Sympathizing with serial killers

Picture by Leah Kelley via Pexels

True-crime podcasts, documentaries about famous killers and psychopaths, Dimensies crime week and of course the increasing interest of psychology students in the field of psychology…

The interest in and fascination for crime and people committing those does remarkably increase, however it does not only stay with fascination only, some people also feel empathy and sympathy for serial killers, their lives, can (partly) understand their motivation and why they committed their crimes. But how come people sympathize with serial killers?

Simply speaking, people sympathize with serial killers because we have the biological capacity to feel empathy, sympathy and remorse for other people, enhanced by putting oneself in the shoes of others and trying to imagine how oneself would have acted in a similar situation or with a similar background story. In a bizarre way, this might even evoke a feeling of understanding in some people that the serial killer was not in control over their environment and under different circumstances, they might have developed differently. 

This phenomena is detectable for example in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, a killer who murdered 17 young men and actually ate parts of some of them, raging between the 70s and 90s. His usual strategy was to talk with young guys in bars and take them home with him, where he drugged and strangled them to make them unconscious or to kill them. After that, he had sex with the unconscious body or the corpse, frequently took pictures from the act ot kept other “souvenirs”, e.g. their scalp, or sometimes even ate part of their bodies.

Dahmer’s childhood was shaped by emotional absence and neglect from both parents since Dahmer was an infant. After a surgery aimed to correct a double hernia, the birth of his younger brother and the family’s frequent moves, he started to change from a happy boy to a tensed, disengaged and lonely teenager. Even though a lot of people, especially teenagers, do feel lonely and misunderstood without turning into a serial killer, there are a lot of people actually showing empathy and a form of understanding for Dahmer’s acting. This can not only be seen in various fan letters and blog posts, but also in a book written about him and in the way some experts are talking about him, describing him as a damaged, diminished person whose biggest wish was to get some love and closeness. This is supported by Dahmer’s explanation that his motivation for the murders were to get people close to him and to keep them for as long as possible. 

Another example where people are showing sympathy with serial killers is the case of Pedro Rodrigues (former serial killer and now youtube star, not to get confused with soccer player Pedro Rodriguez). This example illustrates how it evokes sympathy in people for serial killers who kill due to a “noble” reason. Rodrigues got arrested for the first time in 1973, and released from prison for the last time in 2017. After his release, people talked to him on the street, asking for pictures together and admiring him for his crime. Rodrigues was obviously confused about the sudden fame, as he could not follow the direction his reputation took while he was imprisoned.

He committed his first murder as a teenager, where he killed the employer who fired his father as an act of revenge. Ironically, he took revenge on his father while both had been in prison together, because his father killed Rodrigues mother. Rodrigues not only stabbed his father to death (the knife was his favourite weapon) but also ripped his heart out, took a bite and spit it out again.But these were not the only times he killed. Before and while being imprisoned, Rodrigues killed several men (never women or children) who are “bad guys” in his point of view, including gang members, drug dealers, other murderers or sexual offenders. For example while he got escorted to prison, together with a rapist in a transporter. Even though both were in handcuffs, Rodrigues somehow managed to kill the rapist. As the guards saw what he did, Rodrigues could not understand why the guards were upset, because in his perception, he did not do anything wrong, as the person he killed was a “bad guy”. Another time, he was involved in gang activities, and one day, members from a rival gang killed his wife. Here again,  Rodrigues killed the offenders in an act of revenge. While taking his revenge, Rodrigues sometimes seems to forget that he as well is a serial killer, and therefore also belongs to the “bad guys”. 

However, people developed kind of a cult about Rodrigues and his actions, because in their point of view he acted like a hero, who lost people he loved (his mother and his wife) and took revenge for them, additionalized by the fact that he never touched women or children, but only committed murder at people who, in his point of view, deserved it. Therefore, some people were able to actually see a point in what he is doing and why he is doing it, and as a result, sympathized with him. Another factor why people might sympathize with serial killers is their attraction, as equally stupid and simple this might sound. Some people are speaking from a “bad boy” mentality, exuded by criminals. A combination of a good way of looking, dangerous expressions in the criminal’s eyes, and maybe also combined with the desire to be the one person able to help the poor soul had already brought some people to write (love-) letters for serial killers in prison. 

But also, as often in psychology, the direct opposite can be the cause for sympathy. Some serial killers have a real sparkling charme and the knowledge about how to use it for and against other people. For example the serial killer Rodrigo Alcala-Buquor who knew exactly how to talk, and flirt, with women. He even participated in the dating show “The Dating Game” in 1978, where he not only won the show, but also the hearts of the audience. And please note that this was after he already had killed several women and his first time in prison. 

(So, after all the reasons why it might make sense to feel any kind of sympathy for serial killers and their crimes, it still should never be forgotten that people were/are actual murderers, hurting their victims, causing their friends and family great pain and suffering and this should never be glorified or romanticized).


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