Beautiful killers: TV’s obsession with making serial killers sexy

Clockwise from left: Darren Criss, Zac Efron, Ted Bundy, and Penn Badgley. (Photos: YouTube/FX/Getty Images/Netflix)
Clockwise from left: Darren Criss, Zac Efron, Ted Bundy, and Penn Badgley. (Photos: YouTube/FX/Getty Images/Netflix)

(WARNING: This article contains content that is not suitable for sensitive viewers)

Cape Town – "I’m absolutely appalled by all the people saying Ted Bundy was hot," writes one Twitter user on the micro-blogging site, before adding: "We all know Andrew Cunanan is the hottest spree killer."

The attractiveness of male serial killers seemed to be a hot topic on social media this week but the romanticising of male murderers reached fever pitch with the release of the film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile at the annual Sundance Film Festival.

Starring Hollywood heartthrob Zac Efron, the film chronicles the crimes of American serial killer Ted Bundy from the perspective of his longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, who refused to believe the truth about him for years.

Alongside this, Netflix too released a documentary series titled Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. This series includes present-day interviews, archival footage, and audio recordings made on death row with, and about the notorious killer who after decades of denial finally confessed to committing 30 homicides over a period of four years.

Also on Netflix is surprise hit, You, based on Caroline Kepnes’ best-selling novel and starring Gossip Girl hottie Penn Badgley about a charming bookstore manager who crosses paths with an aspiring female writer and gets so obsessed with her that he would do anything to remove any obstacle, including people, that stands in the way of him getting to her.

Scroll down further on the streaming giant’s selection of television shows and you’ll surely discover The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story - the second season in the popular FX true crime anthology television series. The latest chapter deals with the murder of designer Gianni Versace by spree killer Andrew Cunanan, brilliantly portrayed by hunky Glee star Darren Criss.


What do these four projects have in common? They all deal with male serial killers who recently received revived notoriety after being the subjects of TV shows and films that saw social media users surprisingly swoon over their rugged handsomeness and good looks rather than be repelled by their shocking and sickening crimes. Yes, these shows are undeniably starting conversations - but are they the right kind of conversations? Are we digging deep enough or is our intrigue simply skin-deep?

Ted Bundy, who was executed in the electric chair in 1989, was a serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, burglar, and necrophile – but recently it was necessary for Netflix to post the following message to their social media account: "I've seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service — almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers". (Read full review of 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile' here)

When fans took to Twitter to fantasize over Penn’s character Joe Goldberg in You he was quick to remind them that Joe is a murderer. In fact, in a recent interview with Huffington Post’s Emma Gray, Penn tackles this issue head-on, saying: "In the beginning, I was not interested in making Joe human. I was like, ‘This dude’s a murderer. I don’t think we need to be humanising murderers anymore.’"

Penn adds that if we humanise the character of Joe then we have to accept that we’ve somehow "also been supportive and complicit in allowing Joe to reach the conclusions he’s reached". According to him we can’t just point the finger and call people evil because it’s not helpful. "It’s not helpful because it actually is our reality," he adds.

But it’s in an interview with The New York Times that the 32-year-old actor absolutely nails the true reason behind why we’re willing to let Joe "literally" get away with murder. It’s to do with gender, race, and privilege. "If anyone other than a young white man were to behave like these characters behave, nobody’s having it," Penn tells NYT writer Eleanor Stanford.

According to Penn, Joe is a work in progress in "dismantling and dissecting the myriad privileges that a young, attractive, white man carries with him". In the interview he emphasises that this doesn’t mean the rest of the world shouldn’t have these so-called privileges, but simply points out that when only one group has them, it’s actually a “horrific blindness” when it comes to being in touch with humanity.

This rings true for our protagonist in American Crime Story, Andrew Cunanan, as well. Cunanan, who was half-Italian and half-Filipino American - is believed to have killed as least five people in a period of three months in 1997. He grew up in the affluent La Jolla neighbourhood of San Diego where he attended the prestigious The Bishop's School. On the FBI’s official website, they describe Cunanan as "a 27-year-old college dropout from California. He was highly intelligent, spoke two languages, and since his teenage years had sought to live a life of riches and comfort."

Darren Criss, who portrays Cunanan in the show, has taken home an Emmy, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild award for his skilful portrayal of the seductive young man who got what he wanted by masterly manipulating those around him. In his acceptance speech at the SAG Awards, Darren said: "For any of the family and friends of those that are still affected by the destruction that he brought, I hope you know that our goal was not to make a spectacle of their tragedy but to create a positive dialogue about social issues and bring to justice things that were in the shadows."


Apart from their position of privilege there is undoubtedly another important factor in play when it comes to how we view these murderers and our instinctive attraction to their physical appearance. It has to do with the visor through which the story is being told to us - the way in which we consume these gruesome stories and how they are visually being presented to us, the viewer, on the big and small screen.

How exactly are these killers being positioned in the stories about their horror deeds? Throughout this piece I used adjectives like "hottie", "hunk", and "heartthrob" to describe the actors who take on the lead roles in these murderous TV shows. That’s no coincidence. They might have been cast for their resemblance to the real-life figures and their acting abilities but also, and most importantly, for their star power and visual appeal.

If we find Zac Efron, who plays Ted Bundy, hot is it any surprise we would now connect that feeling with the notorious serial killer that he portrays on-screen? If we see a sun-kissed and muscular Darren Criss confidently take a nude dip in a swimming pool in American Crime Story, is it not to be expected that we would start to associate that lustful beauty with the man he portrays? The victims, gruesome murders, and pure evilness of these men are hidden behind a veil of television vanity.

The hope is that social media users might have a very different reaction if they were to be confronted with the raw and unfiltered reality of what these men did…or has Disney so completely dazzled us with the Prince Charming fantasy that we now believe that a handsome white guy with good hair couldn’t possibly be evil?

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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