Having studied criminology, I understand fully the obsession people can have with true crime. I wouldn’t have gone through three years of higher education if that wasn’t the case for myself.
But for me, I have never during those studies had fantasies or joined some cultish fan-club for murderers.
Hybristophilia is the paraphilia in which people get sexually aroused over someone else committing an offensive or violent act. Defined by Merriam-Webster, paraphilia is “a pattern of recurring mental imagery and/or behavior that involves socially unacceptable sexual practices”. Examples include zoophilia and pedophilia.
Bonnie Parker is the most famous example of someone with hybristophilia as she was smitten with Clyde Barrow, beginning a relationship with him even though she was aware of his violent and murderous past. The paraphilia itself is also described as ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ syndrome because such as Bonnie was incredibly faithful and enamored by the violent Clyde, other women have the same reaction to other violent criminals.
Infamous criminals, particularly those who have committed atrocious crimes, will receive mail in prison from strangers (mainly women) that are sometimes amorous or sexual, declaring themselves as fans and believers. Some argue that the criminals themselves are innocent of all their alleged crimes and start petitions and campaigns to have them released and some of these ‘fans’ even marry the targets of their admiration. These ‘fans’ are called ‘prison groupies’ but it is important to point out that solely sending mail to someone in prison does not result in someone having hybristophilia or being a ‘prison groupie’ – there needs to be a sexual or amorous component from the offset, particularly if you are strangers.
So what are some examples?
Charles Manson’s ‘family‘ continues to grow to this day, despite his death back in 2017. Many of the members are young women who channel his hippie style and protest his innocence and hope to have him cleared of the charges of murder and conspiracy. The chief supporter is his 28-year-old fiancee, calling her self ‘Star‘ who first met Manson when she was 19. She and others use the internet to brush over his crimes and portray him as an ‘eco-warrior’, who was wrongly and illegally being condemned as a killer when he was actually just a ‘friend of the Earth’.
Ted Bundy is another case.
One of the first things we learned in our Criminology classes about Bundy was that he was attractive. He used that attractiveness to brutally murder at least 30 different women in the 1970s. When Bundy was arrested, women stormed the courtrooms during his trial each day and he received thousands of love letters while incarcerated. During his trial, he married his girlfriend (whom he had met during the proceedings) who used every opportunity to defend him publicly and in the courtroom.
After his execution in 1989, many women who had corresponded with him suffered nervous breakdowns and were said to be devastated by his death.
Other examples include the Columbine killers, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold, who have pages and websites dedicated in their memory online with young women mainly believing they were victims, not the killers; Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, received a flood of fan-mail and sexual images from young women after his rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018; and serial killer and rapist Richard Ramirez married a ‘groupie’ while he was incarcerated.
So why are women obsessed and attracted to violent criminals?
Dr Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, looks for a biological and psychological explanation and states it could be anything from wanting fame and notoriety to seeing these killers as the little boys they once were and wanting to nurture and protect them.
However, another example put forward by computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, is surprising, romantic fiction novels, which are targeted at women.
The outset of these novels has a brutish, aggressive and demeaning ‘male alpha’ who a simple, petite and inexperienced woman falls madly in love with and he with her, and both can be chasing each other and trying everything to get each other’s attention while they play ‘hard to get’. The men in these novels are far from ideal and are usually misogynistic, dominant and all-around jerks (similar to real-life killers and rapists) but women might see this behavior as temporary and is not who these men truly are.
Examples in popular media include Spike and Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Elena Gilbert and Damon Salvatore (The Vampire Diaries) and Rumple/Mr.Gold and Belle (Once Upon a Time).
These are the basic plot lines for almost all of the women-targeted romance novels on the shelves and suggests many women, whether secretly or openly, can’t help but be drawn towards cold-blooded, controlling, “bad boys” and hybristophilia is clearly an exaggeration of this as killers and rapists are the ultimate “bad boys”.
None of this is to say ‘serial killers are not interesting’, because they are. But we should be looking at them as these as rare examples of how bad people can be. They can help us understand how the human psyche works – why are some people just so evil that they kill for a thrill?
But this doesn’t mean we should be swooning over them – they are still murderers and rapists and are probably misogynists. Is that the kind of person you want a relationship with?
These women need support, help, and guidance because chances are, they have been hurt before – and aggression in relationships is all they know.