Romanticizing the Bad Guy

True Crime Killers and Pop Culture Villains
Pop-culture loves a villain. The Netflix TV show, You, is just one example of how we fall in love with obviously problematic characters. But they're obviously problematic, so why do we romanticize them? The psychology of what makes unhealthy characters so appealing from afar can give us a perspective when choosing a partner in real-life. As a writer who’s obsessed with creating enticing villains, here are my theories on why you think Joe is hot and why you should (please) avoid these people in real-life.
An illustration of a person in a jumpsuit with a bouquet of red flowers and their face censored by a black bar

Illustration by: Jenaya Shaw

Why do we fall in love with the bad-guy?

When a compelling villain comes on screen, like Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, I somehow empathize with their faults. I look past their bad-guy outer layer to see what’s underneath. I even find myself rooting for them. Or maybe I’m entranced because they’re so… dreamy.

And even though Bateman is a literal psychopathic murderer, I fantasize about him. And I’m not alone; he’s one of the most popular movie icons of today. There’s an indescribable allure that his character gives off, despite his incredibly problematic personality.

What makes a villain lovable varies from story to story. Sometimes it’s because we sympathize with them. In Joker, Arthur Fleck was abused as a child, tied to a radiator, abandoned by his mentally unstable mother, and goes on to seek justice for the wrongdoings done to the poor people of Gotham.

Other times it’s because they just can’t be stopped, like Michael Myers in the Halloween franchise. We want them to win no matter how sick and twisted. Darth Vader of Star Wars may have always been destined for the dark side, but we hoped it wouldn’t be true when we watched the trilogy—now we love it, no matter how tragic.

What eludes me—and many others, it seems—is the romantic attraction to these characters. Sure, I can relate, but it doesn’t mean I understand.

(Spoiler Alert) Take the Netflix hit, You, for example: a thriller series with a whopping four seasons since its release in 2018. You follows self-proclaimed “romantic” Joe Goldberg, an obsessive stalker consumed by his tendency to kill anyone that gets in his way. According to Screen Rant, You has an overall score of 91 percent from critics, and a 73 percent audience rating. While the first two seasons are definitely the most popular, their viewership has hardly faltered.

In black and white terms, Joe Goldberg is a monstrous character. Despite this, even I find myself drawn in by his humanity and softer moments. For example, his kindness to season one’s love interest, Guinevere Beck, tells us he does have a softer side. He wants to help her become a successful writer and encourages her.

There’s also a comedic element. As his inner dialogue narrates the show, hilarious quips juxtaposed against his stalking tendencies lighten the tone. Joe points out how other characters do bad things (like Beck’s friend stalking her in the bathtub in “Amour Fou”) while seeing no problem with doing that himself. “How dare she invade your privacy like that! It’s perverse!” he narrates, and yet, he’s also watching Beck in the tub.

Facebook marketplace listing with photo of kitchen. This 1 bed 1 bath apartment is listed for $1,789 per month.
Joe Goldberg having a drink. 
Screencap: You via Netflix

Somehow, it excuses his creepy behaviour…? No, it can’t, but it does cause intrigue, and we become invested as viewers.

Another thing I keep learning: things can always get worse.

– Joe Goldberg, Season 1 of You (2018)

The scariest part of being a writer for me is romanticizing the wrong ideals. A drug-addicted protagonist who has a tendency to disappear for days on end, worrying his family and friends, is not someone we would want to be with in real life. Loki Laufeyson from the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a huge fan following—so much so the character got his own TV series, Loki—but an aspiring dictator/sociopath isn’t an ideal marriage candidate. We know that. Right?

When I started writing my first (attempt) at a novel, I was heavily inspired by characters like Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter, Dean Winchester from Supernatural, and most problematic of all, Gregory House of House.

These characters may not be villains through and through, but they are not the best role models.

Gregory House (though a genius) is a sexist doctor who has even harassed his female colleagues. Still, there’s something about him that makes people love the show and the character. What sets House aside is his care for his patients. He doesn’t make irrational decisions when treating people, and he always does the best he can to help them.

In the episode “One Day, One Room,” House’s patient is Eve, a girl seeking treatment for chlamydia after surviving rape. He feels that Eve wouldn’t want a male doctor, but Eve says she wants House to continue treating her.

House returns to her room. He asks, “Why did you choose me?”

“There’s something about you,” she says. “It’s like you’re hurt too.”

House’s character is compelling because of his relatable human attributes: he makes mistakes (a lot of them), but he always gets back up again.

So when writing my own protagonist, I battled between my personal attractions to unhealthy character types and my desire to create a story that readers can learn from. When one of my protagonists, Evan Burke, became an alcoholic to cope with his father’s disappearance, it was meant to create a sympathetic character. It also gave him potential for character development later on.

But his addiction became the center of his character, and his motivations for changing his unhealthy habits were pushed to the side for the rest of the plot to move forward. I also wanted him to be stronger than his loss. In other words, it wasn’t doing anything for the story but making it less interesting to read—and to write.

Writing an antagonist is a different can of worms, but for the same reasons. Villains have to be loveable, but grounded in their vanity and evil doings. In my opinion, readers must know when something is wrong and shouldn’t be repeated. Just like in real life, if a villain recovers from being evil, they have to feel consequences for their actions in order to be fully redeemed.

Let’s talk about Dexter Morgan in the hit series Dexter. The show centers around his hunt for murderers and other despicable people in the name of the law. He’s sort of a Punisher-type character, instilling fear and justice through violence. Even with good intentions, this doesn’t make Dexter good.

Finding the balance between intrigue and progress is key in writing a good story with a complimentary villain. Characters who struggle to conquer are relatable and automatically win the hearts of readers and viewers.

The last thing we want as writers is for people to take these stories too seriously.

And yet, true crime stories dominate popular media. It’s the most common category among popular podcasts with nearly a quarter of all top-ranked American podcasts falling into the true crime genre.

Women are twice as likely to become enthralled with true crime stories than men, and over 75 percent of CrimeCon attendees are women. This is likely due to women displaying higher empathy. Learning about other people’s tragedies helps us understand each other.

According to Dr. Amanda Vicary at Illinois Wesleyan University, part of the reason so many women enjoy true crime content is because it can teach them how to avoid dangerous situations—women want to feel safe.

Similarly, watching You teaches us the potential signs of a serial killer, and better yet, their motivations. When we understand why something is, it’s not so scary anymore.

Joe Goldberg has both the means of keeping his woman-in-mind safe and in danger due to his explosivity. The tension derived from this danger is exciting.

But there’s a difference between feeling the excitement of fear (without the actual threat) and being afraid.

There are many real-life scenarios where people (women especially) fall in love, or become obsessed, with criminals. This phenomenon is called “Hybristophilia.” 

Ted Bundy was known as the sexiest serial killer of the ’70s (this shouldn’t even be a category of consideration). He had hundreds of women attending his court dates and even got married during his murder trial. Similarly, serial killer Richard Ramirez was married in the late ’90s to a devout fan convinced of his innocence. Doreen Lioy wrote love letters to Ramirez in prison for 11 years, even when he admitted he was a devout Satanist.

Jeffrey Dahmer’s fanbase may be the strangest of all. Most recognized for targeting gay men and boys of colour, the serial killer of 17 people reportedly received hundreds of love letters while in prison, all sent by women.

Facebook marketplace listing with photo of kitchen. This 1 bed 1 bath apartment is listed for $1,789 per month.

Netflix’s Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes (2022).

What about the victims’ families—how do they feel about Netflix making money off their misery? When does our love of true crime go too far?

When Evan Peters won a Golden Globe for his performance in Dahmer – Monster, the mother of one of Dahmer’s victims, Shirley Hughes, spoke out about being depicted in the show without permission. “It’s a shame that people can take our tragedy and make money,” Hughes told TMZ.

Hughes wasn’t the only one.

Rita Isbell is the younger sister to victim Eroll Lindsey. The victim impact statement she gave in 1992 was wildly exaggerated for the TV show. ​​“Her hair was like mine, she had on the same clothes,” Isbell told Kelsey Vlamis of Business Insider. “That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again.”

Lindsey’s daughter, Tatianna Banks, was reportedly unable to sleep after the 2022 show opened up old wounds. “I see Jeffrey Dahmer in my sleep,” she told Insider.

To make matters worse, Netflix had used the LGBTQ tag on Dahmer – Monster. The use of the tag implied that Dahmer was a homosexual to be sympathized with by the LGBTQ+ community. The tag has since been removed.

Knowing the harm it causes to their victims and ourselves, why are we still obsessed with telling the bad guy’s story? And why do we fall in love with him along the way? Forensic psychologist Dr. Sohom Das has discovered one of the many truths of this phenomenon, providing some answers to many peoples’ questions.

One explanation is that some of these women try to involve themselves with serial killers because of a “saviour complex”—a desire to fix the accused men. An opposing theory is the idealization of a relationship. If your husband is in prison, you don’t have to deal with the day-to-day problems, and the relationship is virtually perfect.

What is more than likely, however, is the effect of personal trauma. People who have experienced abusive relationships with their parents or otherwise tend to repeat this cycle. The cycle of abuse is familiar to them. If a person learns that abuse is normal, they’ll continue to seek it, intentionally or unintentionally.

Furthermore, when people experience abuse, they lack control over their lives. As a result, they yearn for it. In adulthood, they may actively seek things (or people) to control.

And even though these women’s imprisoned lovers are violent, it gives the women an opportunity to “actually control and dominate the relationship, maybe for the first time ever,” Dr. Das explains.

(More spoilers) In the first season of You, we learn that Guinevere Beck had been subjected to abuse as a child. She then developed a complex that made her feel like she wasn’t deserving of a healthy relationship, so she put herself in an unhealthy one.

Self-sabotage as a form of control. If I screw up my life, I can engineer my own death rather than have it happen to me.

– Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (2019).

Although Beck wasn’t aware of Joe’s stalking or his cryptic past until the end, he was obsessed with her, which was an excuse to choose him.

“If I stay in a doomed relationship … I can create a living death—but one where I call the shots,” writes Gottlieb.

I love true crime and thrillers because of what we can learn from them: the human experience. It gives us a broader perspective on other peoples’ lives, but it also makes us feel less alone when dealing with the rough spots in our own.

Maybe one of the most enticing things about loving a villain is the confirmation that they are, in fact, loveable. That, even after the horrible things they have done, they can still be loved by us. Why does that matter? Because maybe our obsession with fictional thrillers and true crime comes from a deep, hidden fear that we are all a little bit of a monster. And in watching these shows, we hope that, just maybe, someone will look at our faults and still love us, too. 

But as much as we all love to indulge in this, just remember that serial killers are probably not the best people to look to for relationship advice. After all, it’s not always the villains who get the glory (and the girl). 

Sometimes it’s the heroes who come out on top.

Editor

Jenaya is a multi-genre writer and artist in her third year as a Creative Writing student. She spends her free time building a portfolio of tattoo designs and dreams of studying in Australia and Taiwan, publishing novels and tattooing.

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