sneaks up on his unsuspecting victim. Syringe in hand, he incapacitates them with a powerful sedative. Shortly after awaking hours later, they are bound to a table, mouth gagged, and set to assume the starring role in a ritual sacrifice. Dexter’s knife rises high, clutched tightly in a ten-finger grip. As the blade plunges down, the killer we know is overcome with a wave of peace and clarity. To Dexter, it’s like taking a hit of a drug. For us, the audience, the effect is the same.
Not only do we thrill in watching Dexter dispatch people with such brutality, we root for him to get away with what he’s done. Our loyalty to his well-being goes far enough for us to care that he doesn’t get caught, even though, beyond any reasonable doubt, we have just witnessed him commit cold-blooded murder.
When it comes to entertainment, why do we love serial killers so much?
The philosopher Heidegger once wrote that when we are aware of death, it transforms us from “existing” to “being.”
Who then is more aware of death than the one who deals it? The one who stares into the eyes of his victims as the light goes out behind them forever. The one who sees us in our most vulnerable and revealing moment as we know that what comes next is the end.
In the most unspeakable of circumstances, with no way to escape, do we beg for our lives or do we go down cursing and spitting? The serial killer knows better than anyone else about what it is that you are made of inside… and not just by removing your entrails.
Serial killers illustrate the power of God. They choose whether you live or you die. Even more accurately, they choose how you die. A serial killer feels he or she is superior and above everyone else. They know the way things should be, despite a world that defies their expectations of existence. When I wrote my serial killer novel, DIARY OF A MADMAN, my intention was to capture the mindset of a cold-blooded, calculating killer who is compelled to murder others because he believes his crusade will make the world a better place.
Ever notice that one hand that believing in yourself being good or just is pride, but on the other hand, believing others aren’t as good as you is a psychosis? A serial killer’s evil is just a factor of perspective and spin.
Leatherface, bad. Dexter, good.
Leatherface is a soulless monster who thirsts for the blood of those who enter his territory. In this regard, he is no different from the great white shark in “Jaws.”
In our eyes, Dexter’s heinous crimes are justified. He is the disinfectant that wipes these scummy people off the face of the earth and away from innocents like us. Because of Dexter, our spouses, children and friends come home safely tonight instead of being tortured to death or buried alive in a shallow grave by a remorseless psychopath. We root for the bad guy who kills other bad guys because we fear that the justice system will fail us.
What about Hannibal Lecter from “Silence of the Lambs?” Not all of his victims were those who have fallen through the cracks of justice. Some were just unlucky enough to pique his desire to kill. Still, we root for Hannibal to succeed in his desire to be free to live his life the way he chooses.
In our eyes, serial killers are cool because they use stealth and cunning to gain an advantage. They are clever and interesting. They use urban camouflage and social engineering to blend in and get close. We associate with fictional serial killers because we often walk that tightrope wire over the abyss of our own sanity. At one point or another, we have contemplated what it would be like to gravely harm or murder someone who has trespassed against us, someone who has caused us a great deal of pain.
Maybe it’s your boss. Maybe it’s that idiot neighbor who purposefully lets his dog shit on your lawn when you’re not looking. Maybe it’s someone of considerable influence whose demise would benefit you or possibly even help shape the kind of world you hope to live in some day.
We have all wished death upon someone in a manner that suggests we would seriously like to see them not only suffer, but be made aware exactly why they are suffering, and in those last agonizing moments of their miserable lives, know that vengeance has been done because they chose the wrong path.
Though nearly all of us will never fall prey to the darkness that compels one to kill, we cannot get enough of the serial killer in modern fiction. But serial killers in real life aren’t superheroes, they’re murderers. And most importantly of all.
They’re just like you and me.
Mark Yoshimoto Nemcoff is the bestselling author of “The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.” He is currently developing a sequel to his acclaimed serial killer novel “Diary of a Madman.” His latest book on mayhem and murder, “Killing My Boss” will be available in July.