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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# forensic psychology
Wicked, shockingly evil and despicably vile... so why are we so fascinated by serial killers?
A new documentary and movie about Ted Bundy are released this year, joining a number of murder-focused programmes viewers are lapping up.
 ”Behind that mask is your worst nightmare.” - Forensic psychologist Dr Ciara Staunton

Serial Killers Florida Correctional Police mugshot of convicted serial killer Ted Bundy Florida Correctional

TED BUNDY’S CRIMES don’t need to be detailed here – they’re available in a quick Google search.

Even if you have a cursory knowledge of the infamous American serial killer, you’ll know that he targeted women, that he sometimes revisited their burial sites, and that during his trial he attempted to use his looks and charms to save him.

But his plan didn’t work. He was eventually killed by electric chair. Bundy has long fascinated people because of his seeming normality, meaning that he was an attractive young man with a glint in his eye. He didn’t dress up as a clown like John Wayne Gacy. He didn’t “look” like a deviant, and he was someone you could bring home to your mother.

Interest in Bundy and his crimes is growing as 2019 kicks off due to a new documentary and film about him – both directed by the same man, Joe Berlinger.The documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, is on Netflix, and replays tape recordings made by Bundy himself and given to a reporter.

Berlinger’s movie about Bundy, called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this month and is due for release this year. It stars Zac Efron as Bundy, harnessing the former High School Musical star’s charm and good looks to show how the killer was lusted after during his trial. The film is told from the perspective of Bundy’s girlfriend during the time of his killing spree.

True crime has long been a fascination for people – there are swathes of books about real-life events on shelves in bookstores, while Irish authors are particularly well known for their crime fiction. Truman Capote wrote the first true crime novel In Cold Blood in the early 60s, while Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s 1974 book about the Manson murders, Helter Skelter, is considered an iconic true crime read.

The last few years have seen a growth in the number of shows available on streaming sites in particular, meaning people have more access to them. Hugely popular shows include Netflix’s Mindhunter and Making a Murderer, but stories aren’t just kept to the screen – podcasts like the first series of Serial, My Favourite Murder, and Criminal all explore true crimes. 

But why are we so fascinated with murderers in particular? One woman who has more insight than most of us is forensic psychologist Dr Ciara Staunton, who is a lecturer on the subject at University College Cork. 

‘It’s grim reading’

John Wayne Gacy was arrested 40 years ago in a killing spree that claimed 33 victims and shattered the illusion of the safe suburban community SIPA USA / PA Images Numbered stakes indicate where the bodies of John Wayne Gacy's victims were found in the crawl space beneath his suburban home SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Staunton says that the stories of serial killers are “highly seductive in terms of curiosity – people go ‘how and why can someone do that?’”.

“It’s grim reading so that also feeds into that morbid fascination,” she says of true crime. “Then you have somebody like Ted Bundy who to the outside is a very attractive individual, so the lure is there.

And again that’s what piques people’s interest. He is so attractive, so good looking, you could see yourself being easily swayed by his charm, which he had a lot of. Yet behind that mask is your worst nightmare.

She warns that aesthetic often trumps reality when it comes to such people. “We tend to make the mistake of associating grim murders with ugliness – this notion of the devil, that you can identify that. What’s more terrifying is that things of such a horrific nature can actually be done by people who … look like the average Joe,” says Staunton.

Regarding the current interest in true crime, Staunton feels a lot of it is driven by the media. “[People] see this and of course social media, it’s just more public. But there’s a difference between the surface level interest and those who are really interested and pursue it in terms of study.”

She was inspired to study the topic after watching Silence of the Lambs, and says that forensic psychology has “always attracted a cohort of students”. But like any element of psychology, there are plenty who would prefer to specialise in other – presumably less gory – areas. 

Movieclips Trailers / YouTube

What makes a killer?

In forensic psychology, they look at risk, and at personality types. It’s about delving deeper into what makes a person a serial killer. Do they have “deviant sexual interests”, which could put them at risk of killing again? Were they psychotic? Or are they a psychopath?

When we think of serial killers, we usually think of countries like the USA or Australia. In Ireland, we don’t have a long history of serial killers, aside from Geoffrey Evans and John Shaw, who murdered two women and allegedly planned to kill more, the sectarian-motivated Shankill Butchers, and historical killers Dame Alice Kyteler (condemned for witchcraft in 1324) and brothel owner Darkey Kelly who died in 1761.

Many of the most-high profile killers in Ireland had one victim. Staunton puts that partly down to purely practical reasons. 

“The States is just much bigger,” she points out. “They get away with it for longer just from a policing perspective.” Serial killers can cross state lines, and find themselves in different jurisdictions. There are more places to hide, unlike on a small island like Ireland. 

It was FBI agent Robert Ressler whose taped interviews with Bundy and other killers spawned the notion of profiling such people, says Staunton. It led to the belief: “That somehow psychology can help underpin and understand people like that with a view to better equipping police to catch them in the future.”

She sees forensic psychology as an essential part of preventing criminals striking again. “In my line of work most of the work is done with individuals who are convicted of a crime, especially of a sexual nature. And it is vital that we understand men and women to protect children.”

She says that “understanding, predicting and changing” are the three main tasks of a psychologist.

Staunton works in academia, but says that working with actual offenders “can be very challenging and very difficult, and that’s why it’s a vocation”. 

From a forensic perspective, forensic clients happen to be those who have committed a crime. The aim is still the same. We want to understand these people in order to predict if they are likely to be a danger to themselves or other people. Once they’ve been released from prison – if sex offenders, are they a danger to children if released from prison, and in order to try and do something that might change their behaviour.

Copycat crimes?

2019 Sundance Film Festival - Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil Chris Pizzello Zac Efron, who plays serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Chris Pizzello

People might focus on Ted Bundy, but “he’s only one of all sorts of people who have committed terrible crimes”, says Staunton. She says that “violence and abnormality” are present throughout society. 

Could programmes and movies about serial killers lead to copycat crimes? It’s an emphatic no from Staunton. “I think that is total scaremongering,” she says. “There are very far and few between crimes of that level – it takes a particular kind of individual to want to do something like that.”

Thinking it and carrying it out are two very different things. This is why we look at the mind of these individuals. A lot of serial killers we know have psychopathic tendencies. That’s a term in the lay public, ‘psycho’, but actually a very important term in psychology, it speaks to traits we know the individual would have.

What are these traits? “Complete lack of empathy and disregard for human beings,” she says. “But psychologists, we know how to measure that.” Those who have psychopathic tendencies “don’t have a moral compass to guide them. They are able to carry out these horrendous crimes”.

“They also have the tools at their disposal to do it. They don’t care fundamentally about human beings. Anyone who has had the unfortunate encounter to know someone like that knows all about that, because it is very private, very hidden,” she adds.

The statistical likelihood of encountering a person like Ted Bundy is “slim to none” says Staunton. “The worst possible scenario is what we fear the most but we are no more or less likely to encounter those things on a day-to-day basis. However they can and do happen. We do see it. The worst cases make public headlines.”

Sexual violence

Film - Monster DPA / PA Images Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in a scene from the movie Monster DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Staunton tells her students to read the papers and note how many awful crimes are carried out every day. And it’s not serial killers that they tend to see.

“We know from victimisation studies that 1 in 5 women in Ireland will experience sexual violence,” says Staunton, who has a particular speciality in sexual crimes and female sexual offenders. “It’s not the serial killer we are afraid of but the brutal level of violence that is highly prevalent in Irish society.”

In the stories of people like Ted Bundy, there often isn’t an awful lot of attention paid to the victims. “That is very true and I think that does victims a huge disservice on a number of levels,” says Staunton. (The director of the Ted Bundy biopic denies that it glorifies the killer.)

Staunton further points out that in Ireland it is not the victim who takes a case to court, it is the State – and the victim becomes a witness.

“They are immediately on the back foot in terms of rights,” she says. “This country is appalling in terms of how it treats victims.”

Last year’s Women’s Aid report showed that since 1996, 225 women have died violently, with 90% of women murdered in Ireland killed by someone they know. “It’s totally disconnected from Ted Bundy, to the most likely scenario that you are more in danger from your partner,” says Staunton.

“There could be men who have the same characteristics as Ted Bundy,” says Staunton. “But they are not out there on a mass murdering kind of scale, but are in fact just as much a danger within personal relationships, intimate relationships. Domestic violence can end in the killing of a person.”

The diploma course she runs at UCC attracts a strong group of people who are fascinated by the criminal mind – like detectives, barristers, army police, social workers and airport security staff. 

She says barristers often say to her they “can’t believe judges and people in our profession don’t know about this stuff”.

[One barrister told me] it totally changed her own view around the work she does, having that deeper understanding of the industry she is dealing with.

Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, is on Netflix now.

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