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What’s behind America’s grim fascination with murderers?

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 27:  Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected
SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 27: Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected "Golden State Killer", appears in court for his arraignment on April 27, 2018 in Sacramento, California. DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer, is believed to be the East Area Rapist who killed at least 12 people, raped over 45 women and burglarized hundreds of homes throughout California in the 1970s and 1980s. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Manson, the Hillside Strangler and the Golden State Killer. They're some of the quintessential California serial murderers who struck terror into the lives of Californians throughout the 1970s. Last week's capture of one of them, the suspected Golden State Killer, has cast a light onto a past threat that has all but vanished today: the serial killer.

Roots of the serial killer obsession

According to Harold Schecter, a professor at Queens College who studies crime, the fascination surrounding serial killers stems from cultural anxieties. This is evidenced by the crimes that captivated society throughout the decades.  

One of the things I've discovered as a historian of crime is that there are these kinds of signature crimes that define certain eras that the public becomes very obsessed with. Those symbolize anxieties that are very prevalent at the moment.

In the 1930s it was an obsession with gangsters and kidnappings. In the 1950s, it was a fear of juvenile delinquency hysteria. In the 1970s and '80s it was the "unleashing of the sexual id" and all the "dangers" that brought along with it. These underlying fears were often projected onto the figure of the serial killer.

But today, a new danger has taken the place of the serial killer.

As the serial killer fades, the mass murderer rises

Serial killers aren't altogether gone, but the fear and hysteria surrounding them are. Instead, a new kind of figure has taken its place: the mass murderer.

"The mass murderer has supplanted the serial killer and the cultural imagination," Schecter said. "When 9/11 happened, there was a sudden anxiety that you can die in public at the hands of what they call a human time bomb at any moment."

Schecter said it's a cyclical fear that changes every few decades to address the underlying anxiety society may be feeling at that moment.

Can the cycle be broken?

The fascination with these killers, both serial and mass, is nothing new or unique to society. Even before there was such a thing as the media to sensationalize the crimes, people were captivated by violence.

"This is nothing new or unique to our society, or a sign of any kind of moral decay or degeneration. The fascination with lurid, sensationalistic crime is just a human phenomenon."

So, are we trapped in a neverending cycle of true crime obsession?

"I think the instinct toward violence is as integral to who and what we are as a species as the sexual instinct," Schecter said. And it's that drive that continues to fuel the obsession. But don't feel too bad. Schecter explained that as a society we seem to be growing, and in many ways we're less violent than we used to be. His evidence? Those gruesome first-person shooter games. 

To me, violent video games are a sign of how much more civilized we've become because we are now allowed to explore and vent our violent impulses in this virtual way, whereas in the not-so-distant past, you wouldn't sit down and play "Halo" or "Call of Duty." You would go and watch somebody be executed.

So until we live in a violent-crime-free utopia, don't expect the violence fascination to go away.