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Serial Killers - Is our obsession with deranged murderers in TV & film some kind of Stockholm-esque glorification, or a sort of cautionary tale?

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True crime and murder podcasts are a sweeping phenomenon, with hundreds of thousands of listeners tuning in everywhere from Spotify to Apple Podcasts. Some people worry about the ramifications of consuming such content en masse, warning that it could lead to fabricating a distorted, paranoid sense of reality, similar to people’s phobias of a shark attack (due to films like ‘Jaws,’ ‘Sharknado’ (kind’ve) and ‘The Meg), despite the real world, practical odds. However, another – more disturbing – facet of this fascination with murders, death, and murder-ers, is the potential romanticization/idolization of serial killers. 

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Serial killers have long been a sensational topic, both in the fictional and nonfictional realms. Since such heinous acts began terrorizing cities and suburbs, stories of real-life killers were covered with such spectacle. It has even been argued to have led to more crimes of the same and varying natures. In the press, these murderers were even given flashy, catchy nicknames, not the least of which were, “The Smiley Face Killer,” “The ABC Killer,” “The Beltway Sniper,” “The B.T.K. Strangler (for Bind Torture Kill),” and “The Night Stalker.” But, the obsession does not stop at the real world, extending well into entertainment, with countless properties being developed, produced, and consumed directly inspired by these very real monsters. 

‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ is one of those projects that exploits tragedy for the purpose of entertainment. It is a Netflix original film, released in 2019, and is currently still streaming on the platform With a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film stars Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, and Haley Joel Osment. Efron, still the same chiseled, blue-eyed heartthrob we all remember from ‘High School Musical,’ traded in his basketball for a hacksaw as he portrays Ted Bundy. Bundy was one of the most prolific serial killers in American history.Active between 1974 and 1978, though possibly even committed crimes outside of that timeframe, he was known to kidnap, rape, and murder young women and even girls, and has been solidly linked to thirty different homicides. ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,’ follows Liz, played by Lily Collins from ‘Windfall’, an unsuspecting single mother who falls in love with Ted Bundyshe is based on a real person, Elizabeth Kendall, who actually held an intimate, long term relationship with the predatory murderer during the time he committed some of his crimes. The 2019 crime drama is one of several projects based on Bundy’s life, and casting a suave leading man like Mr. Efron was a decision that raised many eyebrows, as many found the genuine charm of the serial-killer-in-secret to be unnerving. Perhaps not too unlike the actual experience had by Elizabeth Kendall, herself. 

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Serial Killers – The Riddler & The Zodiac Killer 

The Zodiac Killer’s identity is still unknown to this day, likely fueling the timeless fascination audiences have held since the killings officially began in Northern California, over fifty years ago. To add to the mystery and lore, the killer even went so far as to taunt the authorities and the press, leaving ciphers, clues, and messages for them all along the way. Some of the meanings of these ciphers, to this day, are still disputed, as they are incredibly complex and may even have a few errors and discrepancies, making their translation more difficult. He has been said to have worn an outfit reminiscent of an executioner’s, with a dark hood/mask pulled over his head, while also wearing clip-on sunglasses. He has been credibly linked to five murders, though claimed to have been responsible for over thirty. This gruesome, chilling story has become a fixture in pop-culture, due to every conceivable aspect being utterly horrifying, the stuff of true nightmares. Even spookier, the Zodiac Killer claimed to have been killing people in an effort to collect souls to serve him as slaves in some sort of afterlife. 

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The Zodiac Killer has not only inspired true-crime dramas like the 2007 mystery film, ‘Zodiac,’ starring Robery Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, and Mark Ruffalo, but also inspired the creation of fictional killers. Matt Reeves’s ‘The Batman’ was released in theaters on March 4th, 2022, and saw Robert Pattinson don the cowl of the caped crusader. This time, the dark knight would be confronted by the enigmatic murderer known as “The Riddler.” Traditionally, the infamous comic book villain is seen utilizing complex riddles, puzzles, traps, and clues, while wearing a green, skin-tight, spandex bodysuit with question marks printed all over it. This time, The Riddler is played by Paul Dano, known for ‘There Will Be Blood’.’ Dano would now be playing a similarly unhinged character, though this time alongside Zoё Kravitz and Colin Farrell. Dano’s Riddler dons an outfit disturbingly close to the Zodiac Killer’s described costume. This take and implicit comparison is an interesting one, as both killers left clues, riddles, and ciphers for the authorities to solve. Yet, Reeves’s taking inspiration from a serial killer is unfortunately not something alien to the conversation. The energetic response society has had to figures like the Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy, can inspire others to commit similarly grotesque acts, like copycat crimes. Many of these deviants are mentally ill and feel dissatisfied with their lives, leading them to lash out violently at society.

Exposure Therapy

While there is something to be said about society’s apparent inability to let these examples of the worst of us go, there does not appear to be any shortage of serial killer/murder/murderer content. And why should there be? Here, in America, we have a long, long list of famous cold cases and slaughter fests. The pieces mentioned in the article above, do not even begin to cover the sheer body of work surrounding the topic and genre, nor the number of consumers ready and willing to engage with said content. And, sure, we need to watch that killing people doesn’t become the next hip thing to do for attention, fame, and notoriety, but exposing ourselves to this darker side of human nature – human reality – is perhaps not an entirely bad habit. Whether we take creative liberties with their lives, the lives they ended, and the lives of those around them, or simply make up entirely fabricated characters in a sort of homage, like The Riddler, serial killers and monsters of man exist in this world as much as they do in the fictional. Instead, recognizing, articulating, and confronting the darkness and the trauma within ourselves and our society at large, in a controlled (fictional/fictional-ized) environment, similar to exposure therapy, can be a way of therapeutically overcoming the extremely wicked.

By Connor Garvin

Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.

I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV, media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.

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