Criminal Passion: Hybristophilia and the Sexual Obsession with Serial Killers
Can serial killers fall in love?
Without a doubt, some of them can—but maybe it doesn’t matter, because there are plenty of people ready to love them back regardless.
Also called the Bonnie can Clyde Syndrome, hybristophilia is “a paraphilia in which an individual derives sexual arousal and pleasure from having a sexual partner who is known to have committed an outrage or crime,” according to Sexologist John Money.
Serial killers are the obvious subject, but mass murderers, spree killers, rapists, and even those who commit simple assault can push a hybristophile’s buttons.
But before discussing why people want to bang Ted Bundy, let’s clarify our terms.
Is Hybristophilia a Mental Illness?
As with all fetishes, especially the socially unacceptable ones, it’s important to consider the psychiatric definition of mental illness before passing judgement.
This was covered more thoroughly in our article about sexual cannibalism, but to summarize: fetishes are not psychological disorders unless they cause the fetishist intense distress, interfere with their daily functioning, or put them at significantly increased risk of death, injury, or arrest.
It’s absolutely possible for someone who masturbates to thoughts of the BTK killer torturing his victims to carry on as a functioning member of society. A fetish is not unhealthy by definition.
Since it’s much easier for researchers to obtain grant funding when they’re solving a societal problem, much of our research on hybristophilia (and paraphilias in general) examines forensic populations, and doesn’t generalize well to “regular” people. Though we should always keep the source in mind when reading about paraphilias, there is plenty to learn from the psychiatric literature.
This paraphilia can be roughly divided into two camps: passive and active/aggressive hybristophilia.
Passive hybristophilia is more widely discussed in popular culture, and is possibly more common in the general population. Passive hybristophiles, more often women than men, have no desire to commit crimes themselves. They are only attracted to criminals, rather than their actions. This flavor only loosely meets the definition of a fetish, because the sexual component isn’t always necessary.
A common example is the enormous fan base of serial killer Ted Bundy. Bundy received copious letters and gifts in prison, and some fans went as far as to attend his trial while dressed up as his victims.
It follows, then, that passive hybristophiles are at serious risk of entering abusive relationships.
According to Katherine Ramsland, forensic psychology professor and author of an insightful exploration of the BTK Killer’s psychology, there are principally four motivations behind hybristophilia. Though she doesn’t distinguish between the passive and active types, these are more applicable to passive hybristophiles.
Some believe they can change the criminal, and bring out the good in him
Some empathize with his trauma, and see a lovable “little boy” underneath the violence
Particularly practical hybristophiles crave the Hollywood spotlight, as was the case with Charles Manson’s wife, who wanted him to sign over rights to his body so she could make money displaying it in a glass coffin.
Others might struggle with forming relationships, and see an incarcerated criminal as a paradoxically safe target for their affections, since they can’t physically be together.
Take H.P, an anonymous forum poster who fell in love with one of the patients at the forensic psychiatric facility where she worked:
“He has killed one person by stabbing him to death…I became very attracted to him at the time and it does not help that he is very good looking and funny. But now as the years have gone by, I don’t even think about the crime and I am in love with “this man” as a person.”
This suggests another possible reason for the attraction: there is an enormous overlap between psychopaths and criminals (around 25% of incarcerated criminals are psychopaths, compared to 1% of the general population.)
Psychopaths are lovable, at least superficially. According to the gold standard literature by O’Hare, they tend to be incredibly charming. Though charm is merely a tool these individuals use to get what they want, it’s often honed to a point. (For an inside perspective on psychopathy, nothing beats neuroscientist James Fallon’s memoir, The Psychopath Inside.)
H.P. goes on to write: “I can honestly say that most of my favorite people are murderers, slaughterers, rapists from the range of long-term patients I work with.”
And why shouldn’t they be? This segment of the incarcerated population is most likely to be funny, charming, and lovable—on the surface.
In active or aggressive hybristophilia (the terms are interchangeable) general interest or even romantic attraction to violent criminals is not the only component. A synonym could be “killer fetish,” and as a fetish, sexual arousal is a crucial component.
Active hybristophiles don’t merely write to death row inmates—they fetishize the crimes themselves, rather than denying or ignoring them, or they participate, usually through coercion.
Though these motivations are often lumped together, I would argue that they’re two different phenomena. Those who become accomplices through coercion (Bonnie, of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo, could be an example) are often people who are drawn into a charming psychopath’s orbit.
This motivation could be compared to folie imposée, in which a primary psychotic patient imposes his or her delusions on a partner, who might not have become delusional otherwise. Though hybristophilia doesn’t deal with psychotic delusion (and those with psychosis are far more likely to be the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime) the mechanism of action could be similar.
The less common, and perhaps more interesting involves an attraction to the actual crimes committed. The motives here are likely as varied as the people involved. There’s very little research into this aspect of hybristophilia, so we can only speculate.
A secondary fetish could be involved, such as mutilomania (arousal from mutilation), autassassinophilia (sexual arousal at the prospect of being murdered, to be discussed in depth in a later article) or general sadism.
Is Attraction to Psychopaths Okay?
It’s worth repeating: a fetish or fixation itself is not dangerous, and it’s not mental illness. It only crosses that line when it impairs an individual’s functioning or incites a serious risk of arrest, injury, or death.
There are healthy ways to indulge any fantasy, and having unusual fantasies doesn’t make someone a bad person.
If you’re attracted to serial killers, be it to their humanity or inhumanity, you might enjoy my novel, Claustrophilia.