I’ve read a lot of critiques lately about how the current fascination with True Crime podcasts and crime is harmful. I obviously don’t agree with that (totally), and not just because I’m a crime writer with a vested interest in continuing to fictionally murder. For one, we have always been fascinated with crime. Half of our myths revolve around the violent disruption of social norms and the ways and means with which to resolve that and continue to function.
Obviously many of those questions are litigated, resolved, and codified in courts and government. That’s just the law though, it’s not how WE feel about it or come to terms with our anxiety around it. Stories are how we do that, whether they are fictional explorations of various scenarios or the True Crime approach where real crimes are framed in a narrative structure so that people can follow it better.
Crime fiction was basically born from free-floating social anxiety and the need to pin it down, experience it, and feel reassured enough to leave the house. Also to reinforce the fact that we should not go out and murder, rob, pillage because it doesn’t end well.
Serial killers are a particular source of anxiety for most people, even though you’re more likely to come afoul of a car. Mostly, I think, because the urge to go out and kill people according to some internal compulsion isn’t something that people understand. I mean, most people don’t steal, but they can also see the temptation of it. The same with murder.
I can feel you judging, but it’s true. Most of us have felt the urge to do something shitty to someone who crossed us, even something as simple as giving them the finger behind their back. Even though none of us would go beyond that, we can escalate that urge in our imagination. We can understand why someone murdered someone for profit or lust, even if we condemn the urge and the act. Understanding it doesn’t mean you condone it, it’s just…like google maps. You can see how someone got from A to B, even if you’d have never gone there yourself.
Serial killers sort of bypass that. I don’t understand it, the urge or the satisfaction. So I am fascinated with the study of it once the killers are confined and we can look back into their satnav history. How did this dude get from a baby to the next ripped from the headlines antagonist of a Law and Order: SVU episode?
Most of them are white dudes. Is that because of some sort of genetic predisposition or just a side effect of privilege? I mean, it just easier to go places, do stuff, and leave unchallenged as a white dude that if you aren’t.
Genetics? We’re just preprogrammed from birth to be one thing and no help for it. On the one hand that dangles the possibility of a cure for violence, or at least a test for it, but that’s horrifying in and of itself. The idea that everything we are, all these fragile thoughts and passions, are just not done to us at all…? Well, that’s why we have such empathy for the West World androids.
Head injuries? Same reaction as with genetics, but with the added fear of facing our innate fragility. We accept that physically we’re a bit of a delicate thing, but the idea that our identity is as easy to damage and alter as our body is pretty anxiety inducing.
So tempting. But then we accept there’s nothing to be down, it was just Satan being Satan again. It’s not down to us in any way, the society we’ve built or the way we turn a blind eye to things. Nothing to be done, just Satan.
I do believe in evil, but mostly it’s a choice that people make. No demon comes in the night and makes them do anything, they made the decision every time to be a little bit monstrous until they were a monster.
See? Serial killers are pretty interesting conceptually and narratively. Plus the more we find out about serial killers the less misconceptions we have about who’s really dangerous.
I’ve never written a serial killer, really, but I might. I mean, as an author I tend to enjoy more basic cop crimes than the ‘jesus, bring in the experts’ ones. But I have a few ideas that might eventually make it to paper.
But, you say, what about that ‘don’t totally agree’ thing you mentioned. All that said–and I don’t think I always get this balance right–don’t forget that everyone involved is a person? As a writer I always try to remember that even the bad guy has an internal life where they managed to convince themselves this was OK, where they’re the hero of their own story. The dead people were too though, with family that loved them and plans of their own. It doesn’t impel the narrative the same way, the done-to are rarely as active as the doer, but I think it’s important as an author to remember that.
Otherwise the only one that really mattered to YOU when they died is the killer, and that bleeds through. And if you don’t care about them, then neither with the reader.