Boys, Girls & Bundyphiles—fans, followers of serial killers often ‘condemned’ for interest


James Tsitiridis

Boys, Girls & Bundyphiles

By Managing Editor

While he was on trial for the murders of 36 women, Ted Bundy had fans flocking to the courthouse, proclaiming his innocence. He received daily bags of fan mail: declarations of love and photographs from fans.

One woman, Carole Ann Boone, became involved with Bundy after his arrest, and they were married in 1980 during his trial for the murder of a 12-year-old, while Boone was serving as a character witness.

Bundy’s reported charisma and good looks were part of what drew in fans, but he was not unique as a convicted killer with a following.

In 1993, convicted serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer received $11,000 from pen pals, despite confessing to the 17 murders for which he was tried. It could be the infamy of these men, a belief in their innocence or some other attraction that drives people’s interest in convicted serial killers, but like the draw of a movie star, these attractions to serial killers are a reality.

Afton Elaine Burton, or Star as she prefers, the former fiance of infamous Charles Manson, runs a website collecting letters in support of the convicted mastermind behind the Manson Family murders, titled “Release Charles Manson Now.”

While the internet is a resource for killer-dedicated websites and historical information, it can also spur new interests.

A 40-year-old CPA from Brooklyn, who goes by the online pseudonym Rose A. Nation, began learning about serial killers when she read about Bundy and was compelled by how he lured women in to kill them.

“When he was at a grocery store, he would wear a cast on his arm and crutches at times, and it was, ‘Help me with some groceries,’ and as soon as they would bend over to put the groceries in, he would abduct them,” Nation, who helps run a Facebook group for fans of serial killers, explained. 

Nation, who said she was initially shocked by Bundy’s crimes because she grew up in a “privileged bubble,” added that people in her life know about her interest in serial killers. However, they do not understand it. 

“The fascination [in serial killers] cannot be explained entirely through negative emotions,” said David Schmid, author and professor of English at the University at Buffalo. “In ways that our culture really does not want to admit, the serial killer is a figure that draws us, that fascinates us in a more positive sense.” 

Schmid, who wrote the 2005 book “Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture,” said the societal norm is to condemn fans of serial killers and view their fascination as inappropriate. Denouncing those people, he added, allows the passive interest that everyone has in crime and these killers to seem more acceptable because it is not seen as fanaticism. 

Serial killers are some of the scariest and most dangerous members of society, but people tend to be captivated by that danger and the “nature of evil,” according to forensic psychologist Shawn Johnston, who specializes in multiple murderers. 

“It’s difficult to think of anything that’s more horrifying than a serial killer,” Johnston said. “They’re almost like a different species from the rest of us.”

The internet and social media has made it easier to connect with other serial killer fans and find information on these killers than it was for Bundy’s original fans. Pages and accounts on various social media sites discuss stories and personal feelings about serial killers. 

The private Facebook group Nation co-administrates, “Serial Killers & Twisted Minds,” has nearly 6,000 members. A similar group, “Serial Killer Obsession,” has almost 4,000.

Because of Facebook’s community guidelines on posts, photos depicting violence or gore are typically removed, so crime scene photos and pictures of victims are rare in these groups.

But photos of well-known killers and little-known stories or facts about them, as well as news stories of lesser-known murderers can be found in these groups. One post on “Serial Killer Obsession” includes a user’s list of his favorite serial killers, and a claim that he once wrote to Richard Ramirez, aka “The Night Stalker,” who terrorized California in the mid-1980s when he killed at least 13 people.

Nation said she discourages anyone from reaching out directly to convicted killers because it could put them in danger. 

“I’m very fascinated with [serial killers]; I have no intention of writing any of them,” Nation said. “I personally don’t recommend it when [members] write about it in the group.”

For most of these group members, their interest in serial killers is passive and does not affect their day-to-day lives, but some people can become deeply involved with convicted killers, to the point of it taking over their lives.

Author of the 1990 book “Women Who Love Men Who Kill,” Sheila Isenberg found that the dozens of women she spoke to who were involved with convicted killers were all victims of past abuse, and their relationships with the convicted killers consumed all their time. They began their relationships for many reasons, but most said they felt safe and in control with the men in prison.

Their fixations were also able to spend time on the women and their relationships that unincarcerated men would not be able to. 

“A man behind bars for murder and spending life in prison without parole or on death row has a lot of time on his hands,” Isenberg said. “He can be extremely romantic and creative in being romantic.”

In one case, Doreen Lioy married Ramirez while he was in prison in 1996, and they were together until he died of natural causes in 2013. Lioy told CNN in 1997 that marrying “The Night Stalker” caused her family to disown her, but being with him was her “dream.”

These relationships can also become dangerous. In 1980, Veronica Compton began writing to convicted killer Kenneth Bianchi, half of the Hillside Stranglers duo. Bianchi convinced Compton to kill someone and plant evidence to cast doubt on his conviction. After Compton’s victim overpowered her, Compton was sent to prison. There, she began correspondence with Douglas Daniel Clark, who was on trial for multiple murders and sent her crime scene photos.

Compton can be considered the model of an obsessive fan who seeks out dangerous men, hoping for relationships. Hybristophilia, an attraction to people who commit violent crimes like rape and murder, can be a cause of such extreme cases of obsession. 

“You can put yourself in a dangerous position,” Johnston said. “I would strongly urge young women who are involved with violent guys to run the other way screaming; they’re playing a very dangerous game.” 

Jerry Hollingsworth, a professor of Sociology at McMurry University, teaches a class titled “Serial Killer Investigations,” that covers famous killers like Bundy, Dahmer and Chicago’s own John Wayne Gacy. In his class, students create their own serial killers and investigators to understand the inner workings of real life killers and why they commit violent crimes. As part of the project, students also give their killers paraphilias, or abnormal sexual desires. 

“I introduced [hybristophilia] to my students, and they were just shocked,” Hollingsworth said. “Most of these women are kind of delusional and find [ways] to make excuses for the people they’re attracted to.”

Isenberg doesn’t consider the women in her book hybristophiliacs because, she said, sex did not play a role in their relationships. It was about romance. 

“They’re not crazy,” Isenberg said. “They’re meeting their own psychological needs. We don’t understand why these women see something in these men, but they do.”

In 1993, 17 states had programs for incarcerated people that allowed married couples to spend time together privately and have sex, or conjugal visitation programs. Currently, there are only six states that still have the programs.

However, getting close to incarcerated killers by sending letters or starting relationships is a way for hybristophiliacs to act out their fantasies, Nation said.

Though this paraphilia typically affects women, it is not unheard of for a man to identify with the term. In the “Serial Killer Obsession” group, a male member explains in a post that he thinks he has hybristophilia and that he wants to write to convicted serial killer Donald Harvey to declare his love. Fellow members comment on the post to show support and say they have the paraphilia as well.

Nation said romantic posts about killers are usually from younger members, and she tries to approve only people who are over 25 to discourage these posts. 

“[For] the younger crowd, media plays a huge role on them,” Nation said. “You can have someone who’s 16 who can be easily influenced. [When] they read something about the Columbine killers, they’re like, ‘Oh wow, that’s the way they handled their bullies.’” 

One media platform that influences interest in these killers is television. Many crime shows draw in audiences with the interesting nature of crime and romanticize criminals like serial killers.

Hollingsworth said when he asks his students why they decided to take his “Serial Murder Investigations” class, most of them say it is because they have enjoyed watching killers in popular media, like crime shows. 

“Most of them start out by watching media: CSI shows, police shows, forensic science shows,” Hollingsworth said. “People get interested in watching that, and then they want to know more.” 

The public’s fascination with crime causes killers to be made notorious not only by the news but by depictions in shows and movies of fictional and real-life killers, such as Mark Harmon’s portrayal of Bundy in the 1986 TV movie “The Deliberate Stranger.” The year it was released, Harmon was named “People’s Sexiest Man Alive,” which Schmid said was not a coincidence. 

NBC produced “The Deliberate Stranger” to capitalize on the intrigue of the Bundy story, even before he was executed, Schmid said. In movies and shows that depict serial killers, the killer is almost always the protagonist, he added.

Diane Cossin, a survivor of Bundy’s attack on Florida State University’s Chi Omega sorority house, told The Washington Post in 1989 that she protested to NBC about the glamorization of Bundy in the film.

Shows like Showtime’s “Dexter” or movies like “Silence of the Lambs” flip the depictions of good and evil by depicting police as the bad guys and killers and criminals as the witty protagonists, according to Johnston.

“I’m disgusted at the manner in which these individuals are adulated in a lot of the media,” Johnston said. “These are not sexy, cool, bright, witty people.”

Schmid said the portrayal of serial killers in popular media plays into and amplifies the public’s fascination while granting them fame. He likened the situation to contemporary celebrity culture. 

“Success and fame are defined by visibility more than achievement. This is partly why people are so attracted to this image of serial killers,” Schmid said. “People find them attractive because they are well known, and it’s easy for people to set aside the details of what they actually did.”