The Dark Secret Behind Jeffrey Dahmer's Sex Appeal
Are you bad or evil if you're drawn to shows about serial killers?
Posted October 2, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- There are psychological reasons we are drawn to horrible stories about crime.
- It is important to think about these underlying psychological issues without self-criticism.
- Romanticizing a serial killer can help us manage frightening experiences in our own lives.
The new Netflix series “Dahmer — Monster,” has received mixed critical reviews, but is currently listed as No. 1 on the streaming service's ratings. Dahmer, played by Evan Peters in the series, is being romanticized by fans, who seem to be downplaying or simply ignoring the reality of the gruesome murders he committed. If you or someone you know is one of these fans, it doesn’t mean that you or they are bad. But it could tell you something important about yourselves.
In interviews with therapists who work with real-life survivors of criminal acts, I learned that the genre can help survivors feel understood and their stories normalized. But families of Dahmer’s victims have described feeling retraumatized by this series and by the reactions of viewers. Some of the show's fans I spoke with told me that they felt bad about possibly offending the families, but that they were still drawn to the man portrayed on the show.
Why are serial killers so appealing to some people? What makes someone like Dahmer seem like a sex symbol? If you are one of the people who feel this way, understanding something about why you do might help you deal with some deeper, sometimes darker, emotions that you normally keep hidden from sight.
The first step in understanding these feelings is to stop criticizing yourself for having them.
Lucy Morgan, in an opinion piece for Glamour, notes that “It's an unsettling reality that most male serial killers have some sort of fanbase, mostly consisting of young, white women.” Morgan points out one of the reasons that some women are drawn to these stories, which I also learned in my interviews: Turning a dangerous man into a sex object makes him – and other men — seem less frightening and may in turn help ease other anxieties about dangers from the past, present, and future. But as Morgan also notes, Dahmer’s victims were not young white women, a fact that could also contribute to why he is a choice for this unconscious, or unrecognized psychological work. The fantasy for some women is that he is dangerous and cruel, but not to people like themselves. She will be safe from those horrendous crimes.
I asked my colleague Sheldon Itzkowitz, a psychologist in New York, and co-editor of the book Psychoanalysts, Psychologists and Psychiatrists Discuss Psychopathy and Human Evil, how he understands this phenomenon. He told me, “Viewing serial killers on TV (or computer) is a far cry from actually meeting one in person.” Watching a show can separate the viewer from the reality of the criminal. Itzkowitz explained that denial of the horrible reality of the criminal’s behavior is made easier through this process.
For instance, in some cases, viewers may start to confuse the actor with the character. The character/actor is elevated to a legend through the series. In other cases, as Itzkowitz' co-editor, Elizabeth Howell, explains in their book, seeing a serial killer as a troubled but basically good person can be a way of telling yourself that someone who has hurt you can also be loving and nurturing to you. It can also be a way of identifying with a person who has hurt you in the past — what psychoanalysts call "identifying with the aggressor." This is an act of our psyches that helps us feel strong in the face of danger — essentially saying, "I'm as bad and as harsh and as tough as you are, and I can hurt you as much as you hurt me."
So if you or someone you care about is drawn to these shows, it’s not a sign that either of you is secretly bad. Nor is it evidence that a serial killer is good. But it could be a signal of some psychological and emotional issues that you are trying to work through via this attraction.
You might, for example, be trying to convince yourself that bad people can also have good qualities. This wish can lead some women to be attracted to so-called “bad boys.” Similarly, the attraction can be related to a woman’s own angry, rebellious, hateful, and violent feelings. “If he feels this way and I think he’s still, underneath it all, a good guy, then maybe I’m good even though I feel this way, too.”
In a post I wrote about loving a narcissist, I also pointed out that many narcissists have good qualities that can make up for some of the difficulties of being with them. It might be true that understanding the underlying causes of a serial killer can explain their impulses, but their behaviors make them dangerous to love. Even if the danger itself is part of the draw, it is important to remember that these behaviors most likely make it impossible for them to return your love in any kind of healthy manner.
It is, then, crucial to recognize your fantasies for what they are. Whether they represent your internal rebellion, your need to see that even bad people can have good qualities, or your wish to find a way to make peace with some of your own disturbing thoughts and feelings, the fantasy of loving a serial murder has something to tell you about your own psyche. Recognizing the underlying meanings – something at the heart of talk psychotherapy — can give you an opportunity to process them in a new way. And doing that gives you a chance to change your feelings about yourself and improve your relationships in the real world.