Tag Archives: jeffrey dahmer

“Murder on the Market” by Nikki Hopeman


I’ve asked a number of authors I admire to answer the same question–why do criminals fascinate us so much?–and I will be posting each response here on my blog. It’s a question all writers–especially crime writers–should consider every once in a while. In my debut novel, Toxicity, I’ve dug deep into the minds of criminals. I have written about the bad guys. The ones we love but hate at the same time. If you haven’t pre-ordered a copy yet, I highly recommend you doing so for purely selfish reasons.

And now that you’ve done that, we will pass the time hearing what other writers in the industry have to say about the posed question.

Today Nikki Hopeman stops by with one hell of an essay. I suggest grabbing something tasty to drink before settling down for this one. Nikki is the author of Habeas Corpse, a zombie novel that even I–a person who typically hates zombie books–loved. You ought to pick it up.

What do you have for us today, Nikki?

NHopeman 1 small“Murder on the Market”

by Nikki Hopeman

Not long ago, eBay banned the sale of “murderabilia” from the auction website. You know, stuff like a greeting card signed by Ed Gein, artwork from Richard Ramirez, an unfinished bag of cookies that belonged to Charles Manson. Independent sellers quickly opened their own websites, and the sale of such items continues. Prices are crazy on this stuff—that bag of Charlie’s cookies is going for over $600. There is a select group of people out there who would rather have a piece of Jeffrey Dahmer’s freezer for Christmas than a sweater. Interest in criminals runs deep in our culture, from my grandmother, who adores the show Matlock, to the person who bid $30,000 for cannibal Albert Fish’s autograph.

Why are these things interesting? Why are crime dramas the hottest thing on TV? What is it about the owners of the “murderabilia” items that intrigue us so much?

It’s not Matlock or Jessica Fletcher. It’s the crime they’re solving. It’s the puzzle of who and how and why.

It’s not the owners of things like the greeting card or cookies. Charles Manson as a man isn’t very interesting. He’s a short, unassuming dude who can’t sing well. Charles Manson as a cult-ruling murderer, however, is fascinating. His actions are what make his Chips Ahoy a collectible. His role in unspeakable acts is what makes him attention-worthy.

If you subscribe to popular theories of psychology, you might recall that Carl Jung said humans need to confront and understand our own hidden nature in order to grow as human beings. If we don’t understand the wicked side, we cannot hope to understand the good, either. People who want to be “good” and follow the rules, struggle to understand the “bad” side to suppress it effectively.

Sigmund Freud believed that humans are inherently antisocial and cruel, driven primarily by the id, the selfish side of every person, the part of our psyche with the basest of desires. Most of us choose to suppress the id and instead live according to the mediating ego. But the id is always present. The primal, cruel part of humanity simmers just below the surface, sometimes boiling over with terrible results. Some of us strive to discover what allows the id to break free in order to avoid these triggers.

With theories like these, it’s not difficult to see why criminals, especially the really deviant ones, fascinate us. Their actions take them to the edge of what is considered humane; they push the boundaries of what it means to be a human. There is, of course, a practical reason to examine deviant actions. If we can understand them, we can predict and possibly prevent them.

Our fascination goes well beyond the academic. Just turn on the television. Shows like Law and Order, CSI, The First 48, and Breaking Bad all prove that we seek out deviance not just to prevent it, but also to be entertained by it. Lots of people claim they enjoy crime shows and fiction as a brainteaser, a puzzle, and a whodunit kind of question. That’s part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.

Just think about it. We play crime-oriented games like Clue (it was Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with the lead pipe!), we host mystery dinners and take murder mystery train rides. We give our most evil serial killers nicknames like BTK, Son of Sam, and Jack the Ripper. Even child killers, considered the worst of the worst, have the media camped outside their homes and get their own hour-long show. How many people followed the Andrea Yates or Susan Smith sagas with great interest? Why is Lizzie Borden just as popular as Mary Poppins?

Many people, not just the ones who write about this stuff for a living, are drawn to the worst among us. I present a lecture on deviance in fiction, and its popularity even among non-writers always surprises me. Everybody likes deviance!

But why?

Being bad is easy. It means giving in to the demon on your shoulder, letting the genie out of the bottle, finally acting on the impulse to strangle your cube mate. Fortunately, the majority of us have learned through maturation and societal instruction to repress those urges, but we all imagine that there must be satisfaction in committing these acts. When the car in front of you cuts you off after you waited your turn to merge or your neighbor lies about stealing your paper again, the frustration is intense. Even the most tolerant of us can be driven to fantasies of retribution, but few of us act on them.

We are fascinated by and often study criminals to determine what makes us different or “better,” to try and understand what caused the release of the id, to delve into our own dark sides without actually performing the deviant act. For some it’s a release, a means of living vicariously and satisfying that wicked side without the societal retribution. For others it’s a way of identifying the breaking point in order to avoid it. Some of us see the existence of criminals as validation of our own goodness, an “I would never” moment.

There is also an element of the worst criminals that seems to transcend fear of mortality. Most humans avoid death, prefer to sterilize it and ignore it in general. Murderers, especially those that kill again and again, hold life in their hands and deal in death. What kind of person enjoys being the harbinger of death? What does it take to be above the fear of death in order to kill? For a species programmed to fear death, a person who seemingly enjoys it is an enigma.

Some people, I think in particular the folks who collect the “murderabilia,” look at the notoriety of some criminals and want to be close to their fifteen minutes of fame. The group of women willing to marry serial killers from behind the bars of prison is an extreme example of this kind of behavior, and I believe deals in a psychosis of its own, something separate and far more confusing than my grandmother’s admiration of Matlock’s detective skills.

I could write a book on people’s fascination with crime and people that commit it. For “normal” people who live within the confines of society’s rules, criminals seem to have transcended the fear of breaking the rules. Those of us who fear death and punishment look upon those who deliberately kill and break the rules and cannot comprehend. We hope that by identifying the triggers that release the id, we can prevent it happening in our own psyche. We use the poor behavior of others to validate our own goodness. Understanding the actions of the truly deviant helps come to grips with who we really are, and, possibly, learn to predict and prevent crime.