5 Ways of Looking at a Serial Killer

Once behind bars, the career murderer is often fetishized by pop culture

Tori Telfer
May 10, 2018 · 15 min read
Photo: Bettmann/Getty

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The serial killer is one of America’s least-appreciated cultural artifacts. Yes, the murder part is unfortunate. Really nasty, sometimes. No one wants to watch the vats of body parts in acid get lugged out of a serial killer’s apartment on the evening news. No one wants to hear the victim impact statements from the agonized families. Most of us do everything we can to avoid the crime-scene photos. But once the serial killer is captured and all the home invasions, kidnappings, strangulations, and death blows cease, that same killer becomes a prototype, a product, full of potential. As they rot in jail, waiting to die, we take their image and run free with it.

The Antihero

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In a way, America loved Ted Bundy. It seemed absurd — that a serial killer could trigger such fawning epithets, such admiring jokes — but there he was, flashing a blinding grin at the cameras, reading Gulag Archipelago in the courtroom. Soon enough, a new sort of American hero was born: the killer next door. If you ignored the Chi Omega girls laying in their beds with teeth smashed in and brains leaking out, you could mistake Bundy for an outlaw, an escape artist, a good boy gone bad, a ladies’ man.

He was famous before anyone ever knew it was him — known simply by the name “Ted” and an eerily accurate police sketch — but when he jumped out of a courthouse window in Aspen and ran for the hills, his image was instantly fused into pop culture. Local restaurants served a Bundy Burger (a bun without a burger inside, since the “meat had fled”) and a Bundy Cocktail (made with two Mexican jumping beans). Someone designed a “Wanted” poster saying that Bundy was “Aspen’s foremost jumper and cross-country specialist.”

“I don’t think anyone took him as seriously as they needed to,” says Ross Dolan, a local photographer.

Bundy was something of an American Robin Hood — he stole from the rich and gave to himself. He was obsessed with status and with the signifiers of middle class; he filched huge pieces of furniture, adopted a quasi-British accent, and once compared serial killing to bouillabaisse. He was fanatical about possession, about owning things. And murder was the ultimate possession for him; in Bundy’s mind, the bones and hair and decaying limbs of his victims were now his, forever. When Jimmy Carter gave his famous “Crises of Confidence” speech on July 15, 1979 — the same month Ted Bundy earned his first death penalty — he could have been speaking directly to the killer:

Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption…But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Consumption didn’t fill the emptiness of Bundy, but still he tried. He told one journalist that murder was about possessing the victims “physically, as one would possess a potted plant, a painting, or a Porsche. Owning, as it were, this individual.”

Despite the stench of necrophilia about him, Bundy was a killer made for TV. “Bundy was catnip for the media,” writes Ginger Strand in Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate. “Not only was he good looking and well dressed, he was a former law student, a converted Mormon, and an occasional political worker for Republican candidates and Washington State’s Republican Party. News stories depicted him as a bright lawyer-to-be with a promising future in politics…He looked like the kind of man a woman would proudly bring home to meet mom and dad.” A journalist for the New York Times breathlessly referred to Bundy as “Kennedyesque.”

Those who actually interviewed Bundy and were able to see beyond the fake accent and counterfeit charm were less impressed. Reporters Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth insisted that Bundy was a “compulsive nail-biter and nose picker, that he was no genius (I.Q.: 124), that he was at best a fair student in college and failure in law school, that he was poorly read, that he frequently mispronounced words and that he stuttered when nervous and had acquired only a surface sophistication.” Robert Keppel, who investigated Bundy, decried the “Bundy mystique,” saying that “for all the mythos surrounding Ted Bundy, he always remained a cowardly individual who could not even muster the courage at the end of his life to accept total responsibility for what he had done.”

But who can counteract the power of mythos, especially in America? Even the killer’s execution was greeted with all-American glee: People cracked cold beers, sold T-shirts, threw barbecues, and banged on frying pans once they heard he was dead. Sure, they wanted him gone, but they were still obsessed with him, just as Bundy was obsessed with them: people who knew how to act normal, who owned potted plants and paintings and Porsches. Yes, despite his crimes, America saw something they loved — or at least loved to hate — in Ted Bundy. Maybe it was that they saw themselves. As one journalist wrote for the New York Times, “He had all the personal resources that are prized in America.”

The Heartthrob

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Nobody worked a courtroom better than Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker.” This man was the ultimate bad boy — a rapist and murderer who loved Satan and never brushed his teeth — yet despite the buckets of blood on his hands, women still regarded him as a bad-boy avatar, someone who just needed the love of a good groupie to be saved from himself. Ramirez encouraged this; he thought it would save his life. His props were flowing locks, a penchant for pentagrams, a wicked smile, and sometimes a pair of aviator sunglasses, which made him look like someone worth knowing. One of his jurors was so enamored that she sent Ramirez a cupcake on Valentine’s Day with “I love you” written across the top in frosting. Then she sentenced him to death.

These Ramirez junkies were under the sway of something called “hybristophilia,” an extreme fixation in which one is intensely attracted to people who’ve committed violent crimes. In courtroom after courtroom, you can find hybristophiliacs sitting in rows behind the world’s most violent men, hoping for the slightest smile, shivering at their proximity to danger. They write love letters that are almost cannibalistic in their longing. One of Ted Bundy’s groupies, who was married, wrote to him, feverishly, “I want you so much I can almost taste it. What I wouldn’t give to have an hour alone with you. I would show you in every way how much I love you. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do.”

Some people think that, in another life, hybristophiliacs would have simply become rock-star groupies, but now they direct their love at serial killers because convicts are a lot easier to access. (Mick Jagger probably isn’t going to write you back, but a murderer in jail has nothing but time). Other explanations talk about the inherent draw of power, the strange pull of evil, or the fact that hybristophiliacs are often lonely, abused women trained to subjugate themselves so thoroughly to men that loving a death-row inmate seems like the natural end game of romantic relationships.

For years after being sentenced to death, Ramirez received literal bags of mail, 90% of it from women. One woman, age 30, wrote obsessively to Ramirez despite disapproval from her husband. She believed that Ramirez deserved to die yet considered him her best friend; she spoke swooningly of his “big hands.” Most tellingly, she referred to the “thrill of danger of going up to a state penitentiary,” and said it was “like a dream come true to face one of the world’s most feared men.”

Ramirez’s new wife would have been furious to hear this sort of talk. Her name was Doreen Lioy, a former magazine editor who fell hard for Ramirez when she saw his picture broadcast on TV the night before he was captured. “There was something in his eyes…maybe the vulnerability, I don’t really know,” Lioy said.

Though Lioy’s friends and family cut ties with her once they found out that she was planning to marry the Night Stalker, and though the families of Ramirez’s victims were horrified that a serial killer was being granted the privilege of marriage, this only fueled Lioy’s Romeo and Juliet–esque delusion. When she told a journalist about the first time she and Ramirez touched, she used the language of a romance novel. “It was one of those defining moments,” she said. “He is very tall and very thin, and I sort of fell into his arms softly and, yes, gently.”

Ramirez died of blood cancer in 2013, but in corners of the internet, you can still find those who adore him. “No one is perfect he is the only motherfucker I’ve ever seen that got close to it,” writes user yes-i-am-evil on Tumblr. “This bitch got a face that could make you wet by just looking at him, and don’t get me started on his long ass fingers.” For the rest of the world, though, Ramirez’s fingers represent something darker. His nickname as a teenager was Dedos — the Spanish word for “fingers” — because he was such a good thief.

The Wronged Woman

Investigators holding mug shots of Aileen Wuormos and her 1st victim Richard Mallory. Photo: Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Aileen Wuornos earned the nickname “Damsel of Death” when she left the bodies of seven men to rot alongside Florida’s muggy highways between 1989 and 1990. This was a body count high enough to make plenty a lesser male serial killer envious, and Wuornos’ image only added to the terror: She appeared in the media as a madwoman, a frenzied murderess who had to be killed before she killed again. “I have hate crawling through my system,” Wuornos said, at one point. At another: “I robbed them, and I killed them as cold as ice, and I would do it again, and I know I would kill another person, because I’ve hated humans for a long time.” If serial killing is mostly a man’s game, no one can deny that Wuornos earned her place in it as a force to be reckoned with, a murderer par excellence. Google her last name and her image pops up at the top of the page, only to be followed by the rogue’s gallery of Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez, David Berkowitz, Albert Fish, Ed Gein, and Ted Bundy. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might get a little prideful thrill upon seeing her in the midst of all those men: Go, girl, go!

But her femaleness, which made her an anomaly in the world of serial killing, also made Wuornos — in the eyes of some second-wave feminists — innocent. Or at least justified. After she was captured and the awful details of her life revealed, feminists suddenly felt pressure to have an opinion on her. After all, it was no longer possible to see serial killing as a war by men on woman. Here was Wuornos, and she was damn hard to ignore, especially when she started spitting out statements like, “You sabotaged my ass, society…a raped woman got executed [and] it was used for books and movies and shit.” At the same time, Wuornos was changing her story about whether she killed in self-defense or not, making her motives difficult to pin down.

“Feminism needed to take a stand here,” writes Peter Vronsky in Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters. “It did — it stood firmly behind Aileen Wuornos’s war of liberation.”

This happens again and again with female murderers, whose crimes are frequently explained away as anything but an act of aggression. There are, for example, historians who say that the 16th-century killer Erzsébet Báthory was framed for being a powerful woman. There are writers and filmmakers who rework the history of Lizzie Borden, heavily implying that she was striking 40 whacks for the matriarchy. I suspect most women can relate to this instinct, and yet at the end of the day, it feels oddly anti-feminist; after all, if women can be anything, can’t they be evil, too?

It’s certainly true that Wuornos had an excruciatingly difficult life — but so did Ramirez, for example, and everyone pretty much accepts that he was a seriously bad seed. (Everyone, that is, except poor Doreen Lioy, who gushed to CNN, “He’s kind, he’s funny, he’s charming. I think he’s really a great person.”) Part of why Wuornos has her apologists is because she herself felt very persecuted by the world in general and the legal system in particular. In her final interview, filmed a day before her execution, Wuornos claims that the cops purposefully refused to catch her after her first murder in order to turn her into a serial killer. She then says that the TV and mirror in her jail cell have been rigged to control her mind with “sonic pressure.” Her food has been poisoned, she says; she has to wash it before eating it. “Now I know what Jesus was going through,” Wuornos concludes. (“She did not have a victim mentality,” runs a post on the Feminist Rag.)

Still, there are those who love Wuornos, who mourn the fact that life broke her on the rocks. “Aileen left this life with dignity, loved and respected by many,” says the Feminist Rag. As a matter of fact, she left this life raving. “I’d just like to say I’m sailing with the Rock, and I’ll be back,” Wuornos told the witnesses who were there to see her die. “Like Independence Day, with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mothership and all, I’ll be back.” And then the lethal injection, which was a series of shots that first rendered her unconscious, then paralyzed her muscles, and finally stopped her heart. Her life was ruined; she ruined the lives of others: Both are true, and neither will ever cancel out the other.

The Saint

Photo: Fred R. Conrad/New York Times Co./Getty Images

The first time MaryAnn Skubus saw David Berkowitz, it was in the visitor’s room of the prison where he was serving his 365-year sentence. MaryAnn saw him — a balding, harmless-looking 50-something with a belly — and thought to herself, “Oh, my God, this guy is an apostle of the Lord.”

Of course, most people would put Berkowitz in the devil’s camp, if they think of him at all. Berkowitz is better known by his dreadful nickname, the “Son of Sam,” a title he gave himself during the summer of 1976 when he terrorized New York City with seemingly random shooting attacks that left six people dead and seven others wounded. Back then, he ruled the city with the pure force of fear — he was a dark figure, formless, who moved through the night like the Devil himself. Berkowitz, in 1977: “I am still here like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest.” Satan, in the book of Job: “[I have come] from roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

But that was then. Today, Berkowitz has converted to Christianity and leads a peaceful life in jail. He works with inmates who suffer from visual impairment and mental health problems. Sometimes he speaks out against gun violence. On his website, AriseAndShine.org, Berkowitz calls himself the “former Son of Sam.” Gone is the rambling madman who claimed that his neighbor’s dog told him to kill — today’s David Berkowitz is calm, sober, and oddly likable. He doesn’t seem to have any desire to become a religious icon or a poster boy for redemption — he just seems to be looking for peace. (Well, peace and parole, though he knows he’ll probably never achieve the latter.)

But MaryAnn Skubus insists that Berkowitz is not just converted, but a holy man, an apostle, a sign from the heavens. In 2006, journalist Steve Fishman went with her to visit Berkowitz in prison, and throughout the ensuing article, it becomes apparent that Skubus has an agenda for the Son of Sam. She is the fanatical sort of believer who leaves church to strike out on her own (“I’m not some dorky bake-sale Christian,” she sniped to Fishman), and after a series of signs involving the number 44, Skubus became convinced that this former Son of Sam — also known as the .44 Caliber Killer — was now a holy man, sort of like how the Apostle Paul started out his life as a murderer of Christians before becoming one of the good guys. For Skubus, there was no greater piece of marketing for her brand of non-dorky church than a converted serial killer.

Berkowitz seemed embarrassed by the attention. “I am not in agreement with MaryAnn’s assessment that I am some kind of ‘apostle,’” he wrote to Fishman after their prison visit.

Today’s version of David Berkowitz is painfully honest about how much he regrets his murders. He insists that society needs to stop glamorizing guns. He has a lot of sympathy for troubled teenagers. He is easy to agree with. In a 2016 letter he sent to the parole board, Berkowitz lists the many good deeds he’s done in prison. “Not that any of this means anything overall,” the letter concludes. “But I hope it does show the members of the parole board that I have devoted my life to doing good.” He seems so nice, so changed, in fact, that you might find yourself doing more than agreeing with him. You might start to believe. If Berkowitz was once a devil roaming through the night, you might think, then why not, today, a god?

The Lost Boy

Photo: Curt Borgwardt/Sygma/Getty Images

A lot of people feel extraordinarily sorry for Jeffrey Dahmer, even though his actions are almost beyond human understanding. The gruesome paraphernalia of his crimes — heads in freezers, skeletons in showers, holes bored into the skulls of his victims while they were still alive, acid poured into those holes — none of it is enough to make true-crime fans write him off as a monster. To this day, Dahmer tugs at some people’s hearts in a way that other, more arrogant killers simply don’t. Henry Zebrowski of Last Podcast on the Left calls him “the most sympathetic serial killer that ever existed.” His co-host Marcus Parks says, in a low voice, “I relate to this man.”

Why such Sympathy for the Dahmer? Mainly, it’s because it kind of seems like Dahmer didn’t actually want to kill people. What he wanted was to create some sort of “love zombie,” a person totally under his control who would never, ever leave him. Atrocious, yes — but also sorta sad! Unlike killers who loved the moment when the victim’s last breath shuddered out of their body, murder was just a means to an end for Dahmer. Even Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution, said, “There was no force pushing him to kill. There was merely a desire to spend more time with the victim.”

Even before he turned into a killer, Dahmer was surrounded by an aura of bone-crushing loneliness. As a baby, his germaphobe mother barely allowed him to be touched. He was a loner in high school and spent his adult life surrounded by skeletons, lost in the fog of his bizarre desires. At his trial, psychologist Samuel Friedman testified that a “longing for companionship” was what caused Dahmer to kill. When you compare “longing for companionship” to Bundy’s declaration that he wanted to possess his victims “physically, as one would possess a potted plant,” it’s easy to see why people are a lot more empathetic toward Dahmer.

It also helps that Dahmer expressed remorse for his crimes, something that Ramirez certainly never did. (Bundy technically apologized, but he sounded like a lizard person trying to emulate human repentance.) “I should have stayed with God,” Dahmer told the courtroom. “I tried and failed and created a holocaust. If I could give my life right now to bring their loved ones back, I would do it. I am so very sorry. I deserve whatever I get because of what I have done.” Legend has it that when Dahmer was murdered in jail, he didn’t fight back at all. He had wanted to die for a very long time.

Yes, there are a lot of ways to feel sorry for Dahmer, to see him as a lost little lamb who could have been a great guy if only someone had reached out, if only someone had cared. “What I wanted to do, and what most people wanted to do, was mother him,” his stepmother said in 2017, 23 years after his death. “He was just vulnerable. Even if I wasn’t his stepmother all his life, as a mother you sense those things. And he was very vulnerable. He needed love and he needed attention.” Seems like Jeffrey Dahmer wanted the same things that we all want: someone to mother us, a shoulder to cry on, a little affection. When we remember Dahmer like this, it’s easy to forget that we’re talking about a killer at all.

Damned Souls and How to Write About Them
Damned Souls and How to Write About Them
Damned Souls and How to Write About Them

About this Collection

Damned Souls and How to Write About Them

Serial killers: they're just like us, sometimes. And that can feel really weird. After two years researching, writing, and editing a book about female serial killers, Tori Telfer meditates on family, theology, and what it's really like to have sympathy for the devil.

Serial killers: they're just like us, sometimes. And that can feel really weird. After two years researching, writing, and editing a book about female serial killers, Tori Telfer meditates on family, theology, and what it's really like to have sympathy for the devil.