The internet has taught us plenty about human behavior since its inception. For one, we’ve learned that we tend to be less shameful of our outlandish opinions when we’re hiding behind a screen. That notion has been proven, yet again, thanks to a revived spotlight on serial killers. But what many fail to discuss is how pop culture has instigated this sexualization—long before Netflix's docuseries.
For many, this may be the first whiff of the official unofficial true crime community (or TCC), who presumably lurk in the shadows of the dark web, sharing masturbatory fan fiction of fantastical romps with serial killers and mass shooters. Still, this community has been hiding in plain sight for years (namely on Tumblr), and their romanticizations are plausibly more common than you'd think. The TCC rarely come out of the shadows, likely for fear of judgment and condemnation. And they definitely know it's socially unacceptable to obsess over murderers. They are, in essence, the same people who, if given the opportunity, would have turned out at Bundy's trial (or other serial killers like Richard Ramirez's, or Jeffrey Dahmer's) to join the media-sanctioned "groupies" waiting for him outside of the courtroom every day.
Glamorizing Ted Bundy isn't new, and we see this in Netflix's four-part docuseries. When girls began attending Bundy's trial in droves after he was apprehended in the mid-1970s, confounded cameramen asked, point blank, why they'd shown up. Sheepishly, the girls replied two key tropes in Bundy's story, which now spans almost five decades: first, having seen Bundy, there was no way someone this handsome and engaging could have committed such heinous crimes, and second, they didn't actually know why they were there at all. And although women continued showing up at serial killer's and mass murderer's trials, no one ever thought to question their role as aforementioned "groupies." No one has bothered to figure out why hybristophilia—a psychological disorder in which one finds themselves attracted to dangerous men, namely murderers and rapists—manifests, only what it means to suffer from it.
Take for instance the 'creepy uncle' who may get handsy—girls have been taught for decades to normalize this behavior and simply deal with it.
Despite digital and social media ramblings about "concern" that there are women who are confusing Ted Bundy with someone worthy of admiration, Bundy's saga hits too close to home for us to act shocked and revile the women who idolize him. The initial fascination with Bundy was that he appeared to be one of us, a conventionally attractive chameleon of a man who practiced law, worked a suicide hotline, and was a staunch Republican—to myself and other women, Bundy was every conservative father's wet dream. Perfectly ordinary looking members of society—even celebrated members of a community—are more than capable of committing crimes we, in the back of our minds, reserve for ugly cretins, the men society have overlooked, those fedora-clad, manifesto-writing characters who dwell in dank basement settings and both repulse the public and despise women. In society's standards, atrocities and women's inappropriate obsessions with those who commit them signify being a loser; being lesser than, and while Bundy transcended the murderous archetype, the young women who adored him then and now are considered losers by the public, if not massively fucked in the head and incapable of help, or undeserving of it entirely.
Of course, there's a difference between being fascinated—puzzled, even—by those who commit murder seamlessly and without remorse, and being sexually attracted to them. I'm ashamed to admit I used to feel the latter: in my youth, I was exceedingly obsessed with Sid Vicious (real name John Simon Ritchie) and couldn't separate the toxicity between him and girlfriend Nancy Spungen from my fantasies—or the fact that he murdered her in cold blood. I sympathized with Richie and blamed Spungen. The media and members of the New York City music scene pegged her as a desperate junkie and groupie who was using Richie for celebrity. I commiserated with his apparent sadness rather than empathizing with her, believing either he didn't kill her or, worse, if he did, she surely deserved it. She was regarded as whiny and annoying, the punk version of Yoko Ono hellbent on tearing Richie and the members of the Sex Pistols apart.
Alpha males carry a perceived sense of power, whether physical, intellectual, psychological or sexual. Look at any cult leader or master manipulator, and they were outstanding in one or more of these categories.
Stalking, forcefulness and the troubled-but-potentially-redeemable man is the bread and butter of erotic fiction like 50 Shades of Grey, television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The O.C., American Horror Story) and movies (I'm sorry, John Cusack's character in Say Anything is objectively boundaryless and scarily persistent). Women are taught from a young age not only that men should chase us, but that the chase is part of the romance; that aggressiveness equates adoration, and that if a man "wears us down" to the point of finally accepting his advances and agreeing to a date, maybe he's worthy after all? Showing up at a woman's door uninvited is still a favorite trope, and while it's since been called out as disturbing, it's hardly been corrected. "No" means "yes" in virtually every esteemed John Hughes-era '80s movie and the men who grope you when you're blacked out should later be rewarded for taking you home instead of further violating you sexually, even when they're dumping your incapacitated body on the ground of your front lawn after wheeling you home in a shopping cart (Animal House, anyone?).
This toxicity is imbued in pop culture up until now. Men were taught (whether by pop culture or other men in their lives) to wear women down and disregard their boundaries, and women were instructed not to speak up, especially if it could anger a man. Arlene Drake, Ph.D., a renowned California psychotherapist and author specializing in trauma recovery and child abuse, states, "Young women are taught not to aggravate situations—they're told not to speak up or criticize men for fear of angering them. They weren’t instructed to say no as children," adding "Take for instance the 'creepy uncle' who may get handsy—girls have been taught for decades to normalize this behavior and simply deal with it."
Because of the social grooming and conditioning of women to feel like they can save or fix dangerous men, women who are already extremely vulnerable—having suffered sexual or otherwise damaging forms of abuse as children or young adults—continue the cycle. Drake assures me the manifestation of hybristophilia has been a wholly understudied phenomenon but explains "It’s the same thing as women returning to their batterers… just an extreme version of it." And remember, it takes a woman seven attempts, on average,to leave an abusive partner for good. What keeps us going back?
It's the need to feel loved, wanted, unique, and different—likely because someone close to you growing up, or in an abusive scenario later in life, made you believe you were none of those things. "Children think everything that happens to them is their fault; they blame themselves for everything," Drake tells me. "Someone with love and compassion for themselves wouldn’t be falling for someone like Ted Bundy." This sentiment rings true for me and my early glorification of men who murdered women as a teenager. I have a significant amount of very early childhood trauma on behalf of my biological father that later manifested in my seeking out and dating abusive men.
When you're in an abusive situation with a partner, walking on eggshells grows natural and striving to fix the man—no matter how improbable—becomes something of a conquest; why would I want someone compassionate and rational if I could make the "bad boy" love me by the time the credits roll? Dr. Nancy Irwin, (PsyD), a specialist in both trauma recovery and childhood sexual abuse, says "Many people were raised in environments where abuse, chaos, and or neglect were 'normal.'" And because the dynamic is familiar, "the unconscious can seek it out over and over again because it was survivable before, and should be again." Irwin goes on to state: "Any healthy, non-toxic treatment or environment is eschewed by the 'victim' because it is unfamiliar, unacceptable and/or boring. The adrenal glands and central nervous systems have been in high-alert mode for so long, it gets more and more difficult to accept being calm. Calm is 'scary' and unpredictable for such people; the unconscious needs familiarity more than anything else. Abuse [and] being controlled is the only frame of reference it has."
By saving an otherwise unattainable, violent man who has failed to be appropriately nurtured by all previous women, women actually feel like they're taking back power: it's the end goal. Irwin compares an unhealthy romanticization of serial killers to the same factors that lure women into cults: "Alpha males carry a perceived sense of power, whether physical, intellectual, psychological or sexual. Look at any cult leader or master manipulator, and they were outstanding in one or more of these categories." Irwin continues that, "Vulnerable people are at high risk to be manipulated by them, and are unconsciously looking to tap into some sense of power through them." The former adequately describes Bundy, and the latter defines the women who felt sorry for and wanted to save him—and those who thirst for him currently.
Drake declares she'd be shocked "if 100 percent of the women who showed up for Bundy's trial hadn’t experienced abuse in one way or another, whether physical, emotional or sexual," later adding "I’d be shocked if Bundy didn’t experience abuse himself." Bundy has been characterized historically as having a straight-laced upbringing, separating him from the rabble of other serial killers who were violated as children, but The Ted Bundy Tapes is the first large-scale documentary to assert that in all likelihood, he was abused, just an incredible liar who, as a narcissist, found the feeling of shame unbearable.
When I asked Drake whether the women who attended Bundy's trials and those who are now thirsting over him on social media just don't empathize with the victims or if this is internalized misogyny at its bleakest, Drake suggests a mixture of both: "They justify their involvement by saying 'well, it must have been their fault. They must have deserved it.'" By maintaining that, they’re ascending themselves to another level and 'othering' the victims, likely because they have undergone abuse in some form, and if they didn’t 'other' the victims, they’d have to take a look at their own lives and they simply aren't ready to put responsibility on the person who hurt them yet—they still love them. So, instead of looking within, they turn outward, and repeat the cycle by indulging in relationships—even fantastical ones—they know are dangerous for them."
For Carole Ann Boone, an old friend of Bundy's who ended up supporting him throughout his trial, and was proposed to on the stand while Bundy was acting as his own attorney—going on to both marry and have a child with him—this was likely a case of Boone "othering" the victims and elevating herself to a place of real control. By becoming the "only woman in the world" who loved Bundy, as headlines richly read, Boone grew more powerful. This why hybristophilia is also called "Bonnie and Clyde syndrome"—suggesting that women become ride or die for men who manipulate them. Bundy assuredly used Boone under the guise of needing her. Narcissists usually only need to leech energy from one person: this is why Bundy maintained what appear to be several loving relationships with women, but always lacked a stable friend group. It should surprise no one—serial killers need beards too; this is how they function unnoticed in society. A single, disheveled man is a bigger red flag than someone wilfully shacked up with a single mother, playing the role of "dad." It's not about love; it's about maintaining an image. And narcissists are desperate to keep up their image, whether they're killing women in secret or on death row confessing.
On top of internalized trauma manifesting itself in hybristophilia, people on social media have been losing it over the media's portrayal of Bundy as an attractive charmer, both in the docuseries and upcoming Efron movie. So, here's the thing: this is all true; this is how Bundy evaded the law for so long, and it's how he convinced so many of his victims (through spineless tactics like routinely brandishing a fake arm cast and acting helpless to gain their trust) to assist him. Even women who testified against Bundy asserted his attractiveness during the trial—and attractiveness breeds enormous trustworthiness. Even Judge Edward D. Cowart, who sentenced Bundy to death, fell for Bundy's charisma and boyish good looks, telling a distraught and surprised Bundy post-conviction to take care of himself... three separate times: "Take care of yourself, young man ... I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself, please," Cowart pressed on, "I don't have animosity to you. I want you to know that. Once again, take care of yourself."
Irwin tells me, "There is a powerful psychological dynamic that holds: 'What is beautiful is good,' proceeding with "Research supports that babies respond more favorably to an attractive person than an ordinary looking, conventionally unattractive one." So, scientifically, it isn't unusual to find yourself more readily spell cast by Ted Bundy than, say, serial killer Dennis Rader, who stands as the prototype of what we expect, appearance-wise, of a serial murderer of women. You could blame the Halo Effect, as incels are, or more likely The Warren Harding Effect, which Malcolm Gladwell combs over in his famously bestselling book Blink: we make our minds up about a person within 10 seconds, and if they're good looking we attribute that to their character. In the case of Harding, he was inept, unfit for office, and majorly lacked experience. He was solely much better looking than his rival. With a masculine build and strong-jawline, Harding became the 29th President of the United States on looks alone. Bundy was undoubtedly aware of how much his appearance helped him until the day he met Old Sparky—charisma can only get you so far.
It's important to note that while women fantasizing over Ted Bundy may not seem rational, Bundy himself admitted (in the tapes) that his rape fantasies were probably the reason he killed. Male rape fantasies are, to this day, so common that the google search for "intruder rape porn" is up 200 percent in the last year. Studies found that, while diagnosed in only 10 percent of standard rapists, 37 to 75 percent of people who have perpetrated sexually motivated murders suffer from Sexual Sadism Disorder. Sexual sadism is when one gets off on the fear, distress, humiliation, and pain they're causing others, often generating so much bodily harm to the individual that they kill them, or perhaps—as Bundy said—feel like they need to, if only to get rid of the evidence.
Ironically, like hybristophilia, sexual sadism is also a paraphilia. But sexual sadism produces real brutalization, while hybristophilia remains a reverie, a daydream, an escape. Hybristophilia is at best a fantasy derided from age-old traumas, and at worse, a fucking cry for help. What better way to subconsciously let people know you've capsized than lusting over a serial killer? And while men are less likely to seek treatment (and therapy is less likely to be useful), women who feel romance toward dangerous men can self-correct. Though, Drake reports, "It would take a lot of work." She adds, "I can’t say it hasn’t been done before, but it would take serious, trauma counseling to overcome this type of infatuation." Irwin seconds this, claiming "Understanding how one got scaffolded (early childhood, life experiences, etc.) to be vulnerable to negatively powerful people can be sorted out and managed, like any other learned behavior," but adds "It will take time and vigilance." Irwin states hybristophilia "is like any other drug. The consumption need and tolerance gets higher and higher."
Drake's advice to women who suffer from it? "Get a good therapist who specializes in this disorder to recover peace of mind."