Falling for the Bad Guy: The Dangers of Criminal Fascination in the Media

by Julie Edelstein ’22

A toxic relationship can deprive anyone of their sensibility as they find themselves making excuses to justify their friend or partner’s actions. “But they didn’t mean it,” “I promise they’re nice,” or “they’re just going through something right now,” are common arguments.

Pop culture reflects this attitude. People often gravitate towards the misfit or antihero characters with tragic backstories that seemingly erase their lousy personalities. Harry Potter fans forget the cruelty of Severus Snape when he reveals his hidden grief on his deathbed. Fans of The Avengers swoon over Loki’s bad-boy persona, forgetting his acts of manipulation, deception, thievery, and genocide.

Crime and fear are contagious. People are more likely to be intrigued by the chaotic, unpredictable antagonist than the goody-two-shoes. Perfection is boring, and it makes the heroes less relatable than the villains. By thus inducing sympathy for the devil, modern entertainment traps audiences in an intoxicating trance that creates warped, amiable images of criminals.

Examples of this trap are the controversial movies Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and My Friend Dahmer, which depict the lives of real criminals. Zac Efron stars as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked and Ross Lynch plays Jeffrey Dahmer. By using well-known, attractive actors to portray serial killers, these movies demonstrate a purpose other than solely terrifying viewers.

In reality, the movies were oblivious to their psychologically damaging impact on younger audiences. The faces of televised murderers and rapists became identical to those of beloved celebrities. Viewers of such films become desensitized to actual violence because crime seems fictional and entertaining on-screen.

Additionally, by putting a spotlight on serial killer Ted Bundy’s life, Extremely Wicked forces his victims to remember their trauma. “I did not ask to be put on the journey with [Bundy] in his life- with his killing and his abuse,” stated Kathy Kleiner, a survivor of a murder attempt by Ted Bundy.

Some may consider this exposure to crime and violence in the media as beneficial to society, as it creates a passion for topics such as CSI and criminal psychology. People who become invested in discovering the motives of criminals can prevent future corruption of the law. Popular television shows like CSI and Criminal Minds encourage viewers to fight against injustice in their own communities. Their success is reflected in the “CSI Effect,” which describes the unrealistic portrayal of death investigations on TV that have led jurors to demand more high-tech forensic evidence during court trials.

Yet, despite a potential benefit, CSI franchise creator Anthony Zuiker admits, “Our job really is to make great television, first and foremost.” The media’s true intention is to profit. In the meantime, they lead on dangerously infatuated viewers who do not know any better than to sympathize with contemptible criminals.

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