In 2020, we’re bombarded with serial killer documentaries and films. Our collective obsession has spanned decades, with no suggestion of coming to a halt. But while the volume of these morbidly fascinating productions increases, their focus and narratives appear to be very much stuck in the last century. Scratch a little more under the surface, and these glorified depictions reveal an uncomfortable trend.

Sympathising with serial killers

Take Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. While Bundy’s duality is central to the story, the angle serves to humanise somebody who is essentially a monster of the worst degree. A confusing amount of screen time is allotted to snippets of his churchgoing peers singing Bundy’s praises (so to speak), gushing about his likeable character and chiselled jawline.

All the while, the grotesqueness of his crimes remains deftly muted, along with the voices of the victims and their families. So, on closer inspection, the whole serial killer documentary seems veered towards a grisly tribute to a smart, handsome, white man who was cunningly astute at eluding the law and happened to have an affinity for the gruesome.

Similarly, in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Vile and Evil, Bundy is played by Zac Efron and relays a similar tale of a handsome, complex ‘good-guy-gone-bad’, complete with all the Hollywood embellishments. The heinous crimes are, again, delegated to the small print.

Or take My Friend Dahmer, for example. A harrowing story of a bullied geek, who grows up to become a prolific serial killer, thanks to his abusive parents and unfortunate school experiences. While the film itself is far from romanticised, the pure fact of its creation only adds to the glorification of a horrific murderer. What does this tell our young people who weren’t alive when the crimes were committed? Maybe that if you do something so brilliantly awful, we’ll make a film about you.

All of these rampages are rightfully recognised as a stain on society. So, why are we not scrubbing them out?

Transcending true crime: Is art mimicking life?

The trend transcends true crime, seeping into fiction. In Netflix’s recent re-release of The Fall, a perverted serial killer played by 50 Shades’ Jamie Dornan stalks women, breaks into their houses and strangles them. Then, he washes them, paints their nails and displays them naked, all the while enjoying a depraved sexual thrill. You’d almost be forgiven for thinking this series does a good job of not glorifying such a horrific subject matter. That is, until the final episodes, where we’re fed the murderer’s back story. This somehow serves to justify his actions and leaves the audience morally confused. To further confuse us, the all-white cast leads us to believe that Belfast is an all-white city, which it categorically is not.

So, here we find several striking common denominators. Serial killers are frequently played by established Hollywood heartthrobs, they are afforded a backstory, and, of course, they’re all white. A quick Google search reveals countless trending documentaries on serial killers. Shock horror, they’re all white too, with the exception of Richard Ramirez.

In actuality, 20 per cent of serial killers are black. In theory, somewhere around 20 per cent of serial killer films and documentaries should centre around black serial killers. It’s a bitter irony that our tabloid media and our police love to vilify POC in the news and on the streets, yet in the realm of glorified serial killers, black faces are conspicuously absent.

Does whiteness equal goodness?

Perhaps this is because a black serial killer does not fit our idealised profile. He assumedly won’t possess the attributes required for him to be considered ‘interesting’. Maybe he isn’t attending law school, he isn’t cunning, he isn’t smart, he isn’t … well, White. No, perhaps a black serial killer isn’t worthy of our attention because he doesn’t challenge our perceptions enough. Perhaps, in 2020, whiteness still equals goodness. And when it doesn’t, we need to know why.

Think back to Bundy, Dahmer and The Fall. All of these white, male killers are bestowed the luxury of psychoanalysis. We’re allowed an insight into why they became the way they were, the multiple facets of their personalities, and why we should see them as humans who ‘took the wrong path’. Where is the Hollywood telling of the Baton Rouge killer, starring Jamie Foxx? Or the investigation into Samuel Little, a man who claims to have murdered over 90 people between 1970 and 2005. For some reason, these morbid acts don’t qualify for public interest.

The uncomfortable truth is, in serial killer documentaries and film, in fiction and true crime, black perpetrators are still not allowed to take centre stage. In art, as in life, POC are underrepresented. Through the absence of an extravagant Hollywood depiction, we never get to learn what makes them human, or why they did what they did. We never get an opportunity to like them, even a little. They are simply tossed onto the nameless pile of grisly statistics.

Yet another affirmation of inequality

An interesting fact is that victims of crime overwhelmingly come from the same race as their perpetrator. So: if black people are killing other black people, is it the case that we somehow care less?

In this instance, the systemic racism lies intrinsically in the curious (but not unexpected) omission of limelight. By making films about white killers, we’re celebrating them. By neglecting to acknowledge black serial killers, they’re not even a last-minute invite to the party.

The crux of the matter is such: even when a black person excels, even in as something detestable as being a serial killer, he seems destined to fall under the radar. Surprising? No. Double standards? Absolutely. 

Make no mistake, the glorification of these psychopaths must not be the modus operandi — black or white. But fair representation should be. For black lives to truly matter, their stories should matter too — even the most macabre. And, as and when that happens, you can bet your bottom dollar that there’ll be no complex analysis or glorification in sight.


Image by Donn Dughi

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