Back in the old days, before the internet and stuff, if you had a thing for a serial killer it was tradition to send him a love letter in prison. But times change. Men are allowed to cry. You can use telephones to look at people's vacation photos. You can proclaim your love for serial killers on social media, and join thousands of others in following fan pages dedicated to some of history's most notorious names.
Scrolling through a number of these accounts, it seems that an overwhelming amount of followers are young women—some as young as 16. Confusingly, many of them identify as feminists in their Twitter bios. I couldn't work this one out; generally, feminism has little to do with lionizing men who are famous for killing women.
But I wanted to understand. What is it about serial killers that appeals to these young women? Why are they comfortable showing off their obsessions on Twitter, the most public forum of them all, when previous digital generations lurked in the darkest depths of anonymous forums, discussing the raw physical appeal of Fred West with other anonymous avatars?
This kind of thing has gone on across Tumblr for years, but even there identities tend to be better concealed. On Twitter, photos and sometimes full names are out in the open for everyone to see (although I've withheld the identities of those I spoke to for this piece).
Let's start with @DailyKillerFact, an account based in Canada with 8,000 followers and infamous serial killer and rapist Richard Ramirez's face as the profile pic. A short scroll through its feed, I found a tweet that showed photographs taken at the crime scenes of victims of the Hillside Stranglers, a pair of cousins who murdered ten women in Los Angeles between 1977 and 1978. The women in these photos were naked and had been dumped at the side of the road after being raped and killed.
After a short debate with my girlfriend, who wanted to report the page, I instead decided to look at the people who had retweeted and liked the photos. I needed to know what kind of person clicks the "heart" button under pictures of murdered young women.
The answer was: mostly young women. Many with bios that contained the word "feminist" alongside things like "Ted Bundy's no.1 fan" or "serial killer enthusiast." I decided to contact some of them to hear what they had to say.
The first person to respond was a 17-year-old who goes to high school in a town of 1,200 people in rural America. While some of her friends know she's interested in serial killers, she said, they don't know that her obsession is of a sexual nature.
"I'm sexually attracted to people who have committed violent crimes," she told me, off the bat. "I think my favorites are the ones who were into necrophilia. There's a word for [deriving sexual arousal from being with a partner known to have committed crimes such as rape or murder]—hybristophilia."
VICE: That's good to know. Do you remember who or what first turned you on to murderers?
I was watching a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer and I thought he was attractive, even though he was gay. It took me a while to realize I actually liked him because he killed and ate people.
Just to be clear: you wouldn't actually want a serial killer to kill and eat you, or to kill and eat anyone yourself?
I don't want to kill people, but if someone I knew started killing people, I would probably want to screw them regardless of any other part of their personality.
But you identify as a feminist—isn't men killing, raping, and eating women kind of the opposite of feminism? Or is it the fact that this is exactly the kind of thing you're not supposed to find attractive that makes it appeal to you so much?
I am a radical feminist who also happens to be highly attracted to people that abuse and murder women. Oops. I actually don't find Dahmer attractive any more, I like Bundy and Ramirez a lot better, ha-ha.
Do you think these Twitter accounts are irresponsible? Could they normalize killing, desensitize people to it, or even influence people to commit similar crimes?
I think that if anything were to normalize crime it would be popular television. Maybe accounts like @TrueCrimePolls that seem to admire murderers could sort of encourage it, but accounts that only post facts probably don't. I would think that shows like Hannibal that put violent criminals in a good light are more the perpetrator than people who seek to inform.
Heading over to @TrueCrimePolls, I perused the content. It seemed glibber, more tongue-in-cheek, and with a sort of J-17, teenage crush vibe. It polled followers with questions like "Would you rather have [Charleston killer] Dylann Roof's bowl cut or [Chardon High School shooter] T.J. Lane's acne?" and posted statuses telling us it was Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza's birthday.
Back on @DailyKillerFact was an avalanche of "facts" accompanied by pictures of murderers. Above a photo of Henry Lucas, who stabbed his own mother in the neck and went on to kill 11 more people, there was a caption: "An FBI agent asked Henry Lucas why he had sex with women after he killed them. He replied: 'I like peace and quiet.'"
More young feminists responded to my messages. Dahmer, Ramirez, and Bundy repeatedly came up as the most popular killers.
"Ramirez is the most attractive, Bundy is the second, and Dahmer's third," said a 16-year-old from rural Ohio.
Is there a community of fans like you on social media? And are you comfortable with people knowing about your interests?
I'm pretty open with people knowing about it—I don't care. People are so closed-minded. I've always been into crime documentaries, but it wasn't until recently I got into serial killers, because of Richard Ramirez. There's just something fascinating about him.
Why is it that so many young women appear to be attracted to murderers? Would any of them actually want to meet and be involved with a killer? Would you?
It depends. I think women who like serial killers are just attracted to the danger. It all depends on the personality of the killer as to whether or not I'd get involved with one.
Did Ramirez hate women? Was that his motivation for killing them?
I think it was just bloodlust. He loved the sex that was associated with the violence. I don't think he hated women. In his death row interview he stated that until he started talking to all his female groupies he didn't realize women really had feelings.
In the UK, a 19-year-old sociology student responds to my question: what exactly is it about serial killers that appeals to you?
One thing that interests me a lot [about] serial killers, psychopaths, and sociopaths [is] how they deviate from the norm and don't really care.
Would you say you have a romantic attraction to some of these famous serial killers?
Because they might actually kill you? Is that what you like about them?
I wouldn't necessarily say that. Violence is just exciting. If I was to have a killer as a boyfriend it would make me excited, you know? It's a bit like Russian roulette—my turn could be soon and he could kill me. Spice things up a bit. Conventional stuff is boring.
Are you OK with people knowing?
I'm very open about it, to be fair. My friends know. I don't really speak about it with my family, though. They probably wouldn't like it.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I have mixed feelings about this, but yeah, I guess so.
Back in the US, a 20-year-old I've messaged is firmer about her gender politics. Describing herself as an intersectional feminist, she says: "My feminism condemns what they have done and obviously does not want it to happen again to more women—or anyone, for that matter. I am horrified at the actions, but interested in the deep 'why?' factor. Some are attractive physically, I will give them that. But I'm more interested in the psychology.
Do you think there's an effect from the images you see?
It does desensitize people. The gory images get easier and easier to look at.
Although I've heard a number of explanations, I still can't really fathom why anyone would be attracted to a serial killer, or want to speak so publicly about it. Taking an interest in the psychology of a killer, I get. But actively wanting to date someone who famously enjoys killing women seems a bit counterintuitive.
That said, maybe I'm just not supposed to understand it. Maybe teenage-feminist-serial-killer-fan Twitter just isn't meant for me.
Follow Joshua Surtees on Twitter.