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?
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.
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.
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.