Humanizing Villains

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Crime culture is inextricable from popular culture. Why are we so interested, and should we be?

Written By

By Cassandra Morrison

When we were children, the monsters were under our beds. Now they’re everywhere—on our screens, in our ears, and on our pages. And what’s more fascinating is that we seek them out. The Jinx. Serial. The Staircase. Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile. Making a Murderer. Dirty John. In Cold Blood. My Favorite Murder. Up and Vanished. The Keepers. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. American Crime Story. The list goes on and on and all showcase real-life monsters.

Our obsession with true crime and bad guys are deeply embedded in American popular culture. Television channels, such as Investigation Discovery, host 24/7 true crime coverage. Even a convention brings together crime fanatics—CrimeCon—every year to wine, dine, and talk theories about their favorite cases. It’s no wonder, considering researchers have documented 3,596 serial killers in the United States since 1900, in comparison to the next highest country, England, which has recorded 142. Experts also suggest that 25 to 30 serial killers are probably operating at any given time in the U.S.

Whether it’s rooting for a verdict to be overturned, investigating an unsolved crime on your own, or trying to understand the villain, it’s hard to discount our curiosity. And this is anything but new as the well-tread saying in journalism states, “If it bleeds, it leads!” In the early 1900s, pictures of decapitations, stories of multiple murders (the term serial wasn’t coined until 1981), and firsthand accounts of horrific executions lined newspapers’ front pages.

Yet in the 21st century, a new aspect of crime culture has emerged, with the humanization of killers and monsters of all kinds. We want to understand them, to truly know them, like we would a close friend. We research and examining every aspect—from birth, to their first murder, to their prison sentences. It has all became fodder for conversation and speculation.

Another aspect of our modern obsession is the increased access to tell these tales. It’s not just newspapers that can report or fetishize a story. We now have access to the information regarding the minute details of a crime. With the advent of the internet, information is everywhere, and with a basic keyboard or microphone set, anyone can bring a cold case or serial killer to life on the web or in podcast form.

Bad guys in the media

In Looney Tunes, we always rooted for the Road Runner to get away and for Wile E. Coyote to get hit with the anvil. We knew the Road Runner was the good guy and Wile E. Coyote was the bad guy. But the world is not a cartoon, and the good guy and the bad guy are not always two-dimensional characters—there’s a back story, a reason why.

Humanistic psychology has always looked upon the development of individuals whose respect for others would not permit them to engage directly in unwarranted acts of violence. And sometimes there is no clear delineation between the good guy and the bad guy, besides their actions.

“Some people who engage in cruel and inhumane behavior lack empathy. Some are sadistic, abuse power, and act out upon a social order that affords them no meaningful place,” says Marc Pilisuk, Ph.D., Saybrook faculty member and violence, war, and peace expert.

“Some seek enemies to blame and victimize for their own otherwise empty lives. That said, viewing others as enemies or villains isn’t keeping with the goal of building a kinder, more just, and humane world. Research and history shows ordinary people like ourselves also have the capacity to engage in very cruel behavior.”

Media in all forms—from cartoons and documentaries to newspapers and novels—plays an outsized role in unbalanced coverage in this regard. For his book Why We Love Serial Killers, criminologist Scott Bonn searched issues of The New York Times and Time magazine between 1995 and 2013 for the words “devil,” “monster,” and “evil.” In both publications, 35% of articles contained one or more of those descriptors.

Moreover, from the tales of Jack the Ripper to JonBenét Ramsey, stories that sell papers and garner public interest largely revolve around female victims—who also happen to be the driving force behind the phenomenon of America’s infatuation with villains.

Bad girls 

As we continue seeking to understand the why behind the guy (the term “guy” is purposeful here), it’s important to note that women are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators. Women are five times as likely as men to be assaulted by intimate partners. “Women and mothers are often victims of crime protected by patriarchal tradition,” Dr. Pilisuk says.

One of the most popular true crime podcasts popularized their catchphrase, “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered”—starting as a joke but also providing a real warning to listeners, who are mostly women. A recent study found that 75% of true crime podcast listeners are women, and women are 46% more likely to read a true crime book. But women perpetrate only 10% of murders in the U.S., so the true crime interest most likely lies in trying to understand that which is unfamiliar—and how to survive.

Recently, the Netflix movie Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile received backlash because the titular character Ted Bundy was played by the handsome Zac Efron. Many critics were up in arms about how glorifying Bundy’s looks and charisma was unfair to the victims and generally unethical.

But the real story is that Bundy was handsome—and charismatic. It was one thing that allowed him to prey on women for decades. Perhaps the most disarming characteristics of learning about these real-life monsters for women and men are the facts. The monsters aren’t so easy to pick out—each one had his own life, sometimes a life not too different from any other.

More alike than different

The scariest part of the villains we have become so keen on investigating and understanding is that we often have more in common than different with the antagonist of the story. While the “what” of these stories can be horrifying and gruesome, the “why” that we end up spending so much time on is the more terrifying part. Perhaps the rise of crime culture in the zeitgeist is not necessarily a return to the sensationalism of previous generations, but rather a deeper intent to understand our fellow man—monster or not.

Once we start seeking to understand them, we learn the “why” behind their actions. Similar to the many empirical studies that have suggested that someone who experienced abuse is more likely to abuse someone else, we sometimes find that trauma has informed the villain we see today.

“Because we have learned that killing is wrong, those who readily engage in such behavior often reflect a traumatic history that has blunted their capacities for empathy,” Dr. Pilisuk says. “Framing and understanding violence, whether described as a criminal murder or a heroic battlefield act or the legal destruction of an essential habitat as a violation of human dignity, lies at the heart of humanistic psychology, just as does the affirmation of caring.”

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit in 2005 concluded that serial killers “are not monsters and may not appear strange. Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community.” So while the victims and villains we watch, read, and listen to seem so far removed from our own lives, the reality is they’re often not.

“People are not merely objects of study. Each one has experiences that are shared and each has value,” Dr. Pilisuk says. “The job of the humanist scholar, practitioner, activist, is to name it, understand it, and change it.”

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