Did you watch the popular Netflix drama Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story in its entirety? Can’t get enough of the Serial podcast? Do you adore all Ted Bundy-related television programs? If so, you are not by yourself.
“Since the beginning, true crime has existed. It is the pinnacle of human drama.”
Paul Holes, a retired cold case investigator who specialized in serial predator crimes for 27 years, holds that view. He is also the person who, after 40 years, found the Golden State Killer.
He is unwavering when discussing serial killers, the focus of his career, calling them “the true monsters of today” and acting with “ultimate depravity.”
The following contains graphic material
It goes without saying that his job was anything but simple.
Holes tells Sky News, “I was being called out in the middle of the night, going to crime scenes, attending the autopsy of the victims, and seeing awful things.
While seeing dark and unsettling things was part of his job, an increasing number of people are looking for such content for leisure rather than for employment.
With Netflix reporting that subscribers watched 205.33 million hours of it in just one week, Ryan Murphy’s most recent hit drama Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, about a man who killed 17 young men and dismembered, preserved, and ate parts of their bodies, has become a hot topic.
The Watcher, a disturbing series based on a true story that rendered a million-dollar mansion unsellable and perplexed the police, has also been dominating the streaming giant’s most-watched list.
Additionally, recent TikTok obsessions with crime scene cleanups demonstrate that there is no detail too explicit for us to satiate our taste for society’s darker aspects.
So why are we so eager to spend our free time consuming depressing and downright gruesome content, despite the fact that real life is far from utopian (a pandemic, ongoing climate crisis, and a more divisive political landscape than ever before)?
It predates modern culture
We now have a variety of methods to get such content, be it via the internet, podcasts, or the multiple streaming platforms offering films, plays, and documentaries focused on crime, according to Holes, who has spent his career pursuing some of America’s most prominent criminals.
The Golden State Killer, an ex-cop who committed 13 murders and more than 50 rapes, The Zodiac Killer, and Doctor Crippen are just a few of the most intriguing cold cases examined on the popular podcast Buried Bones, which is hosted by Holes and true crime expert Kate Winkler Dawson (an American homeopath who was hung in Pentonville Prison in 1910 for the murder of his wife).
Winkler Dawson concurs that we have had a taste for the repulsive for hundreds of years.
“Public executions occurred during the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s, eras I research. People arrived, brought their kids, and used picnic baskets. Therefore, we probably have a little less obsession now than we had before. Even in the 1800s, people continued to attend crowded trials and send love letters to serial killers.”
The modern-day “real monsters”
What moral justifications underlie our intense interest in true crime?
Putting the victim at the center of the investigation, according to Holes, is crucial. “I spent my career working in real crime, so I saw first-hand the misery of these awful homicide cases,” he says. It certainly helped me feel more sympathetic to the victim because she is here. Their final moments are just abhorrently horrible. The loss of that person’s life has crushed your family, friends, and community.
“Now that I’ve entered the real crime category, I always aim to remain victim-centric from an ethical standpoint. There is a segment of customers who are extremely fascinated by criminals, particularly serial killers.
I believe it is OK to learn about these people, their psyche, and what makes them tick. Don’t, however, exalt that. They act with the worst depravity. They resemble today’s real monsters in many aspects.
Winkler Dawson, a historian who frequently has one foot in the past, says she feels more uneasy covering modern crime than recent murders.
She is only concerned with the case.
“I’m not picking these examples because the murders were horrifying or the killer was interesting. The cases we select are more akin to the first instance in which fingerprints were used as evidence in court, or to some form of entomology—the study of insects—or another novel method that was previously unknown.
“I want cases that stand out as a novel, original, and significant in history… I enjoy locating history that most people have never heard of as a criminal historian.
In Buried Bones, Holes and Winkler Dawson use forensic, behavioral, and investigative methods to offer a contemporary viewpoint on crimes from the past.
Why do murderers commit their crimes, and why do we want to know why?
The following broad categories of motivation for serial murders were proposed by an FBI conference on the topic in 2005: rage, criminal enterprise, financial gain, ideology, power/thrill, psychosis, and sexuality-based. Serial killings that lacked a clear purpose were also caused by severe mental diseases.
The FBI made it obvious that, in addition to having motivations, serial killers felt compelled to kill and did it because they both needed and wanted to.
According to the same 2005 report, serial killers choose their victims based on three factors: availability (the situations in which the victim is involved that may give the offender access to an attack), vulnerability (the degree to which the victim is at risk of attack from the offender), and desirability (the attractiveness of the victim to the offender).
Most of us will never have the misfortune of meeting a murderer. But why is it that we are so curious to know the specifics of those who have?
The Watcher’s cast has some theories after immersing themselves in the true story that served as the basis for the seven-part drama about a suburban family being terrorized by an enigmatic figure in their new neighborhood.
According to Bobby Cannavale, who plays Dean Brannock, “We want to know what the heck they were thinking, what makes certain individuals tick and do those kinds of things, especially with these sort of iconic crimes, whether it’s Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy.”
Cannavale speculates that schadenfreude, a German word meaning “joy obtained from someone else’s suffering,” could be another attraction to the program.
Reading about someone else’s terrible life gives me a certain sense of comfort and the assurance that maybe, on some level, it won’t happen to me.
Nora Brannock, who is co-starring with him, says she takes a more practical approach: “[I think] what if it was me and how would I prepare? This is how I would manage it. This is how I would survive. I’d spot the signals, especially now that I’ve seen them here.”
“I believe that right now there is a lot of fear and terror in the world. And we’re using that, so we’re trying to understand it better.
What are the psychological benefits?
Watt’s personal idea is consistent with the research of Dutch professor Suzanne Oosterwijk, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam. Her 2017 study on the causes of morbid curiosity was published in the National Library Of Medicine.
She provided dozens of college students with 60 various options of paired photos that fell within the natural, social, and physical categories.
The students were asked to select one of two thumbnails that were displayed to them for two seconds each. The majority of the time, the study participants’ students preferred negative social images over neutral ones.
Participants did not consistently avoid images depicting death, violence, or harm, according to Prof. Oosterwijk; rather, they decided to investigate some of them.
She went on to say that by having such morbid interest, individuals can unconsciously look for information.
“People may investigate stimuli that depict death, violence, or harm because it provides them with coping mechanisms for future adverse circumstances,” says the study.
The fixation could therefore be explained by the fact that we are learning from true crime and using the knowledge we gain to psychologically prepare for any threat, however remote, that may come our way.
Using brain scanning equipment, Prof. Oosterwijk and her team conducted a follow-up study that was published in Scientific Reports three years later. They discovered that viewing negative images activated reward centers in the brain more than neutral and positive ones did.
Therefore, even if we don’t like what we see, our brains still want to see it.
What does it cost?
In spite of the fact that serial murders, rapists, and other predatory criminals are extremely uncommon in society, retired investigator Holes acknowledges that exposure to such crimes might give one the impression that they are pervasive.
He states that before he will let someone into this existence, they must first establish their reliability and show that they are not a predator. This is not surprising given some of the horrific things he has witnessed.
On the other side, Winkler Dawson claims that, unlike most of her female acquaintances, she doesn’t check beneath the bed when she checks into a hotel room despite having knowledge of some of the most horrible murders in history. But she acknowledges that she probably ought to.
Despite how uncommon they may be, Winkler Dawson claims that serial killers are more of a trend than a byproduct of modern living.
“There were individuals in the 1700s or 1600s who are now uncommon in our society. There was a claim that no one had ever seen someone like Ted Bundy, the attractive predator who might be your daughter’s fiancé and you wouldn’t know it when he first appeared in the 1970s. He wasn’t new, though.”
Although this kind of predatory behavior may be rare, she cautions: “Since hundreds of years ago, this kind of person has been widespread. They still continue. We still don’t know how to predict and effectively stop someone like this.”
Spare a thought for those whose real lives and careers have been dedicated to solving the most heinous of crimes and visiting the most unsettling crime scenes – not the polished Hollywood versions that make it onto your preferred streaming service. While millions of us love nothing more than to curl up on the couch with a blanket and watch the likes of Dahmer et al.
Despite the widespread praise Holes received for his role in locating and apprehending the Golden State Killer, he claims that the murderers who eluded him are still very much on his mind.
“The cases I was unable to solve are what I remember the most. Because of the agony of recalling all the cases I’ve been a part of, those are the ones that keep me up at night.”
In addition to the desensitization required for success in such a graphic profession, Holes claims there has been a psychological effect.
He describes his own recurrent nightmare, which he refers to as a graphic dream, as a flashback to his time as a police officer as he wraps up the interview.
“I was involved in the case of an affluent, reclusive transsexual man who was murdered in his house by a sledgehammer. His face was a crushed-in ball full of maggots when I stepped outside to the actual scene because the flies had gotten to him.
“In my dream, I locate a trap door hidden beneath a Persian rug in that very mansion, which had a very medieval appearance. And I pull aside the rug, unlock that door, and turn to face these dark wooden stairs.
“The shattered face with the maggots suddenly comes into view as I shine the lamp. And each time, that is what happens.”