If you’re reading this, chances are you’re fascinated by true crime and, perhaps, the seemingly inhuman motivations of those who commit the most lurid crimes. For some women, though, this fascination goes even further.
Hybristophilia, a condition where sexual arousal is linked to a partner who acts out against society via outrage and crime, is one scientific reason why women might be drawn to serial killers—and even, in some cases, have romantic relationships with them.
Ted Bundy received hundreds of love letters while behind bars and Richard Ramirez married one of his “fans,” but criminologist Dr. Melissa Hamilton thinks hybristophilia is just a small part of the psychology. “I think the sexual arousal possibility is likely attributable to a relative few cases,” she says. A&E Real Crime spoke with her about this intriguing phenomenon.
Why do you think women fall for serial killers?
There is no one-size-fits-all response. The reasons may be one or more of the following:
1) the not-so-uncommon desire for the “bad boy,” particularly with more immature females
2) attraction to deviance, which can trigger in the brain the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which itself increases arousal and attention; in other words, the deviance of the relationship can be felt positively
3) hybristophilia (see above)
4) feeling she can change him (which also partly explains the general desire for bad boys) and/or that he is simply misunderstood, had an unfortunate childhood, or lacks sufficient self-control
6) seeking a “safe” and controllable relationship
7) mental instability
8) feeling of being “special” in that he chose her of all the women seeking him
9) an evolutionary psychologist would say that the male’s aggression is an attractive quality to women [as a means of] survival against attackers
10) the novelty of it and an attention-getter
11) potentially financial in terms of selling the story or the killer’s memorabilia, though likely infrequent as an explanation
12) fascination with wanting to understand darkness, with these men often posing as something of a mystery and enigmatic; at the same time, photos of them in the courtroom and in prison often don’t show them to be frightening.
What is it about serial killers that makes them appealing?
The photos of these men may [appear] on a daily basis in various media outlets. So the women may be acting on a conscious or unconscious desire for secondary fame. Also serial killers can be charismatic, smart or cunning, risk-takers, and focused—all qualities which could explain their ability to attract and trap so many victims in the first place. [Those qualities can be] appealing in a partner as well.
They may also be master manipulators—creating the image they wish to project and convincing others of its “reality,” despite evidence to the contrary. They can be very good at playing different roles, with one being a nice, seemingly safe and trustworthy person.
Do these women have an interest in participating in crimes as well, or a higher rate of criminality?
Some, but this aspect does not seem to be relevant to many of them. Even for the women who assist the men in capturing victims and in murdering, a substantial portion of the [cases] were not truly voluntary in the sense of it being their choice. Rather, the co-perpetrators may have been threatened if they did not cooperate and/or it was a way to deflect the men from victimiz[ing them]. The women who do participate are highly likely to have been abuse victims.
Are there any traits that women who have been romantically involved with serial killers share?
Many of them had been previously sexually and/or physically abused. These victimizations are correlated with low self-esteem, leaving the women to seek out abusers, believing, or having been told by previous abusers, that they deserve the abuse.
Do you think there is a particular appeal with the killer being ‘safely’ behind bars?
Yes, for many of them, though they may not consciously be aware of its significance. In addition, the men pose little risk of cheating on them. It allows the women a significant sense of control, too, in terms of the relationship. It is felt as mostly on her terms, though the women may not realize the extent of manipulation on the part of these men.
For the men, the attraction may be to something other than love, in terms of what the women can offer them: money, outside contact, devotion, a visitor, some semblance of a family life and a sense of normality amidst the chaos.
Can this type of love be mutual? Or is there always a power imbalance in such relationships?
There are merely anecdotal stories of “true love” on both parts. By the nature of these relationships, there must be some type of power imbalance, though not always on one side— meaning the women or the men. It is very much a dynamic of women seeking out male killers. It rarely happens the other way around. And, there are female admirers of male killers whose victims were all boys or men, suggesting they are not interested in heterosexual relationships. But this does not deter the admirers.