he confessed to strangling the boy as soon as the officers left.

Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, murdered ten people in Wichita and Park City, Kansas between 1974 and 1991 and continued to live in the same community. A husband, father and president of his church council, Rader taunted law enforcement and media with cryptic messages until he made the mistake of sending a floppy disk that could be traced back to his church. But until 2005, Rader had gone undetected for thirty-one years.

Dahmer is far from the only serial killer we obsess over.

Robert Yates was also married, had five children and was a decorated US Army National Guard helicopter pilot. He lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Spokane, Washington, where he felt comfortable enough to bury one of his victims right under his bedroom window. Yates pled guilty to thirteen murders but is believed to have killed seventeen.

Randy Steven Kraft liked to pick up male hitchhikers. He seemed ordinary enough that men with military backgrounds accepted rides to their death. People who knew the computer programmer said he was “smart” and “a nice guy.” When the California Highway Patrol stopped Kraft for erratic driving, they found a dead body in the passenger seat. Kraft was convicted of sixteen murders, but his journal suggests he killed at least sixty.

Dr. Helen Morrison has spent over four hundred hours alone talking to murderers and is regarded as one of the leading experts on serial killers. In her book, My Life Among the Serial Killers, she said of Ed Gein, “He seemed to be a genuinely kind man, when he wasn’t killing.”

Gein, nicknamed “the butcher of Plainfield,” is credited as the inspiration for the movies Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. When police officers arrested him on his Wisconsin property, they were horrified to find Gein’s creations: lampshades made of human skin and soup bowls carved from sawed-off skulls. But Gein had only murdered two women. Technically, he wasn’t a serial killer. He was a body snatcher, robbing graves to supply his strange fetish.

My debut novel, A Perfect Evil, is loosely based on my own experience with serial killer John Joubert. In the 1980s, I worked for a group of small newspapers when two young boys went missing from the Omaha suburbs of Bellevue and Papillion. The manhunt lasted 116 days. 

I still remember the day John Joubert was captured. We gathered around a small television to finally see the monster who had terrorized the community and murdered three young boys. The orange jumpsuit hung loose on his small frame. Baby-faced with a flop of bangs, he didn’t look much older than the boys he had killed. Joubert was a Scout leader and worked as an airman stationed at what was then Offutt Air Force Base. He looked too ordinary. This was not the monster we expected. 

Dahmer leading viewers to ask, "who is in the car next to you?"

In her book, The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule talked about sitting next to Ted Bundy while they answered phones at a suicide crisis hotline in Seattle. 

“I liked him immediately,” Rule shared in her book.

Rule wasn’t the only one to mention how charming and likeable Bundy was. He knew how to play the role of an everyday guy. Several times, he wore an arm sling and potential victims even helped him with the books or bags he struggled to carry.

So, what is it that fascinates us about serial killers? Perhaps it’s not that odds are we’ll never meet one. But maybe, it’s the idea that one could be ordinary enough to be parked in the car beside ours. Or sitting right next to us at a busy café. 

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  1. Deb Carlin

    Wow. I would love to see the statistics in regards to people who are enthralled with serial killers…The documentaries always amaze me. And to even think they can sit right next to you. I’ve thought I’d met one or two..😉 Thanks for great dreams tonight Alex Kava.

    • Jack Morton

      I’am still waiting to hear when Mis Kava,s next creation will be avalibile. Will you please let me know when?

  2. Rosana I Aguayo

    I agree that the idea that it could be anyone is what keeps us hooked. I would like to think that we would know what to look for after so many documentaries and books out there but thise prove just how much they get away with.

    • Alex Kava

      Rosana, I know! You’d think we would learn.

    • Kristal Booth

      I was a victim of extreme trauma from the age of 5. The men who kidnapped me were engaged in killing young children. I survived. After this experience, I was obsessed with how serial killers chose their victims and lived 2 separate lives. I recognized a couple of them, and both of them were prominent citizens in society with wives and children. How do their minds work?…

      • Alex Kava

        Kristal, that’s absolutely frightening.

  3. Kurt F. Geisinger

    I think that some of the fascination over such killers depends on the length of time over which the individual killer is active. To the extent that he (or she) escapes capture over time, the tension builds and builds. As knowledge becomes more prevalent about their existence, people start changing their behavior (e.g., not walking alone at night). These changes are noted and intensify the focus.

    • Deb Carlin

      You’re right Kurt… I always look over my shoulder a 100 times now… and very seldom go to big box stores after dark.

  4. Pam

    Scary stuff but I agree people are fascinated by serial killers. So many tv shows have them in their plot at least once a season. There have been several serial killers in my lifetime and when finally caught they did all look like the person next door.

    Loved this blog and the comments as well.

    • Alex Kava

      Scary stuff, indeed. And interestingly, the fascination is not a new phenomenon. Serial killers date back at least to the 1400s.

  5. Pam

    Scary stuff but I agree. So many tv shows have them in their plot at least once a season. There have been several serial killers in my lifetime and when finally caught they did all look like the person next door.

    Loved this blog and the comments as well.

    • Diana Schuncke

      I agree with Alex’s answer but would also postulate that some of our fascination is also do to the draw of the forbidden. How many have wondered if they could do that? What would compell someone to do the unthinkable? What is it about serial killers that causes the complete disconnect between how ordinary they look and how extraordinary they act?

      Not to be a nit-picker, but Offutt Air Force Base is still active and still named thus. My husband spent 18 of his 21 years of active duty stationed there. I was just down there yesterday. The new runway looks great. 😊

      • Alex Kava

        Diana, someone just recently corrected me that it’s now Strategic Air Command, but the base is still Offutt. To all of us “locals,” it’s Offutt. A thank you to your husband for his service.

  6. Linda Cardillo

    I think Alex’s answer is closer to the truth. Serial killers often look so “normal.” That freaks me out! I keep looking for some common denominator that would be a giveaway, like the dead shark eyes that sociopathic psychopaths seem to have. I admit to looking at friendly neighbors, grocery store managers, occasional acquaintances and the like, and wonder what I don’t know about them. I wonder what secrets they’re hiding. Are they who they appear to be? That’s the fascination for me, I think. And the fear. For example, a neighbor I used to see everyday while walking my dog – a stereotypic older married man, a bit thin with a mostly bald head – became infatuated with me and began stalking me. It was very creepy. Two long-time close friends who happened to live in the same neighborhood and walked with me every evening, were shocked when I told them what this man was doing. That’s the thing right? The thing you don’t see coming.

    • Linda A.

      Interesting topic. I like to read about serial killers as I like to try to figure out WHY they did it, what kind of background did they or their family have, was there some big event that turned them into becoming this type of person. What motivates them etc. As humans I think there is always fascination with the unknown or something much different than we are accustomed to. I have had an interest in serial killers since I was a kid.

  7. Norm

    I am always fascinated when I see people interviewed in the news — friends, neighbors, and even parents — who are shocked and could not believe that the killer was someone close to them. I totally agree with Alex’s belief that ” we’re fascinated because these killers are so normal, and they hide in plain sight.” As a reader, I love it when writers present the most unlikely character, in a secondary or even tertiary role and camouflage them. Like these real-life killers, we never saw it coming!

  8. Jathan and Heather Fink

    Great job, Alex! Once again you managed to make us squirm just thinking about which of our neighbors may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We haven’t watched the Dahmer documentary because we like to sleep. But we’ve heard how riveting it is.

    Among the killers you mentioned, Randy Steven Kraft is perhaps the most memorable for us. After all, he’s the one who dashed our dream of wanting to hitchhike across Europe.

    When we were working at a radio station in Massachusetts, we interviewed Charles Graeber regarding his book, THE GOOD NURSE. In it he writes about Charlie Cullen, the friendly nurse/serial killer who murdered several hundred of his patients before he was caught. Talk about a guy that makes us want to avoid a hospital stay! That story lingered long after the interview for sure.

    As always, thanks for writing and we are looking forward to reading whatever it is that you write next.

    Best to you and the Westies!
    Jathan and Heather

  9. Karen

    Yes, to some extent the idea that the killers look like, and are, the person next door, but the other thing that really fascinates me so much is the thought process. Is there a compulsion? Why did you do it the way you did? Why did you choose that person ? Why do you feel it is okay to take the life of another human being? Did you think about getting caught? How did you feel? I have so many questions.

  10. Linda Borowski

    Saw the movie about DAHMER on Netflix. He was not normal. I’m so looking forward to your next book. Hope you have one coming out soon.

  11. Lisa Black

    I think it’s also that anyone can be their victim. Those of us who live in safe life situations have very little chance of being murdered (other than by our significant others, which of course we’d rather not think about), so serial killers seem an outsize danger. And, since according to TV serial killers only kill beautiful people, a bit complimentary!

  12. Karna Small Bodman

    Fascinating piece, Alex – I believe you’re right about how these killers appear to be “normal” — which is interesting to the public…but truly terrifying!

  13. Gloria Sierra

    Interesting take, but correct. I have read about these killers for as long as I can remember. I also see documentary but have not seen this new show, not sure that I want too. I don’t like with these new shows all the filming of the actually killing and blood.

  14. Isabella Maldonado

    Great post, Alex! Having studied serial killers myself, I’ve always found it fascinating how their minds work. Some will pretend to “hear voices” or “receive instructions,” but most will simply claim to have no knowledge what motivates them to kill. Even when asked to review their first incident (if they are willing to describe it at all) they are notoriously vague about the predilections that started them down the path or what the triggering event was that pushed them from fantasy to action.
    Oh, and they all fantasize about doing it long before they take action the first time. The problem is that never satisfies them. The ones who go on to become serial killers feel compelled to chase the high of murdering the same way an addict chases the high of their first hit from a narcotic. There are many similarities…

  15. Jenny Milchman

    Hoq terrifying, Tosca, to have that personal up close connection to a case. The fascination continues as you point out. Great post.

  16. Chris Goff

    It is kind of crazy that we all are drawn to stories of serial killers. I can’t help but think that the publicity surrounding some of the cases as they are ongoing is a contributing factor. I lived near Vail when Ted Bundy killed the woman at a local hotel and escaped from the Aspen jail. The idea that he could be in town on his way out of town had everyone jumpy. And I remember having lunch with Ann Rule one day and hearing her tell of the Green River killer. She was under contract to write the book about him should he ever be caught. He was the one killing prostitutes along the SeaTac strip in Seattle for twenty plus years. Ann told me that when he was finally apprehended, her daughter recognized him as a a man who had attended every one of her local bookstore signings for years. He was a fan, and knew full well that one day she might be writing a book about him.

    On another note, I was at the Writer’s Police Academy in Wisconsin several years back when Katherine Ramsland was speaking on serial killers. She has just published her book on the BTK serial killer. In interviewing him, he often gave her sketches of his crime scenes. Tami Hoag was also presenting there, and when one of BTK’s sketches was auctioned off, my table mates and I watched as the going price rose to something like $1,600. Tami bought it. As we went back to eating the discussion turned to whether or not any of us would actually want to own something like that. I was a definite, Yes, if I could have afforded the auction price. Another woman at our table was a definite, No. She thought the energy that had to be attached to such a sketch would bring such negativity into her house and writing studio, it could only bring evil with it. Gave me the creeps!

    Great blog, Alex!

  17. Tracy Clark

    Evil IS fascinating. I think everyone’s fascinated by evil’s origins. What makes a person evil? Is it mental defect or something deeper? Evil frightens us, engrosses us. Alex’s analysis of serial killers hits all the right notes. Love the deep dive. Gives you a lot to think about, doesn’t it?