Glamorizing Blood Smeared Screens
Innocent blood sprayed across walls as dinner is freshly made, a young woman is charmed by a handsome man before news arrives to her parents that their daughter is dead, and a man who is loved by a community spend his nights digging up graves and using the decayed flesh to furnish his home. Media turned blood bathed psychopaths and their 15-minutes of fame into infamy through a dazzling and charismatic lens as eyes become glued to screens, mesmerized, and intoxicated with devotion to a persona. The United States is a nation of desensitized distortion through Bandura’s social learning theory and general aggression model as media has fabricated true crime killers, transforming their legacy of horror into intrigue and consumer culture (Call, 2019; Stever et al., 2022). Movies and television shows including Psycho, Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile, The Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the Hannibal Lecter franchise took inspiration from mass murderers and killers while providing misinformation to the audience to create a parasocial connection and persona worship (Call, 2019; Flynn, 2019; Thomas, 2001). While there is no predisposition to being a killer, children who are exposed to this type of violent media are more prone to developing different behavioral patterns (Cullen, 2020). The United States is home to many traditions, cultures, and past times but it is also home to some of the most notorious murderers in history including Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, and Jeffrey Dahmer who have been glamorized, glorified, and romanticized through media portrayals. The social learning theory and general aggression model is used to find the source of psychopathic tendencies behind these killers, and the elaborate likelihood model paired and with persona worship, and the parasocial theory is used by media for monetary consumption but can also help determine the psychological development in the viewers.
Misconceptions, Mislabeled, and Methods of Madness
Spoon Fed Serial
In the eyes of entertainment, killing one or killing 10 people marks them as a serial killer, while a murderer only becomes a serial killer after killing three or more people inconsecutively, giving them a period to cool off and meditate the next killing (Miller, 2013a). Serial killers are acting out fantasies and only strike when everything is in perfect alignment with their plan (Miller, 2013a). Once it is set into motion, they take a close and hands on approach, they like to be near to their victims while usually leaving a signature at the crime scene or on the victim’s body (Miller, 2013a). Mass murderers thrive on revenge in a single attack where they aim to kill multiple people at the same time with common use of bombs or guns, so they are away from the scene (Miller, 2013a).
Looking Past the Blood
Bundy has one of the largest female followings of all serial killers, with many declaring their love for him, despite the fact he raped and murdered over 30 women before dismembering their bodies (Cullen, 2020). Gein was a part of his local community where everyone liked him, but behind closed doors this killer was wearing his own dead mother’s skin, and his gruesome tale has been turned into over 40 movies (Mathews, 1998). Dahmer was a cannibalistic rapist and serial killer while one of the biggest horror movie franchises based around the character Hannibal Lecter, was based off his gruesome bloodbaths (Call, 2019). Between 2000 and 2015, over 500 movies were dedicated to serial killers while the entertainment industry transformed horrific events into binge worthy series and multi-million-dollar movies (Call, 2019).
Abusive Household or Loving Family: Killers Emerge from Both
Development in early years is crucial for a child to gain skills cognitively, socially, and gain a sense of self which is based on parenting in an active or passive role, a child’s attachment style, and if they feel a sense of safety while growing up (Lally & Valentine-French, 2019). Some killers grew up in homes of being abused or witnessing abuse and were exposed to drug use and alcoholic caregivers or parents which creates a pathological mindset in the child (Miller, 2013b). Not all killers are raised in a toxic environment, some were raised in loving homes with attentive parents and can be seen as shy or sensitive around people and this causes the child to feel lonely or neglected so they boisterously act out (Miller, 2013b). When a child’s internal and external behavioral patterns are on opposite sides of the spectrum it could lead to a personality or conduct disorder long-term as their aggressive and antisocial behavior develop them into a killer (Miller, 2013b).
Ted Bundy’s Childhood
Bundy described his own childhood of being raised in a loving home with religious parents, but he became traumatized from his grandfather being rough with him (Ramsland, 2013; Williams, 2020). He found out at a young age that his parents were not biological, but instead his grandparents, and the sister he believed he had, was his biological mother who gave birth to him unmarried in 1946 (Ramsland, 2013; Williams, 2020). As a child he liked to create pranks, including inserting knives into his aunt bed which never alarmed her, all while he was displaying his need for attention to make up for his feelings of inadequacy (Ramsland, 2013; Williams, 2020). He had an average level of intellect, but his charm and good looks was what got him attention within his community as he was a camp counselor, boy scout, and a crisis counselor (Ramsland, 2013; Williams, 2020). Bundy thrived off attention due to his extreme insecurities, so he made sure he graduated at the top of his college class and carried himself professionally, put together, and well spoken all while carrying out his compulsive behaviors of sexual serial homicide (Ramsland, 2013; Williams, 2020).
Ted Bundy Media Portrayal
In 1978, NBC aired a movie based around sorority girls and a psychopathic killer called A Stranger in the House, days after Bundy attacked one of Florida State Universities sororities and killed two college students (Schmid, 2005). Mark Harmon who was awarded People magazines sexiest man alive in 1986 was the actor who portrayed Bundy in a television show about serial killers that was produced and aired on NBC (Schmid, 2005). The appearance of Bundy was not what most expected of a serial murderer and because of his magnetism he became the poster boy for killers (Schmid, 2005). Since his first attacks, numerous books have been written about him as his female admirers, known as Ted groupies, who lined up to get their hands on the newest release (Schmid, 2005).
Bundy thrived on attention, even while on death row, bragging about his fame and attempting to normalize himself (Schmid, 2005). In 2019 Netflix released Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile which romanticized Bundy as he was portrayed by ex-Disney channel actor, Zac Efron (Flynn, 2019). This portrayal and methods that the director Joe Belinger used did not sit well with critics or most of the audience from the upbeat music selection to evasions of demonstrating the true horror of Bundy (Flynn, 2019). A film critic at the Daily Beast, Kevin Fallon, explained in his review of the movie that it was surface level and resurrected the fame and fandom around Bundy while it was a wasted opportunity to explore his psyche, murders, and deeper macabre concepts (Flynn, 2019).
Ed Gein’s Childhood
Gein’s childhood was a story of nightmares as he grew up in the early 1900’s in a rural area of Wisconsin in an extremely abusive household (Thomas, 2001). Both parents abused him incessantly while his mother was religious to an extreme extent that had Gein believing she was Gods disciple (Thomas, 2001). Due to Gein’s belief and lack of intellectual development, he unconditionally loved his mother even though the violent beatings she inflicted upon him, and when she passed away in 1945 his mental health and stability severely decreased (Thomas, 2001). Gein suffered from schizophrenia that was never medically attended to and was overwhelmingly lonely which led to him to a delusional state in which he dug up his deceased mother and believed she could be resurrected (Thomas, 2001). As time went on and his mental state worsened, he believed his mother was telling him to kill, which is exactly what he did at the age of 51 (Thomas, 2001). Until this point in time the town saw him as an awkward and out of the ordinary individual with glossed over eyes, but they never saw him as harmful (Thomas, 2001). Gein killed two young women and dismembered them but was only ever found guilty for one killing, and although this classified him as a murderer, it created the term serial killer for law enforcement (Mathews, 1998; Thomas, 2001). Gein spent his nights digging up bodies from graves and dismembering them for home decor while wearing the skin of his mother as a dressing (Thomas, 2001).
Ed Gein Media Portrayal
Out of all killers, Gein ranks at the top for movie adaptations and inspiration from his horrifying life, racking up over 40 movie titles and numerous books (Mathews, 1998). Gein’s killings did not make him infamous, but his actions with cadavers and his mortifying lifestyle caught the attention of every news outlet and the eyes of Hollywood (Mathews, 1998). Most media took inspiration from Gein, and movie directors adapted their own stories based on little information (Mathews, 1998). The most influential movies to date that have sprung from his unorthodox and unethical life are Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface, and The Silence of the Lambs (Mathews, 1998). Psycho has had reboots, adaptations, spinoffs, and sequels since Alfred Hitchcock first released it in 1960 and it became ingrained as a classic in horror films and a staple in pop-culture (Alter, 2014). The original movie based off Gein took bits and pieces of his life and transformed it into a psychological horror movie that was Hollywood approved by changing significant details of Gein’s acts to make it viewer friendly (Alter, 2014; Mathews, 1998).
Psycho’s main character is Normal Bates, changing Gein’s names, and based around a motel called Bates Motel instead of the small farmhouse he lived at (Alter, 2014; Mathews, 1998). The movie also changed Gein’s skinsuit, instead showing him dressing up in his mothers clothing to have the movie be viewer friendly (Alter, 2014; Mathews, 1998). Psycho has two sequels and was revived in 1997 with a scene-by-scene recreation by director Gus Van Sant and while this movie was incredibly unsuccessful, it started the trend of Hollywood remaking older movies for a new audience (Alter, 2014). In 2013, a spinoff television show on A&E called Bates Motel focused on Norman Bates as a teenager with his mother Norma Bates and revived the story once again to a new, much younger, audience (Alter 2013; Keveney, 2017). The show was extremely successful and stuck with the origins from Psycho while at points strayed away with Bates having ideals of marriage (Alter 2013; Keveney, 2017). Gein’s grisly acts have been changed and altered in every adaptation, including his name, while movies and television are blinded by capitalizing off ratings, ticket sales, and merchandise instead of showing a realistic account of Gein’s actions (Stever et al., 2022).
Jeffrey Dahmer Childhood
Dahmer was born in Wisconsin but grew up in Ohio with his parents and younger brother and after his arrest he said he was raised with nothing but affection and love, so he came from a relatively normal family (Earle, 2014). In 1995, Lionel Dahmer, his father, released the book Father’s Story where he expresses the constant tension within the household due to Joyce, his wife, always needing attention, starting arguments, and even attempted suicide by overdosing on medication (Earle, 2014).Dahmer always had an interest in taking things apart, specifically animals which his family was unaware of, and his dad taught him the outcome of animal bones being left in bleach because he believed his son was interested in science (Earle, 2014). This seemingly normal child grew up to brutally murder 17 people, specifically young men, over the span of 13 years which included raping and cannibalizing them (Call, 2019; Earle, 2014).
Jeffrey Dahmer Media Portrayal
There have been multiple books written about Dahmer and movies that capture his life and killings as well as movies that were inspired by him (Call, 2019). The most famous book turned movie inspired partly by Dahmer is the entire Hannibal Lecter series including The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon, and Hannibal Rising (Call, 2019). Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, is one of horror movie’s most infamous characters of all time (Forshaw, 2013). To create Hannibal, author Thomas Harris took inspiration from Dahmer, along with killers of all dimensions including Gein, Albert de Salvo, and John Christie (Forshaw, 2013). The first novel in the series of books is Red Dragon, and Harris quickly made it clear that Lecter was unlike any other by making him polite, intelligent, and charismatic while he dines on human flesh, and this resulted in the start of horror fans obsession with Lecter (Forshaw, 2013).
Hollywood and novelists are not the ones who have capitalize on Dahmer, his own father pitched a movie about his son to numerous companies in Los Angeles (Warren, 1992). He continued to give different reasons why it was not exploitation of his son from the idea of wanting to warn families that it could happen to anyone, to the concept of finding out if his son is a cold-blooded killer or the kindhearted child he raised (Warren, 1992). While this movie concept was never followed through with, there have been countless movies about Dahmer as he became an icon for serial killer fans and even has a tour that people can go on that follows his footsteps where he killed, raped, and devoured 17 young men (Delingpole, 2018). This tour was featured on Netflix’s Dark Tourist, where the host David Farrier goes on the tour and it takes him to a gay club, the location Dahmer found his victims and is informed that most people who go on the tour are middle aged women (Delingpole, 2018).
Blood on Innocent Hands
Media Creates and Amplifies Parasocial Interactions
Media often uses one of two ways to persuade an audience for motivation, credibility, or to get their message received using the peripheral or central route (Stever et al., 2022). The Elaboration Likelihood Model, or ELM, is based on adaptation to change by persuasion and emotion using the peripheral route which can be ineffective by physical traits or attractiveness but adding a positive emotion into the message could influence the viewer to retain the message (Petty & Briñol, 2015; Stever et al., 2022). Another mode of persuasion is the central route which is based in arguments of logic and elaboration where an individual’s beliefs, outlook, or attitude is challenged and scrutinized with the proposed outcome of logic and merit of the argument to change perspectives (Sears, 1988; Stever et al., 2022). ELM has been used for decades to promote movies about killers along with celebrification which is when a person, such as a serial killer, is transmogrified into a celebrity by the media (Driessens, 2013; Petty & Briñol, 2015).
Credible celebrity portrays of killers can also influence an individual as seen in Efron’s portrayal of Bundy (Dumenco, 2008; Slater, 2005). Over 400 million individuals watched Efron in Disney’s High School Musical when it released in 2006 and fell in love with him, while over a decade later his portrayal of Bundy was released and most of the online commentary were discussing his physical attractiveness, with people even remarking on how this will cause the fans of Efron to fall in love with Bundy or serial killers (Dumenco, 2006; McMahon, 2019). Unmotivated individuals fall into belief systems faster than the motivated which take time to receive and process media information and provide convincing arguments to the viewer (Slater, 2015). The ELM works on a cycle of exposure to change beliefs or ideas and with the massive increase in movie creation and media coverage of killers, individuals are receiving the same content repeatedly (Slater, 2015). Much like Bundy who presented himself as a superficial picture of perfection, media creates a persona of persuasion through the peripheral route using narrative, identification of a character, and the ELM (Stever et al., 2022).
Desensitization of the Monsters in the Dark
Albert Bandura’s social learning theory of aggression, or SLT, showed that violent media and seeing aggressive behavior in movies or in the real world have a significant impact on children by them imitating the behavior (Sever et al., 2022). The general aggression model, or GAM, uses concepts from SLT to determine how likely it is that aggression will be used short or long-term, from exposure to media violence (Anderson & Bushman, 2018). One of the main categories of GAM and SLT is the proximal factor, comprised of their current situation or location and their self-image (Stever et al., 2022). A proximal factor is a series of cognitive changes that occur such as violent media could lead to psychopathic traits and witnessing violence could affect self-image and influence the individual to be tough, while long term effects, mixed with development of hormones, could lead to a high level of self-esteem that is unstable (Anderson & Bushman, 2018). Studies have shown that children who encounter, are subjected to, or who watch violent media have double the risk factor of assaulting someone as an adult (Anderson & Bushman, 2018).
The more an individual is exposed to violent media, gore, and blood overtime, their reaction to violent stimuli will emotionally deteriorate and this can cause them to lose empathy (Anderson & Bushman, 2018). Along with long-term exposure to movies or shows around serial kill