Are Killer Flicks Just for Kicks? | filmmakers speak out

There’s no denying that audiences want to experience a vicarious thrill when they watch highly stylized murder-movies like Natural Born Killers, American Psycho, The Devil’s Rejects, and Death Proof. “Vicarious” being the operative word; the fact that those over-the-top flicks are fanciful Grand Guignol makes a difference, according to a recent essay published by Psychology Today.

And there’s a reason so many cinematic slayers are seductive—it comes from our own human experience. Experts coined a term for this type of attraction when it happens in real life: hybristophilia, otherwise known as “Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome.” It’s used to describe a condition where sexual arousal is derived from being with a partner known to have committed a really bad crime… but, the same could be said for people who have framed posters of Freddy Krueger on their walls. Or could it?

Any rational nerd knows there’s a difference between Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer, even if they are both practitioners of cannibalism—but is that a trait to be admired regardless of who’s holding the fork?

Some may argue that true crime is not horror, but for many of us, the possibility of being painfully murdered is the scariest scenario of all. Just look at how many filmmakers took inspiration for their reel monsters from real life:

  • Leatherface | Ed Gein and Elmer Wayne Henley
  • Norman Bates | Ed Gein
  • Mick Taylor | Ivan Milat and Bradley John Murdoch
  • Hannibal Lecter | Alfredo Balli Trevino and Albert Fish
  • Jerry Blake | John List
  • Mickey and Mallory | Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate
  • All killer clowns | John Wayne Gacy

Some of the most effective serial killer thrillers are presented as black comedies. American Psycho is a prime example, and so is the Netflix movie about Ted Bundy, starring Zac Efron in the title role.

There are no easy answers to such complex and evolving issues, but the debate is worth exploring—especially for us as horror fans, since our beloved genre is, by its very nature, often misunderstood.

We rounded up five erudite pundits…

  • Daniel Farrands, writer-director of The Haunting of Sharon Tate
  • Guinevere Turner, screenwriter of American Psycho
  • Linda Rose, screenwriter and Hollywood historian
  • Devanny Pinn, actress and producer of House of Manson
  • Darren Gordon Smith, cowriter of Repo! The Genetic Opera

…and asked them some questions.

Beyond the obvious, is there a difference between making a film glamorizing a serial killer like the fictional Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) and a real one like Ted Bundy (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile)? While one has no real victims, the other leaves a legacy of genuine misery—but the heart of the matter is: audiences seem to want to root for the “the bad boy”—who doesn’t love it when Freddy filets some sap with his finger-knives? What are your thoughts on this?

Farrands: Intention is everything. I think there are clear differences between films that depict serial murder in a purely fictitious or fantastical way and ones that dramatize a real-life killer such as Ted Bundy, the Zodiac or any number of movies that have attempted to shed light on infamous historical events and crimes. I don’t agree that audience members [root for the villain] although maybe that is true for a small percentage of people with a puerile interest in serial killers and criminals. I don’t see any harm in depicting serial killers or their crimes on film; art is always subjective and certain people will always choose to feel offended or attempt to cast blame on the filmmakers for crossing boundaries. I believe that if someone is going to commit and act of violence, the seeds for that act have been sown long before they saw a movie about Ted Bundy, Charles Manson or even Hannibal Lecter.

Turner: I read something recently in W magazine online that said: “Can we stop making serial killers hot?” and it mentioned American Psycho and [my upcoming film] Charlie Says, plus the Ted Bundy movies [with Mark Harmon, and Zac Efron]. In my case, I’m trying to show how there has to be some kind of seductive or charismatic quality to these people, in the same way that anyone who’s ever been in an abusive relationship, or just a wrong one with a narcissistic person, can see. These people have something that sucks you in. Patrick Bateman of American Psycho should not be aspirational, because underneath that glossy veneer he’s a real loser. The fact is, I’ve met so many men who’ve said to me, “Wow dude, you wrote that movie? I am Patrick Bateman!” And I think to myself, “What?! Are you telling me you’re a serial killer, or a loser?”

Smith: An actual bad guy film vs. a fictional one almost always has more gravity… I mean, most people, I would hope, wouldn’t be laughing if a real person went through a wood chipper, unless there were a couple dick jokes or crème pies thrown in. And, of course, the focus on the film—the victims, as opposed to the serial killer—plays a huge role in who the audience roots for. [If it’s a dumb character in a slasher, then of course you want to see them bite it.] As to whether there’s harm in cheering for Manson or Bundy, my first thought is, yeah, that’s messed up. But, if a story is well told I’m going to root for the main characters, and I’ll be immersed in their journey as they overcome obstacles and obtain their heart’s desires. And if that means that I’m rooting for the humble postman from Queens who achieves his dreams via a dog that tells him to kill, then I’m in. I guess I’m pretty messed up too.

Rose: The issue with the moviemaking subject of real-life killers is that victims usually come off like they do in fictional stories: anecdotal to the story. While Dexter was a great series—fresh and original—the problem lies in the fact that it has “glamorized” serial killers and given them a “hero” status. The harm comes when people confuse fiction with real life. Serial killers are people to be abhorred, not celebrated, and this should be reflected by filmmakers.

Pinn: Is there a different in glamorizing a real serial killer and a fictional one? Absolutely. As a filmmaker, when you are telling a true story you have a responsibility to the people whose story it is versus a fictional tale in which your primary responsibility is to the audience. When watching Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, you are allowed to fully emerge yourself in another world and go on all the ups and downs of his psychotic adventure and its guilt-free escapism. This is the “bad boy” you want and need to cheer for and the filmmaker’s job is to successfully put together a movie experience that takes you on that ride and allows you feel satisfied when it’s done. I think many artists who take on true crime material need to really consider what they risk by telling a killer’s story without making it clear their behavior is not acceptable. People throughout history have taken film as an influential and mimic-able medium and now more than ever, reality and entertainment lines have become blurred. To portray villains as heroes in a desensitized market can be dangerous.

I posit the notion that Ted Bundy was a “rock star” long before the advent of social media and all the books, documentaries, feature and TV films made about him. He had young, beautiful “groupies” flocking to his murder trials. He had marriage proposals from women who only knew of him after he was a convicted murderer. Same thing with Charles Manson. Some of the public, it seems, don’t need glamourous movies to form those opinions. So is it fair to assume that in spite of what the likes of Bundy or Manson did, they are fascinating figures worthy as the subject of a film?

Farrands: I think Bundy and Manson in particular attracted a (pardon the pun) cult following during their trials because there are some people (I believe, a very small subset of people) who seem attracted to the notion of being able to “heal” such a disturbed and broken person. The misguided notion that whatever drove these people to commit such horrific acts can somehow be “fixed” by their unwavering support, understanding and devotion. Women who fall in love with a convicted killer or rapist, or even young men who write letters to these criminals in a sort of idol worship way, are enticed, I think, by the risk of seeking out such a forbidden relationship. It’s pushing a button, giving them a rush, or a sense of importance. I think that’s part of the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey series; it’s the fantasy of a woman finding her power in order to “tame the wild beast” in a man who has no control over his “monstrous” impulses. That being said, I think the magnetism of these criminals is in their cunning ability to manipulate others. How did they get away with it for so long?  How did they have such power to brainwash others (such as Manson) and get them to do their dirty work? Insanity and power have always been the cornerstone of drama.

Smith: Absolutely. Everybody loves good stories with great lead characters, morality be damned. As I was reminded while watching the Mindhunters series on Netflix, some killers are interesting to me, but some are just, meh. A never-ending cycle of stabbing is dull if all you’re doing is stacking bodies and you don’t have a creatively decent reason for killing. You can’t just shoot random people and get my attention unless you’ve got a good shtick, like being charming and good-looking like Bundy, or freaky and manipulative, like Manson. Extra points if you dress in the victim’s clothing or have good camera skills.

Pinn: I absolutely believe they are worthy of films, as are all prolific true crime cases. Film is an important medium for education and a go-to for many across the world. We would be doing a disservice to the public not share what we’ve learned about the crimes and criminal behavior that we experience. However, it needs to be approached with the correct tone and presented as something we can learn and grow from instead of celebrating or glorifying the subject. Many infamous cases have lent themselves to invaluable criminal psychological and behavioral studies that now help FBI, police and other agencies with criminal profiling. Insight from many of these serial killers and their cases have directly resulted in the pursuit of countless active criminals and even prevention of many crimes. News media, books, television and film all play an important part in circulating information.

Rose: Both Bundy and Manson are certainly fascinating figures. Bundy looked to be the archetypal All-American Male that many women aspire to marry. He certainly also had charm and charisma which many people of who met him or saw him in person on trail attest to. This also enabled him to easily lure his victims—because he looks and acts like a movie star—not the monster he was on the inside. Manson is just as fascinating as he looks the opposite to Bundy. A hairy, short, not particularly good-looking guy—so we wonder, How did this seeming insignificant little man get all these people to follow him and do his bidding? The fact that he managed to brainwash a group of girls to go to two separate houses and torture and kill two groups of people, including a heavily pregnant woman, boggles the mind of the average person. Also, the fact that the Manson murder victims were of rich, famous and beautiful people, part of the Hollywood community, also gives an added dimension of interest, as generally that is a segment of the population that is usually “safe” from this kind of horrendous action. So certainly yes, they are fascinating subjects worthy of filmmakers.

It seems there’s a statute of limitations on how we feel about basically the same thing but which happened in different eras. What is the difference between making or watching a movie about Jack the Ripper, whose victims’ friends and families are long-gone—and movies about Ted Bundy or The Manson Family coming out this year?

Pinn: This is a great question that I can answer as someone who actually experienced both scenarios first-hand. I made a film inspired by the Black Dahlia murder that was generally well received and welcomed by the public. There was a general curiosity regarding her case and her death that sparked productive conversation with people of all backgrounds. It was completely opposite when I later went on to make Charles Manson’s story. People aggressively and even violently responded to the idea of endorsing or giving the man more press without any information regarding what the film would cover or our approach to it. My first death threats came from announcing the production. After spending a lot of time speaking with both concerned and excited potential viewers, I concluded that the Manson story hit way too close to home for many people because they lived through it. I heard many accounts from people who shared how their entire lives changed overnight when those first murders took place, they were afraid in a way they had never been before. The Dahlia case, much like Jack the Ripper and others of different times, allow for public interest because there is a very real and safe degree of separation. It becomes filed promptly among entertainment instead of true crime that touched us personally.

Turner: When I write about something where there are real victims and real victim’s families, and the criminals in question are still alive and have their own stake in terms of parole, I just have to take a deep breath and say, “There’s a reason to tell their story and I’m doing it out of absolute respect for the living relatives of the victims, for the victims themselves, and it’s hard.” It’s hard to have that balance between the truth, the legend, and the effects it will have, but I do believe at my core, that Charlie Says is going to give a perspective on the woman that is, better than the (cliché) “Manson Girls” who are interchangeable with zombies, and crazy, like a maniac. And I feel that’s important I can help tell their story because historically they got written as something else. It does pain me [to think of other’s feelings] but I do feel that it is coming from the right place and if anything, the movie is a well-rounded picture of what happened. Would I wish that Debra Tate [Sharon’s sister] would see this movie—no, probably not.

Farrands: I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” mentality when it comes to the public’s perceptions of films that imitate real-life events, especially in the Internet age when there are so many bandwagons so easily jumped on. I have an incredible amount of sympathy for the family members and friends of the victims of violent crimes. A very close friend of mine was a victim of an unthinkable act of violence, and I have seen the suffering and loss that came from that horrible act. But I also think there is something to be said for keeping those stories alive, perhaps even as cautionary tales. I don’t believe in censorship and I don’t believe we should not talk about something or dramatize something because it makes certain people uncomfortable or if they choose to discard it because they deem it “offensive.” When I made The Haunting of Sharon Tate my attitude, and the attitude of our cast and crew was, “It will be okay as long as we are true to who the victims were as people, and as long as we don’t make the bad guys out to be heroes, then people will accept it.”  I couldn’t have been more wrong, apparently, as most of the critics ate us for lunch simply for having the audacity to tell our own version of these events. It almost felt as if certain critics didn’t watch the film until the end, or if they did, their opinion was already formed by the last critic who reviewed it, or just on the basis of the title. I know for a fact that we never set out to make an exploitation horror film; in fact, that was the furthest thing from my mind. The events themselves were horrific enough, and we did our best to honor the truth of that story while taking it creatively into totally different territory. I think in our case it was still “too soon” for some people, but again, we live in an age where it’s become almost fashionable to be outraged. Film is always subjective. I am not here to tell anyone how to think or how to feel. I simply told a story, and I think all of the other films coming up this year on the Manson murders and the Ted Bundy film will tell the story in their own way. It’s ultimately up to the audience to decide how they want to feel about it.

Smith: To a lot of people, the 1960-70s is as far off in their minds as Victorian England, so, from that standpoint, I don’t think there’s much of a difference. Even then, with the abundance of online “disaster porn” I wonder whether there’s a whole lot of difference in our viewing experience of the latest white male gun rampage vs. watching Attila kill his own Huns. All of us, myself included, are becoming increasingly desensitized, watching events that appear interesting rather than horrific.

Perhaps making new movies about “trendy” crimes is exploitative, but the stories in these adaptations are more relatable and since audiences are thinking about them anyway—it’s the 30th anniversary of Ted Bundy’s execution and it’s the 50th anniversary of the Manson Murders—why not give them what they want? Or should filmmakers take more responsibility and not let audiences dictate what sells?

Smith: I don’t have a problem with audiences dictating what sells. It’s certainly better than Disney and their Movie Industrial Complex dictating to (compliant) audiences what they’re going to see. As to whether filmmakers have responsivities to their audiences, to some degree, yes. Look, even if you could get away with making a movie that shows you, step-by-step, how to make a dirty bomb, then yeah, I’d find that reprehensible. But, as to subject matter itself, I don’t think that a filmmaker should shy away anyone, even the Mansons of the world As long as drama is about conflict, you’re always going to have great real-life and fictional antiheroes. The filmmaker’s tone in treating her subject, though—there I think there’s a responsibility to not glamorize the killer; at the very least, to and not make this look like normal behavior! Beyond that, though, the filmmakers’ paramount responsibility is to be as true their vision as possible. And hopefully pay the cast and crew.

Farrands: Audiences will always dictate what sells. The Avengers [made] a billion dollars before anyone ever even saw it. I think there are certain stories that will always provoke strong reactions from the public. The Manson Murders brought the free loving 1960s to a crashing end. Ted Bundy was like the real-life bogeyman behind all those “don’t hitchhike” PSAs they showed in the 70s. I wasn’t even conscious of the
50th anniversary of the Manson murders when I made my film. I think it was all the press surrounding Quentin Tarantino’s movie that even made me aware of it. So I don’t approach a project from that perspective; the marketing people are the ones who devise those campaigns. I think there are always going to be stories, whether it’s the superhero tentpoles or serial killer thrillers, that capture the audience’s imagination. It’s a matter of smart marketing, good timing—and a lot of luck—if your film rises to that level at all.

Pinn: Audiences in the long run always dictate what sells. We were told countless times from all different studios, outlets and sales agencies that they would not back a Manson movie because it does not sell. I looked them all in the face and told them they were completely wrong. Months after making House of Manson and seeing the overwhelming response, three different studios greenlit a Manson movie and several television shows with Manson in their central plot were pitched and eventually shot. I felt the need to tell this story because my generation did not know or understand the true horror associated with Charles Manson. To those of us who were not around during the time those crimes were committed, he was a pop icon, a cult figure, a lovable horror character much like Freddy or Jason. There was a need to showcase the difference between these very real people who committed very real crimes against innocent victims and whose actions changed an entire era of peace and love to fear. Manson is not a boogeyman, he’s a real person who managed to attract people from all walks of life and draw them into an atmosphere in which they no longer thought for themselves and followed him passionately regardless of what was said or done. That was the very real story which we felt needed to be told.

It seems there’s been a trend recently on refocusing our perspective on the women in these killers’ lives. The Haunting of Sharon Tate barely brushes on the Manson; Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is shown from the perspective of Bundy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer; and Charlie Says is about the girls who did the killings under his command. Do you believe this helps audiences see these criminals and their crimes in a different light?

Farrands: I haven’t seen the other films you referenced yet, so I can only talk about my approach to The Haunting of Sharon Tate. From a very young age, I always tended to identify with the strong female characters in films. I wanted to see Laurie Strode survive Michael Myers in Halloween.  I wanted Clarice Starling to save Catherine Martin and escape from Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. I think women are portrayed as inherently more vulnerable. Not weaker, but vulnerable. In touch with their intellects and their emotions in ways that most men are not. I wanted to imbue Sharon Tate, in my version of that story, with those same qualities, and to make her resourceful and capable of defeating the monsters that invaded her home. On some unresolved childhood angst level, I have a need to rewrite some of the terrible wrongs I have seen or read about or experienced in life. We are in an age, thankfully, where women—and all victims or survivors—are standing up for themselves, and finding strength in numbers, on an epic scale. I think books and movies about victims who ultimately choose to fight back are ones that resonate deeply in our culture right now, and I hope there will be many, many more of them.

Rose: I have not been able to see these current movies yet, but I would hope that they focus on the psychology of why these women did what they did and how did they lose themselves in another person’s consciousness and throw their own aside. And are they remorseful as they look back on the road they traveled? Certainly, many of them ended up in the worst situation possible and I’d like to know what the aftermath of that experience was for them.

Pinn: I think that films, TV shows, books have all explored the killers at the center of these infamous crimes in detail. The subject following the criminal has been done about as many times as it can be at this point and so while studios know that these topics sell, and obviously they are in business to do just that, a new approach to the subject has to happen in order for it to continue to stay profitable. Beyond that, I think that it’s important to remember that beyond Bundy, Manson, and their victims, many other people were impacted and affected by their actions. I think victims, their families and the people in the lives of the killer have often in the past been an afterthought. For me, I am actually happy to see more focus on the innocents involved in high-profile cases rather than the killers themselves. It is a step in the right direction to highlight the memory of the victims and survivors of crimes instead of glorifying those that commit them.

Smith: I do. Women usually make more sympathetic victims, and for good reason. They’re generally not up to no good, unlike the other gender. (Yeah, I know there are many more gender classifications than that, but you get my point.) So, it seems natural to me that a focus on Bundy’s female victims would make him less lovably redeemable. And, I’d think that a focus on the Manson girls would make them seem more like young, drugged-out victims of an ex-con’s manipulations, rather than cold-blooded killers. On the other hand, we certainly have a fascination with female serial killers. Women have the virtue card and they aren’t supposed to be that messed up. And they’re rare. That, folks, is why lady serial killers can be on the Most Wanted List and the Endangered Species list at the same time.

Turner: It’s going to be an interesting journey to connect the two films because the fact is the reason that I was initially thought of to write Charlie Says is because of American Psycho. But really, the two movies could not be more different. What they are, are stories that you wouldn’t expect women to be telling and therefore they have an eye and a perspective that frightens. And that’s their connection, but other than that, American Psycho is a complete satire, send up, hyper real life, and then Charlie Says is real-life horror from the women’s point of view. Mary [Harron] has two teenage daughters and they’ve seen it. From their perspective, they see the movie as showing what it was like to be a teenager or young woman back then. To have a really different sort of framework from the new generation. And so in that way, I hope that we’ll have an effect that isn’t even about people who are mad about rehashing the story or who have whatever baggage that they come with it. When you sit in a room full of younger people who have never heard much about this story, they just respond to it as a movie at face value and there is not a dry eye in the house when it ends.

In consuming these podcasts, books, documentaries and films, we learn every detail of a murderous spree—but is there a fine line between education and praise? Where do you draw that line for yourself personally and professionally?

Rose: I do watch a lot of crime documentaries, and certainly I find the forensics and psychology part the most interesting. I’m not really sure where the line is. I do think that recreating a torture and murder scene at length is inappropriate. We do need to remember these victims were real living and breathing people once and have parents, children, brothers, sisters and families that will never recover from their loss and are haunted by the awful way they died. I do think that filmmakers should remember to highlight and put some focus on the victims and their lives, not purely putting the focus on the serial killer so much so that the victim becomes an anecdote in the story.

Farrands: The simple answer is tone and intent. I have never identified with or glamorized a murderer in any of my films. I think looking at violence, and the impact of violence, in our world is part of the way we start to process and deal with it. There’s another school shooting, another suicide bombing, another case of horrifying child abuse, every week. In every rural town and big city in this country and throughout the world. The cruelty and abuse suffered by countless children, spouses, and animals is staggering. And in some ways, it feels like those horrors are being condoned and even normalized. I think books and films will always reflect what is going on in the world, and I think there is something to be said for looking people in the face and saying, “Here’s what violence really looks like. Here is what real horror is.” And the most frightening part is it’s all right there on the news, in our schools, our homes, in our places of worship. And I think we have to get real and face this by looking inward, at ourselves, at our own attitudes and dangerous prejudices that often lead to such acts of senseless violence, instead of offering “thoughts and prayers.”

Smith: When my writing partner and I were creating Repo! The Genetic Opera, we thought a lot about how twisted we wanted to go. One of the futuristic main characters is Nathan Wallace, a loving single dad at home who secretly works as a dreaded genetic repo man. With precision, and sometimes glee, he rips out hearts and livers and any other organ that a hapless customer had to buy on credit. We didn’t worry so much about how gory to make things. It’s a musical, and he’s singing about what a thankless job he has, ripping off the tissue inch-by-inch, as he’s torturing a victim, after all. And he laments how the victims can be way too self-absorbed. But we did want to make him redeemable. This meant, among other things, that when he kills, he has his reasons. He’s neither a sociopath nor sadist. Nor would he ever kill a loved one. But we really weren’t thinking about morality; we were looking at it from the standpoint of how our audience would relate to the character. I suppose that’s one reason that we still have a rabid Rocky Horror Picture Show-like cult following, where people dress up and give shadow-casts—their own performances, replete with elaborate homemade props, pantomiming in front of our movie—even ten years later.

Pinn: I explored this idea often as a producer and actor on The Black Dahlia Haunting, and House of Manson. I also portrayed Casey Anthony in Casey Anthony: An American Murder Mystery, a miniseries that brought it to another level for me since I actively watched her case and personally felt she was a vile human being who got away with murder. Both in front of and behind the camera regarding telling true crime stories, I came to find that you just tell the truth. As a producer, you bring the facts of the case to life and stick as closely as your research allows you to do without letting your emotions distort it. The most important thing you can do with history is to portray it accurately. If you are telling someone’s story for educational intent, the facts will be enough. If you are portraying a killer, it’s a dark, horrible journey to bring that authentically to screen. Having portrayed fictional killers as well as real ones, the reality of it can be challenging and downright frightening. If you do not go far enough, you can be seen as downplaying the crimes and insulting the victims. If you go too far with it, you can be seen as exploiting the victims or distorting the reality of the case. Again, you have to try to separate your emotions or opinions from the people involved and stick closely to facts. Displaying the individual’s version of their truth will bring an audience the authentic experience of those events. True crime is a subject I am very passionate about both as a storyteller and as an audience member. Having always had a significant interest in criminal psychology, when I became a filmmaker knew part of my calling would be to pass along criminal cases in this format.

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