What’s so obsessively interesting about the lives of serial killers?

Chances are, if I am at a loss as to what to watch or listen to, I’ll turn to some documentary, dramatised movie or podcast about a serial killer, psychopath or madman.

Just the other day, while my wife tuned out at the end of the day to episodes of The Nanny, I was racing through a new documentary series on Netflix investigating the Son of Sam murders which occurred in New York in the 1976 and 1977.

Narrated by Paul Giamatti, the show called The Sons of Sam (note the plural) focuses on the claim by obsessive investigative journalist Maury Terry who believed that convicted killer David Berkowitz did not act alone but was part of a satanic cult that committed the spree of murders that terrorised the city.

Then before that, I was gripped by an Australian true-crime documentary series on Stan called After the Night which looked into the series of killings that occurred in the affluent and until then quiet and safe suburbs of Perth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The crimes were perpetrated by deranged family man Eric Edgar Cooke, the last person to be hanged in Western Australia.

David Berkowitz; Did he act alone or was he part of a satanic cult?

After the Night told the story not only of Cooke, but also of two other men who were wrongly convicted of some of his crimes, Darryl Beamish and John Button, and the lengths they and their supporters went to clear their names.  It also captured very well the easy-going, carefree life in the well-to-do suburbs of Cottesloe and Nedlands, and how that sense of security was shattered by a violent string of murders and rapes.

A big motivator to watch this show was reading and re-reading Robert Drewe’s wonderful Perth memoir The Shark Net which had as its backdrop the Cooke serial murders and Drewe’s start in journalism as a cadet reporter for the West Australian newspaper. (Read my review here).

Before that both my wife and I watched The Serpent on Netflix about conman and serial murderer Charles Sobhraj (also known as the Bikini Killer) who lured in hippy backpackers travelling around South East Asia in the 1970s with the promise of a place to stay and a luxurious lifestyle and then poisoned them, held them captive and then murdered them and stole their possessions.

Charming and sadistic: Ted Bundy is a fascinating study in evil

Then there was the documentary series The Night Stalker, about the satanic serial killer Richard Ramirez who broke into homes across Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to rape and murder in a vile spree that terrorised the city. The documentary focused on the detectives who tracked Ramirez down and some of the extraordinary stuff-ups that occurred along the way. It also delved into the cult-like rock star status Ramirez enjoyed and the perhaps even crazier women who threw themselves at him.

Prior to that there was Des about the London serial murderer Denis Nilsen who lured in young men into his shabby Muswell Hill flat. Here he smothered them, slept with their corpses and then dismembered and attempted to flush their remains away. ‘Des’ was played by the brilliant David Tennant (a key attraction for watching the series).

Killing for Company the classic true crime book about Nilsen by Brian Masters (who is played by the great character action Jason Watkins in the television series) that so fascinated me when I read it whilst visiting my London cousin stirred my interest in Nilsen at the time. It also happened that my London cousin lived and still lives in Muswell Hill, a short distance from Nilsen’s flat of horrors, one of the creepy reasons no doubt I chose to read the book at the time.

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des

I also watched the Netflix documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes which re-examined one of America’s most notorious and charismatic serial killers, who also had his own female fan club. There was also the biographical crime drama about Bundy (starring Zac Ephron in the lead role) Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile that I watched maybe a year ago.

My fascination with Bundy began when I read Ann Rule’s classic of the true crime genre The Stranger Beside Me. Rule’s perspective was unlike any other in the history: she was a friend of Bundy.

There’s more for sure. And there are also shows I’ve yet to watch but will no doubt get to at some point. A new Netflix documentary about the Yorkshire Ripper looks intriguing.

Part of the fascination for me is the “how they caught them” aspect, the police and detective work, the clues that emerge and the trail that leads them to identify and capture the villain.

It’s probably then not surprising that my favourite detective shows are not the fast-paced glitzy stuff (I can’t stand shows like NCIS) but the slow-paced procedural dramas featuring believable investigators, my favourites being the dour and eternally grumpy Inspector Morse, Idris Elba’s rugged and damaged Luther and most recently, the renegade LA detective Harry Bosch in the Amazon series Bosch played by Titus Welliver (and based on the novels by Michael Connelly).

All these shows and the ones I have described above I highly recommend if that sort of thing intrigues you.

I do wonder why I am so drawn to these dark and disturbing shows, as are so many other people.

I like to think that I am not a secret psychopath with a penchant for blood and violence. Rather I think there is an innate human fascination with evil people or – if you don’t subscribe to that idea – to people who do evil things, especially those who do them over and over again.

After all these ‘monsters’ were soft, and cuddly babies once, not little devils with horns and a pitch fork.

I also think, that there is penchant in all of us – in the right (or wrong) circumstances to commit crimes of violence and descend into a kind of madness. Just think of all those seemingly ordinary Germans and other Europeans who became Hitler’s willing executioners during the holocaust. Might they have gone on living ordinary lives had a mad dictator not come to power?

Interestingly, on YouTube, a death row interview with serial killer Richard Ramirez has over 6 million views, while Ted Bundy interviews and documentaries online have racked up millions. Ditto Jeffery Dahmer and others.

Just like slowing down when we pass a car crash, it seems we can’t look away.

Evil intent is in the eyes

A few weekends ago, I went to the supermarket to buy groceries. I parked the car in the covered parking and walked up the ramp that leads up to the collection of shops and Woolies.

A group of young Indian guys in boardies and t-shirts, Australian to the core in their attire and manner, walked up the ramp ahead of me.

A balding middle-aged guy in his casual Sunday clothes – jeans, tracksuit top, I forget the details – was walking down the ramp.

As he passed them, his eyes narrowed and he gave the group of Indians one of the nastiest looks I have ever seen. A look of utter revoltion.

I don’t think the Indians even noticed.

I did.

I am not talking about a disapproving look, like the kind a teacher gives a pupil, I am talking about a look with murderous, hateful, extremist intention.

Given the right set of circumstances – a dark alley, a couple of his buddies – and opportunity – daytime instead of daylight, no one else around – and I shudder at what might have happened.

I wrote recently about the man accused of raping and murdering Irishwomen Jill Meagher in Melbourne.

What has really shocked people is that he was a stranger, not an acquaintance of Jill’s or a member of her family as most victims of violent crimes are in Australia or in other countries where the rule of law applies.

What has really jolted people and shaken their faith in society is the Jill Meagher was most likely murdered by a complete stranger, an opportunist.

The man who stands accused of this crime was a reclusive character, but by all accounts a polite man, who lived in a granny flat at the bottom of the garden and kept to himself. He had few friends, had fallen on hard times and was a loner.

Nothing to suggest he was capable of a crime of which he stands accused.

But perhaps, when his eyes are shown – his head was buried in his hands when caught on camera in a police car – they will give him away.

I am not talking about eyes as the clichéd windows of the soul, I am just talking about a kind of look full to the brim with evil intent.

I am sure you know what I mean, and maybe you have witnessed it yourself.

The encounter with the middle-aged guy on a Sunday at the supermarket is just one such episode.

I’ve experienced that look on the train a couple of times, usually late at night. The last train home.

Once I saw a bloke looking at another passenger with utter disgust and violence boiling under surface. He did not say anything, just stared. If it were a horror movie the camera would zoom and crop his eyes and you’d see the menace and the rage.

Other times, I’ve seen the way some men looking at pretty women. Usually the man is older, the woman much younger.

Men do look at women.

There is the appreciative look, the glance upwards at an attractive woman.

And there’s the stereotypical backwards look that construction site workers in the city can’t help but do, when a pretty woman walks passed. Hey, even blokes in suits do it. But there’s no malice in it.

But there is another look beyond lust, way, way beyond that. A snarling look, as though the eyes were salivating. A penetrating, black stare.

I have seen a couple of men give a woman this look and I fear, that as with the Indian guys at the shopping centre, all that’s needed is time, place and opportunity.

If you think I have an overactive imagination, take a look at the eyes of these two infamous characters: Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and serial killer Richard – the Night Stalker – Ramirez:

This is in my opinion the most chilling picture of Goebbels, taken by one of the world’s greatest documentary photographers, Albert Eisenstaedt for LIFE magazine in 1933, before the Nazis began their campaign of genocide.

What’s terrifying about it is that Goebbels is not doing anything particulary menacing, in fact’s its a banal photo, except for the way he looks at the camera.

Eisenstaedt says of this photo: “He looked at me with hateful eyes and waited for me to wither. But I didn’t wither. If I have a camera in my hand, I don’t know fear.”

Richard Ramirez killed 13 people around Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. This photo was taken at his trial.