Why Are We So Turned On By ‘Hot' Serial Killers?
Netflix has made headlines by nabbing the distribution rights to Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy drama, 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile'.
The film, which was caught up in a bidding war following its premiere at Sundance, has reportedly cost the streaming giant US$9 million, and will join their slate of serial-killer stories, including the recently released documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
It’s interesting to see Netflix going all-in on Bundy, considering its recent response to the internet’s “Bundy thirst”. Since the release of Bundy Tapes, which premiered on the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution, social media has been positively dripping with sweet saliva for Bundy.
Netflix US did not, apparently, appreciate the Bundy Thirst, tweeting to its followers that it “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”.
In fact, Bundy was infamous for having a decent mug, so much so that women would line up outside the courthouse, during his murder trial, trying to pass him love notes via his defence lawyer. “He was good-looking, he was charming, people liked him, women were attracted to him,” docuseries’ director Joe Berlinger said of the deceased killer. “Bundy defied the stereotype of what is a serial killer.”
But did he? Because if pop culture has taught us anything in recent years, it's that serial killers are smokin’ hot and we would mount them in a heartbeat.
Even on Netflix, Bundy isn’t the only saucy serial killer making viewers swoon; there’s also Joe Goldberg, the charming, clever, psychotic stalker-killer played by Penn Badgley in the Lifetime series You. Before Badgley, Darren Criss was prancing in his jocks as the outlandish, devilishly handsome and intensely cruel serial killer Andrew Cunanan on FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace; and before Criss, Jamie Dornan was doing shirtless pull-ups in his murder attic before trotting off to slaughter women across Belfast as Paul Spector in The Fall.
TV is obsessed with the beautiful killer, and to be honest, it seems like we are too. Bundy was a source of fascination and, well, thirst, for the public long before Netflix and The Ted Bundy Tapes existed -- despite the fact he confessed to the rape and murder of 30 women (including a 12-year-old girl). Vulture has dubbed You’s Joe Goldberg a “creepy dreamboat”, and Buzzfeed has generated a quiz that determines if YOU’LL be the next subject of his murderous advances (literally, wtf?). This is truly the darkest timeline.
Bundy isn’t the first real American serial killer to get a hot-guy makeover. Recently killer cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer was given the movie-star treatment in Marc Meyer’s film My Friend Dahmer, where the title role was played by former Disney star Ross Lynch. (Efron, who plays Bundy in Extremely Wicked, is also an ex-Disney dreamboat.) The idea that these men need a clean cut upscale to tap into the cultural phenomena surrounding their crimes -- and to recontextualise that fame for a new audience -- is indeed disturbing. Serial-killer stardom plus Disney stardom equals a fan mania that’s almost unimaginably powerful.
So it is with You’s Joe Goldberg, who is played by the former star of enormously successful teen glitz-drama Gossip Girl. And while, arguably, Badgley’s Dan Humphrey had a little insufferable creep in him akin to the intolerable ickiness that characterises Joe’s milder stalkerish tendencies, it’s a canny move to tap into the millennial nostalgia of a soapy mega-hit by casting the dork dreamboat as an “anti-hero” killer we’re meant to root for.
What Vulture calls the “strange appeal” of Joe is perhaps key to You’s extraordinary success on Netflix, a service that can make any old trash feel like treasure. It’d be difficult to truly enjoy You without siding, in some strange way, with Joe, despite the fact he’s a droll psychopath who relentlessly stalks women and slowly isolates them by murdering anyone who gets too close. And while there’s undoubtedly an element of ironic introspection in that “strange appeal” – the show often has you asking, “Is there a single good man in New York, nay the world?” – You treads a fine line between incisive and deeply problematic.
But You wouldn’t work at all without an established cultural amour for the beautiful killer. And, sometimes, it works a little too well. Badgley often has to publicly remind viewers that Joe is the antagonist of the story, that he’s a murderer and that he’s not to be lusted over. And though the show’s directors and designers have said Badgley was partially cast because of the compelling “angles” on his face, which, when shot correctly, make him look creepy af, there’s no denying his beauty allows him to get away with some truly disturbing stuff on screen.
Still, after a season of You airing its creepy laundry on Lifetime and Netflix, fans were tweeting Badgley en masse, begging him to “kidnap” them “pls”. (To his credit, his response was, “No thx”.)
And while the series purports to explore the lengths to which we’ll forgive monstrous men for their horrific acts when they wear a friendly façade, a lot of that façade is the show’s manipulation of us, the audience. All through the series, creators Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti run a subplot about a poorly next-door neighbour of Joe’s, a skinny, doe-eyed by named Paco, whose mother is a drug user in active addiction with an abusive boyfriend. Joe’s relentless efforts to “rescue” Paco (which the series production staff call a “classical save-the-cat” ploy) are an obvious, half-baked attempt to give Joe a softer, sympathetic side.
A more compelling look at why, or how, we can be blinded by beautiful, monstrous men is in the stunning Emmy-nominated episode of ACS: Versace, ‘House by the Lake’, where imperilled former lover David goes on the run with murderer Andrew Cunanan after he’s killed his latest victim right in front of David.
The fascinating, heart-wrenching episode twists and turns throughout, leaving audiences wondering whether David left with Andrew because he was terrified or simply compelled by Andrew’s strange charisma.
In any case, as Extremely Wicked settles into its new home on Netflix (although there’s no word on when it’s slated for release), and as You gears up for a second season, I think we’ve had about enough of the “hot serial killer” trope. Surely there are some other “hot” men we can explore on our televisions. Hot plumbers? Hot primary school teachers? Hot air-traffic controllers?