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Serial Killers

Serial Killers Arouse Insatiable Curiosity

Why people are fascinated by serial killers.

Key points

  • The physiological response to negative stimuli is greater than the physiological response to positive events.
  • This phenomenon is often referred to as morbid curiosity: a combination of fear and excitement.
  • Sensation-seeking and a natural desire to monitor harmful situations both contribute to the "allure" of death and destruction.
Source: NEOSiAM/Pexels

In April 2009, Trisha Leffler advertised her erotic services on Craigslist, an online platform for selling goods and services. On April 10, 2009, Leffler scheduled to meet a client at a luxury hotel in Boston. Later that day, Leffler’s body was found bound and gagged. Leffler was the victim of an apparent robbery.

On April 14, 2009, Julissa Brisman placed an ad on Craigslist offering erotic massage services. Brisman scheduled an appointment with a man only known to her as “Andy.” Brisman’s body was found murdered in her hotel room. The autopsy revealed that she tried to fight off her attackers but was eventually shot multiple times by her assailant. Brisman was the victim of an apparent robbery.

A third victim, Cynthia Melton, worked as an exotic dancer offering lap dance services. Melton scheduled an appointment to meet a client at a Rhode Island hotel. Melton was the victim of an apparent robbery that ended in murder.

Police noted the similarities between the three murders. The three victims offered erotic services, two women were bound with zip ties, and all three victims were robbed.

Police investigators reviewed security footage and identified a person of interest. The investigators also traced an email response to Brisman’s ad listed on Craigslist. The source of the email was Philip Markoff. The police surveilled Markoff for several days before arresting him. Markoff was arrested and charged with murder, armed robbery, and kidnapping. A search of Markoff’s apartment produced a gun, bullets matching those recovered from Brisman’s body, zip-ties, duct tape, a laptop containing communication to Brisman, and several pairs of women’s underwear belonging to Leffler. During a police interrogation, Markoff confessed to robbing and killing the victims. Markoff became one in a growing list of serial killers roaming the country.

On August 15, 2010, Markoff committed suicide in his prison cell. Markoff used a sharp, hand-crafted instrument to slash the major arteries in his ankles, legs, and neck. Markoff also put a plastic bag over his head and shoved toilet paper down his throat so first responders could not resuscitate him. Finally, Markoff covered himself head-to-toe with a blanket and lay on his bunk until he died.

The allure of death and destruction

People are fascinated by serial killers. Aristotle noted in 350 B.C., “Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.” The fascination with violent events has only increased over the millennia. The allure of death and destruction may have a physiological basis. The physiological response to negative stimuli is greater than the physiological response to positive events. In other words, people are more stimulated by negative events than by positive ones. The media focuses on negative stories because people are drawn to death and destruction.

This phenomenon is often referred to as morbid curiosity. Morbid curiosity is a combination of fear and excitement that draws people’s attention to terror and death. Many television shows, movies, and podcasts attempt to quench the need to know more about killers and their victims. Murderabilia is highly sought after. A cottage industry sprung up that peddles artifacts associated with notorious crimes, such as locks of hair, murder weapons, and drawing and sketches by incarcerated killers. Morbid curiosity creates both excitement and fear.

Sensation-seeking arouses the need for ever-increasing stimuli to satisfy the need for new and exciting experiences. Sensation seekers often engage in risky behaviors such as skydiving, mountain climbing, and gambling. Serial killers serve as a vicarious experience for sensation seekers. The downside of sensation seeking is that greater and greater stimulation is required to satisfy the need for new and exciting stimuli.

Fear is a natural reaction to a horrific event. People often close their eyes and cover them with their hands but inevitably open them up again and spread their fingers to avoid missing the carnage. Fear is a survival instinct. People fear things that can harm them. To prevent something from harming us, we must constantly monitor the danger to avoid it. Covered eyes cannot avoid danger.

Another aspect of fear is the relief that we are not the victims. Observing criminal activity may also provide us with the information necessary to survive a similar event or to avoid being the victim of a violent act. For these reasons, people have a difficult time disengaging from threatening events. The allure of violent homicides has become a part of the American psyche and will remain so for a long time.


Harrison, M. A, & Frederick, E. J. (2022). Interested in serial killers? Morbid curiosity in college students. Current Psychology, 41, 3768-3777.

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