Oct. 27, 2022

Myriad of reasons make up society’s serial killer fascination: UCalgary expert

Sasha Reid advises people to watch killer biopics and documentaries with a critical eye and research more to get the full story
Sasha Reid
Sasha Reid, a law student and researcher at UCalgary, says there are many reasons for people to become fascinated by serial killers. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Pickton. MacArthur. Bundy. Dahmer.

All these infamous names and many others have gained even more notoriety in recent years through the What’s Trending page on Netflix or the New & Exciting table at Chapters.

It would be an easy, surface-level answer to say the violence and carnage perpetrated by serial killers is what fascinates society about them. However, according to a University of Calgary expert, the answer is much harder to pin down.

“It is a complex question, and there’s no one answer because there’s no one type of person,” says Dr. Sasha Reid, PhD, a law student and researcher at UCalgary. “People are drawn to serial killers for all kinds of reasons.”

What’s behind the serial killer phenomenon?

For Reid, one of the reasons she was drawn to these individuals was trauma processing. Living in a small town, when something horrible happened she says she didn’t know where to get help, so she dove headfirst into serial killer books, and later documentaries, because she was able to find a semblance of understanding there at the time, and she is certain others have as well.

It’s no secret that there has been a lot of problems in the world, and Reid cites studies that say when things “go to hell,” people turn to horror and crime.

“It allows us to experience horror in a safe place,” says Reid. “We know it will end and there is something very comforting about that.”

Serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who shot and killed seven male clients while working as a street prostitute in Florida, has also recently re-entered the public discourse, especially amongst women who have re-interpreted what she had to say in the context of women’s rights, something which Reid finds curious, interesting and worth some more sociological analysis.

The general fascination about human nature can also draw people in. How far am I from becoming a ‘monster’? Will I ever be pushed to the edge? Could I ever be pushed to the edge? These are all questions Reid says people grapple with.

“People have a natural inclination to want to understand themselves and that includes understanding the darker side of humanity,” she says. “There’s something poetic, and interesting, and very human about that.”

You’ve probably heard through social media about many of the documentaries, shows and books about serial killers that you know. Reid says apps like Tik Tok drive the cultural conversation and drum up interest.

“I think Tik Tok has made a lot of serial killer documentaries more mainstream,” she says. “It helps to increase the visibility and viewership of these documentaries.”

Reid’s serial killer and missing persons databases

For Reid, an interest in serial killers has become an academic pursuit. She has spent almost a decade compiling one of the most comprehensive serial killer databases in the world, including over 6,000 killers dating back to the 15th century and over 1,400 variables. Reid has taken a scientific approach to understanding what connects these killers and what we can learn from them.

“I have an incredible team and we add to the database every day,” she says. “Every day we’re researching these offenders, every day we’re researching the victims, and every day we’re adding new data to help us get a better appreciation of who serial killers are, how they develop, why they develop the way they do, and how those crimes have changed throughout the centuries.”

Reid and her team have also created an in-depth missing persons database, which includes 11,780 missing persons and unsolved homicides.

“This database is my favourite,” she says. “It’s my favourite because instead of focusing on offenders, we’re focusing on victims.”

The team has been attempting to incorporate artificial intelligence, as well as geographical and behavioural sequencing, to predict where serial killers are throughout Canada, and they have developed partnerships throughout the country to help build the database and better understand the landscape of unsolved crimes across Canada.

“Every day we learn something new, and if we don’t learn something new, we add something new,” Reid says.

Reid says the serial killer database is just one resource to show that there is nothing supernatural or otherworldly about them, but that they are humans who encountered a series of complicated risk factors which led them down that path.

“Pop culture and the public make them monsters, but they’re not,” she says.

Watch serial killer media with a critical eye

It’s a lesson that’s important to keep in mind as you binge Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story or watch Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

“There’s a huge difference between a documentary, a biopic, and actual reality,” says Reid.

Documentaries get to film the real people and places and give people a better sense of what happened, and Reid says an ethical documentarian will aim to capture the entire scope of the story.

A biopic, on the other hand, can help to spur interest in a phenomenon more than it can provide a realistic conception of what occurred. Reid says this comes with the understanding that companies like Netflix pay for shows with the expectation of viewership, and viewership is increased with how tantalizing the story is.

“Biopics give you an ability to play with the story and play with the truth,” she says. “That’s the problem, if you just stop there and you’re not diving into what actually is authentic and real, then you’re not really understanding the full story.”

While the biopic can do a good job of portraying emotionality, especially from the victim’s standpoint, Reid says this can walk a fine line into becoming “trauma porn.”

“How much pain do we need to see people suffering? I think biopics and documentaries are a little exploitative of this because it drives viewership,” she says.

The best way for people to understand the whole story, according to Reid, is to go out and do their own research.

Reading books (with the awareness that they may have the same problems in terms of being a product that needs to be sold), reading academic articles, speaking with the detectives who worked the cases, and joining true crime communities who are authentically interested in ethically understanding and studying the phenomenon are all ways that Reid lists as productive.

“But be aware of stereotypes and be aware of the negative impacts of trauma porn,” she says.

“Be aware of the impact that your curiosity has on the families of the victims who, in many cases, are very much alive and are impacted by it every day.”